Watching Students Grow

Colin Bates and Ellie Swiatkiwsky pose with children from Nkosi’s Haven in Johannesburg, South Africa


Place: Nkosi’s Haven: an orphanage for children affected by H.I.V./AIDS in Johannesburg, South Africa
Project: ArtsInsideOut, teaching arts to orphanage children 
Dates: June 21-July 7 
Juilliard Participants: Dancer student Ellie Swiatkiwsky, and actors Colin Bates and Alex Sharp, all third-years

Nkosi’s Haven Teens

“I stand for all my family from Soweto and Lesotho. I love my family I don’t care how much they hurt me. I still love them. God bless my family. Thank you guys. God bless you.”

“I stand for my sister
I stand for my brother
I stand for my family
I stand for my mother
I stand for my father
I stand for my friends
I stand for me.”

Nkosi’s Haven Babies

When Lucy’s mum was pregnant with her, she was very sick, and after she had Lucy, she died. Lucy’s whole family is dead, and she is very sick with AIDS. She vomits, and her nose and mouth bleed, and she is always tired and hungry, but her body won’t let her eat.

Her mum and dad were both very sick. Her dad went to hospital and the doctors told him that he was very close to death. That night he was finding it hard to breathe and her mum strangled him to death. She remarried. She and her new husband had three children together. One day when they were fighting, the man killed the youngest boy with a knife. The mother took the children away. She died shortly after. Her stepdad often wants to see her to say sorry, but she doesn’t like to see him. She never wants to marry because she thinks men are rough, but one day she wants to have a baby boy so she can bring him up to not be rough. She will not let him go out and drink beer, she will give him baby juice.



June 22
I arrived in Johannesburg late last night and immediately felt welcomed into the close-knit environment of Nkosi’s Haven. I’m sharing a cottage with four girls on the [teaching] team—and one cold shower. 

June 23
When the whole team had arrived, we met to talk about how to conduct ourselves, balance being a friend and teacher, and recognize and discipline inappropriate behavior. We then had a tour of the orphanage—everything is extremely basic. Before lunch we played on the basketball court with the kids. They’re so excited to have us here! Some played soccer, some basketball; I just gave piggybacks. There’s a shopping mall that’s only a 10-minute drive away; we got lots of blankets (it’s very cold). 

Jen, Colin, and I took a drive through Johannesburg and Soweto, and I couldn’t believe the conditions. There are lots of people on the street. Women braiding each other’s hair, men cooking meat and rice on tables. Men standing on the highway trying to sell fruit, watches, and flowers. Children sitting in the back of trucks. Women walking and balancing their groceries on their heads. Jen and Colin have both been here before, and Colin said that sometimes people come up to your car and start knocking on the windows or kicking your doors. They could even pull a gun on you, so we have to be very cautious. 

In the afternoon, we started work on the kids’ journals—they’re each given one—and then went to Gail Johnson’s house [the founder of Nkosi’s Haven] for delicious South African food and, replacing desert, South African shooters: vodka with condensed milk and cinnamon.  

June 24
This morning we went to a national reserve for a beautiful, misty hike. We saw a pack of buffalo, which ran from us, an antelope, and some eagles and hawks. We then drove through Johannesburg. There was so much delicious interesting food—I got chickpea fudge. I was asleep by 9 p.m. to rest up for the big day tomorrow.

June 25
What a day! We started with the younger kids, learning names, the camp song, playing games, and decorating journals—and the time flew by. At lunch, I sat in the sun on the courtyard with some younger girls. We drew pictures on the ground using rocks and they taught me how to wrap a baby doll in a sling around my waist; they walk around like this with their dolls all the time. In the afternoon, with the older kids, we challenged them to split into groups of four and come up with and perform a skit as an audition to see what disciplines would best suit them. The whole team was so blown away by the amount of encouragement and support the kids offered their peers. After our teaching day was finished, we met with our co-teachers to plan tomorrow’s lessons and reflect on the day.

June 26
Today was our first day of classes, and it felt so good to dance again! After handing out name tags and doing some warm-up games, Jen and I had our first class, with students aged 9 and 10, and they were interested in the ballet for 30 minutes, but the last 45 minutes were challenging as they got bored. For our next class, with 5- and 6-year-olds, we had more dance games and freestyle dance, which captured their attention a lot more. In our afternoon classes, the kids are older so it was easier to keep their attention. Afterward I asked all the groups to respond in their journals to three questions: What was the highlight of your day? What was a challenge in your day? How can you overcome that challenge next time you face it? One teenage girl wrote, “It was very good to try new things like dancing. I really couldn’t believe that I was on the floor making my first move!” Another wrote, “The highlight of my day was dance, man oh man!! By the end of the two weeks I think I will be able to sort of dance like a ballerina.”

The whole team went to Safari, a bar just down the road from the Haven. It was a hut made of stone and straw with a jukebox playing hits from the ’70s. We danced and played pool and darts—it was such a great energy. 

June 27
I couldn’t believe it was time to get out of bed when my alarm went off! My muscles were sore from dancing the previous day, but the tiredness vanished when I saw the kids’ smiling faces. They all did excellent skips and gallops, and gave their best and biggest shot at turns. The enthusiasm was incredible. The most rewarding part was that a few boys who are usually naughty wanted to learn more. They were sticking their hands on their hips like they were instructed, falling on the ground and landing in the splits, giving their all in turns, and wanting to do the combo over and over again.

In the afternoon we taught a jazz class and I think the students were a bit shocked by the high energy needed as we ran, did jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, and challenging stretches. We followed with turns, jumps and leaps and then a combination. In the [dance] major class, after a cardio, stretch, and strength warm-up, we did ballet technique. I was impressed by how they had improved from the previous day, particularly one student who’d found it hard to concentrate in yesterday’s class.  

June 28
I had a hard night as the intensity of everything since being here crashed down upon me. We had a workshop with the mothers at Nkosi’s and it was, once again, devastating and eye-opening to see the effects of H.I.V./AIDS.

June 29
Our first class was with the youngest kids and we started with musical chairs followed by musical statues, a stretch, skips and gallops, and a combination that included clapping hands, clicking, slapping legs and other body parts, and using their voices.

For our teen major class, we were all exhausted from playing soccer earlier, so we started with a relaxed stretch and moved on to go over a rhythm combination that had really progressed. We also worked on our piece for the show on Thursday, not even a week away! We got a movement from each class member that we combined to create the beginning of the dance and then started to block the beginning places and work on a few different formations. 

July 1
Today some of us woke up early and drove to Wimpys for breakfast, and went rafting and to a nature reserve. We saw monkeys, zebras, hippos, giraffes-—it was an incredible day in Africa.

July 4
This morning we had the 10- and 11-year-olds. They are really getting into the flow of a dance class and their bodies are becoming better able to embody new ways of moving. I also find that the younger kids in general are more willing to let go and allow their body to inhabit the choreography while still showing their individual groove and flare! 

July 5
The show was today and it was wonderful—it consisted of an opening poem, songs composed by the students and other artists, monologues, acting improvisation, and a short film. I am so proud of all the kids, but especially my dance students; they did an amazing job!

July 20 Tel Aviv, Israel
Things I will remember about South Africa
The fake trees that cover power poles
People helping you park your car—for tips
People selling goods on roads
People begging for money at traffic lights
People riding in the back of trucks
Cold showers
A very basic diet
The love and attention the children want and need

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