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Going barefeet in Zambia: volunteering to change young lives

01 April 2019


Now that Claire Cunningham is back from her month-long placement with Zambian charity Barefeet Theatre, we asked her to share her experiences from week to week.

In January 2019, we spoke to Claire Cunningham, Investment Administrator for Octopus Ventures, as she prepared for her month-long placement with Barefeet Theatre, a charity in Zambia.

Barefeet Theatre helps young people express themselves through art, performance and workshops – and escape life on the streets. Claire was paired with the organisation thanks to The International Exchange – an initiative that places volunteers with social enterprises in developing countries.

Fast-forward to today, and Claire is back with a diary full of memories to share. Here, she tells us about the hard work she put into organising Barefeet’s Annual Youth Arts Festival – while adjusting to the sights, sounds and smells of her home away from home.

Week 1: eyes open

Jumping on a plane to Lusaka, Zambia, was not something I’d ever thought I’d do. So, when I found out that Octopus and The International Exchange had agreed to send me to Barefeet Theatre in Zambia, I had no idea what to expect.

When I arrived, Grace, Barefeet’s Executive Director, and Taonga, Barefeet’s Artistic Director, spoke at length about their work.

It was pretty eye-opening. The team truly believe in what they do and know exactly what they want to achieve. We talk so much in the ‘corporate world’ about our vision and beliefs, but Grace told me how they’ve gone without salaries for a few months when their bank balance dried up. That’s just one way they show their extraordinary loyalty.

Previous TIE participants warned me that my time here would disappear in the blink of an eye. I’ve already had moments of panic wondering how I’ll achieve all of my objectives.

A long to-do list

By the end of the month, I needed to finish a comprehensive production plan for the Festival. This meant everything, from creative development to coordinating the acts, equipment, volunteer resources and budget. I also needed to create a detailed marketing programme, and make a project planning template for the team to use at future Barefeet events.

Another important objective is to identify and contact potential festival sponsors. From our initial conversation, it sounds like getting consistent funding is Barefeet’s biggest struggle.

I’ll have to summon all the project management and organisational skills I’ve learned at Octopus to get through this mountain of challenges. Luckily, I can also call on the wizardry of my best friend, Microsoft Excel.

I’ve stressed to the team that I’m not here to reinvent the wheel. The Festival is all about the children and nobody understands them better than Barefeet. My job is to create some kind of structure that I can hand over at the end of the month. That way, Barefeet can hit the ground running and make 2019 their best year yet (fingers crossed).

Week 2: the real work begins

I spent some time this week getting to grips with one of Barefeet’s programmes, called Outreach. It involves visiting and helping groups of children living on the street. I visited a group with John, Pascal, and Eva from Barefeet. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

The kids we visited had just been subject to a police raid. The police ‘solution’ to dealing with homeless kids is to lock them up in a cell overnight. It might sound better than the street, but there are no juvenile police cells in Zambia. So, the kids are locked up with adult prisoners. And the police set fire to anything the kids own, leaving them with just the clothes on their backs.

A daily struggle for survival

As we stood with the group, more kids surrounded us. Some had black eyes, others just sat looking dazed and confused. One told me they were too scared to show their faces in case the police returned. The Barefeet team warned me against giving them anything. Instead, we agreed to buy a meal for them and return later.

This week, I also made quite a start on my objectives. First up, a quick brainstorm with the Barefeet team for this year’s festival theme. I asked everyone to think about the words they associate with Barefeet – and the children they work with.

What astonished me was that the words they used – like love, strength and vibrance – were all positive. They see the children as heroes for not giving in to the constant battle in their lives, which is a beautiful sentiment in itself. We didn’t arrive on an exact theme, but we should have one settled by next week. Watch this space.

We finished off the week with the Barefeet team performing for the Italian school of Lusaka, who were hosting their annual ‘Carnevale’. It was amazing to see them perform and how the kids reacted to them. They bring such enthusiasm to their performances, I’ll never be able to dance like them.

Week 3: reality hits home

This week we visited the Fountain of Hope, an orphanage for kids who have emerged from their journey with Barefeet. There are around 100 kids there currently, and they attend daily lessons given by volunteers.

In fact, everyone working there was a volunteer. I was taken to visit the girl’s dormitory – where I was greeted by 30 grinning faces. The girls shook my hand, sang for me, and even danced. They were so excited to perform for a visitor, I found the whole thing inspiring. Their resilience and ability to find joy in even the darkest times was testament to the amazing kids they are. Alone in the world, they are each other’s family.

Down to business

I spent serious time this week on my objectives. One thing I noticed when I started at Barefeet was the lack of structure when planning their events. They have very few records or data to use for reference, which is completely at odds with what I know from Octopus.

So, one of the first things I did here was a huge data gathering exercise, and now I’m putting it all to good use, with a massive Excel planning template that covers all aspects of the festival, and a million other useful checklists.

Another big milestone was developing sponsorship proposal templates and a contacts database for the team. Now, Barefeet can better tailor their approaches to potential sponsors.

Week 4: project completion and time for goodbyes

It’s been a busy final week. In the end, we decided on the theme of ‘infinity’ for the festival – in honour of Barefeet’s lasting impact on vulnerable children’s lives. It’s a symbol of empowerment for young people. I also got great support from the Group Marketing team at Octopus, particularly the very aptly named Deb Carnevali, who also volunteered to help design the look and feel of this year’s theme, which they’re incredibly grateful for.

The team seem to be happy with all the documents I’ve put together. I’m so proud to have managed to finish all four of my objectives. Most people spend their first month in a job learning about what the company does. I delivered a whole project that’s way outside of my job description and comfort zone. And now Barefeet has the tools they need to hit the ground running and curate an amazing festival this year – and the next.

Taking stock

I leave with mixed emotions. Saying goodbye to this wonderful place isn’t easy. It’s an experience I’ll cherish forever. It’s been gut-wrenching to see children as young as five living on the streets – their only worldly possessions the clothes on their backs. Those images will stick with me for the rest of my life.

I often felt like a hypocrite for enjoying myself while they were begging for money to buy their first meal of the day. But small things, including supporting charities like Barefeet, will make a huge difference.

I’m proud to be a part of Barefeet

Barefeet are doing an incredible job of steering these kids out of homelessness, lifting their spirits in the darkest times, and giving them a renewed sense of self-worth. They have a long battle to fight, but their determination and dedication to helping these children is truly inspirational.

The team has taught me so much. They are all courageous spirits – each one has had a tough journey through life. Yet they embody enthusiasm and positivity that’s undeniably contagious. I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with each and every one of them. And I hope this year’s festival is a roaring success.

To team TIE – Philippa and Matheus – thanks for your unwavering support, despite being in the opposite time zone to me, and your guidance and quick action. All the little ‘just checking in’ texts you sent me over the 30 days helped me through some of the ‘wobbly’ moments and I am forever grateful.