The Land of the Giant Children
Text by Daniele Bellocchio
Photographs by Lorenzo Cicconi Massi

The Children of Zambia: High Hopes, Bright Dreams

Some stories need to be observed, read, listened to and absorbed all in one go. These kinds of stories are revealed at twilight, through storytelling rather than at the news hour. That’s because there is nothing newsworthy at the quiet end of the day. The commotion of daily events evaporates, giving way to smaller stories recounted through the intimacy of confession, through the chatter of memories and the swapping of anecdotes.

These are personal stories, which reveal themselves when History catches its breath. They are fascinating for the photographer who chases the evening light. Within these stories is a humanity that shakes off the labors of the day and prepares to divulge powerful tales that illustrate the chaos and complexity of everyday life, truths that the news does allude to or, if it does, only through the logic of large numbers, geopolitical explanations, sociological analyses and big picture stories.

This category of quiet and intimate stories includes a series of photographs that depict a twilight world — off the beaten track and away from the chaos of the everyday — but where dozens of rare and precious stories live, vivid and pulsating. These tales are told by a cross-section of society ignored by most, but they are true, melancholic, sincere and indisputably important.

This photo shoot by Lorenzo Cicconi Massi is unorthodox reportage; it is a non-conformist piece of work made in Africa that avoids ontological dramas or ruinous condemnations. His snapshots are overwhelming because they are feel-good and have a tangible beauty, getting away with drama without sensationalizing pain. They are the fruits of a creative visual poetry that knows how to illustrate a utopia which keeps alive the hope we can be better one day.

Darkness is about to fall on Zambia and the hubbub of its capital Lusaka is behind us. At dusk in the football field of the Mthunzi shelter opened by the NGO Amani Onlus, forty boys once left to go it alone on the city’s streets are taking back their lives through games and acrobatics. One performs a gymnastic routine, staying balanced, arms out wide and illuminated by the sunset’s penetrating light: suspended, ethereal, happy.

It is a black and white photo which, in the absence of colour, gives the viewer the essence of the story it is telling. A photo that develops from the bottom up, blending multiple layers, decontextualised to be enduring and everlasting, framed by a dark sky and with a child’s simple, overwhelming and universal exultation as its subject.

“How many times have I seen my children exult by spreading their arms? It is a gesture of joy and victory for a child,” the author of the shot explains. “The reportage concept doesn’t lend itself to my photographic mindset. I did not do this story to illustrate habits, customs or problems. I was in an unfamiliar world and will never be able to go deep enough, to look for common ground between these boys and my children. I’m here to see them play, like any other child around the world.”

The Mthunzi centre was created together with the Koinonia Community, a not-for-profit organization located in Kenya, Zambia and Sudan. It was inspired by the Comboni missionary Father Renato Kizito Sesana who is committed to rescuing street children and teenagers from the streets. The first group of young people led by Father Kizito arrived at the centre in the 1980s; they inhabited a house with 40 hectares of land in the open countryside and 15 kilometers from the city center. The Koinonia boys began to cultivate the land somewhat successfully.

Then the HIV and economic crisis hit the country, and that first small community was heavily impacted to the point of being wiped out. There was a reaction, however, from the ground up. Taking his cue from the experience at Koinonia Kenya, Father Kizito decided to welcome the many children flooding the streets of Lusaka, who were either orphans or abandoned by poverty-stricken families.

Amani, from Italy, immediately understood the importance of this choice, and supported it. Sheltering children has since become the heart of the business and that first home, started in the 80s, is the core of the center today, where dozens of children live and try to build a future through acrobatic gymnastics.

Each story has its own stage and background and, in Lorenzo Cicconi Massi’s images, the backstage is not visible. The past, dedicated to begging on the pavement for compassion and food by day and to being delirious from fear and solvents by night,is not well-known to a passerby.

The author did not need to stage the drama. Those days of hunger, indifference and hatred are etched into the shots: a delicate legacy of intangible traces visible in a girl’s proud gaze challenging the lens with a smile of redemption and triumph.

 

In a tense body that tries — while straining all its muscle — to free itself from the demons within; in a mosquito net laid out to dry which, inflated by the wind, becomes a kite or a cloud to play with, shielding the children’s imaginations from the injustices of the street and of life.

“Grief… how can you be prepared to accept grief when you are 10 and life throws you into the path of death and neglect?” Asks the photographer, who adds: “Now, those ex-street kids are students, football players and great acrobats.

They dedicate most of their afternoons to training, building human skyscrapers, one on top of the other, feet resting on their friend’s shoulders, aware of the importance of each link in the chain. They are communities, they are a team, they are young people who are living and who finally have future prospects.”

It is the last patch of light, the day is giving way to night with little resistance: these are the last few minutes for exercise at the Mthunzi Centre. A twenty-year-old man — once also a child who experienced violence and had to beg in his childhood years — who now teaches newcomers to climb to their dreams, walks statuesque with one of the boys from the center on his shoulders.

The two acrobats proceed steadily and proudly, progressing towards a near horizon, and taking back their time by overthrowing establishment rules that would prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground and their heads on their shoulders.

Instead with their heads in the air and their feet on the clouds, they walk gently and form one single mythological, fantastic body.