Voluntown helps Zambian widows, orphans at Chikumbuso Night

Alexander, 6, and Gabriella, 5, become African animals for the evening at Voluntown Elementary School's Chikambuso Night. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Alexander, 6, and Gabriella, 5, become African animals for the evening at Voluntown Elementary School's Chikambuso Night. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The sights and sounds of Africa enlivened a drab January evening at Voluntown Elementary School Jan. 15, as the school hosted Chikumbuso Night. Part fund-raiser, part arts festival, the event was designed to meld art, music, media and poetry with a “giving back” project to benefit widows and orphans in Zambia.

Students danced to the beat of handmade African-style musical instruments to sing a song of welcome to Linda Wilkinson of North Stonington, founder of Chikumbuso. She explained how the project assists 70 widows in providing for their families and gives 300 orphans a school of their own.  The project also offers job skills to 50 at-risk young adults, as well as meals and companionship for 20 older women.

In the school’s eight years of involvement with the project, “you’ve helped us grow in so many ways. You’ve become our partners,” said Wilkinson.

VES art teacher Nancy MacBride, who spearheaded the event along with other VES staff, said that she hesitated to estimate the size of the crowd, for fear that it exceeded the fire marshal’s room capacity. The students prepared for the event by learning songs in the Zambian language, making simple rhythm instruments, doing research on Zambia, and illustrating African proverbs, among other projects, she said.

They also learned about the plight of the women and children bereaved by AIDS, for whom the project serves as a lifeline providing education, employment and hope for the future. Through Chikumbuso, “hopefully they’ll be empowered to make positive changes in this world,” MacBride said.

Colorful student art inspired by African themes lines the walls of the gym, and tables featured games, craft activities, food and video presentations about Zambia. Children who attended received a “passport” which they could stamp at each booth. Also featured was a silent auction of donated items and artwork produced by students in the school’s art club.

One big attraction was the sales table, overflowing with colorful beaded jewelry and crocheted and stitched purses, tote bags and dolls, all made by Zambian women in the Chikumbuso project.

The third time was the charm for the event, originally slated for December but postponed two weeks in a row due to snow. The postponements meant that the original guests of honor – two women from Zambia who have been helped by the project – were unable to attend. But MacBride said that the women visited students and teachers at the school during their December stay, and were touched when the children sang a song in their language. “The whole school came down to the gym” to meet them, she said.

Wilkinson said she fought back tears during the VES children’s presentation. “Voluntown is amazing. Everything they do, they do with their whole heart and soul,” she said.

The evening raised more than $2,000 toward sponsorship of a classroom in Zambia, but MacBride said that another $3,000 is needed to reach the goal of $5,000. “Sponsorship of a classroom will pay for the teacher’s salary, all books and supplies used for the year for about 25 students,” she said. Those who wish to donate can send a check to VES (Voluntown Elementary School), 195 Main Street, Voluntown, CT 06384 and write “Chikumbuso” in the memo. In addition, the event also raised $2,200 in mechandise sales for the job skills project and $1,400 to help sponsor a volunteer teacher from North Stonington who is working in Zambia.