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Author: Philippe Denis
Title: Never Too Small to Remember
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 2005

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Source: Never Too Small to Remember

no. ns 2, June 2005


Philippe Denis

Professor of the history of Christianity at the School of Theology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg and the director of the Sinomlando Project.  [1]

Created in 2000, the Memory Box Programme is an initiative of the Sinomlando Project, an outreach programme of the School of Theology, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. In Zulu, sinomlando means, "we have a history".

In 2001 the Sinomlando Project and Sinosizo Home-based Care, a community organisation that provides AIDS patients and their children with vital support, jointly launched a pilot study to assess the effects of the memory box in twenty Zulu-speaking families in the Durban area. The original mission of Sinosizo was to take care of AIDS patients but its service providers soon became aware of the equally pressing need to take care of AIDS orphans. From this experimental setting in Durban came a new model of intervention called "memory boxes", which took inspiration from a similar project created in 1997 in Uganda by NACWOLA (National Association of Women Living with AIDS), an association of women living with HIV/AIDS.

Since 2002 the Memory Box Programme trains various NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisation), FBOs (Faith-Based Organisation) and CBOs (Community-Based Organisation) in the methodology of the memory boxes, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal but also in the Gauteng province. More than ten community organisations have signed partnership agreements with the Sinomlando Project.

The methodology of the memory boxes

The overall objective of the Memory Box Programme is to enhance resilience in vulnerable children and orphans affected by HIV/AIDS through the methodology of the memory boxes. In the context of HIV/AIDS resilience is the ability of children to develop to their full potential even if their parents are sick or dead. The memories of the families are kept in a "memory box" which contains the story of the deceased parents as well as various objects pertaining to their history.

To achieve this objective the Memory Box Programme conducts two types of intervention: family visits and children's groups.

In the first case, the programme's 'memory facilitators' encourage the sick parents or the caregivers to tell the history of the family in the presence of their children as a way of facilitating the bereavement process of these children. The methodology of oral history is used for collecting the family's memories. Transcripts of conversations in Zulu are edited and compiled in a booklet that accompanies an audiotape of all the voices. These materials are presented to the interviewed family and placed in a "memory box" created by the children with the help of memory facilitators.

To complement the work done with the families, the memory facilitators organise children's groups with the assistance of their partner organisations. Ten to twelve children of similar ages, usually orphans, attend twelve sessions, each of two hours, after school. Basic play therapy techniques are used. The Memory Box Programme draws inspiration from the Humuliza Project, an AIDS orphans support programme in Tanzania. Special emphasis is laid on life stories, family trees and bereavement narratives. During the sessions the children create memory boxes which they fill with various artefacts.

Children are never too small too understand

The work of the memory boxes rests on the hypothesis that it is good for the child to know his family history, however painful this might be, on condition that this history is recounted in a warm, nonjudgmental setting. If the children know the history of their parents, they are better able to overcome the suffering caused by their illness or death. They access this knowledge through memory, their own and of those close to them.

In many cultures, children are taught not to ask questions. Parents and caregivers often assume that their children are "too small to understand". Yet a dialogue between adults and children around sickness and death can be beneficial. Families need to create space for a conversation on these issues to take place.

For the grieving process to unfold in a meaningful way the children's perceptions and feelings need to be validated by supporting adults. A conversation with a caring person may begin to resolve some of the children's general disorientation. Naming the cause of the suffering assists in mourning and facilitates healing.

It is by making sense of their lives, however traumatic they may be, that the children develop resilience. By reconstructing their life stories the children create meaning. This helps them to gain control over their lives. Children who are told what happened in their family are better able to reconstruct their life stories.

Training the local communities

The programme has two immediate objectives. The first is to create, revise and test various manuals outlining the methodology of the memory boxes in English and in Zulu. Some of these manuals are accessible on the Sinomlando Project's website.

The second objective is to train the staff and volunteers of various community organisations dealing with orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS in the methodology of the memory boxes.

The training offered by the Memory Box Programme has three components. Firstly the memory facilitators run training workshops with the staff and volunteers of the partner organisations. These sessions usually last four days. They are followed by one or several evaluation meetings. At a later stage, the memory facilitators assist the trainees in conducting family visits. They also show them how to facilitate children's groups.


The experience of the last three years demonstrates the validity of the methodology of the memory boxes to help children emotionally affected by HIV/AIDS. All the components of the programme - training workshops, children's groups and family interventions - indicate that the children benefit from this work. Particularly encouraging are the closure reports of the family visits. A significant number of children showed signs of improvement after the children's groups and the family intervention. Also encouraging is the feedback received after the training. The volunteers confirm that they have mentioned the possibility of creating memory boxes to the families they visit. In a number of instances, the families produced a memory box almost immediately.

Two tasks face the staff of the Memory Box Programme in the years to come. The first is to better understand the role of memory in the bereavement process. One needs to systematise the way in which one records and documents all the interventions in order to improve the methodology.

The second challenge is to transfer skills to community organisations. This is a uphill battle given the numerous problems faced by these organisations. Things never happy as planned. The programme's recent experience has showed that apparently simple operations like organising a children's group or visiting families with community workers take a lot of time. Appointments need to be rescheduled again and again before the desired results are achieved. Various forms of resistance are encountered. There is no doubt, however, that this is the way to go if more children are to benefit from the methodology of the memory boxes.

Contact details

Sinomlando Project

School of Theology

University of Natal

Private Bag X01

Scottsville 3209 (South Africa)

Phone: (27) 33 260 55 11

Fax: (27) 33 260 58 58


Website: <>

Philippe Denis is professor of the history of Christianity at the School of Theology, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He is the director of the Sinomlando Project. With the assistance of Nokhaya Makiwane and Sibongile Mafu, the two programme coordinators, he trains various community-based organisations in the methodology of the memory boxes.

Bibliography on memory boxes

Denis, Philippe, 'Building resilience by remembering', ChildrenFirst. A Journal on Issues Affecting Children and their Carers, 4, 34 (December-January 2001), pp. 23-25.

____'Sharing family stories in times of Aids', Missonalia 29/2 (August 2001), pp. 258-81.

____'Stories of Love, Pain and Courage. Aids Orphans and Memory Boxes in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa', Oral History (forthcoming).

____'Faire mémoire au temps du sida: l'expérience des boites de la mémoire au KwaZulu-Natal', Face à face. Regards sur la santé. Nr 5 (March 2003). <> English edition with summaries of papers written in French. Face to Face. Another look at health <>.

____'Are Zulu Children Allowed to Ask Questions? Silence, Death and Memory in the Time of AIDS', in B. Carton, J. Sithole and J. Laband, eds, Zulu Enigmas. Emerging Interpretations of Zulu Pasts and Presents. Pietermaritzburg, Natal University Press (forthcoming).


1. Published in ChildrenFirst. A Journal of Issues Affecting Children and Their Carers, vol. 7, n°50, Sept 2003, p. 24-25.

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