Dlalanathi is a non-profit organisation based in Pietermaritzburg. It was established in the late 1990’s in response to children who experienced loss as a result of the AIDS pandemic that was devastating families in KwaZulu-Natal. At the time there were no services providing psychosocial support to bereaved children, to process their grief using play to support their journey towards healing. After Rob Smetherman – who had been battling brain cancer for more than a decade and was aware of his own children’s need for counseling once he would pass – and play therapist Liesl Jewitt met while supporting a young boy dying of AIDS they decided to start Dlalanathi.

Dlalanathi provides psychosocial support for children through play by training and supporting caregivers. “Not too long after beginning our work with children we realised that we could not work with children in isolation of their caregivers,” says operations director Robyn Hemmens. “Not only were children needing to heal but so too did their caregivers. Often the Gogo’s of the family were reeling from the experience of multiple deaths along with the overwhelming burden of care.”

As a result of the large number of children and families needing support, it wasn’t long before they discovered that a service delivery approach would not work. “We could not grow fast enough to respond to the enormous need and realised we needed to build the capacity of the local community to be able to identify and respond to these need in a sustainable way,” she explains.

After officially registering as an organisation in September 2002 and receiving donor funding to develop a ‘Train the Trainer’ programme, the organisation was then able to build the capacity of other organisations around the country to integrate the psychosocial support processes they used into their own programmes with children and families.

This was a big step of growth for us, says Hemmens. “The establishment of our Training Unit alongside our Community Development work allowed us to design and test programmes’ effectiveness in the community and once they were found to be robust and transferable we could pass them onto other organisations for use in their work.”

As its community development model has deepened over the years the organisation’s three main areas of focus have become:

Play: increasing play in the home; safe play in the community; supervised play during the holidays; and play that supports children with special needs at school.

Parenting: strengthening the emotional connections between adults and children using play; developing parenting relationships that are more responsive, developmentally appropriate and less harsh in nature; looking for creative playful ways that open up communication between adults and children around difficult topics in the hope that through this children and youth will access greater support to manage life’s decisions.

Protection: this sits at every level of the community, from household level to how leadership responds to safeguarding the needs of children, youth and families in the community. This work starts simply by asking the community to map what is safe and what is unsafe for children. In conversation, adult’s dialogue and debate around the issues of safety, identify risks, express their fears and commit to finding ways to improve safety for children. Out of this has come a desire by the individuals themselves to facilitate child participation processes specifically to give children a safe space to voice their concerns and fears about the things that threaten their safety on a day-to-day basis.

For many years the organisation’s focus was primarily play and parenting but after participating in Child Protection workshops during 2013, they started to understand the need to design policy that guided and equipped parents to participate in and advocate for protection for children in the community. This resulted in Child Protection becoming core to all their work, explains Hemmens.

Why the focus on children coping with grief and loss?

Grief and trauma disconnects and isolates us from each other, and the response i.e. the behaviour that children – who are not as adept as adults at identifying the emotional sources of their behaviour – produce can result in them being left behind from a learning and developmental perspective, explains Hemmens. Overburdened grieving families may struggle to cope with what they see as a non-compliant or withdrawn depressed child, which may result in the child being labeled as a ‘problem’ resulting in withdrawal of support, further isolation and/or punishment.

“Understanding how to give sensitive support to a child as they grieve helps them feel seen, acknowledged and find ways of coping, together with their caregivers,” she explains.

Children’s ability to be resilient depends on the presence of a consistently caring adult, responsive everyday care, having a sense of belonging and participation in their lives and hopes for the future. Dlalanathi contributes to building this resilience in children by supporting the strengthening of the emotional connections between children and the adults who care for them.

How do you manage and maintain the work you do in communities?

The first rule of support is that relationships need to be responsive. “What the child most needs is safe caring responsive relationships and play is the vehicle through which this happens. Play communicates an interest in the child and opens up communication that allows the child to actively participate in their lives,” explains Hemmens. They use play to build relationships in groups and teach caregivers and practitioners play techniques to help them start building and reflecting on their relationships with their children.

Dlalanathi works in a community for three to four years and start with creating awareness around children and play, and invite participation. “‘Play for Communication’ is a three-day doll making and story-telling process that has become a vital step in establishing our relationships within the community, helping people understand who we are and what we bring and well as sensitising adults to a new way of seeing their children through play.”

All the organisation’s interventions start with the adult reflecting on their own experience and includes activities that allow them to connect with their own experience, feelings and emotions. Thereafter the adults get to share their experiences with other group participants and for many, it will be the first time they share their story and the value is found not only from sharing their story but also in the connections with the stories from others who have gone through trauma and loss.

“We are then able to make the link between the individual’s emotions and the emotions of a child when experiencing loss. Once the person comes to understand that the emotions are the same, their compassion for children increases as does their sensitivity.”

What is unique about Dlalanathi’s approach in working with children, youth and families?

All the experiential work advocates for the change process to begin immediately. Start now. The training is not knowledge to implement later, the knowledge and the action work together for change now. For example Play for Communication begins with ‘let’s make a doll together while we talk about children and play’. Dlalanathi assumes that the capacity to respond already exists, says Hemmens. “Our intention from the start is to provide what support is needed for the individual to take steps for themselves. We encourage communities to create a vision right now for their children and then support their vision starting with the first action now in the current process and by bringing more capacity building that contributes and builds their vision step by step.”

Their desire is for long-term sustainability of work with children and families and they have seen this happen as participating community members do not see themselves as doing Dlalanathi’s work but fulfilling their own vision, she explains. They have found that when Dlalanathi leaves the community work continues, although it may adapt or adjust the work with children and families remain.

They also believe that you cannot ask someone to do something that you have not done yourself. “Whenever we design a process we test it within our team first. This allows us to know how it feels, what the process requires of one personally and work out what is really required to implement. When we have got it right we invite others to participate, to personally engage in the process and to implement immediately after training to test what they have learned.”

What was your organisation’s involvement in the development of the Ibhayi Lengane toolkit?

Dlalanathi was the lead partner in the design and development of the Ibhayi Lengane (meaning ‘baby’s blanket’) First 1 000 Days Relationship Support Tool, which is designed to help caregivers realise the ‘ordinary magic’ which take place through loving, responsive care. The tool, which was developed in the latter part of 2014, includes a home-visiting activity guide for home visitors, leave-at-home materials for caregivers and families, and a training manual to train home visitors in implementation.

In 2016 the organisation had the opportunity to work with Ethembeni – a local NGO – to pilot the process with their mom’s outreach programme. The invaluable information and learning gained from the pilot enabled them to refine and improve the materials. Thereafter it went on to train 14 Community Care Givers from the Department of Health in 2017 and again, this resulted in further refining and improving the process and materials.

“We continue to be extremely invested and excited about where Ibhayi Lengane could go, as we have seen it making a real difference to mom’s, their children, their partners and families. This design and development process was assisted by many contributors, including the Human Science Research Council and Ilifa Labantwana,” says Hemmens. “Ilifa gave us the words Love. Play. Talk and these were woven in and out of the process of the First 1 000 days.”

During the development of Ibhayi Lengane, Dlalanathi:

  • Took learning from its direct fieldwork.
  • Came up with creative ideas for activities for the process and made the process flow
  • Came up with images for the posters and helped refine them to depict how they wanted mom, mom and the home visitor, mom and baby, and mom and family to be seen, as well as the blanket which linked to all the key messages/talking points throughout the materials
  • Figured out how to train and supervise home visitors and figured out how to build good relationships with the Department of Health, which helped them access CCG’s for the testing process within the health department
  • Learned how much support trainers needed when working with CCG’s and learned to provide that support quicker and more effectively
  • Wrote the training manuals on Play for Communication and the Facilitator’s Guide, and are currently still writing the implementation guide
More about Dlalanathi:

Dlalanathi works in one community at a time and is currently working in Mpumuza/Sweetwaters, a large peri-urban community just outside of Pietermaritzburg. It has only 13 full-time staff that handle all field and office operations.

The organisation has facilitated community development processes in over 30 communities in and around Pietermaritzburg.

In total it has trained more than 50 partner organisations over the years. Some of these partnership relationships include with Save the Children UK, Media in Education Trust, the NACCW (Isibindi Project), the CINDI Network, Hope World Wide, Gift of the Givers, TREE, NOAH and the Hillcrest Aids Centre.

Dlalanathi runs several children’s programmes including bereavement support groups, weekly Kids Clubs and Play Days, supervised Holiday Programmes and Child Participation Groups. It also offers a number of Family Support Groups for caregivers. These cover a range of support topics including play, bereavement, listening, communication, substance abuse, etc.

On an annual basis, it reaches at least 1 476 children and 400 adults through these programmes.

Other work:

In 2011 Dlalanathi developed its Youth in Action programme, which works with youth in and out of school. It has a strong sexual and reproductive health and rights focus. The organisation’s role is facilitating dialogues that address healthy relationships, gender and power, consent and the road to the clinic.

Alongside its direct work, Dlalanathi has a research and development component. As it identifies needs within the community the organisation applies itself to the design and development of creative processes that support children, youth and families to respond to these needs.

The Play Mat programme is another interesting initiative that Dlalanathi has implemented. It is designed to establish home-based, weekly neighbourhood play and learning groups for caregivers/parents with children under five and enables parent groups to use the skills learned to increase playful learning for their children at home. This programme is unique in that it combines parenting principles with play for development, stimulation and learning. It addresses the challenge of ‘space to play’, by using a play-mat for group play sessions and play at home. It places educational toys within the families reach by making toys with parents from recycled goods. Its sustainability is based on establishing a caregiver driven household routine that intentionally invites children under 5 to play and learn. And the caregivers are guided towards understanding that learning is a process and that certain skills build the foundations for later learning.

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