Memory Work

In many cultures, children are taught not to ask questions. Parents and caregivers often assume that their children are “too small to understand”. Memory Work rests on the hypothesis that it is good for the child to know its family history, however painful this might be, on condition that this history is recounted in a warm, nonjudgmental setting. Then 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.

It is by making sense of their lives, however traumatic these may be, that the children develop resilience. 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. 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 achieve this.

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 Memory Work in 20 Zulu-speaking families in the Durban area. From this experimental setting came a new model of intervention called “memory boxes”. Since then the Sinomlando Centre offers training in Memory Work to communities and organisations in South Africa and beyond.

Memory Box Programme

The overall objective of this important programme is to enhance resilience in vulnerable children and orphans affected by HIV/AIDS. If children know the history of their parents, they are better able to overcome the suffering caused by illness or death of their caregivers. 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.

The Memory Box Programme draws inspiration from the Humuliza Project in Tanzania. Special emphasis is laid on life stories, family trees and bereavement narratives. Two types of intervention are practised: family visits and children's groups. In the first case, "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. Naming the cause of the suffering assists in mourning and facilitates healing.

To complement the work done with families, the "memory facilitators" organise children's groups with the assistance of partner organisations. Ten to twelve children of similar ages, usually orphans, attend twelve sessions of two hours each after school. Basic play therapy techniques are used. During the sessions the children decorate containers which they fill with various artefacts.


Philippe Denis, Never too small to remember. Memory Work and Resilience in Times of AIDS. Pietermaritzburg 2005, Cluster Publications. 

Philippe Denis and Nokhaya Makiwane, "Stories of Love, Pain and Courage. Aids Orphans and Memory Boxes", Oral History 31/2 (Autumn 2003), pp. 66-74. 

Ntsimane, Radikobo, "To Disclose or not to Disclose: An Appraisal of the Memory Box Project as a Safe Space for Disclosure of HIV Positive Status", Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, Number 125 (July 2006), pp. 7-20.