Memory Boxes Hold Family Legacies

brightly painted books bound with stringBright drawings, patterned fabrics, and beads or shells cover the sides of cardboard boxes and woven baskets. Looking at the proud children holding them and the careful decorations, the contents must be meaningful. At Kabwata Widow’s and Orphans Society, children display the boxes as they show counselors what’s inside. Children take out important documents like birth certificates or property leases and more sentimental ones like shawls, hats, wooden crosses that once hung on necklaces, paper painted with dates and pictures and short letters that describe a memory. The children are participating in Kabwata’s Memory Box Program. Most often, a parent will create the memory box with her or his child when they are terminally ill. They make the box together--allowing time to acknowledge the illness and begin the process of grieving while the parent is still alive. Parents are able to prepare children for what will happen next, what relatives they will soon live with, and answer questions that will be recorded and put into the memory box. Many children create books that sit inside their basket or box that records these important stories and become reminders later on of their parent’s hopes and wishes for them.

Zanele Sibanda Knight, Director of Programs at Firelight says, “It’s really about creating a positive memory for the child before those memoriesa mother and two children laughing with eachother are lost. I know that even as an adult, I still want to hear stories from my mother, memory books and boxes create the way for children to keepthose stories alive. Often the books are bound with string so that children can continue to add stories. Children will come home from their youth programs and talk with their parent and have another story to include.”

Memory boxes have become a fairly common practice in sub-Saharan Africa. In a region where AIDS related illness affect 22.5 million people, loss has become something that children see and experience often. Kabwata started their Memory Box program along with a few other community-based organizations in Zambia in 2009. Kabwata says the program “helps children to accept their situation and embrace their family history, whilst connecting with the wider community. We believe that it will address the ‘identity crisis’ affecting many of Zambia’s children.”

The program is meant to enhance the resilience of children, and particularly children who have lost both parents due to AIDS related illnesses. When children are HIV+ themselves, it also opens up the conversation for children to address their personal health issues and fears.

Kabwata explains that children who have lost both parents often go through a very difficult adjustment period. They have a hard time associating with the wider community as they grieve. The program and its trained child counselors help children to reintegrate with close family members and the community at large.

The program also helps parents to face their illness and has helped to lessen some of the stigma. By acknowledging the illness, they decrease the common silence about HIV and AIDS. When children are HIV positive this has an important influence on their confidence and personal outlook on the future.

Sometimes, grandparents or aunties will help to create the memory boxes if parents have already passed on. Children then tell the important stories of their parent’s death and build close relationships with their extended family. While the entire family is grieving, they also build new bonds with each other and with their community through organizations like Kabwata.

Memory boxes are about living as much as they are about dying and loss. Children bring these heartfelt memories into their future knowing their parent’s wishes and keeping their memories close as they grow.


Many Firelight grantee partners offer memory book programs for children and families. It’s a practice that helps children to grieve, heal and grow in positive ways. One grantee partner,  Digital Hero Book, was started in South Africa to offer digital memory books for children.