Kenya Tour 2018 with Performers Without Borders – Blog 1

Greetings from Kenya!
Jambo!
I have been living in Kenya since January 4th, 2018 to co-lead the Performers Without Borders 2018 Kenya Tour.  We have a fantastic team of talented volunteers from around the world and have been working to perform and teach circus arts to vulnerable children.

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To read more about our 2018 Kenya team and our first 10 days at “bootcamp” creating our circus show, check out this “official” blog I wrote for PWB:
Jambo! Kenya Team 2018!

Or watch the video I made about creating our show and performing it for the first time!

Or this personal Video Blog update:

Since “bootcamp” we have traveled to the big city of Nairobi to work with many different programs here.

Firstly, I would like to state that this is a personal blog where I’m discussing my personal experiences on the tour.  For the PWB blogs for all their tours (Nicaragua, India, and Kenya) check out the Performers Without Borders BLOG

Also, this blog contains a TRIGGER WARNING for some “real talk” at the end of this blog about the desperate situation the children we have been working with are facing, including photos of drug abuse by minors.

Nairobi is definitely a crazy city!  The traffic is insane and follows no perceivable system of laws. Cars and motorcycles dart in every direction, sometimes down the wrong side of the road or filling a 3-lane highway with 5 or more lanes of cars volleying for the lead.  It seems like the entire city (or at least where we go) smells like trash or burning trash.  Some alleyways are extremely difficult to navigate due to the giant trash piles on both sides.  It is pretty shocking how dirty everything is, but I’ve learned to always carry hand sanitizer with me and a bandana to cover my face.

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One morning when we had to bring lots of equipment to work with our first partner organization, Sarakasi Trust, we had to get an Uber (they are the cheapest and most reliable way to get around Kenya!), but the entire team didn’t fit in the car.  Enrico SolRiso and I volunteered to get a Matatu (private busses that charge you between 20-100 cents to ride around town on a pre-determined rout) to the project, but after walking a block or so we came across a gang of motorcycle drivers for hire.  After a short exchange of haggling and negotiating our rate, we agreed to pay them $1.50 each to drive us across town on two motorcycles.  The experience was both THRILLING and absolutely TERRIFYING.  It was difficult to explain where we were going directly from the start, but most people know where the “Sarakasi Dome” is in town and we trusted that they spoke enough english to roughly understand where in town we needed to be.  We drove at high speeds over curbs, around barricades, through dirt roads and then pulled over under a highway overpass where the drivers spoke frantic swahili and asked directions from a random guy on the sidewalk.  Enrico told me later that he knew we were in for some trouble when the guy patted him on the back and said “Good Luck!” in broken english as we pulled away…
We proceeded to cut through a parking lot and find ourselves on the main road where Sarakasi was located (a great sign!), but unfortunately what we didn’t realize right away was that we were on the wrong side of a divided highway (they drive on the LEFT side of the road here, so when we pulled out of the parking lot we needed to turn right).  Hakuna Matata!  “No Worries!”  We just pulled out to the right heading the WRONG direction down the 4-lane highway.  To my shock and dismay, not a single oncoming driver seemed to be the least bit surprised.  They just casually moved out of our way and we continued several blocks until our destination!
When we arrived and took off our un-securable helmets, Enrico and I looked at each other and agreed that the experience was equally horrifying and amazing.  Something we will surely never forget.

The 2018 Kenya PWB Team has been working hard every day performing and teaching, often in the hot afternoon sun.  We usually leave our apartment in West Nairobi around 7 or 8am so I have been waking up between 6 and 7am.  We work in the morning with one group, then break for an hour or two for lunch and then travel to work with a second group until around 5pm.  Unlike the Performers Without Borders India tour I volunteered for in 2016 where we often worked with the same school every day for a month, we seem to be visiting new groups of children, dancers, or acrobats daily.

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During our first two weeks in Nairobi we partnered with an acrobatic school called Sarakasi Trust (“Sarakasi” means “circus” in Swahili).  Most of the people we worked with while partnering with them were around 19-30 years old.  They all came from disadvantaged backgrounds; either living in the slums without much opportunity to change their situation or have been previously involved with crime or drugs.  They were all very talented and we became good friends with several of them.  My favorite day working at the Sarakasi Dome was when we introduced safe fire performance to over 40 acrobats in their parking lot.  Enrico brought dozens of donated staffs with him from the Sponsor A Staff project and we were able to give every person in our group their own fire staff to warm up with, dip, spin off (or BURN OFF!) and spin with.  Then they all took turns being on safety and helping put out props.  The air felt electric with all the excitement and many of the students personally thanked us, telling us that knowing how to perform safely with fire will drastically increase their tips when busking and getting booked for larger shows.
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Sarakasi Burnoff 1 Sarakasi Burnoff 2 Sarakasi Burnoff 3

Sarakasi was amazing to work with and an absolute treat to watch perform acrobatic stunts.  Although we were all sad to stop working with them, I was extremely excited to work with more children in our next projects.

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Through Sarakasi we were connected with one of their side projects called Smiles For Change.  Working with them has been the most heartwarming and impactful project we have been involved with so far and we have decided as a team to return to work with them every Friday we are in Nairobi.  They work at Kenyatta National Hospital (the largest hospital in all of Kenya) uplifting the spirits of the children there.  They primarily focus on the severely ill section of the children’s ward in the morning and then move upstairs to the children’s section of the burn ward in the afternoon.  Most of the children in those areas have been living there for many months if not years with little hope of recovery or leaving…  Some of the children in the burn ward have been there for over 3 years without their substantial wounds healing because they have no family to pay for their care.  With no personal funding they don’t receive medicine or much medical attention besides a change of bandage when absolutely necessary…  Burns are very common here in Kenya because people in the slums cook on open fires in the middle of their makeshift houses, so people fall into them or fall asleep and the entire building catches fire.
The people with Smiles for Change lead lots of silly songs, parades, clowning, and they put on a big puppet show.  It has been hilarious watching them clown around and witnessing how much the kids respond to their physical comedy.  I even got to play the lion in the puppet show they did last week and a dog in the show today!  It was a really powerful experience to see the children in so much pain as we arrive, yet laugh and smile by the time we leave.
We start our work with them by leading a massive parade around the ward gathering all the children that are able to leave their beds and entertaining those who can’t with short songs and performances.
Once gathered in the main hall, most of the kids crowd around us as much as they can and try to hold our hands or sit on our laps.  I don’t think many of them have anyone else looking after them so they truly crave attention and love.  Our juggling and acrobatics have been a huge hit with them because they haven’t seen anything like it.  We painted with them last week and the Smiles for Change crew warned us that when they bring out paint many kids try to eat it because they have never seen anything colorful that you can draw with so they think it is yogurt or food.  Every the last three weeks it has been a heartfelt pleasure to work with Smiles For Chang and the children at Kenyatta hospital.  One of their crew members, Joseph, is even guiding us around his home area of Ngong Hills next week to show us several orphanages and schools we can perform for outside of the city!  We are all definitely looking forward to getting into the countryside a bit and out of the hustle of the city.

This last week we have been partnering with many different street children and child refugee foundations.  The main project we have partnered with is called “BORESHA MAISHA: alternatives of life for street children and underage refugees in Nairobi”.  It aims at improving the life conditions of vulnerable children in Starehe sub-county, Nairobi. In particular it aims at enhancing the mechanisms of health and social protection in areas such as Mlango Kubwa and Eastleigh.
We visited both slum areas with them over the last two days and the experiences have been powerful to say the least. We have met in community centers where the project regularly feeds the homeless children on certain days of the week, so large groups of kids gather over the two hours we are there.

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We performed our six-person circus show both days and easily befriended the kids. After the show we played with them dancing, doing acrobatics, and teaching one-on-one style juggling and small magic tricks.

I must admit that even through my travels around the world and the two other social circus tours I volunteered for I have never witnessed such blatant drug abuse amongst such young children…  We were warned before working with them that all the street children are addicted to huffing glue and jet fuel, but I still would have never imagined the scene we saw…  Kids as young as 5 or so and as old as 30 all had dirty plastic bottles with them filled with orange glue that they would periodically suck on and inhale. If the didn’t have a bottle in their hand, they had a dirty rag that they would dip into a clear liquid and hold over their mouth and nose to huff.  I was told that it was literally airplane fuel that was brought in by people specifically to huff as a drug.

IMG_0035The children purchase the glue from all the small shops around the area for 10 “bob”, or roughly 10 cents USD. The older ones were severely physically affected by years of this abuse.  It was very emotional to witness and several members of our team had to take moments away by themselves to process the situation before re-engaging with the kids.

IMG_0051The smell from the group as a whole was enough to make you feel dizzy.  I had to walk away many times just to catch my breath. It is hard to witness and understand such self-destruction, but these kids were too young to fully understand the repercussions themselves. When they were high they weren’t hungry and were able to temporarily distract themselves from the harsh reality of their daily lives.

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The kids absolutely LOVED our circus show though and all swarmed us when it was over.  I was amazing at how organized and respectful they all were.  Even though they were all absolutely filthy, wearing rags, extremely high, and very excited they were still all very respectful and gentle with each other and us.  We were told that most of the younger street children are looked after by the older ones and have a very strict family dynamic where they take care of each other and share everything.  The kids even insisted on carrying all of our bags and equipment to the trucks as we were leaving which our chaperone, a large Kenyan man named David, said was perfectly safe.  The children loved the small card tricks I showed them and one young boy even showed me a card trick I didn’t know that I am now using in my shows!  Many of them were very excited by my juggling and wanted to try, so they picked up small stones in the dusty field where we were and I taught them. They asked us when we would be coming back, and it was hard to tell them the truth that we didn’t have plans too… but that another group form Performers Without Borders would be coming to see them next year. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would still be there.

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Leading the tour has had its challenges, but has been extremely fulfilling and rewarding overall.  I have been talking with many orphanages, schools, and NGOs to schedule performances and workshops for next week.  I’m really excited to be leaving the city to spend two nights in a more rural area outside of the city in a small town called Ngong with an orphanage called “Dream For Children”.  They are housing and feeding us in exchange for two days of work with the 50 children that live there.  There is also a giant network of caves in that area and I am trying to find us a local guide to take our team on a morning hike through them before we come back to the city.  We are primarily working with orphanages next week and doing many evening shows so we can also do fire performances.  Enrico, Ariana, and myself are especially excited about this as we have all brought many fire props with us to Kenya. This has the double bonus of being with the children when they eat dinner so we get to serve them food and eat with them as well!

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Our Nairobi project ends February 10th and then we get a week off.  A few of us are looking into going on a safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  Rachel from Australia and Julie from Germany (two of our six team members) will be leaving the project early and flying home then. The remaining four of us will be continuing on north to the town of Nekuru to volunteer with a primary school and orphanage called Gabriel’s for the entire month leading their physical education program.  I am really excited to be getting out of the city as well as working with the same kids every day so we can actually begin to see some progress from our efforts.
The tour has been rewarding in many ways, but I would be lying if I said it was fun or easy so far.  I truly believe in the work we are doing and seeing these children who are in desperate situations smile and forget their problems, even for a brief afternoon, is worth all the work we are putting in.

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