International development is often not as international as it makes it out to be. Many implementations are based on a Western perspective and include little conversation with the aim groups. Projects and programs are realized from a top-down perspective, where an organization comes in with an idea and executes that idea independent of its context. In my experience a bottom-up method, where actions and ideas come from the aim-group is a lot more effective, sustainable and inclusive.
It was July 2016 when I got to do an internship at an NGO in Nairobi, Kenya called YADEN East-Africa. At this organization they actively used a bottom-up perspective for their projects which are specialized in performing arts. Throughout this internship I learned about bottom-up context specific development and using one’s talents to change their path. It has helped me to understand the importance of knowing the culture of the country where you are located. Development methods that might work in some places will likely play out differently in a different context. Another lesson that I learned is the way in which performing arts can be used as a tool to start conversations about sensitive topics. My internship at YADEN showed me something that, in my experience, has been lacking in the Netherlands: youth were being motivated to discover and develop their talent and see how it could be useful in their future.
Conveying a message through performing arts
On the first day of my internship I got to attend a class from one of my colleagues. He combined acting with dance and spoken word. The students were creating a performance that focused on conveying a message about the dangers of drugs. I was mesmerized by the talent and confidence of these students. It was no problem for them to passionately rehearse a complicated self-written poem. Natural leaders stood up, there was lots of discipline and everyone knew what they were doing. The students were very serious about their art. After the rehearsal the teacher led a conversation about the message that they were trying to convey in their play. This method does not only motivate youth to use their talent, it also helps them to open up about difficult topics and social issues.
With my background in elite gymnastics I got to perform as an acrobat as part of my internship at YADEN. I trained daily with a group of 14 extremely talented male acrobats in Huruma, an informal settlement in Nairobi. These tough trainings prepared us for our performances. These performances were often the main source of income for the acrobats. Whenever I was not training, I would be teaching acrobatics at schools in Mathare. During these classes emphasis was not on learning dangerous tricks, but rather on giving the students the opportunity to discover their potential.
Talent perception in different cultures
After my observations, I decided to do a little experiment. I asked a group of students at a school in Nairobi to put their hand up if they thought that they had a talent. Every single hand went up. The students were able to tell me exactly what their talent was and what they wanted to reach through developing their talent. I asked this same question to a group of students at a school in the Netherlands. This resulted in much different results; less than half of them put their hand up and they were unable to tell me what their talents were. This made me realize how often the importance of talent and performing arts is forgotten in the Netherlands. Certainly, there is a cultural aspect that plays into this, but the fact that in Dutch culture it is seen as boasting when you say what your talent is, is problematic in itself. Performing arts are extremely important, not just in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Having a certain talent makes someone unique and helps them gain confidence. It is not only fun to recognize your talent but it can be life changing and create a new journey.
It is often forgotten that the countries where the West offers support also have their own unique identities and qualities from which the West can learn a great deal. Development should be more focused on finding the unique characteristics of countries and their locals. I think that smaller organizations that focus on the creative development of talented people and through this open up conversations about social issues deserve more attention. As this conversation becomes more normalized, it can move youth to undertake action. This allows them to keep the government accountable. Sustainable change can only come from the country and its locals, the focus should be more on culture and being context specific.
Author: Veronique Sprenger