“So, you teach acrobatics to youth in slums in Nairobi?” This is often the first question I get when I tell people that I work as an acrobat in informal settlements in Nairobi. Maybe if they listened more carefully they would have heard that I said that “I work as an acrobat”. I did not use the word teach. Neither does my statement imply that I teach. I am not there to teach the acrobats, in fact, they actually teach me. For some people this is an unexpected answer to their question. It is interesting how people immediately assume that if I go to Kenya, it must be to teach the people there something.
This assumption probably has two sides, one side is that they want to give my trip a purpose that they can understand easily, like helping others through education. The other side has to do with the past and the fact that there are many Western people who have gone to “Africa” to teach. It is disappointing to notice the difficulty some have, in understanding that the people who welcome me might actually be teaching me. No, just because you are from the West does not mean that you know everything or that all your opinions are right. There is a lot of knowledge that is forgone just because we are too stubborn to appreciate that although people might have a different culture or political system, their knowledge and opinions are as valuable as ours and we can learn a great deal from listening to them.
During my work in Nairobi the acrobats have helped me transform my gymnastics skills into useful acrobatics skills. They would patiently start by teaching me how to get on someone’s shoulders and from there on, develop my skills. They would start teaching me hand-to-hand handstands by showing me how to do it and providing me with the steps that build up to the skill. We would do the warmup together where we all took the lead in whatever someone was best at. They cheered me on when I was struggling through their intense conditioning. They would ask me to contribute when analyzing the pyramids that we build, to see how we could improve them. But most importantly, they taught me about their lives. They showed me their life-styles, their homes, their family, they shared their past and their future dreams.
I believe there is nothing more valuable than a person’s story. There is nothing you can learn more from than people’s experiences. Being context specific is essential for any development program or project to be successful. Gaining the knowledge that allows for this context specificity takes time, patience and most importantly, listening to locals. You need to be able to put your own prejudices aside and instead indulge yourself in other people’s knowledge. Only then, can money be allocated correctly and a project be successful.
So, what do I do besides learning? I share the acrobats’ stories. I try to create awareness of their incredible work. I train with them and show them the appreciation they deserve. I do sometimes take the lead in the warm-up, leading the core strength or stretching parts. I share knowledge that could add up to theirs, so that together we can be better. We show a united front, we perform as a team.
Author: Veronique Sprenger