Talent to fly

“But for me, the way I have seen and what I have learned; it is not a must to go to school. It is not a must to be clever to get to an airplane. Because most people here, they work hard and studied so they can get to the airplane. But for me, that is not, what you have to do is your talent, your skill that you have. That is the skill that will bring you to go abroad. So, that even, that is how you help people in school. I used to tell boys and girls, you know what, do what you can, if you have a talent, go and do it! Don’t depend only on books. (…) If you coming number one, that is your talent. So, if you are doing rugby, if you are good at rugby, do that for the best, do that. If you are doing karate, do that, if you are a runner, a good runner, keep that in your mind and be strong on that and work hard on that. That’s your talent. It will take you overseas. And you’ll be rich in that if you want.” – Sammy, acrobat.

Countries where the acrobats have performed (that were identified in the interviews, it is likely that there are more)

 “Hi Vero, we are back in China! I am happy, I am going to work again. Hope you are doing well too”. I just received this text from one of the acrobats. It has become normal for me to receive texts from them from all over the world. Just the other day, another acrobat texted me from Spain. I remember the first time I heard that they perform all over the world. I was doing an interview with one of the acrobats and he casually told me about his trip to Turkey, that he got injured there, but that he was lucky because since he was on contract he had an insurance. I was ignorant, so at first, I thought he was joking with me. Eventually, I started to understand that although these acrobats are extremely humble, they do travel across the world to perform. I had been unaware that the real money was earned abroad.

I have met many people in Kenya from a wide variety of backgrounds. I have rarely heard of a Kenyan who does not have the desire to travel, to discover what is out there. Many people dream of getting on a plane. I sometimes forget how privileged I am. Though, I do remember looking up to the sky as a little girl and seeing planes fly over. Being curious what it would be like to fly, I did not even mind where I would be going, I just wanted to sit in a plane and see the clouds beneath me. It is like an upside-down world. Suddenly the clouds have reversed and you get to see the world from a different perspective.

Performance at a hotel in Nairobi by Juma, Bruce, Charles and Ali (March 25, 2018)

Seeing the world from a different perspective and experiencing a wide variety of cultures… Something the acrobats get to experience in spite of their lack of higher education. Most of the acrobats have only finished primary education, since there was not enough money to afford going to secondary school. In education systems around the world, primary education will not prepare one for the labour market. Specifically, the Kenyan system is mainly theory based and focusses a lot on exam preparation through drilling and cramming, sometimes forgetting about transferable skills (Source, chapter 8). I believe that all education systems around the world have shortcomings. Education should focus on creating well-rounded people who are not scared to think critically, can make decisions, can stand up for what they believe and are aware of their qualities, using these to enter the labour market. As labour markets differ all over the world, focus areas in the education curriculum should be applicable in the local context. Moreover, education is all about raising individuals who have different qualities. Thus, it should not be hierarchical and leave out certain aspects such as the arts, just because they are perceived as being less useful.

In a country where youth unemployment reaches percentages of over 22% (The statistics portal, 2017), it should be a priority to invest in solutions to this problem. This shows that even with completed education, youth still struggle to find a job. Moreover, Kenya has a huge informal economy, which has also been recognized by its government. The government even promotes this sector as an opportunity for employment creation (Source). So, why is the educational system so theory focused? I am by no means trying to say that everyone should be an acrobat. I just think that all over the world there should be a stronger emphasis on sports and the arts. Education should also focus on discovering what you are good at and how that can be useful in the future. Many of the acrobats went through physical education classes during primary school. This is how most of them have discovered their talent.

Education is essential, it is the groundwork of the future. Though, it needs to adapt to its context; offer alternatives, if having knowledge of theory is not enough to get a job. Every single person has a talent. Not everyone is aware of their talent, but this is because they have not been encouraged enough to discover it. Talent needs to be nurtured. Imagine the loss if Kipchoge Keino had never discovered his talent for running. Imagine being unable to express yourself artistically because you have never been taught how, or even been punished for doing so. Education all over the world should have greater emphasis on creativity, sports and arts. This could not just create new labour opportunities but investing in these talents serves as a great way to develop transferable life skills.

Author: Veronique Sprenger

No, they teach me.

“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.

Sammy teaching me how to do a hand-to-hand handstand (March, 2019)

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

When your livelihood breaks

“I’m scared, yeah because it can make me bring back. I’ll be like, starting again to train because maybe you don’t know it can take long for injury to be recovered. That’s why I’m scared of injuries. I take care, I’m careful with injuries.” – Ali, acrobat.

He walks up to me, points at his wrist, tells me it hurts. Pain is part of the game, part of the sport and part of the job. My entire life I have dealt with injuries. I was always able to go to hospitals, get help and get physiotherapy. I would do anything that would help me to heal but also still allow me to continue training. When I was young, every day of rest meant that I was not getting better at my sport. I did not realize that I could not get better if I would not let my body heal. Yet, I had a choice. Resting would not have impacted my livelihood negatively.

When your sport is your job, things become different. This job means that your body is your livelihood. Choices regarding the body become tougher. What if you are in a situation where you even have to consider transport costs to go to the hospital? What if the money spent on the hospital, would otherwise be invested in your child’s education? What would you choose? If I asked the acrobats if they would go to the doctor, their answer would be: “No, of course not, it just costs money and they just tell me to rest”.

Leading a warm-up at an event with Ali (March 2019)

We walk up to the wall, taking a deep breath and getting into a handstand, ready to hold it for three minutes. We keep going, keep training, keep doing what we love. We work hard in the gym. One might wonder, what for?

It is weekend, but today I need to get up at 5am. I will be headed to a location where a stage will be waiting for me. Glory comes after hard work and almost every weekend the acrobats get to feel that glory as they enter the stage in front of big audiences. The hard work behind the scenes, the pushing through injuries, the perseverance. Nothing is in vain if the acrobats can pay their children’s school fees after the performance. If they can purchase the necessary books and school uniform. Can pay their rent. Can buy the fruits and vegetables that will fuel their bodies.

Another choice would be to invest the money in the body after the performance. To go to a hospital to make sure that in the long-term the livelihood could possibly be more sustainable. In reality, it is a conflict, a vicious cycle. Would you remove the money that you earned through your body to go to a doctor who will tell you no longer to use that body that pays your bills? The alternative is to continue with what you have always been doing, train through the pain and continue performing.

Warm-up at training (February 2019)

We get on stage; the audience is cheering. We forget about everything because we are doing what we love. A day later, we are all running in circles, warming up for the training, to do it all over again. I ask Sammy what he does when he has an injury expecting him to say that he does not go to doctors. Almost making the wrongful assumption that he does not realize that he can increase the longevity of his career by going to a doctor. Instead he answers:

“If I get injury, I used to go to hospital. But now, if it come up, we have medicine, we have traditional medicine, that if you get broken here, the way I am broken here (points at leg), I just go to old man, I tell him: “I have problem here”, then without money, with his knowledge he gets the medicine from the tree, from the roots of the tree. So, then that guy give me, I have to rub, I have to rub for about 1 or 2 days and then it will be fine. But you know, that is not healing, that will not be healed, it just stops the pain, but after all, the problem will come back again. (…) But when it’s serious, (…) I have to go to hospital, even if I like it or not. I have to remove that money. Because that body is the one that has given me that money, so why don’t you treat it? Next time, it will give you money.” – Sammy, acrobat

Author: Veronique Sprenger

Acrobats defying tribalism in Kenya

Kangemi acrobats trying a new pyramid (February, 2018)

I’m sitting on the side of the gym watching training. It’s already been 3 hours and I am tired. The men around me are still going. Trying out new pyramids and tricks. They climb on top of each other trying to make stable constructions, falling 40% of the time. When we fall we catch each other, literally. There have been many times where my head was quickly approaching the floor when suddenly just before it gets too close, two strong arms grab me and put me back on my feet.

I am different from the group of men in front of me. I am a woman. I am white. I grew up on the other side of the world, living a privileged life. I trained gymnastics my entire life, with good coaches and in beautiful gyms. The men in front of me are Kenyans, most grew up on the country-side but came to Nairobi to find better opportunities. We train in the social hall of Kangemi, an informal settlement on the West-side of Nairobi. Although, the group of acrobats in front of me all look similar, they are not the same. They represent different tribes. They represent the incredible groups of people who have built this country. The Luos, Luhyas, Kikuyus, Kalenjins, Giryamas, Taitas and many more. In total Kenya has 44 tribes, each with their different characteristics that make them unique. Unfortunately, history, colonialism and power relations have sometimes made the relationships between the different tribes tense.

Meanwhile, I have gathered my energy again, it’s time to get back up and join the pyramids. Charles notices me and immediately tells me to hold on to Juma and Walter, who are both positioned on top of two other guy’s shoulders. It’s a safe and easy pyramid but it still requires great balance and teamwork of everyone involved. We synchronize the pyramid, trying to make weights equal and create this perfect balance between a group of individuals. The magic of cooperation and equality, falling and trying again, communication and perseverance. Words that merely describe the struggle that many of these men have lived through.

(Join me in the moment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFKKj9LXukQ)

The new year was only a few days away when violence erupted in Kenya. On December 27th, 2007 the results of the presidential elections turned out to be in favor of the former president Mway Kibaki. The opposition; Raila Odinga accused Kibaki of having fixed the vote and EU observers agreed that there should have been an investigation and independent audit. This resulted in big outbursts between rival ethnic tribes, killing over 700 people and displacing over 100.000 people (source: Al Jazeera).

Sammy and Dennis showing their incredible balancing act (May 2018, Spain)

Since the groups of acrobats are based on talent and not on someone’s ethnicity, age or their political viewpoints, the acrobats were put in a difficult situation. Were they going to turn on each other or protect each other? “It was a very tribal thing, it was Luos against Kikuyus, we had groups that would consist out of 6 Luos and 1 Kikuyu and they would hide their Kikuyu colleague under their beds at night, it was like they could go around and just flush out the Kikuyus on the Eastlands and flush out the Luos in the Westlands.” – Marion op het Veld, Managing Director and Founder Sarakasi Trust. Besides protecting each other, the acrobats also became a shining light in showing that it is possible to trust each other and lean on each other, that the Kenyans are all one people. “Nonono, we try also to make Luo, Luhya, Giryama, we are one people. We try to unite because if you do this (…) maybe in future our children will know, Luo is my brother, Luhya is my brother, Giryama is my brother, yeah so, we try to do something like that. Because if we’d have Giryama only, it would be tribalism. We want to be brothers and sisters together.”- Ali , acrobat

As the post-election violence has shown, tribalism can lead to exclusion and violence. The acrobats used their talent to create awareness of this and show that it does not matter what tribe someone represents. Following the violence, the acrobats got together to create a project where they would perform all over Kenya. Showcasing that they are all from different tribes but that they still have great trust in each other and dare to put their lives in each other’s hands. They used their sport and art to bring people together and create a mutual trust and understanding. “We were performing some acrobatics to show them unity and how we are together, because we are different tribes in this industry of art. So, we were together from different tribes and when we performed, people were like: Ah this is really good, because how can someone go on top of this different people from different tribes” – Bruce, acrobat.

The training is finished. We are all tired and just chatting away. Friends; all from different backgrounds, with different views and different upbringings, building a bond of trust. As we all walk out the gym and walk through the streets as a united front, people look at us and greet us. We are all the same, we are all one people and I realize, that these men have done something that others might deem impossible; they have defied tribalism.

Author: Veronique Sprenger