When two worlds collide

Training at the beautiful facility in Utrecht, Netherlands (March, 2017)

I am a gymnast. I grew up in a sport that is most popular among girls and women. When I was training I would never have thought that there are forms of my sport or places where it is mostly practiced by men and even a taboo for women to practice it. On the other side of the world, in a completely different context, men were training acrobatics. For them it was unimaginable that a woman would be able to do what they were doing.

Then, two worlds collided. Two vastly different worlds but with one very significant similarity. All of us love flipping, love adrenaline, love training and live for our sport. I had never been the odd one out in my sport. I had never had to fight for my place within my sport. Being talented and hardworking had been enough. I did have to prove myself but in different ways and with a different purpose. The acrobats from Nairobi had always worked hard, sometimes girls did join them but they often did not stick. The reason as to why not many women stick to the sport in Kenya is one for another article, but it is most certainly intriguing.

The big challenge of trying to integrate into this all-male group came up. I was determined to overcome our differences and try to integrate as much as possible. After all, we had gymnastics, we were roughly the same ages, we were just born in different parts of the world. An important aspect to integration for me, was to understand the people around me. To try and get where they come from and what their day looks like. I could have decided to live in a richer area of Nairobi, to take taxi’s to and from training, to be very careful with my own safety. Though, what is integration if you are living in fear of the people you integrate with? That is impossible and to me there was no reason to be fearful. I decided to live in an area on the East side of Nairobi called Umoja. Not just because I did not want to live in the rich areas but also out of convenience, this way I was able to live with a good friend of mine and it was easy to reach the slums by matatu.

Training at Huruma, Nairobi (August 2016)

The first day that I joined the acrobats, I knew I would have to do everything the same as them. At the time, I was luckily pretty fit, so I was in a state where I would be able to give it my all. Fitness however is not always enough… Let’s not forget about the fact that I was not used to the hot climate and most importantly, that I had been extremely spoiled in terms of training facilities. We were in a low concrete building with an iron sheet roof, attracting even more heat. The floor was crippling down and we were training barefoot. The warmup was tough but I was able to keep up and the basics we did diagonally were not difficult for me. The vast difference between the acrobats and myself immediately stood out. I am very technically trained, whereas the acrobats are extremely daring and just do everything. After the warmup the real pyramids and thus the real challenge started. I had never been part of a pyramid before, so it was time to be fearless and adapt.

Pyramid during a performance in Nyeri, Kenya (August, 2016)

So, how does one integrate? I cannot say that I am a pro at this, since I am certain I could have done better. But I did get accepted and respected by the team and we have become very close friends. Number one for me was to participate. To be open and say yes. Everything that is offered to you by the people you are trying to integrate with is an opportunity. It is a chance to better understand each other; discover your differences and start embracing these. When I was asked to be the third person on top of two other guys who were already standing on each other’s shoulders, I figured this was a sign of trust. They thought I could do it and so I had to give them that trust back. I gathered some courage and started climbing up on top of the other guy’s shoulders. My legs were trembling and I am not sure if I had ever been this scared of falling onto the rocky ground, but I still tried to do it. I got there, probably about 3.5 meters high. If I looked down, I could see the other team members below me, all ready to catch me if I were to lose my balance and fall. Up there, trembling of fear, but simultaneously feeling safe because of the incredible team around me, was when I knew that I had integrated to some degree. We were all interested in each other, we respected each other. We were all being open minded and explaining ourselves if something was unclear. Integration is about being curious, throwing yourself in the deep. For me it was about climbing that pyramid, overcoming my fears and instead embracing courage. It was about proving myself and learning from others.

There are such vast differences between all of us. People can be born on completely different continents, have lived completely different lives and have completely different morals. This does not mean that you cannot try to understand each other. It does not mean that you should fear each other. Or that you should put one above the other. It means that you need to learn about the differences, embrace them and see how you can bring out the best in each other.

Author: Veronique Sprenger

We do not need your money

I chip in 400 shillings (3,36 euro) like the team asks of me. They are my family. If Kevo is not doing well, I will contribute as much as the other guys contributed. A bit later, everything is arranged and we all go out for lunch. It is a celebration of our bond, friendship and trust. One of the guys pays for all of our food from the left-over money. This was the first time that I gave money. That I made the conscious decision to open up my wallet and give cash.

At the training site (February, 2018)

Just a few days prior to this I walk into the training site at 9am. I go upstairs, open the doors and then I see Kevo… In a corner of the gym he is sleeping on the boxing bags. It can’t be comfortable and I do not understand why he is sleeping there. Maybe, he arrived really early and was still tired. I decide not to think too much of it and instead get ready for training. A few days later, when I arrive at the training site he is again sleeping on the boxing bags. Some of the other guys are already there, eating Mandazi’s and offering me some food as well.

Kevo wakes up and training starts. Though, he does not seem as fit as usual and his head is not entirely in it. Normally, the acrobats are full of energy and happiness. They skillfully switch between joking around and being serious. Kevo is always a part of that. He is quite a remarkable person. He is tall and strong, very reliable and pleasant to work with. He is quiet when others are speaking but when he has something to say he demands attention. Nonetheless, there is still the hard reality of living in a slum. The hard reality of having an inconsistent income. When acrobats have a show, they earn a lot of money in one go. There is no money during the time when they do not have shows. They just continue to train hard and hope for a new opportunity. This means that the acrobats have to manage their money very well. Moreover, the acrobats are very open to offering each other financial support because they understand each other’s situation.

There is often a lot of controversy in the development world about just giving people money. Personally, I prefer to never give money mainly because I do not think it is satisfying or sustainable for the person on the receiving side. If I would ask the acrobats if they wanted 10 euros from me, they would say no. If I would ask them if they want to perform and then they can earn their money, they would be happy to do so. Many people do not want to be someone’s charity case and they want to work for the money they spend. They have pride in what they do and in themselves. In having the ability to take care of a family. Just giving money is not a solution, it rather takes people’s agency away.

The team is a family, a safety net. They will never drop anyone once you become part of it. They understand each other and are transparent about their issues. Money issues are common in this area, but the acrobats found a solution to that. When they are offered a show that does not include the full team, they pick the acrobats who need the money most. This way, they can support each other without having to give money. It is ingenious and preventive and as long as shows continue to come; sustainable. Though, the way things are, one can still get in trouble. The acrobats have a microfinancing system called Choma that helps in case of emergencies. They came up with this themselves and it is based on trust. Everyone contributes some money and then it goes to the person who needs it most, next time it will go to someone else.

Acrobats preparing for a show (March, 2018)

As the training comes to an end the acrobats start having team meetings and leaving me out of them. They rarely leave me out, so I wonder what they are discussing. Finally, one of them walks up to me and takes me apart. He tells me that they had been having discussions on whether they wanted to include me or not, but since I am part of the family I had to be included. It turns out that Kevo, who also has a wife and child, has been having trouble paying his landlord the rent and because of that, he had been sleeping in the training hall. As a solution, the team decides that everyone should contribute 400 shillings (3,36 euro) (if they can) so that we can contribute to his rent for that month. Instead of giving the money directly to Kevo, another team member collects it and calls his landlord. The money never crossed Kevo’s hands. Instead we gave it to the landlord and when the rent payment was completed we used the left-over money to make sure Kevo would eat a full meal.

You might wonder why they have created such a strong support system for each other. Besides the fact that they are friends, a team and family. It is simple, in their accumulation of capital, they are dependent on each other’s strengths and fitness level. If one person in the team is unfit and unable to fully contribute, it will bring the whole team down and eventually have financial consequences.

The common misconception that some people are always asking for money is interesting in this case. The acrobats do not need your charity money. They have created their own system. They were even hesitant to include me in this event, even though they knew I could have easily contributed even more. They treated me as an equal, just like I treat them as equals. They do not need money to be given to them. Like most other people, they want to work for it.

*Name has been changed

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