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

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