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

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