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

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