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

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