Hello, all! I'm writing to you from the wilds of Kenya...well, okay...an apartment on Ngong Road in Nairobi, but I swear the wilds are merely an hour's drive away.
For those unaware, I am in Kenya for the month teaching poi and firedancing as part of the Motomoto Circus School. The program was started by an American Burner by the name of Will Ruddick who, during his time with the Peace Corps, began teaching poi to children he met in Mombasa. Burners Without Borders upon hearing of the program began providing the program with material support and even helped sponsor my trip out here. Will has since expanded the program to Nairobi with classes at Sarakasi Dome and workshops in the hamlets of Kibera, the second-largest urban slum in Africa.
It was in Kibera that I spent a good portion of my first day here. Home to a quarter of Nairobi's 3 million residents, it takes up only 1% of its total land area. Sanitation services are essentially non-existent with treks through the area a hike in between the alleyways of flimsy shacks with garbage ground into the ground of the narrow passageways between them. Having come from DC to get here, it's a hell of a shock to the system. I teach poi here in a newly constructed two-story shack made of boards and corrugated steel that hosts a classroom on the ground floor and an open space on the second floor. Getting there is a climb up a handrail-less staircase made from 1" x 2" boards. The space itself is dusty and crowded, but the children inside are attentive and excited to learn poi. Many have their basics down: weaves, butterflies, and the occasional corkscrew. I've made it a goal while I'm here to teach the kids all good plane control and orientation and see if I can get some of the advanced kids up to the point where they are playing with flowers and perhaps hybrids. I only get three weeks with them, so we will have to see how it goes!
In Nairobi proper, Motomoto is also housed at the Sarakasi Dome. This is a circus school and dance studio set up by an endowment from the Dutch government. Frankly, it's a space that would be damned impressive here in the US. If we had a place like it in DC I don't know that I'd ever leave. The main dome hosts three levels of audience space and a large stage. Performers here spend their days practicing juggling, acrobatics, and aerial silks. A quick trip upstairs takes you over to a dance studio upstairs where visiting artists teach dance and yoga. I've been taking advantage of the space by starting my day with African dance aerobics and yoga before teaching poi for two hours. It's an exhausting but fun morning. Many of the performers at Sarakasi have learned enough poi to perform with, so we've been focusing on partner poi. I'll also confess I've taken to teaching the same techniques two different ways at Sarakasi and Kibera as an experiment to see which shortcuts work the best.
Getting around in Nairobi is an interesting combination of always being on guard and enjoying the exoticism of the city. Travelers frequently nickname the city "Nairobbery" for it's volume of thieves and con artists. My first day here, in fact, I was nearly robbed getting off a bus as one man tried to block Will's and my passage while another unzipped our backpacks looking for valuables as we tried to get past the first man. Fortunately they didn't get anything and it has been the one and only incident here so far *knock on wood*. The city is also on edge as the entire country is scheduled to vote whether to adopt a new constitution on Wednesday. The last time Kenya went to the polls was in 2007 when men from rival tribes ran for president and the election results--widely believed to have been rigged--resulted in widespread violence between members of the two tribes. Many were displaced or killed. There are fears this constitution vote could also result in violence, but nobody I've talked to believes it is likely. Nonetheless, most of the city will be closed down on Wednesday in case the worst happens.
We've been managing to get out and have some fun here, too. Over the weekend, Will, his wife Jacky, and I went to visit the city park and spent most of the afternoon spinning poi. As we came back into downtown to catch the bus home, we came upon a huge concert in the city square to promote peace among Kenyan youth. We spun some poi to some of the most popular musicians in Kenya.
Overall it's amazing to be here. Poi has had a huge positive effect on my life and I feel so totally privileged to be given the opportunity to share it with the children here. I'll try to post some photos and video soon, but for now I'm signing off. This is Drex coming at you from the heart of Kenya. More soon.