The great Kenya Adventure, Part 3

For just over two weeks we've drilled and run new concepts. We've played with choreo and fine-tuned what we already have. I can teach until I turn blue in the face, but ultimately what will prove the mettle for any performer is a big crowd and all the crazy uncertainty it brings. It can turn shy, introverted wallflowers into dynamic giants or leave outgoing extroverts weeping in embarrassment. Ultimately, you never know entirely who you are as a performer until you hit that stage.

As it so happens, both of the groups I have been teaching in Nairobi are performing the same weekend. Sarakasi on Friday night and the Kibera hamlets on Saturday. The two gigs could not be more different: Sarakasi has been hired to be the entertainment for a private wedding while the hamlets kids are going to have an impromptu performance in the middle of an open field in Kibera, guerilla-style.

Each group has had a piece of choreography prepared for it. For Sarakasi, it is a poi piece for two of the girls accented by two of the boys fleshing and fire breathing. The rehearsals are grueling...we have been given only four days to prepare and the original plan is for the boys to be performing poi as well, but the first day they walk in it is clear they have never touched a set. Faced with the uncertainty of getting them set for performance in only four days we remove them from the poi piece mostly out of concern for safety. The remaining two girls will have to hold up the poi dance entirely on their own.

The performance training exaggerates the normal ebb and flow of practice, with minor personality differences resulting in big clashes and the intense focus leading to rapid breakthroughs. For every look of skepticism I'm given regarding a complex piece of choreography, there is either a sweat-soaked victory or a compromise, pushing us minute by minute to filling our slot. The girls practice on their own in between our classes and and bits of choreography here and there. I give suggestions when appropriate, but in the end to make our time nothing is cut. There are bits of partner poi, mirrored and opposing movements, dance, and the ubiquitous back-to-back buzzsaw that I love to hate but is too much of a staple to be avoided. On Thursday, we tech the performance with fire and to my great shock it is the first time on fire for one of the girls. After a minute of awkward shuffling with the fire, her muscle memory kicks back in and she completes the routine flawlessly. The mind-numbing hours have paid off!

James, who has booked the gig, asks me to arrive at 5 on Friday to come support the group. Friday is generally my day off, so I come into town and practice for a few hours in the city park before making the trek to the Sarakasi Dome.

Sarakasi is a wonder of artistry, generosity, and fun. The product of a massive donation from the Dutch, it is a full-sized circus training center and dance studio located a half an hour's walk from the town center. Inside is a mish-mash of acrobats, jugglers, dancers, and other performers. All come for what I believe are free classes in their particular arts and have the affect of many of the urban dancers I've met back in the United States. I teach here in the mornings, after joining the students for an aerobics class based in African dance (needless to say, as a 6-foot-tall white guy among dancers and acrobats, I REALLY stand out in the class) and yoga. The workout is intense, but I've never felt in better shape.

On Friday as I come in it's clear that things are already abustle: my four performers and feverishly searching for costumes and fire equipment. The pre-performance panic has already set in and the kids are wound up tightly. We leave Sarakasi less than five minutes after I arrive. As it turns out the call time is only in a half hour, leaving little time to walk to the venue: the Nairobi National Museum.

Outside we pool empty soda bottles and money to buy the night's paraffin (kerosene). When the kids return both 300 ml bottles are only half full and I eye them skeptically. How long are they performing again? We dash madly to the Western side of Nairobi, where it's more affluent citizens dwell. As we climb up the hill towards the museum, construction equipment lines the roads for a planned remodeling of a bridge over a small creek. The dust is so thick in the air a light brown haze falls over everything.

I've been battling a cold for the past two days and am in the process of losing my voice. Needless to say, the dust is not at all helpful in that regard. Halfway up the hill we find the entrance to the museum. A laughably inaccurate sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus stands watch over the small parking circle at the entrance. Sonniah, one of the performers, leans over and asks me if dinosaurs really grew that big. I realize with a start that she has never set foot inside the museum itself. I smile and confirm to her that indeed, reptiles of that size once roamed Africa and the entire world.

When we reach the massive courtyard adjacent to the museum, we find preparations have already begun in earnest with large stretches of tables trimmed with lace filling a large tiled area next to the museum's entrance. A white stage stands amid the close tables as though cut out with a cookie cutter and it is here we figure they are intended to perform. James has not arrived yet, so we amuse ourselves by practicing poi in a nearby garden. The camera comes out and the tension evaporates into smiles. It is just before dusk when James arrives and he has not had a chance to meet with the wedding coordinator. After waiting for him for thirty minutes, we mark out the stage to figure out where places during the performance need to be. We discover the firebreathers must stay at least halfway back to have an acceptable clearance from the streamers hung above. I laugh at the thought of bringing together the streamers, lace, and gossamer materials of a wedding together with the rough-hewn edges of fire performance.

The performers go to change and finally the wedding coordinator arrives to inform us all of our preparations have been wasted: he intends for the kids to perform in a large entrance path in front of the museum. Not in the reception area at all. By now it has gotten dark and guests are set to arrive within the hour. The quasi-panic sets back in as we rush to make the equipment ready. The kids are to fill an hour's time and as predicted there is nowhere near enough kerosene to go around. We reckon James and I will head out to get some more once the performance has started.

The boys wrap small dowels with reams of Kenyan cotton for their fleshing and fire-eating routines. The local cotten is so cheap it is apparently more cost effective for them to make single-use wicks than invest in kevlar ones. The girls dip their poi and the hour for them to start steadily makes its way to us. After a few photographs of the kids in costume, it is time to start.

The space is so awkward and the need to adapt to the path of the guests so necessary that the idea of using the choreography we have worked on all week is dropped almost immediately. Nonetheless, I notice snippets of the choreo appearing as both of the girls improvise their way around the arriving guests. The boys are happy to just fire breath every chance they get.

We notice a man filling up tiki torches along the edges of the entrance and are in luck: he has a massive container filled with kerosene! We ask if we can use his excess fuel once he's done filling the torches and he agrees. We watch the kids perform for perhaps 15 minutes before we run to collect the fuel but are stopped in our tracks: the torches took all of it up. Realizing the kids will be out of fuel within the next 5 minutes if not their current burn, James shifts into problem-solving mode and leaps to action with the empty can in hand.

We rush out toward the street and flag the first matatu we find. Nairobi is filled with these Nissan and Volkswagen minibuses that are somewhere between taxis and buses. Each has a route though they frequently deviate from them and many are tricked out like Burning Man art cars with massive sound systems and neon decorations inside. They are the transportation of choice for Nairobi's urban youth and are completely unregulated, so a ride could cost you anywhere between 200 and 20 shillings.

As we drop into town with the dub throbbing through powerful subwoofers, James stays alert for any sign of a gas station. Kerosene here is used as a cooking fuel, so it is available at many gas stations and dedicated kerosene fill stations. Knowing what I do about the awful smoke and soot this fuel generates, I try hard to avoid thinking about the effect it must be having on the lungs of Kenyans when they cook with it. After asking the matatu's money-taker a few times if there are any gas stations along their route, we finally hop out and the search on foot begins. I don't have the slightest idea where we are.

Earlier in the evening, James had been saying that he wished to take me out to see Nairobi at night, comparing it to Las Vegas in both its seediness and vitality. I find he was not joking. I swear every adult in Nairobi must be up and wandering these neon-saturated streets. "When do they sleep?" I ask James. "I don't think they do...not on the weekends, at least," he replies. I find the legendary traffic jams I cope with on my daily commutes for the city are merely a preparation for the evening traffic in which cars and matatus have become the walls of a cruel maze as they grind to a halt and we hop, squeeze, and push are way through and between them. Calls of "Hey, John!" and "Hey, Mzungu (foreigner)!" ring out around me as I try desperately to keep pace with James. We visit one, two, three gas stations, striking out each time. We ask taxi drivers for directions to the next ones, hoping that they will yield a friendly pump.

Finally we find a gas station with a pump for kerosene tucked quietly into one corner of the lot. A hunched old woman with features like a twisted oak gnaws on a piece of sugarcane as she points us to the pump. James pushes his way into the short line to fill up. We have been gone for more than twenty minutes and it is then we remember that the performers have given me their cell phones for safe-keeping while they perform. They have no way to contact us or even divine where we have disappeared to. We push our way back to the end of the heavy crowds and grab a taxi back to the museum. James sends me in as he pays the cabbie and I bound up the back stairs with the large tank of paraffin. By now I am coughing heavily and my voice has the texture of granite on sandpaper. "I have fuel!" I croak as loudly as I can.

"Where did you go?!" an astonished Sonniah inquires as she makes out my face. The other performers quickly queue with a sigh of relief and dive in for the last ten minutes of their set. They have been burning the entire time.

"How?" I ask in puzzlement.

"Terry started running around to the torches when nobody was looking and draining some of the fuel out of them for us to light up with," Sonniah replies, referring to the other young woman she is performing with. I laugh in admiration and exhaustion. I always have a soft spot for ingenious solutions to problems.

I take a spot near the entrance and snap photo after photo of the performers before their time is done. The guests are moving into the museum's courtyard to begin eating, so at this point the kids are really just performing for themselves. They strike poses for me and admire the results in my camera. All want to see them posted to Facebook as soon as possible. I laugh.

The hour of completion sounds and the kids retire to pack up their equipment. I have a taxi on the way to pick me up and take me home as I've heard the bus can be dangerous after hours. I'm so proud of the kids, both for turning in a great performance in less than perfect circumstances and for the ingenious ways they've kept the performance going. We share quick hugs and I return cell phones. A few last photos are snapped and I tell the kids I'll see them on Monday. Sonniah cracks me a big, toothy grin. It has been her first time performing and I give her a big hug and tell her she did amazingly. Terry leads me to the parking lot and I clambor exhausted into the back seat before being whisked back home. I find the power is out and I collapse into bed for a deep, sound sleep.

Next time: Kibera performs!

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4
Read Part 5

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