The Great Kenya Adventure, Part 4

Saturday morning: last night was a magical mystery tour with Sarakasi and James. Today it's the hamlets kids we're going to teach. Will Ruddick has been on a bus from Mombasa all night and arrives before I wake up in the morning. There is a package waiting for us at the Post Office in town--the last pieces from the United States we need for the program. Already we've gotten a 100 foot roll of 2" wide kevlar, 40 high-quality fishing swivels, and 40 quick links. The hardware goes so fast as we build, so though all the numbers seem high, we're still budgeting appropriately. It took nearly 3 weeks for the first order to come in and the hassle of getting materials into the country makes getting additional pieces if we count wrong daunting at best.

Will and Jacky take pity on my very very sick self and head into town to do business with the Post Office while I take my time waking up and getting moving. I appreciate the extra time and make myself a delicious omelette to start my day. I head into town to meet up with Will and Jacky at their favorite pizza place located just inside downtown Nairobi. The insane crowds from the previous night have subsided, thankfully, but Nairobi even on a vacant day makes DC look positively deserted.

Here in downtown you see vastly more tourists than you would out in Jamhuri where Will and Jacky live. Sandwiched next to the downtown Hilton, the crowd is a hodgepodge of businesspeople, tourists, hucksters, street merchants, and others I dare not ask the purpose of. Walking down the street you are guaranteed to be pushing past someone on a cracked sidewalk saturated with the yellowish-tan dust that blankets the city and surrounding regions.

When Will and Jacky meet me, there is bad news: the package has marked on it the actual value of the items shipped in it, which is around $200. They Post Office wants 9000 Kenyan Shillings for it, or roughly $50 to put it through customs. Much of which is clearly a bribe. We resolve to contest the price and return on Monday.

We come up with a game plan for making poi on the way home: we have the swivels, quicklinks, and kevlar, so construction will proceed as planned. The missing package has split-rings and 1" wide kevlar for moonblaze-style heads in it, which we were intending to make on the coast as an experiment anyway. A local U-shaped metal piece held together with a screw is substituted for our missing split rings and we head into Kibera to start building poi. It is around 2 in the afternoon.

Cathedral heads have never been my favorite, but the kids are absolutely transfixed by the origami of the fold. Many of their adult teachers jump in and as I demonstrate the proper folding techniques, many rush ahead thinking they know the next step and when they proudly show me their work, I admonish them and show them the step they missed when they weren't paying attention. The children have a good laugh at the expense of their minders and the adults go back to the drawing board. We need to make 5 sets of poi for tonight and the heads are being churned out at a rapid rate.

Adoli, our contact in hamlets, is sent off to retrieve chain. The local chain is a standard oval link without twists. It is heavy, but also welded so it is very safe. Unfamiliar with metric, I ask for half-meter lengths for the poi and Adoli is off. Meanwhile we jump into the very unpleasant task of driving the central eye-bolt into the heads without the long Phillips head screwdriver I'm used to using. At our disposal is a short Phillips, a long regular head, and a pair of scissors. We spend hours digging, twisting, prying, and tearing our way through the heads. I resolve never ever to make cathedral heads without a screwdriver of this type ever again. By the end my thumbs have blistered sores rising out of their flesh.

Adoli returns with the chain and we set to work putting together the heads with the chain to complete our poi sets. I spin the first set victoriously and soon discover that a half a meter long chain is far too long for even me. It is close to 4 now and sundown is approaching. Our show must be early in the evening as Kibera gets progressively more and more dangerous as the night wears on. As it is, the children will require an escort home after the show.

We resolve to make do with the chains as they are. As the last sets are completed, the five children who have occasionally been separated out as the most advanced spinners practice the piece they intend to do tonight: a complex piece for five based upon a piece of choreo I wrote for conclave last year, padded to add space and time for each performer to solo. I love that they've jumped into this without any prompting and I jump in to froggily count along with them. They're quite comfortable with all the choreo leading up to the solos, but coming back together after them is proving a challenge. We work through this section a few more times as the poi sets are completed and it's time to do a test run.

We depart with a fistful of poi for an old shed right next to a set of railroad tracks running through Kibera. We attract much attention as we walk. Our motley crew of two Americans, several adults, and a small herd of children work our way amid the shantytown. One of the children is sent for paraffin as we arrive at the shed. It's the first time I've seen the interior of it. Hugging the ground, it is a low structure made of corrugated steel with a trickle of sewage running underneath one corner that is mercifully dry currently. This is where Will taught poi for the first year and it's so tiny I can't imagine more than two people spinning in it simultaneously.

The children begin spinning the brand new poi, clearly excited for the evening's activities. They test the length and we find that in some cases the poi are nearly as long as they are tall. They shorten the poi considerably by wrapping them around their hands and find them more manageable. Fuel arrives, but we are in need of a "chupa," a bottle with the top cut out to be used as a fuel dump. The minutes stretch on and we trade some tricks outside the shed. The sun is beginning to set. We realize soon that there is no time left to go through a trial run. The children will have to perform the routine for the first time on fire in front of a crowd.

We walk across the railroad tracks to a large open field of bare ground where a volleyball game is currently being played. The children put down large bags of costumes to begin to get read on the benches of a nearby building. I look up to read the sign and discover to my amusement that it is a blacksmith. Twilight is setting in and in an effort to have as many kids as possible perform, they all don costumes and perform an acrobatic routine as an opening act. A small collection of drums is laid out surrounding one of the adults, skin tom-toms that it seems all the children intuitively know how to play with delicious polyrhythms.

The children begin their tumbling and stacking. One shrieks "Africa! Africa!" every several seconds as if to punctuate the imaginary measures of the drums. Walking along this patch of ground every day I know it is full of discarded corn cobs, broken glass, and discarded plastic. The children are performing barefoot and I wince slightly every time they tumble across the ground. They do this frequently, however, and clearly know how to avoid injury even in the dark.

When the tumbling routine is complete, we fill up the chupa and fuel the poi. The wicks are fresh, so the kids are in for a long performance indeed. We spin out onto the ground behind the blacksmith before handing the poi to the children. We light them and suddenly it seems as if the whole of Kibera has come out onto the field to watch.

The kids jump backward from each other as the flames leap across their wicks, laughing in delight. For some this is their first time on fire and to avoid the heat of the flames they instinctively begin swinging them at their sides. The others join in and in mere seconds any thought of performing choreo disappears. What to do instead? Let's scare the crowd!

Two of the smaller children bound toward the crowd and the children in the front row shriek and run backwards, sure they'll be burned. Many of the adults, despite trying to maintain a cool demeanor likewise jump back. Rosemary, the sole girl among these five runs back and forth before the crowd, a wide-open grin making the top of her head appear to be a phantom bobbing above her animated body.

She and another child, Albert, nearly collide near the left side of the crowd. One of the adults is there with my flipcam and the two nearly run straight into her. I breathe a sigh of relief even as I salivate over how fun it must have looked on the camera. Amos, my star pupil, is running through a series of waistwraps, giants, windmills, and crossers (which he has just mastered this afternoon) to fascinated gasps from the audience. Cyrus, the big brother of the group at 16, is performing thread-the-needles and hip reels.

As poi after poi wink out, the kids move progressively closer and closer to the audience, hoping to take the limelight just for a second before their poi are gone. In the end, Amos has the last poi and it winks out in a smokey spiral and the field goes dark.

Will and I have been asked to spin as well and have been fueling as the children wrap up. Will is using a rope dart and a random poi we find has no mate while I have my poi from home. Will goes up first and cycles through the weaves and watermills he's been teaching the children for the last year. It's a challenge for him to keep the dart the same length as the poi, but I doubt anyone in the audience knows the difference. After a couple minutes I light up and we perform tunnels together to acclaim from the audience. Will soon winks out and I take a slow solo, working back and forth along the front line of the audience. I pop an orbital and the children behind me go wild, dancing around wildly and chanting loudly in encouragement. The flames die down and the crowd thunders applause. Will estimates the crowd may have numbered up to a thousand.

We quickly pack up and Adoli hurriedly guides us home. It's only 8, but definitely later than we'd like to be out. When we arrive home, we're straight to bed. Will barely slept the night before and I'm still sick. We watch the video before bed, however, and both express pride on the skills of the kids. It's been a very good night indeed.


Two days later it is time to say goodbye. I'm bound for Mombasa and have my last classes at both Sarakasi and Kibera on the same day. I show the Sarakasi kids all the silly things I normally don't teach, including under the legs stuff and throws. They ask me for a small performance which I oblige them with, before they send me off in their own fashion.

They line up single-file and I climb up onto the shoulders of the first student in line, standing on their shoulders. They have me lean back and they carry me person-by-person to the end of the line. I laugh in delight--it's some of the most fun I've had here. Afterwards I see them practice a routine for performance and collect emails from the students.

At Kibera I straight up lose it. I'm crying as we say our goodbyes. I've bonded strongly with these kids and the thought that I will likely never seen some of them again is heavy in my heart. We work through a few advanced concepts and finally individual students stand up to thank me and wish me well. We tentatively make plans to get together for a send-off my last morning in Kenya on Friday, the 27th. My voice cracks as I tell them how much I'm going to miss them and after they come to shake my hand and thank me. Will and I walk home and prepare for the long bus ride to Mombasa.

Next: The Coast!

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

Your rating: None Average: 1 (15 votes)

Subscribe for updates!

* indicates required