The great Kenya adventure, Part 5

It's Friday afternoon in Mombasa. I surface in the Indian Ocean just off Nyali Beach, North of the city. The weather could not be more perfect: lazy clouds hang at the edges of the horizon as an unobstructed sun shines down on a seemingly endless corridor of white sandy beach. Three British tourists attempt to learn to windsurf several yards further out to see without much luck. Next to me floats Martin, one of the first street children who started working with Will when he created the Motomoto Circus School. Martin has now performed regularly for just over a year and has essentially become my guide around Mombasa as I teach him bits and pieces of more advanced poi technique.

We are guests of the Nyali resort for part of the afternoon. Martin came to try and negotiate a show here and while the entertainment manager was interested, could not offer anything until peak tourist season in November or December. He tells us to make ourselves at home at the resort, most likely hoping we will stay for lunch or buy drinks. Instead we hop into the waves and take a few minutes to enjoy the nearly deserted beach before departing.

A 20 minute walk nearly straight inland from the resort and we come to a village on the outskirts of Kongowea. It is here that Will has launched another program: Eco-pesa. Will has spent the past several months getting a check printer in Nairobi to print out just over 2,000 bills of an experimental currency which will only work in this small village and which currently more than 80 local businesses accept as legal tinder. Similar programs have been launched in communities in Massachusetts and Brazil with the goal of retaining capital within communities rather than exclusively use the national currency, which more frequently flows out of the community and prevents it from amassing much capital. In Brazil it was used to pay people to pick up trash and was wildly successful in helping to clean up these small communities.

The program here is only a week old, but results are positive already. Will and the team at Eco-ethics have planned an afternoon celebration to introduce the currency to the community and field questions from community leaders. In the 20 minutes it has taken us to walk here, we have gone from ultra-posh resort to rural slums where garbage drifts through the streets and buildings have an improvised and unpredictable layout just like Kibera. It is amazing to me that these two extremes of poverty and wealth lie so near each other.

We find a large tent set up in the huge field next to the Eco-pesa offices with a large soundsystem blasting Kenyan favorites to everyone within earshot. Will tells me each song has a unique dance to it and I notice the children who herd near the speakers slightly changing the frequency and timing of their child-dance hops to accommodate the way I'm sure adults would dance these songs. Martin and I take up camera duty, documenting the event. Everyone is having a lovely time.

Before long a song hits the speakers that everyone cheers wildly for. The hops of the children reach a fever pitch and large clouds of dust begin to rise around their waists. I can make out little of the song other than the hook at the end of the chorus, “It's time for Africa!” Everyone sings along word-for-word and I video the children as they careen around wildly, screaming the chorus at the top of their lungs. It is one of my favorite moments in this entire trip. I'm later told it was the official World Cup song and that it is performed by Shakira. Throughout the rest of my trip I hear random people singing it to themselves wherever I go.

After the music dies down, we sit down in a large circle and business owners and tribal leaders discuss the currency. Many worry that businesses will stop accepting the bills. Others had hoped that they would be offered loans through the program. Everyone seems to like the idea of the program, however. Something about having currency that belongs to just your community seems to make these people very proud. Discussions in the circle go on far past my ability to try and sort out what's being said from body language as my Swahili is restricted to terms important to teaching poi. An economics vocabulary in this language I most definitely do not have. Will and his compatriots at Eco-ethics laugh frequently at the questions they are asked and despite drawing out for an absurdly long time the meeting has a very light-hearted air. We wrap up and head home. Eco-pesa is officially launched.


My first day here in Mombasa was a whirlwind. Poi lessons here are taught through a local youth center that includes a small dance studio, a cybercafe, and a small TV lounge where people can hang out and chat. I met Martin here at 8 am and he quickly whisked me off to see Fort Jesus (that's really it's name, I kid you not) and Old Town, the most famous tourist attractions in Mombasa proper. Mombasa has a vastly longer history than Nairobi, having changed hands a half-dozen times between the Portuguese, Arabs, and local African tribes many many times in the course of its history. Where Nairobi is cosmopolitan, dense, and hurried, Mombasa is relaxed, meandering, and diffuse.

Will and Jacky have just rented a new apartment here. It is a two-bedroom flat in a relatively quiet neighborhood where South Asian neighbors downstairs entertain a small cluster of children and there is a grassy courtyard for me to do morning Tai Chi in. There is no running water, unfortunately, and in the week we stay there I become proficient at giving myself showers using a basin of water and a small pitcher. Local water merchants dot the street pulling carts full of water jugs. We buy our potable water at a small duka, or cornerstore a block away. We awaken to the cries of tropical birds I've only ever heard in zoos and go to sleep under mosquito nets in sweltering, sweaty heat. Mombasa is definitely in the tropics.

It is customary to call older women “Mama” as a term of respect here. Will and I eat at a cafe just a few yards away from our building where the matron fusses over her two Mzungu charges like a mother hen in a way that makes me instantly comfortable referring to her with this term. “Asante, Mama!” we call whenever we leave, “Thank you!.” “Karibu,” she returns in that matter-of-fact way all mothers do when their wild children leave to play for the afternoon, “You're welcome.”

Though my poi instruction here is infinitely less structured, it's also a lot more fun an improvised as I'm never sure when or where we will stop for a lesson. We take frequent videos of both Martin and I performing in many exotic locales for the inevitable compilation video when I return to the states. I've straight-up given up on uploading video here as it is too time-consuming and too costly. One day we practice in Uhuru Park in front of a giant concrete map of Africa. Another we practice in the courtyard adjoining Fort Jesus, another on a beautiful beach.

On Saturday night a chance meeting with a young Burner named Stephanie who it turns out knows one of my poi students from back in DC gives us the opportunity to go teach poi to an orphanage she works at in Likoni. We make the trek across the ferry to the south (every other way in to Mombasa can be entered by bridge—we remark many times on this seemingly bizarre oversight) to meet Stephanie on the other side. We grab a ride down the road on a tuk-tuk, a method of transportation I can only describe as a go-kart and a motorcycle slapped together into a type of taxi. They are easily my favorite method of getting around but can be expensive inside Mombasa. Here, however, they charge by the passenger like the matatus do on the island and are much more commonly used.

When we rendezvous with the children I find to my delight that they are the same age range as my favorite students back in Nairobi. Martin apparently has been here to teach before but only one of his previous students is currently here. We trek down to the beach with a small motley crew of bouncing children, poi instructors, and adult volunteers. It turns out the orphanage gets volunteers from many different programs and we meet people from Ireland, Germany, and England among them.

We come to a gorgeous complex of buildings with a glade of palm trees at their center and a large concrete area that houses tables, benches, and what looks like a four-square and hopscotch pattern painted into the ground. The beach rests thirty feet away and a cool breeze flows in from the Indian Ocean. “Is this where we're going?” I ask in astonishment to Stephanie. “Yep!” she replies, “we're here!” I stare is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, let alone taught at.

Martin and I go through several basics with the orphans, including a reel turn, butterfly, and the basic steps to a 3-beat-weave. One of the other supervisors has brought a soccer ball and within an hour we find much to our chagrin that the kids have taken the sand bags out of their sock poi and are instead running around wearing the socks as they play soccer. We hold on to a few engaged holdouts, but the class definitely has a more relaxed air than those I've taught in Kibera or Sarakasi. Stephanie invites us back the next day and I eagerly take her up on the offer.

When we return the children are much more focused and we are able to get most of them performing these basic tricks before we lose them to the soccer pitch. Our dedicated holdouts have doubled and many have taken up the challenge of the weave. One young man, Emmanuel, is referred to by the supervisors affectionately as “Emo” has been working on the weave for nearly an hour and continues to be dogged by the notion of always keeping one arm crossed under the other. I work it through for him in several different ways, taking him through the motions by piloting his hands, having him perform the move without poi in his hands, and explaining which elements of the motion he is still missing. He knits his brow in concentration and keeps on working at it. As children drift off and back, I stick with him to help him through. I see his left wrist snap under his right in a way it wasn't before and my eyes grow wide.

“Yes,” I say, nearly whispering, as though anything louder would scare off the timid creature before me. He does it again.

“Yes!” I exclaim a little louder. He locks in and he's got it. It's wobbly and his body is contorted around his hands in a way that can't be comfortable, but he's got it.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! YES!” I finally shout. All eyes turn in confusion. Emo's face breaks out into a toothy grin and he laughs as he repeats the move over and over again, occasionally tangling, but he is always able to find his way back. I give him a high-five and my customary praise, “wei WEI!”

As we pack up to leave I notice Emo off on his own, still practicing the weave to get it down fully. There has been no input from myself or any other adult in several minutes. In short, he is hooked. I smile and feel satisfied in a way I can barely describe.


My last night in town we put on a fire show for all of our friends at a small part adjoining a local mosque. The volunteers from the orphanage are here, as are a small circle of ex-pats Will knows from his Peace Corps days and a handful of passers-by of various types. We have borrowed a large drum from a local organization that teaches kids acting, singing, and dance called SAFE and our MC is a crazy local Rasta man Will knows who rents out an island for small parties. We have nearly a liter of paraffin to burn through tonight and we're all bursting at the seams.

A local flesher opens the show, performing with a reckless aplomb that I rarely see in the States. He clearly has spent more time in front of crowds than any of us and the crowd loves him. He breathes fire over and over again without a towel to wipe himself off with, kerosene drenching his upper body like a runner after a marathon. He finishes up and Martin joins his two frequent collaborators to spin some partner poi and do some solos. A small crew of street kids has showed up and clap and chant to the fire. They are more engaged than any crowd I've ever seen at a fire show, circling each performer and egging them on. I perform a quick solo, trying to make use of the round space and the enthusiasm of the crowd. I know this will be my last time spinning fire in Kenya and I try to make it a performance worthy of the occasion. Last night Will and I did an impromptu fire show for our downstairs neighbors and my last set that night was something truly special. I'm hoping to top it here, but quickly chide myself for focusing on such things and try to enjoy the moment. The clapping crowd and chants of the Rasta man and above all the warm African breeze and amazed faces looking at us with wonder.

We close out the evening with all three of the boys and myself dancing together underneath the dome that serves as our performance space, walking around the edge of the circle entertaining the audience. When we began, evening prayers at the mosque next to this park were winding up. It is the month of Ramadan and many of the men praying there haven't eaten all day and are ready to break their fast. Nonetheless, they stop by and watch the flames dance around the dome.

When finally the flames die out, we pack up all our pieces and make sure everyone knows where they're going. I help Martin drag the huge drum back to the youth center for safe-keeping. He will return it to SAFE tomorrow. I meet up with Will and the volunteers from the orphanage for a final beer before heading home. Later Will chats with me about the performance: “Do you realize we had Kenyans there from multiple tribes, Christians, and Muslims all watching us perform?”

“How often do those groups come together like that here?” I ask.

“They don't,” he replies emphatically, “that doesn't happen here.”#

I smile...people from the United States, Ireland, Germany, Kenyans of the Luo and Kikuyu tribes, born-again Christians and devout Muslims all sharing the joy of watching fire performance in the middle of East Africa. We truly have something special here.


So now I'm back in Nairobi. This is sadly my last day in Kenya as I fly out at 11 tonight, though I will get a chance to see the Kibera kids again this afternoon for one last send-off (I'm already promising myself not to cry). Kenya swears in a new constitution today and I wish I'd gone to Uhuru Park this morning to see the ceremony, but Will and I were too exhausted from the bus ride back to Nairobi yesterday. People have flocked here en masse for it and the streets have become unnavigable, but it did give me a chance to sit down and write out the conclusion of my adventures. I hope you've enjoyed reading them...I know I've enjoyed sharing them.

A big thanks goes out to the DC burner community, Jkanizzle, and my folks for helping to fund my trip here. Burners Without Borders and Carmen for making the trip possible and for connecting me with the resources necessary to make it happen. Home of Poi and Fire Mecca for the hardware we've given to the kids on this trip. Will Ruddick and his wonderful wife Jacky for hosting, feeding, and guiding me around in my time here. Will again for creating a wonderful, magical program here in Kenya that is changing lives. My wonderful girlfriend Debbi for managing the shipping of much of the hardware, her administrative know-how, and for her endless support of my quixotic and unpredictable quests. The children of Kibera hamlets, Sarakasi, and Mombasa for giving me such a wonderful and life-changing experience. And finally to all of you for us keep this program alive by visiting it on the web at and donating a couple bucks to keep the kids here in kevlar and fuel.

Asante :)

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