featured image © Monika Pizzichemi 2016
We have now been in Nairobi for a little over one week, and the time has gone by slowly and quickly. The first day we arrived, I was anxious to see all the people that I’ve waited a full year to see––good friends and incredible artists whose company I have missed, kids at Shangilia and Banjuka who are challenging and wonderful and loud and smiley. We arrived on a Friday and spent Saturday taking care of groceries and other bits of business. Seeing all the same scenery took me back to the mental place I was in the last time I was here; all I thought about was the fun I had with the people I met, and how much I wanted to see them again.
However, we wouldn’t be starting our tap workshop until the weekend was over, and we had other things to take care of. On Sunday we had a “tap dancing tour of Mathare” lined up. I didn’t quite know what this meant, but it was happening either way, so I would just have to come along and find out. We would be joined by our friend Mwas, who is from Mathare and still lives there. It’s a place I’ve heard a lot about but never seen: it’s a major slum of Nairobi, and it’s home to hundreds of thousands of people living in informal settlements (squatters). On the way there we were stopped by a policeman who asked for our IDs and said he would have to take us to the station when Stefanie didn’t have hers. This didn’t really faze me that much because I knew Nairobi policemen were corrupt and he only stopped us because we were white and he was looking for a bribe. After explaining to him why we were here, showing him our tap shoes, and giving him a little money, we went on to our destination. Once there I was immediately VERY aware of my whiteness, due to the stares we were garnering and the fact that people there live very differently than I do. I was feeling a lot of the same things I felt during my first week here last year: fear of doing or saying something wrong and making locals hate me, discomfort in my own skin, wondering if I’m even doing the right thing by being here. But I tried to suppress these feelings, telling myself that I’m a big girl and Nairobi can’t scare me anymore, and while I may not know if being here is the right thing, I am here, and there’s no backing out now.
The first thing we did upon arrival was buy some pieces of plywood to dance on. Now I understood what dancing tour meant: we were going to tap dance on the street. Really?? As if we weren’t getting enough attention just for being white? Now we have to perform? Okay, I guess we’re really doing this. We bought the wood and parked the car, then proceeded to walk quite a ways because the streets are too narrow for cars. Because Mathare is an informal settlement, there aren’t really any trash removal or sewage systems in place. I was glad I had closed toed shoes. We reached an intersection that had a decent amount of foot traffic and we put our boards down. I was nervous. I haven’t been tap dancing a lot over the past year, with the exception of some sessions with Stef in December to prepare for this trip. I told myself that I know this dance well and even if I mess up a couple times no one will know anyway. We started dancing, and lots of little kids came round to stare at us. I like how little kids don’t know yet that it’s rude to stare; you always know right away if something interests them. Once we finished the dance, we asked if any of them would like to try it out (we brought a small selection of tap shoes with us for this purpose). Not surprisingly, they were all very shy at first, but one was eager to try. We gave him shoes and he was pretty good. After seeing one of their peers dancing, they all started asking me for shoes. It was chaos, just like it always is when handing out shoes, but it was better than I expected. They all shared well and the bigger kids helped the little kids put on shoes––it was nice to watch. Once the kids got more comfortable with us, adults started to gather to watch what their kids were doing, and they seemed to enjoy the tap dancing as well. Okay, now we’re getting into the swing of things. It felt like the ice was broken, and we were starting to make a connection with these people through movement. I was reminded why I do this.
After performing on the street corner with the kids, we went on to visit Mama Mercy at the Good Samaritan Children’s Home. Mama Mercy runs the orphanage, and she is fantastic. I’ve heard a lot about her, and I pictured her to be this elderly, matronly figure who wraps herself up in scarves and acts as the grandmother of practically every child in Mathare. While she is a guardian to a lot of children, she is by no means old. She is vibrant and gregarious and welcoming and laughs a lot, and she was wearing an orange-red dress. We went into her office and talked about the orphanage, then she gave us a tour. Upstairs is a room that is being turned into a library, and they have an interesting selection of books that were almost definitely donated by white people, as some of them have very little cultural relevance to these kids. But irrelevant books are better than no books I suppose. We were then led to a room that functions as a kitchen/sitting room with a stove, a few chairs and table. Mama insisted that we stay for tea. Monika and Stefanie were not very keen on the idea of drinking tea due to sensitive stomachs, but they didn’t want to be rude, so I told them I would drink their tea. All that tea. It was like Christmas. It may have been the best tea I’ve ever had. (It had rosemary in it––curveball, right??)
Also in this room was a mattress situated in the corner, where a few babies were sleeping. At a certain point the women who were looking after them picked them up and offered them to us to hold. The one I was holding was named Emmanuel, and he was so tiny and he looked up at me with such big eyes. I pictured him growing up to be an outstanding soccer player and getting famous because of it and raising a lot of money for the Good Samaritan Children’s Home. Who knows what’s actually in store for this kid, but I hope he grows up happy.
After I drank my weight in tea and we said goodbye to all the little ones and to Mama Mercy, we were headed to Baba Dogo to visit Simon and Jackson, who teach dance at the Banjuka Project. Simon was there to greet us when we arrived, and it felt like everything that I was so impatient for was finally starting to fall into place. We went inside to the office, and Jackson was there too as well as some people who teach music there. We caught up on what’s been going on over the past year, and I laughed a lot. I missed these guys. I felt warm and happy.
That is where I will conclude this blog post, though there are many many more stories to be told, not all of which will fit into these pages. This post of mine, much like the highly anticipated reunion of friends, seemed to take a long time to arrive––but now that it’s here, I hope the subsequent ones follow fast, as the reunions of the past week have done. Please leave your thoughts if you wish, and I hope you’ll continue to join us on our journey in Nairobi.