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Touring Mathare by Tap (a visual journey)

Stefanie had an idea to tap through Mathare on the first Sunday that we were back in Nairobi. In order to do this, she needed to find flat planks of wood so we met up with our friend Mwas who took us to Kariobangi to a shop that he knew would be open.

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The wood needed to be large enough to dance on but small enough to be carried easily. The shop owner was good humored and allowed Stef to try the wood on for size.

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After four pieces of wood were found and tested out, the bargaining began…

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Stef and the shop keeper went back and forth for a while until they landed on a number which they could not get past and the deal was made.

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Mwas then lead the way for us through Mathare.

 

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An optimal spot was found at an intersection for Stef and Jojo to set down their shingles and to perform LeVaugn Robinson’s “Rhythm Routine”.

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The commotion attracted a crowd almost immediately.

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Most of the crowd that gathered were children.  Jojo all but disappeared as they reached for the tap shoes she was handing out.  It seemed like they all wanted a chance to get on the shingles and try out this new dance.

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After awhile, it was time to visit with Mama Mercy and the children at the Good Samaritan Home.  Stef and Jojo had wanted to perform for the kids there, but it was lunchtime and they didn’t want to disturb their meals.

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Instead of performing, we each had time to snuggle with some of the orphans.

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After tea, Mama Mercy insisted that Stefanie dance for her, on the big desk in her office.

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Not bad for our first active day back in Nairobi!

Thank you to Mwas and Cosmos for helping to make this day happen. 

All Photos © Monika Pizzichemi 2016

Where are we?

Our schedule is often a topic of inquiry while we are here in Nairobi. To help give people a picture of how our time weighs out, I will do a very general outline and description of our schedule.

In the mornings on weekdays and some Saturdays we go to the GoDown Arts Centre to work with a group of professional and pre-professional dancers. We have been working out of the GoDown since 2013. Each year it is a little different. The first time we had open workshops, taught some private lessons, did some interviews and got familiar with the artists and the space. The second year we pulled together a performing group and created a production that we staged at the National Theater entitled Nafasi Ya Kusafirishi Mda (The Space To Transport Time) with an experiment in Tap dance called KuTap Pamoja. Last year, the GoDown donated the space to us for our investment in the Nairobi dance community: a formal training for dancers interested in gaining more skill in basic Rhythm Tap Dance technique for teaching. This was a very organized series of Tap sessions that included film, choreography, history, technique and improvisation. We awarded 18 dancers with certificates. This year continues the evolution of our time at GoDown and we are the guests of the Choreographic Conversations group. This group started while we were here last January and consists of a handful of Nairobi-based dance artists who are looking to increase their visibility, explore their artistry, garner more local support and make new work. They sometimes invite guest choreographers to come and share their dance-making techniques, create a piece and add to the conversation. For the month of January in 2016, I am the guest artist. We show up in the morning, exchange greetings, warm-up, have technique class and then work on choreography. We are aiming to produce a show next week at the National Theater with a new original Tap dance piece inspired by the process of passing proverbs entitled Misemo (Sayings). 
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In the afternoons on weekdays we head over to Shangilia to continue our work with the kids there. My first time working with them was in December of 2012 when they were still housed in their original cramped space in the informal settlement of Kangemi. At that time, the building they are in now in Kibagare valley was in its beginning stages and they were still dealing with the squatters. Now they have a beautiful wood-floor stage, spacious dorm rooms and classrooms, a massive garden with greenhouses, chickens and rabbits and they farm tilapia. They also have the largest skateboard park in all of Kenya donated by SkateAid. They have various skateboarders come from different parts of the globe to stay and skate with the kids. The place has really grown and it will be blossoming again into a thriving performing arts hub in the near years under the direction of their new deputy director of performing arts Catherine “Liz” Enane. This is our first year working on the new stage and it is really great. We are working on more Condos Rudiments and cleaning up the Shim Sham and some Levaughn Robinson steps and Coles Stroll steps as well. They are working with some of the dancers from our training at GoDown (Alexus, Stacey and Kenanie) and this is really keeping them in the dance all year round. Our “problem” now is that there are many levels in the class, rather than just one or two. We have more tap dancers there and more are being made as we speak because the kids just keep teaching each other and the little ones stand around and watch. This is a far cry from me jumping on their rickety stage floor in 2012 and making them all giggle with curiosity over my funny shoes. Another development is that Monika is teaching photography with some of the kids this year. It is fun to explain to the dancers that their peers are taking pictures of them just like Monika always does and that this is a different kind of photographing than stopping to pose for the camera. I can see their gears turning as they think about what that means. Then we carry on the class as usual while the kids practice taking pictures. More to say, but onward I must go to the next group.

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On the weekends our standard has been going to the ACREF center (African Cultural Research and Education Foundation) to work with the Banjuka Project dancers. ACREF is located in the Baba Dogo parish of the Kariodudu estate. I first went there in January of 2012 through a former constituent of ACREF and musician Ramadham Obiero and met dancers Jackson Atulo and Simon Gathara in addition to others who were just starting the Banjuka program which includes music and dance education as well as physical therapy and other educational programs, counseling, performances and debates. I showed them some very basic Tap Dance steps and started a relationship that has turned into a very nice friendship between dancers, dance educators and performers. Now we go and work with their well established group of very young dancers teaching them Tap. This year, the kids have chosen to teach us a traditional dance of the Luo tribe called Kalapapla, which is a celebration dance. We also will be giving Banjuka 40 hand-sewn, Kenyan-made, menstrual kits from Days For Girls (see Josephine’s post about this) to the girls in our dance program and all the girls that ACREF serves on a regular basis that are in need. We are doing this in dialogue with the counselor at ACREF.

On some Saturdays and Sundays before or after ACREF we may go to GoDown for another rehearsal, or drop-in at another location. We may have to take care of other details like copies, batteries, water… or meet up with another contact to iron out details or take photos, have dinner or tea with a comrade, or go to a  relevant cultural event. We may take a walk in Karura Forest or go grocery shopping. Evenings are commonly spent catching up on details of the day, reading, writing, and prepping for the next day.

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This year we will be leaving the city for a few days to do some work outside the urban environment of Nairobi by taking two days in Nyeri introducing Mt. Kenya Academy students to Tap Dance with a demonstration for the school and rotational workshops for all classes. We have been invited by Emanuel Ashene who is a musician we did a jam session with in Nairobi last year. We also have been invited to do a workshop along with Creative Connekt at the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre and orphanage in Nyeri. In between we are trying to steal a few hours to take a peek into the Aberderes National Park.

The moments between all of this are usually spent in traffic.

Days for Girls

featured image: the selfie that I took of all of us with our menstrual kits

So far, we’ve been doing a lot of tap dancing and a lot of photographing and a lot of teaching thereof, as we do. But in addition to these things we’ve also got another project in the works: we’re partnering with a really cool organization called Days for Girls to give sustainable menstrual kits to the girls in our dance class at Banjuka. Let me tell you a little bit about Days for Girls and why I think they’re so cool:

Days for Girls provides washable menstrual kits to women and girls all over the world. This is much better than simply giving disposable pads and tampons, because a lot of the parts of the world where they work don’t have very good waste removal systems, and giving throw-away pads would a) create more waste in the neighborhoods of the people they serve, and b) leave the recipients out of luck when they run out of the supplies given. By contrast, the kits provided by Days for Girls can last up to three years if they are properly cared for.

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One of many kits we received the other day
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They have nifty drawstrings!

Days for Girls employs locals. They have individual enterprises in a lot of places, and all those enterprises need people to run the business, sew the kits, package and deliver them. People like Christine (more on her later) are able to earn a living while working for cause that they’re passionate about.

They take education seriously. When you buy menstruation kits with the intent to distribute them, Days for Girls requires you to complete an online training course that covers puberty, menstruation, sexual health, how to properly use the kits, and how we as teachers can connect with the people we’re teaching in a way that is respectful of them, instead of coming in and acting like we know everything and they know nothing. DfG has clearly spent a lot of time honing this training program, and it’s important to them that the people we’re giving the kits to are well informed. Education and understanding of our bodies helps to alleviate the stigma around a lot of women’s health issues and helps us to take better care of ourselves.

Their kits are easy to use and take into consideration the environments where they will be used. In the training program, they explain why they choose reusable pads over menstrual cups. While they highly endorse menstrual cups as a sustainable option, it’s not always possible to use them hygienically in rural areas. In addition, a lot of the places where DfG works are places that practice female genital cutting, and women who have been affected by this practice often find it painful or impossible to insert menstrual cups. Reusable pads are easy to use for everyone, and they can be washed with a little water and a bar of soap which is provided in the kit. Hanging them out in direct sunlight kills the germs–no fancy disinfectants required.

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Each kit comes with a bar of soap and washcloth, eight washable pads that can be doubled up on heavy flow days, one pair of underwear and a two waterproof shields to hold the cloth pads in place.

The way we came to be working with DfG started with a grant that Stefanie was applying for. The grant was focused on girls and women, and because our tap class at Banjuka is almost entirely girls, she decided to focus on Banjuka for the grant. When corresponding with Simon and Jackson (the teachers at Banjuka) and gathering more information for the grant, one thing they expressed a need for was reliable and consistent access to menstrual supplies for the girls. Stefanie had heard of Days for Girls years ago and decided to incorporate it into what we were doing at Banjuka. We ended up never hearing back from the grant people, but decided to go ahead with Days for Girls and we would figure out a way to pay for the kits.

The person we got the kits from is a woman named Christine, who has her own enterprise here in Nairobi. She came to our apartment around lunchtime on the Monday before last to give us the kits, and we invited her to stay and have lunch with us. She told us a little of her story: she was married at fourteen, and she couldn’t read, but she learned how to sew. Her skills as a seamstress eventually led her to Days for Girls, and with them she attended the DfG University Program in Uganda. In addition to running an enterprise, she also runs a very full household: she has children that are biologically hers as well as some that were almost literally left on her doorstep. If I recall correctly, she has five kids in total, ranging in age from very young to mid twenties. Her children help her sew and assemble the Days for Girls kits. She talked about her life and her work with such humility, saying that she thanked God for giving her this life and acting like it was nothing to care for all those children. If I could do half as much in my own life I would be happy.

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Christine sewed this! She’s a talented lady.

Towards the end of her visit she asked if we could all take a picture together (see above), and that surprised me and made me happy, because when she first arrived she was rather quiet and shy and I wasn’t sure how to connect with her. But by the end it felt like we were friends. She asked that we send her the pictures, and she showed me how to find her on facebook. I’m so glad I got to meet her, because oftentimes I find these nonprofit organizations are hard to connect with on a personal level; they send you postcards in the mail with pictures of their work, and that’s all well and good, but I don’t feel like I know the stories of the people doing the work. Days for Girls isn’t just a postcard or a website to me anymore; it’s Christine.

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Christine with her kits and Stefanie inside the bag that Christine used to carry the kits

Now that we have the kits and have completed the online training, we will be giving them out the next time we see the girls at Banjuka, which will be this Saturday. I’m sure you’ll hear all about how it went. And if my words have moved you at all, I encourage you to check out Days for Girls on their websitetheir general facebook page, and the facebook page of Christine’s enterprise. Happy menstruating!

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Update 1/24/16: We gave the girls their kits yesterday, and they love them! Many many thanks go to Naomi, the flute teacher at Banjuka Project, for her patience and her excellent explanations in Swahili (as far as I could tell) of how to use the kits after Monika explained in English. I wish them all many healthy periods.

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© Monika Pizzichemi 2016

Swahili Lessons

I’ve been trying to teach myself Swahili. Everyone here seems to speak Swahili more fluently than English, and you always learn more about a culture by learning how they structure their thoughts into words. Plus people seem to like it when I make an effort to speak Swahili, so I want to get better and actually be able to say sentences.

However, learning Swahili is turning out to not be a straightforward task. First off it’s hard to find any sort of literature on the language; I was lucky to find the last copy of a Swahili phrase book in a book store back home, but a phrase book was all I found. I was really excited to find it because it seemed much more comprehensive than the little phrase book I bought here last year. I’ve been reading it in the car, but every time I use a phrase that I’ve learned from the book, I’m told that it’s not quite correct. It seems that Kenyan Swahili is different from whatever Swahili is in this book. That frustrates me. I get that a small book can’t cover every nuance and variation of such a widespread language, but my problem with it is that it never acknowledges that you might encounter differences depending on where you are. The book simply refers to East Africans as though they’re all one homogenous culture. (Surprise surprise, right.)

So I’ve decided to take the book with a grain of salt, and to supplement it by asking people to teach me things. This is proving complicated as well. One friend told me that I should be careful not to have too many teachers, because I’ll get many conflicting lessons. He also said I should ask children instead of adults because they’re less likely to manipulate/lie to me for their own benefit or entertainment. (But are they though??) I did get a brief grammar lesson about verb tenses yesterday, and I don’t think my teacher mislead me, but I don’t really have any way of knowing.

What I really want is a workbook like the ones I had for French class in high school, so that I could at least learn the basics, but has anyone even written a workbook for Swahili? Plus, almost everyone speaks Sheng, the slang form of Swahili, which changes far more quickly than I can keep up with. It almost seems like some native speakers have trouble keeping up as well, because when I ask them how to say something they have debates about it.

I could give you some heavy handed metaphor about how I’m trying to nail down something that defies definition, and how I’m learning some broader lesson about their culture, and how I need to let go of my need to get things right and neat and correct. But that would be way too corny and awful, I’m not gonna do that. Suffice it to say that I will keep trying to learn Swahili even if I don’t know how I’ll go about it. I can tell you that I’m learning about basic nouns, and personal pronouns, and a few verb tenses. But it is far more complex than I imagined and I would have to stay here much longer to really get a grasp of how the language works. All I can do is keep listening, keep asking, and keep aware of how much I don’t know.

Anticipation

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.

Tap Root Talk (Part 1)

What is at the core of a movement? I like to start with space. Whether the movement is of the body with bones, and connective tissue and all the intricate mechanics of our biology as humans or if it is a movement that comes from a collective that initiates a change in culture or society. That latter kind of movement also involves individual values, dialogues between often passionate parties, and a dedication to a process. There are so many systems that must be acting out or put in place in order to make any kind of movement. “Space is the hidden catalyst of all movement and change,” states Jaimen McMillan, the founder and director of the Spacial Dynamics Institute. Because as humans we often focus on what is seen and heard, space is often not even considered. We see this lack of consideration everywhere: building design, cultural institution leadership, urban planning, political party organization, economics, social identities, dance class, peer groups…and so on. Space is probably the one thing we are effected by the most and have the least amount awareness of.

Now let’s talk Tap. In its most basic understanding, Tap Dance is an art form that moves the body to make sound. This is done while wearing a very specific kind of shoes and while employing a very specific kind of technique that derives from a specific amalgamation of sectors, cultures, ethnicities, struggles and stylists. Of course the story doesn’t end there. The story is never-ending. Any storyteller who professes to know the whole story is lying, in denial or sadly misled. There is no rhythm, and therefore no story, without the spaces between. Something I teach and try to remember: knowledge is power and knowledge is limited (there is always more to be had) so use your power wisely.

Tap Dance exists in so many ways for so many people. It spans a geographic space that is planetary, yet, also thrives in areas of virtual isolation. It engages a mental space that is a complex swirl of firing synapses linking many areas of the brain to one another. It can monopolize on an emotional space by temporarily uplifting a severely darkened spirit or literally bringing a dancer to her knees. It’s a shiny impression made under the bright lights of elite stages, festivals, and trending television shows that dress it in competition. It also transforms the dusty streets of a bustling slum into an intimate gathering of joyful and curious participants and watchers. Tap Dance belongs to no one. If it did we couldn’t call it an art form. We would have to call it something else.

 

 

 

 

Spoken Through The Filter Of Foot

If my foot could say what should be said here in this introductory blog post it would be simply dipping its toe tap onto the dancing surface to test the waters of the wood. Even though these are words, the action for me is quite the same. We are always trying small shifts in the way we carry the weight of the work we do here individually and collectively. Small moves in one direction and then maybe back again, and maybe further out, maybe another way altogether. It’s hard to tell. We take risks here. They are sometimes similar to tossing seeds to an open field and coming back later to see what has grown. Sometimes it is a careful watering. Sometimes it works. Most times it is really hard to tell what’s happening. This blog will hopefully help us to process and to communicate that process to those interested in reading along with us. We cannot include every thing that happens, there is just too much. You know that already though.

We write to you, our supporters, friends, families, collaborators, partners, fellow dancers, artists, and world citizens. We write to ourselves, the parts we know and the parts that don’t really exist yet.

The objective is for this to be a collective blog that has numerous authors- foremost Monika, Josephine and myself. Go ahead and comment if you like, we’ll leave that option up to start and see how it goes. We will all have our own ways of saying what we want to say. Thank you for moving your eyes along these lines and sharing the page/screen with us, for listening, and for being open. Thank you for being with us when we touch bottom and when we rise. The words filtered through our footsteps on this journey can be slippery. Thank you for helping us up if we fall.

I’ll start first with a short piece and photo I posted on my personal Facebook page the night we landed in Nairobi for THEY DANCE FOR RAIN’s 5th residency in this wild and wonderful city. It doesn’t have much to do with the work, but it brings you into our world just a little bit.

January 8th, 2016

“My name is Doreen Achieng Odipo and I am from Kisumu and I am here in Nairobi and now you are my friend.” The words snuck out of her mouth like a long kept secret. She walked them out the door with her to check on the sheets drying up on the roof. She moved out of the room much like this welcoming and light breeze that gently mixes the contrasting scents of our arrival. This first dusk back in Nairobi smells of the much needed washing of our weary and anticipating bodies, too many chemical cleaning agents in the apartment, and an array of savory spices cooking in the neighboring flats. Then she said, “I like that you are happy.” I chuckled at this while she grinned. Happy might mean something different to Doreen than it does to me. But it did get me wondering if maybe I am.
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The door to our apartment. Photo by S.Weber

 

From here on out expect to see outstanding artistic photographic documentation from Monika, and be inspired by Josephine’s developing confidence and willingness to jump into the middle of a mystery and shine. And me, I’ll keep the dancing machine well-greased and do my best to put my words down here like I put my feet to the floor…with curiosity and grace.
Be well
-Stefanie
January 10th, 2016
Nairobi, Kenya