A lot of my life before, during, and after our trip to Nairobi has been a whirlwind: before the trip, the Red Lion Inn (where I work) was very busy and rather understaffed, even in November when there’s usually a lull between the leaf peeping rush and the holiday rush. This meant I was working five to six days a week, often twelve hours a day, leaving very little time to mentally or physically prepare for the January trip to Kenya. Once we arrived in Nairobi, we scheduled almost all of our available time, with every weekday and weekend devoted to teaching, visiting this school or that studio, working on that project. After getting back from Nairobi, I had a mere two weeks to entirely plan and pack for my four month trek throughout Europe, from whence I am writing to you now.

But when we arrived in Nairobi, I was reminded that for the dance artists, children, administrators, and all other people we work with, theirs lives are not all a whirlwind. Granted they are very busy, but they’re not whizzing from one activity to the next with no time to breathe. Throughout the past year, they have been focusing and working hard on tap dance, and it shows.

The children at Shangilia have been having regular classes twice a week with Alexus, one of our students at the GoDown, sometimes with assistance from Kennie and Stacey (also students from the GoDown). The kids showed us the routine they’ve been working on and I was blown away by the extensive and complex dance they have under their belts. For us, it’s an effort to perfect a fairly simple four-phrase dance, and Stefanie has been teaching it over the course of a few years. But we only come for a few weeks a year and then we disappear. The fact that these kids are putting on their shoes twice a week, with structure and direction from an adult, has made a world of difference.

In addition to the kids, the adults are improving as well. A few of our dancers have formed a group called Tapa Tapa Africa, and they rehearse often. We hung out with them as a group at Bruce’s apartment (one of the members), where they showed us videos of some performances and told us about their creative process. (Stay tuned for Stefanie’s DanceMakers podcast interview of them from this.) They emphasized how they didn’t want to perform at all if they weren’t going to do it well, so they’ve been practicing really hard to prepare for gigs. They talked about how much they love tap dance as a creative and expressive medium, and how much they want to keep doing it. They made me feel so proud of and excited for them: these people are the future of tap dance in Kenya, and they take that responsibility very seriously.

All of our dancers, not just members of Tapa Tapa Africa, are improving vastly. In rehearsals at GoDown, we were able to teach them steps that they never could’ve done last year. Their dexterity with their feet, their ability to hear the difference between swing and square, the number of steps they know–it’s all miles ahead. And they work so well with each other: the people who pick up a step easily will patiently teach it to someone who hasn’t gotten it yet. This all makes my job a lot easier: I can give my entire attention to one person who’s struggling, while other people are being helped by their classmates.

This is all to say that even though my life might be speeding by before my eyes, theirs is progressing at a different pace. It’s obvious, but it’s easy for me to forget that their lives continue when we aren’t there. They work on their art, they work on their craft, they work on making a living. And the things they accomplish add up to more than I think I’ve ever done. Our residency this past January may have been chaotic, but a few times I was able to pause, breathe, and take in the beautiful things that were being created.


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.

One of many kits we received the other day
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.

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.

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.

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.

throwing sm
© 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.


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.