Mambo, jina langu Joe! (Hi, my name’s Joe!) I am currently on tour with the fabulous human beings of the Performers Without Borders tour in Kenya. Right now we have been in Nairobi for just under a month and have worked with two different projects while we’ve been here. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by veterans of previous tours; all four other members of our team have taken part in PWB projects in the past, which makes me the newbie! The whole tour so far has been an amazing experience and I’d like to share my angle on it, particularly with those of you who may be considering applying for and undertaking your very first tour.
So, what did I expect? Despite trying to keep my expectations to a minimum, I was full of ideas of what life on tour might be like, how living with the team would be and the kind of work we would be doing with the children at the various projects along the way. It will not surprise you to learn that I’ve been off the mark once or twice and I’d like to share the small amount of tour wisdom that I have accumulated up to now.
I shall begin, as one should, at the beginning. I applied for this tour back in the summer of 2015, having been pointed in this direction by my performing partner. After a simple application process and a very friendly Skype interview I was informed that I’d been accepted as a member of the team. I was elated and nervous and began, slowly, to prepare for the trip.
After a few Skype conversations with the team over the following months things slowly came together. Flights booked, vaccinations up to date, fund-raising done [see video here!]. Before I knew it the new year had rolled around and I was on a plane to Mombasa, the main port city of the Kenyan coast. The others on the team had booked their flights into Nairobi (on the other side of the country) so I had a couple of days at the accommodation in Diani, where we had our bootcamp, to myself before the others arrived.
I should mention that this tour is my first time outside of Europe and a big step out of my comfort zone. Having those two days without the team around me to overcome the worst of the culture shock and settle in were very helpful for me but it was, nevertheless, a joy to see the others when they arrived. They’d actually made it to the accommodation the night before but the watchman at the site had put them in another block!
Surrounded by the team and thrown headfirst into the task of teambuilding and making a show, our two weeks at bootcamp flew by. Having the weird and wonderful characters of the team around me during this period of adjustment was such a pleasure and, despite getting sunstroke (remember to hydrate!) and the emotional upheaval of missing home, we really bonded as a group and put together the first version of our show, known as ‘Sleepy Fly’.
The team here in Kenya are a fantastic bunch, we have a great mix of skills and personalities. In no particular order we have:
Coco – Juggler, clown and theatre nerd. He’s been involved with social circus projects like The Serious Road Trip [website] and was part of the PWB India 2014 team. My roommate, training and club-passing buddy throughout the tour so far, off to climb Kilimanjaro in his week off. Nutter, nice guy.
Katie – Former student of Circomedia in Bristol, dancer, clown and undercover juggler. Katie has worked at summer camps teaching circus for the last few years and went to Sierra Leone as part of a PWB team. She has loads of energy for the kids and silliness amongst the team. Diamond.
Lillian – Graduate of Naropa University in Colorado. A well-travelled and caring soul, bringing a wealth of knowledge of theatrical teaching and practice to the team as well as being an idea factory in the show-making process. Loves to clown and paint with the kids. A free spirit.
Abi – Performer with Chaplin’s Circus in the UK. Abi is our tour coordinator and came here to run a project by herself last year (respect!). With a lot to organise and keep track of I am consistently amazed at the amount of energy she has left for the kids. Powerhouse.
Having these guys around me has been amazing, united by the common desire to make this project work we have really formed as a team and our differences have made us diverse and flexible. After a month of sharing a flat and the pressures of living and working in Nairobi together, we are strong. PWB attracts some wonderful people and it’s a real pleasure to be travelling and working with some of them!
The day-to-day operation of the tour is all go. We teach and/or perform 6 days a week on the projects and manage to find time to refine the show, train our individual skills and keep up with the necessities in between! Boot camp on the coast was intensely hot throughout, a very pleasant change from the British winter. Diani beach is one of the most beautiful in the world and working on the show whilst sipping from a fresh coconut was a rare pleasure!
After our time there (and a nine hour bus ride on rough roads) we came to Nairobi to begin our work in earnest. Nairobi is Kenya’s capital, home to country’s biggest slum (Kibera), awkwardly juxtaposed with the huge villas of the nation’s wealthy and powerful. A city of real contrast and unbelievable volumes of traffic.
During our two-week period of working with acrobats of The Sarakasi Trust [website] in their training and outreach projects we spent a whole lot of time on the matatus (privately owned buses, brightly decorated, playing loud music) averaging four hours a day getting in and out of town. I got used to this pretty quickly, sharing the weirdness of the experience with others certainly helps! Living and working with the same group of people every day in a new and chaotic environment has certainly not been without its challenges but it’s a credit to focus and drive of the team that all the little sticking points are quickly resolved or accommodated for the greater good of the project. It’s a great dynamic to work with.
Of course, all of this is about working with the kids! Over the last two weeks we have been working with our partner, The Koinonia Project [website], at one of their children’s homes called the Kivuli Centre. This is an open community centre with a pharmacy and library that also houses 35-40 rescued boys, who were formerly street kids or the children of single parents who couldn’t cope.
The boys sleep in two dorms, depending on their age and are fed and looked after by a house ‘mama’ as well as receiving lessons in drumming and acrobatics from local trainers. The boys come from a tough place and connecting with them and keeping them engaged was pretty tricky to begin with. They were prone to fight and squabble and this takes a lot of energy out of the teachers.
We have very quickly got them onside and we’ve been priveleged to see some startling progress from them. Skills with the props are coming on fast; the boys are hungry to learn and pretty adept at it! They’ve been engaging really well with the theatre and clown workshops run by the team as well and their cheeky, slapstick sense of humour is really starting to emerge.
Seeing the progress of kids in this way has been a very fulfilling experience and it’s heartening after a few weeks of one-off visits to possible new locations and partners. All this is part of laying the groundwork for future tours in the country but it’s hard to leave a group of smiling faces knowing you may not see them again.
So, would I recommend going on tour with PWB? The short answer is “Heck, yes!” if you have a skill or two to share and the time to do it. I had considered applying for tours in previous years and always managed to make excuses about my commitments at home in the UK or my ability to contribute to a project like this.
I couldn’t have been more wrong; with the support of the team I’ve found that I have a lot to share and a lot to learn from the teachers and children I’m working alongside. Performing arts have a real power to open people up and make space for community and fun, even in deprived places. Perhaps, especially in deprived places. The work is emotionally demanding but you might just find yourself surrounded by the perfect people both to make a real change in the world with, and to help you grow, yourself!