Firstly I must apologize for being away for so long. It has been a busy few months with travelling and hard work in the studio. Plus I experienced a delay because of technical difficulties (or to be more honest, my own computer idiocy). I also wanted to make sure that I took the time to properly tell the following story. It is about an experience that will forever be a highlight in my life. I hope you find it interesting.
Two years ago I travelled to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya with an organization called Artbound. Artbound is a non-profit volunteer initiative that harnesses the power of the arts in support of Free the Children. We had raised money to build an arts wing for Kisaruni, the first girl’s high school in the region, and one month after the school opened, a group from Artbound made the trip to Kenya to contribute to the building of this classroom and to see the community first hand. It was an unforgettable, incredible experience. Now 2 years later, in late April of this year, I had the opportunity to return to the Maasai Mara. This blog post will be dedicated to telling you about my most recent trip, but you can read more about my involvement with Artbound and Free the Children in my “Beyond Ballet” section on my biography page. There you will learn a little more about these organizations and find links to their websites. You will also find a link to CTV’s website that features a diary that I wrote soon after returning from that first trip. Rereading it now brings back so many wonderful memories.
On this return visit my first 3 days were spent almost exclusively with some of the Kisaruni girls. I was thrilled to become reacquainted with some of the girls I had met on my previous trip, and to meet newer students who have joined over the past 2 years. I had been invited to teach a series of ballet workshops, and about 25 girls decided to participate. I suppose it was a little bit of a crash course! If you read about my previous visit you will know that the girls had never even heard the word “ballet” when we first met. When I started describing it they looked at me like I was crazy. Smart girls! Pointe shoes and tutus are crazy!
I began with a brief history of ballet, and a video and photos of me dancing. They seemed fascinated. Then over the 3 days I introduced the basics; pointed toes, turn out, positions of the arms and feet, demi pointe, balancing on one leg, pique, bouree, and jumping which seemed to be their favourite. I soon threw out any classical music and realized that I really needed more than one K’naan song. I discovered he is hero of their's. I was amazed by how quickly they learned, and at how much they practiced. I heard from their principal that she had to make them stop practicing, and one of the girls asked me on the third day if my feet ever hurt from dancing. Of course “yes” was the answer. Each day any corrections were applied and were still evident over the following lessons. Each lesson plan was covered so quickly I had to keep adding more material, and over only 3 days the girls improved dramatically.
On our final day I organized a performance. I had heard that every Saturday night the girls get together and have a party in which everyone will get up, either alone or in groups, and tell a story, sing a song, act out a play or dance. So knowing that they love to perform I had them choose their own music and suggested that they could use any of the movements that they had learned with me, any of their traditional dance movements, and either tell a story or not. I was so interested to see what they would do.
The performance was a blast. The girls had split into two groups and each told a folk tale. Both groups chose K’naan as music. It was so interesting to see how the girls had taken their favourite movements and made them their own. I could see the ballet in there and all the corrections we had talked about, but the girls had made it look almost like their traditional dances. What was most striking for me, not only on this visit but the last one as well, was that their movement when attempting ballet is so authentic. Because they had never heard of it before meeting me they have no preconceived ideas of the art form. They have no images to draw on of the fairy princess or the jewellery box dancer, no thoughts of ethereal creatures or swans. They just move. This is a quality that I and other professionals often struggle with as we try to get out of our heads and move toward what is truly genuine. This takes constant reminders for me, but they just went ahead and did it. Seeing the girls move this way also illustrated for me that no matter how ingrained an idea may be in a culture, it is not necessarily an absolute truth.
Some of my favourite times with the girls were when we took a break and shared Chai together. It was here that I was able to get to know them better and to marvel at what extraordinary young women they are. These girls get up at 4:30 every morning to study before breakfast and bring their books home on every break from school. They recently won a regional sports competition and were ranked above average in their first ever regional academic rankings. Their first reaction was to study harder (which I’m not sure is even possible) to improve their ranking. They are articulate, beautiful and kind, and they are extremely supportive of each other in a way that I have never seen. It is impossible to miss the caring these students have for each other. How the older students really look out for the younger ones and how each is eager to lend a hand for another. They are positive and encouraging with one another and welcoming to new comers. They even rooted me on when I joined in a soccer game and showcased my less than desirable skill level in the sport. On my last day they sang me a song of blessing which will be cherished as one of my fondest memories.
Beyond these wonderful qualities and achievements however the Kisaruni students face some harsh realities. Until recently there was no access to clean water or medical care, and food security was seriously lacking. Access to consistent education was spotty. Free the Children has made huge gains in these areas and the community has run with each advancement. However, poverty, early marriage for girls, and AIDS are still realities. Girls especially are lucky to be educated beyond high school because in Kenya high school is not government subsidized. At Kisaruni each grade is able to sustain 40 students which were selected from a pool of 200+ applicants a year. They are extremely fortunate to be getting an education when most girls do not move beyond elementary school. No wonder they study so hard. Kisaruni is not free and families work very hard to help pay the tuition. Many of the girl’s educations are funded through donations to Free the Children. Happily 90 cents of every dollar donated to Free the Children goes directly to those who need it. Beyond Kisaruni, the girls who are coming up to graduation will need to find a way to pay for university if they are going to follow their big dreams of becoming nurses, doctors, police officers, journalists, lawyers, and accountants. The most touching part of their ambitions is that almost all of the girls said they want to practice their professions in the community where they grew up so that they can make their home a better place. Having gotten to know these girls on two separate occasions I think about them often and feel inspired by all of them. If anyone can break past barriers it is the girls of Kisaruni.
After my time at Kisaruni I joined a group of family members of the amazing facilitators that work for Free the Children in Kenya. It was the first time their parent's were seeing where they work, and they all made me feel like part of the family too. During the week I saw the changes in the community that have happened since my last visit, and I was so impressed. More and more people are gaining access to education, clean water, food security, alternative income and health care in a sustainable way that is community run and can continue long into the future. I visited local homes, a new maternity ward at the medical clinic, carried water with Kipsigi mamas, was entertained by a men's alternative income group, visited local farms, climbed a mountain, learned about Masaai culture, and visited a local subsistence market that few foreigners ever see. One especially wonderful day was spent visiting a community where a bore hole was being drilled to supply their first clean water system. The impact this will have is enormous, and it was very emotional to see how excited they all were. Our group was presented by the community with a goat (who we named Freddy). It was a huge honour.
In the end, these words can't possibly do the trip justice. I can’t imagine a better way to see Kenya.
(carrying water and building a classroom)
(my Maasai protection with a head builder, and an alternative income group)
The day after I returned to Canada I spoke about my experiences with Free the Children at National We Day in Ottawa. We Days are held in many Canadian and US cities and soon in London, England. They are a day of celebration and inspiration to galvanize youth into leading local and global change. These events feature speeches and performances by celebrities, business leaders, politicians, activists, and community leaders. The energy on the day is hard to describe. It was a rush to get up in front of over 4000 kids and hopefully inspire them to change the world for the better.
(With Craig and Marc Kielburger after We Day)
With thanks to Free the Children and Me to We, to the facilitators in Kenya, especially James Prince who was my guide everyday and an enormous help with my We Day speech, to the girls at Kisaruni for their warmth and hard work, to the members of the communities I visited who welcomed me into their homes and their lives, to the staff at Bogani where I ate and slept who make the experience so fantastic, to the Maasai warriors who kept me safe every day, and to all my new friends.