I received news that sent bullets down my spine. My doctor told me that I must cancel my trip to Kenya and instead go for breast cancer treatment right away. The earth ripped apart under me. My heart beat so fast against the table I was leaning on that I had to pull away from it…the table that is. I felt completely betrayed by God.
One year and six months later, I write to you from under a mosquito net with the window open inviting the sounds of a gentle rain on the tin roofs next door. The juxtaposition of the lush green with the rusted corrugated iron, sheltering the impoverished, intrigues me. And still, the gentle drizzle blesses the day.
Today begins our fifth and final day of the continuation of the Reach the Unreachable outreach project for December 2017. Ellie Mutz, her pre-teen sons Zack and Colin, Cecil Mack, Melinda Eversteyn, Theresa Toerien and I bring the idea of POWER OF YOU to our participants.
We began our journey last Thursday as we rushed off to the Dubai airport to catch our flight into Kenya. After a smooth and safe journey, we stayed in Nairobi for the night and left for Kilifi via Mombasa early the next morning. That day that I mentioned above, the day that my doctor told me I could not go to Kenya, would have been Necessary Arts’ first visit to Kilifi.
I remember my heartbeat against the table and the only thought in my mind was “NOOOOOOOO. I have to go to Kilifi. Kerry and George have warmly welcomed us to Bofa village. I HAVE to go.” My panic overwhelmed. Suzzi Pautler brought Reach the Unreachable to Bofa for the first time in August 2015 and initiated a beautiful relationship with the youth of that community. A strong foundation and connection were set for a subsequent visit in August 2016 and now our visit in December 2017.
Four days ago, when I entered Bofa Village, Kilifi, I felt like I was home, home as in Tobago. The scene could easily have been Lambeaux Village. The Bofa community gathered at least 75 children to participate in the weekend’s activities. Among many special moments that remain with me so strongly is the moment that I witnessed learning in action, children working with children. Our student volunteer, Zack, led the 10-12-year-olds through improvisation and scene work activities as the warm-up for their performances later on.
When they came to the “stage,” the students followed direction so well that you could instantly see their growth and development. Zack was particularly impressed with Teddy who demonstrated a clear understanding of “staying open”. The audience, as instructed, called out “STAY OPEN” in unison each time an actor broke the rule and turned his back to the audience. Teddy, while taking his turn on stage, made the mistake of breaking rule number 2, and when it was called out by the audience, he fixed it and thereafter demonstrated that he understood and could execute the concept.
As we sat together later that day, I reminded the team to continuously look for learning, for measurable moments where we can make the connection between our goal and the students’ accomplishments. Zack was impressed with Teddy. I was in awe of Zack.
George and Kerry continue to open the door to their home, Tulia-Bofa, to Necessary Arts and the magic within is incredible. At the end of the 2.5 working days, we asked the children if they would be interested in joining a group once a week to do drama and improvisation work. They are very interested. The plan is for me to work remotely with Furaha, a community leader who works with Moving Goalposts, to facilitate the workshops. Kilifi and our family there are vibrant, talented, and filled with love and kindness for each other.
When I landed in Kenya for the first time four years ago, JEHO welcomed me and Necessary Arts School with open arms. That was the beginning of a strong synergy between NAS and JEHO. After missing flights and such, we arrived safely back in Nairobi to prepare ourselves to work with the children of JEHO the following day. As we drove through the Pipeline slum, one thing immediately stood out.
THE ROADS WERE PAVED.
No more mud puddles and cautious maneuvering to get to the building. Progress is on the rise, it seems. One might ask me to curb my enthusiasm and realize that Kenya just went through political campaigning. A quick fix to get voters out, maybe? Who knows? It sure was awesome to have paved streets leading to JEHO. The welcome back reception, held in my honor, brought me to tears. The embrace they extended to the team was selfless and genuine. The most consistent and sincere sharing of love I have ever experienced comes from this family of orphaned children, led by their mother Miriam.
Once the celebrations calmed down, we got into the work. Soon enough children and young adults were creating a Christmas tree of paper hands decorated with images and words of POWER. The major question being: What is your POWER? The students participated eagerly and effectively. I am bursting with pride for our student volunteers Zack and Colin. They work with huge open hearts and complete commitment. Zack led his group through the improvisation techniques and they all worked together beautifully.
Zack’s leadership, knowledge, and base for theatre arts are exceedingly strong, while his communication style and sensitivities are well synced and executed among the children. The end result is absolutely astounding. This real-world experience for Zack will have a ripple effect for years to come – both on Zack and on those he touched.
The JEHO family gathered together after the showcase to pray in a circle, as they always do. The command of prayer and blessings by Elanor a youth leader was so powerful. After many hugs and a lot of tears, we gathered ourselves and our belongings and headed on our way. The debrief of the day at mealtime was very much needed and welcomed by all of us volunteers.
It is such an emotional ride visiting JEHO that everyone needs to share a bit of his/her feelings in a supportive and safe arena. We each shared three words that sum up how we feel. The responses include super kind, emotionally overwhelming, amazing, gratitude, pride. I spoke of pride. I am so proud of the synergy taking place with all of the participants of Reach the Unreachable – students and leaders alike.
When I witness Colin and Zack in action, I am inspired and hopeful for our next generation’s contributions to humanity. The involvement of student volunteers is the next natural step for our outreach work. In Dubai, there is already a NAS company of young artists involved in humanity. Zack and Colin have both set this in motion and I look forward to the evolution of future student volunteers. After a much-needed debriefing, we returned to our hotel and settled in for the night.
Day 5 takes us to Sud Academy. Three years ago, I sat in Harlem, NY at my sister-friend, Donna Dove’s, flat. As we spoke about the work of Necessary Arts, the conversation led us to Ger Duany, the South Sudanese Ambassador to the UNHCR. The next thing I knew, there he was, in her flat, in the flesh, sitting with us listening to the works and ambitions of Necessary Arts. It was there that the connection to Sud Academy was made. Now on Day 5, I enter the muddy school grounds for the first time since a NAS team of volunteers first visited in August 2015, led by Suzzi Pautler. The students trickled in slowly, and soon enough, Melinda had them creating their names in graffiti while drawing symbols to represent their POWER. We then used those POWER words to develop oral speaking presentations in the drama workshop. I could see light bulbs switching on as the students found their responses to the recurring question: WHAT IS YOUR POWER?
Deng Buoch, the principal, explains to me that this school is funded by a few well-wishers, and by the Grace of God, they are able to do what they can to keep its doors open. We decide to send a student message to Ger Duany to let him know how the school has progressed and how much still needs to be done. They feel very strongly about South Sudanese people helping the school since it is first and foremost established for South Sudanese refugee children and young adults.
Due to the ongoing conflict there, many children have lost years of educational opportunities. It is the Sud Academy that welcomes a 20-year old into a grade 8 classroom and attempts to educate him/her based on academic levels and not age. I really want to see Sud Academy thrive, but at least for now, NAS can continue to do its part for the young and not so young learners.
On Day 6, we saw Ellie, Zack, and Colin off on their safari adventure. They completed their work with Reach the Unreachable and were heading out for 5 nights of an amazing experience. Melinda, Theresa and I packed up all our belongings and piled into Maggie’s car for one last trip.
I managed to make arrangements to revisit the Rialla Education Center in Kibera. The significance of this lies in my first ever outreach work in Kenya. Four years ago, when I decided to go to Kenya to initiate this program, my first stop was at this school. At the time, GEMS Foundation had started the construction of the new school facilities and through GEMS, I gained access to work with the Form 4 children there.
At the time, the drama classes were held in a galvanized wall and mud floor room. Standing in that spot now brought back so many overwhelming feelings and reminded me of the beginning of this journey for Reach the Unreachable. We were escorted around the new school by one of the students I had worked with back then. It is so clear to me that this new facility is the pride of the community and yet its own community burned and vandalized areas of it during the August 2017 election campaigns. They have managed to repair what they can, but the black hole of burned books sits as a reminder of the realities of living in Kibera.
Our sixth-day journey of Reach the Unreachable December 2017 has come to an end and I am returning to Dubai both completely exhausted and utterly rewarded. A very talented and dedicated team of volunteers brought the POWER OF YOU program to some beautiful and well deserving recipients. Everyone involved gained either a life-changing experience or at least memories to reflect upon in years to come. As for myself, I am so blessed to have my health and strength back, to be on the ground, and to manifest my life’s dreams. I look forward to returning to Kenya to continue the work of the “Reach the Unreachable” program.