Today we visited Kibera Academy, a school system nestled in the Karanja neighborhood. Kibera itself is one of the world’s largest slums and a rather famous part of broader Nairobi. Kibera is home to anywhere between 150,000 and 1 million residents, who occupy many rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. As Kennedy Odede has written in editorials for CNN and the New York Times, Kibera is a diverse place, and it is a mistake to hear the word “slum” and picture a uniform swath of bleak urban squalor.
Kibera Academy, for example, is a place of learning where many families work mightily to send their children. The school occupies a series of concrete buildings on a large lot pushed back from the main road. Though modest by American standards, the area is lovely and filled with the bright faces of students eager to learn. The class population, we are told, is largely Nubian (though I’ll admit it is unclear to me from experience or research what precisely that term means in this context) and Muslim.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Andrew, the Headmaster, who could not have been kinder or more welcoming. Soon we were giving an impromptu performance for the students in the form of the Linklater vocal warm-ups favored by Columbia actors. Children peeked out of every window, faces splitting with laughter. Our own film crew turned on us, recording the spectacle from a coldly anthropological distance.
Our special guide today was Kennedy Ochieng, a Communications student at university in Nairobi who lived in Kibera (quite near Kibera Academy) for two years in his early twenties. Kennedy moved to Nairobi from western Kenya, in the Lake Victoria region. He described his home as a fishing environment. Now he’s pursuing his degree and hoping to apply to law school in the United States.
The performance was more intimate today than our 500-girl extravaganza from Sunday. We started with only 30 students in an open classroom. But five minutes in, youngsters from the Primary School began flooding in from the play field. First ten, then another five, then six more girls. At last, nearly halfway through the show, a single girl, maybe nine years old, appeared dragging a low bench along the front of the building. Benita rushed out to help her bring it in, and instantly five more girls alighted like birds on a wire.
The room itself was quite lovely. The lower half of the concrete walls was painted a vivid aqua blue, and every surface was pocked by years of use. A chalkboard, puffed with clouds of half-erased lessons occupied most of the upstage wall. Antigone fit perfectly in there. Kea recalled watching Phumi’s entrance, walking slowly to the altar (the wooden upper-half of a student’s desk) and lighting the candle and feeling, “this is it. This is it exactly.”
I was reminded of a visit from Jean-Guy Lecat to Columbia this spring. He described the charm (in the sense of magic) exuded by the real walls of real, lived-in buildings. Real walls, with their paint and damaged materials, have personality that they can lend to the play. Today we lucked into a room with real personality.
The students were enthusiastic and kept us there longer than we intended, trying to get as much face-time as they could with the actors – posing for photos and flirting with the men and women of the company.
At the end of the talkback, inspired maybe by the energy of the students, Marcel treated us to his own performance of Stevie Wonder, joined by the other actors with some backing vocals and bass. We left in a mood of great joy. Ready for the next audience.