The bussling East African urban centre of Nairobi is known for many things; vibrant markets, epic traffic jams, and, most exciting to me, a powerful underground theatre community. In July, I was privileged enough to witness a group of young theatre artists from Mathare, Nairobi’s largest collection of slums, use public performance and workshops to empower those living in their community. On my first day with the group, I shared in a rehearsal and performance commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières to destigmatise and normalise seeking medical services for survivors of sexual violence. While both the rehearsals and performances took place entirely in Swahili, a language I do not speak, I felt familiar with the creative process of discussing, trying a scene, editing, and refining… all with plenty of teasing and laughter.
I was excited to see how my role in the group would evolve and develop over the next four weeks. I was reminded of the power of storytelling, the foundation of theatre and, arguably, the defining characteristic of the human experience, to transcend language and culture.
It was a Stretch Experience dream come true. Until it wasn’t.
Seemingly overnight, the organisation that had facilitated my connection with these artists in Nairobi cancelled my program for reasons entirely out of my control.
I felt confused. Defeated. How was I supposed to abandon the hours of preparation, the connections I had made, and the work I was so passionate about? And more urgently, how was I supposed to build an entirely new project with the threat of a waning summer nipping at my heels?
What do you do when you wake up from a horrible nightmare?
You breathe… And then you stretch.
One week later, I was 8000 km across the continent in Dakar, Senegal, singing in a circle with 18 young girls, hosting the first session of a tri-weekly performing arts camp. In collaboration with two local early childhood educators, we have built a community of structured play, creative expression, and an aspiration towards social responsibility through singing, dancing, theatre games, and arts & crafts.
It’s difficult to describe the richness of the discovery and joy that is building in our little corner of the universe, but as we enter our last week together, I like to think our mission statement summarises the collective experience; Mbolo Moy Dole (We are Stronger Together).
Julia-Don’s Stretch Experience won the Tavender award, a $5,000 donor-funded award given to a scholar who has completed the objectives of the Stretch Experience and demonstrated exceptional growth and development throughout the Stretch Experience program.