SCENES shines the spotlight on young people around the world who are breaking down barriers and creating change. The character-driven shorts will inspire and amaze as these young changemakers tell their remarkable stories.
Michael Wamaya was 13 when his life changed. The death of his father forced him to drop out of school to support his family. While selling car parts, he saw a poster advertising auditions for the Kenya Performing Arts Group. Without any previous experience, Michael’s determination shone through and he was offered a place at the Nairobi-based school. A few years later, he performed around the world with the dance company.
In early 2008, Michael received an offer to join a European performing arts group. At the time, Kenya was in crisis. A contentious presidential election in December 2007 led to violence that swept the nation and ethnic divisions were exposed. Two months of fierce fighting left 1,000 dead and more than 500,000 internally displaced. Michael was shocked by the bloodshed and was determined to give back to his homeland. He declined the offer and returned to his country in hopes of using dance to unite his people.
“Everyone deserves the right to dance. Everyone deserves the right to be who they are. Ballet was made for the elite because it was meant to divide people, but dance is something that’s supposed to unite,” Michael told Scenes.
Michael started teaching ballet as an extracurricular activity to orphaned and vulnerable children living in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Without facilities, classrooms have been turned into makeshift studios. In June 2017, through fundraising and donations, Michael was able to open his dance center, Project Emilu.
Located in the heart of Kibera, the school offers a wide range of classes, from classical ballet to African dance and jazz. Michael’s goal is not to turn children into professional ballerinas but to give them the courage to build a better future. “We use dance more as a therapeutic tool. To give them confidence, make them believe in themselves, make them understand what they want,” he explains.
A haven of peace
Thanks to Michael’s hard work and dedication, Project Emilu has had a positive impact on the community. It also acts as a shelter for children to play, learn and grow.
“Kibera is quite rough and difficult for young people living here. So they come here just to feel safe, to hang out with each other and to talk and also to discuss the issues that affect them within their community,” he says.
Home to 250,000 people, Kibera is Africa’s largest urban slum. Most residents live in extreme poverty, without electricity or running water, and earn less than €1 a day. The slums have become notorious for violence, crime, youth criminalization and illicit activities. Health care is limited and gender-based violence is rampant. Slum dwellers are often marginalized from the rest of Kenyan society.
“When you come out as a child saying, ‘I am from Kibera’, you are always looked down upon. So children have to do a lot. If you study, you have to study hard. If you dance, you have to dance hard. You have to do things three or four times stronger to convince the outside world that you are actually better,” says Michael. “For me, I think it’s also an advantage, because it makes us stronger and better every day,” he adds.
Open to everyone
The Elimu Project is free for children of all ages and backgrounds. Michael worked hard to encourage the boys to join the dance program. “My job is always to try and find ways to make boys feel a lot more engaged. I always say boys are ballet because boys lift girls. Boys make women shine These are the muscles that are needed in classical ballet,” he explains.
Michael has also seen an increase in the number of children with disabilities attending dance classes. “Initially, children with disabilities were locked in houses in Kibera because of shame from their families or because no one took care of them, but now they are let out to enter a space to dance,” says -he.
A Gateway to Opportunity
The dance school has enabled the children to obtain scholarships and opportunities abroad. In 2016, the students took part in the production of The Nutcracker at the National Theater in Nairobi. Michael has helped change perceptions and shed light on talent within the informal settlement. “When we do our dance shows, we don’t go to the big theaters and we do them here. We changed the idea of it being a violent place to a place where people walk in and see children who are optimistic about their future,” he explains.