It is not every day you meet someone so inspirational yet so humble. Ballet instructor Michael Wamaya is such a man. He is doing amazing things quietly and changing the lives of thousands of children across Kenya’s informal settlements, one step at a time.

According to the United Nations, about 1/3 of one billion people in informal urban settlements in Africa are youth between the ages of 15-24, in dire need of care and protection. Given that Africa’s slums are expanding, this is a critical mass of youth who can no longer be ignored. Michael Wamaya understands this implicitly.

He is among the top ten finalists in the Global Teacher Prize, an award that recognizes the exceptional work done by teachers across the world. Even though he did not win the ultimate $1 million prize (Kshs 100 million), he said making it to the top ten out of over 20,000 teachers, drawn from 146 countries, was a major feat.

Wamaya has been the subject of documentaries, feature films and news around the world, but he tells us that it all pales in comparison to the impact his work has had on thousands of disadvantaged children in Kenya and the world. Today, a number of his students (such as Joel Kioko) dance on the global stage, and for many more, the sky is the limit.

“Seeing children succeed is my greatest joy. Waking up in the morning to shape the destiny of a child is a great motivator,” says Wamaya. “These children have been ignored for so long; they don’t believe that good things can happen to them. Through dance, I teach them to dream and realize their dreams. To know that their dreams are valid.”

Ballet Dancers Rehearsing in Kibera

Wamaya instructing young dancers for a special performance in Nairobi. All Images Courtesy of Michael Wamaya

With the help of Anno’s Africa, who started a pilot dance program in Kibera in 2007, and One Fine Day, a partner organization, Wamaya runs weekly dance lessons. He has been teaching ballet and contemporary dance to children in Kenya’s largest slum of Kibera and also Mathare, a smaller slum east of Nairobi. We asked him why he chose to teach ballet, of all things, and why he chose the slums, where children need more than dance skills to get by. He said, “Dance unites people. Dance also shapes destinies.”

Wamaya offered two examples. One was of Sherifa Abdulrahman, a Muslim girl who wanted to dance so badly, she made her own unique dance costume to cover her whole body as demanded by her religion. Then there is Suzie*. Used by her mother as a mule to ferry illicit liquor from Mathare to the Kibera slums (over a distance of over 20km in her school uniform to avoid detection for years), a chance encounter with Wamaya changed her destiny. Now 17, Suzie* is a student at a Nairobi high school on scholarship funded by well-wishers. Her future is bright.

Challenges

Wamaya, and those like him with a great passion for art in all its forms, faces a great challenge — that of bringing art into the mainstream so that the discipline is accepted and respected. He says plans by the Kenya government to scale down art lessons offered in public school is an indicator of how little regard policy makers have for art. Consequently, funding for art programs is lacking.

Wamaya laments the lack of government support for art programs in and outside the school curriculum. He, however, recently received acknowledgment from the highest office in the land when President Kenyatta congratulated him after he was declared a finalist in the Global Teacher Prize. Wamaya was the only Kenyan to reach the finals and hoped to use this opportunity to seek the government’s support for his dance program, which he runs together with his wife, Caroline Slot, a ballet and jazz instructor with Dance Centre Kenya.

He admits the idea to teach dance in the slum was met with opposition by some at the beginning but, with persistence and patience, the opposition has worn out.

“Through dance, children learn to express themselves, they gain confidence and are able to better interact with others. They also gain valuable life skills. And because the classes happen right inside their community, they are able to appreciate their unique environment and make do with what they have,” Wamaya says, adding that the rigorous routine from school to dance has kept the majority of children away from negative peer pressure, crime, and other vices that negatively affect children in informal settlements. Wamaya says the community supports his school in every way they can because they have seen its benefit.

Young ballet dancers preparing for special performance

Group of young dancers prepare for special performance at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

What the Children Have to Say About Ballet

Michelle Mulari is perhaps the youngest child to set foot in Michael Wamaya’s dance class and excel. She began dancing at the age of 6. Back then, she was a pupil at a primary school in Kibera. The 3rd child in a family of 4, Michelle had to wait long hours after school to be picked up. She spent that time watching other kids dance. “I used to admire the dancers from afar, but then one day I gathered my courage and approached the teacher and asked to join his class.” She was an instant hit.

She and 3 others, Pamela Atieno (13 yrs), Shamic Otieno (12 yrs), and George Okoth (13 yrs), have been selected to join Dance Centre Kenya for further training. They also get an opportunity to take exams with the Royal Academy of Dance, which qualifies them to become professional dancers.

George Okoth, a Grade 5 ballet dancer, is only 5 steps away from becoming a professional. He was featured in the critically acclaimed musical, The Nutcracker. George has been inspired greatly by Joel Kioko, the 16-year-old from the same group who recently took his dance prowess to America.

The only surviving child in a family of seven, George tells a story of great difficulties growing up in Kibera with his mother. Today, however, he is an inspiration to many boys his age. “Ballet has made me happier, healthier and more flexible. Dancing has spared me from bad company. If I had stayed in the slum, I could have died alongside some of my friends who turned to crime.”

Pamela Atieno, also a Grade 5 ballet dancer, dreams of becoming a dance instructor and a neurosurgeon. “I am greatly inspired by my teachers and I want to devote my time and skills to teaching others how to dance ballet, jazz and African dance styles. Dancing makes me happy. Through dance, I know I will one day make enough money to buy my parents a good home and help my siblings.” Pamela features in the musical, The Nutcracker.

Ballet Group Shot in Kibera

Group shot of dancers in Kibera. Michael Wamaya

For Shamic Otieno, ballet dancing is the key to a better life. Otieno dreams of becoming a flying doctor with AMREF because he wants to help people in far off places who ordinarily don’t get to see a doctor when they are in emergency situations. He will always be a dancer because dancing has afforded him a better life.

“One day when I am big and important, I will tell my story. Before ballet, life was hard. I went to school without food. Sometimes all there was was ugali (simple dish made of cornmeal, with a dough-like consistency) and water for dinner but that changed when I started dancing. I will help others get the opportunity I got.”

Otieno is one in a select group of children who have benefited from academic scholarships and been relocated to a boarding house within Ngong metro area, where they are better able to attend school and advanced dance classes. Otieno’s advice to other children his age who want to follow in his footsteps is “be proud of yourself. There is something you can do better than anyone else in the world. That is your talent and when you get an opportunity to showcase that talent, do your best and if you make a mistake, learn from it.”

To join Wamaya’s dance class, all one needs to have is a passion for the art. “You don’t need special skills to be a dancer. You don’t even need to be an ideal height or weight. All we ask is that one demonstrates a desire to dance and excel at it.”

Class sizes range between 150-300 students at any given time, who receive free training on alternate days during the school week and weekends. Their ages range between 9-16 years old. The program is supported by Annos Africa and other partners, while costumes and shoes are donated by well-wishers.

Michael Wamaya has dreams of expanding the program to reach children in the Kakuma refugee camp in northeastern Kenya because he believes dance helps children forget the hardship and suffering they have to endure, so they can enjoy being children again, if only for a little while. In the short run, Wamaya plans to open a dance studio in Kibera, where he can train young dancers and see them through graduation, instead of relying on dance academies in Europe for testing.

Ballet Dancers Listening to Wamaya

Wamaya speaking with his dancers

Giving Back to Kenya

Wamaya knows all too well what it means to give a needy child another chance at life. His story reads like a fairy tale. From a spanner boy with little hope of a better life in rural Kenya, Wamya’s life changed in a flash when a chance encounter with a visiting dance instructor opened a door he never thought he would walk through.

“She introduced me to dance. I joined the Kenya Performing Arts Group some 13 years ago, and therein discovered my hidden talent for music and dance,” he said, adding that he excelled in ballet and contemporary dance. Soon enough, he was touring the world with his troupe. Dance has seen Wamaya tour Holland, UK, Belgium, Kenya, among other countries. He returned home in 2008.

The tour was an eye opener. He saw great opportunities out there for many others like himself whose only chance for a better life lay in someone else’s gesture of kindness, and that’s when Wamaya decided to open a dance school and help children in difficult circumstances improve their lives through dance.

“So much had been given to me. I wanted to give back and, because the gift was given to me freely, I chose to give it freely.”

 

 

*Name has been changed to protect individual’s identity.