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Twists, turns help group beat disability

By - | December 19th 2012


The setting is Kenya National Theatre dancing hall. Two young men and a woman contort their bodies in sync with a melody from a flute.

The young woman lifts one of her colleagues into the air as she keeps in rhythm with the music.

One would think she would collapse under his weight but she holds on until the music changes pace. The other member of the group holds on to a walking stick as he glides his body.

Looking at the artists and their ‘fluid’ movements, it is hard to notice that they are disabled. But despite their disability, the creative artistes have chosen to express themselves and their ability through dance.

As the flute’s melody crescendos, the three wriggle and glide in slow motion. It has been a long journey for the group, with each member having a moving story.

Lydiah Iregi, 16, recounts that she fell sick and was misdiagnosed with pneumonia. She came out of the illness paralysed on her left side.

John Irungu was normal at birth but fell sick not long after. He developed a form of dwarfism that considerably stunted his growth and interfered with the development of his limbs.  Joseph Kanyenje, on the other hand, has normal body frame. He is the current artistic director and choreographer of Pamoja Dance Group, which comprises of nine disabled and two able-bodied members.

Their dances mirror the daily struggles of disable people.

Mr Sylvester Barasa, a leading dancer with the group, was diagnosed with polio as a child and lost the functionality of his legs. He was abandoned by those who should have cared for him. He left to survive on the streets. “I began dancing because I had seen others do it. I no longer feel disabled. It takes me to a higher level; a better world,” he says.

The group’s members have come together to promote the art of dancing among the disabled and close the wide divide between them and able-bodied people.

In the group, dancers with and without physical disability come together to share creative work in an environment where their abilities flourish and no one judges them based on how they appear from outside.

“I am happy to dance with others who are willing and ready to give me a chance despite what my body says about me,” Iregi says.

She adds, “Just before I fell ill, I was a member of a dance group with my peers. When I went back half paralysed, I wasn’t welcomed in the group any more.”

Pamoja group has performed numerous times to different audiences, mesmerising and attracting admiration from fans. It came into being as a brainchild of Miriam Rother, wife to a former UNHCR country representative, who was touched by the disabled willingness to dance.

 She founded the group in 2006 and it first performed in 2007 at Alliance Francaise. Since then, they’ve performed more than 30 times in separate venues around the country. While contemporary dance is their main indulgence, they’ve found a unique dramatised genre to go with it. At a recent performance in Nairobi titled “Elephant stories”, the dancers captured the threat facing elephants in the country and in Africa much like the traditional storyteller. The dancers achieved this through several patterns. They transformed themselves into elephants, poachers or rangers.

Through performances, the group is able to pay its members some ‘small’ money, but not always. Since they can’t entirely survive from their art, most of the group’s members are employed in various sectors. Betty Mwendi, who also dances with the group, is employed at the Ministry of Immigration while another member Beatrice Wambui works at City Law offices. John Irungu works at Frigoken Canning and Iregi is a thespian at United Disability Empowerment in Kenya.

Sectors of life

While the group’s focus is to change minds and raise awareness about disability, they’ve also provided a forum for the disabled and desolate on the streets to discover their capabilities. “We challenge others to see the contribution that disabled people can make in performing arts vis-à-vis in different sectors of life,” says Iregi.  Kanyenje adds, “The group is inclusive and through what we do, we fight stereotypes that disparage people who were born disabled. We believe that we are all humans and inside us; our thinking and creativity, we are the same.”


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