Youth embrace theatre and dance to advocate social, political justice

Youths perform a play against gender-based violence at the Mustard Seed Theatre during an interview on January 3, 2023. [David Gichuru, Standard]

On a Tuesday evening, Mustard Seed Community Centre in Dandora Phase 2 is a hive of activities. A group of young people gather round for their weekly meeting.

Shortly after, they break into song and dance, with music choreographed to advocate for an end to injustice in their community.

These include injustices caused by police excesses, extra-judicial killings, forced disappearance, crime and social injustice.

The group of youths is brought together under Social Justice Centre Travelling Theatre (SJCTT), a movement of human rights defenders who use art including music, stage and street plays, poems, spoken word and progressive cultural dance to create a socially just community.

According to Davis Tafari, a SJCTT director, the advocacy group is shaped by its surroundings. 

These are informal settlements where most of the members are drawn from, and where human rights violations are witnessed.

Tafari says they have adopted both street and stage performances to reach their audiences, who are mostly from their communities, to enlighten them on human rights and convince them to support human rights defenders.

Having experienced police arrests as a youth, Tafari says the movement has had a positive impact in the informal settlements.

The Social Justice Travelling Theatre Initiative was founded in 2019 as part of the organs of the Social Justice Movement, which has been at the forefront addressing social and political issues affecting Kenyans.

“The theatre came up during Saba Saba. It is a historic date in fighting for democracy. Every July 7 we go to the streets to protest illegal arrests and killings of youth in informal settlements, climate injustice, GBV among other vices,” said Tafari. 

According to Tafari, similar theatres under the SJCTT have been established in other informal settlements in Nairobi including Kayole, Korogocho, Kariobangi and Mathare.

He explains that every group uses arts that imitates unique violations happening in their communities.

“I am a victim of discriminative police arrest because I was always mistaken to be a criminal due to my dreadlocks. But our campaigns have seen these police excesses reduce significantly,” said Tafari.

Enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killings being rampant in such areas, the group started a campaign dubbed ‘Decision to charge” to enlighten people on their rights when they are arrested until they are arraigned in court.

Recently, SJCTT was awarded by Defenders Coalition as Upcoming Human Rights Defenders of the year. The group was recognised for their uniqueness in unpacking many human rights issues.

According to Charles Gachanga, the chairperson for Mustard Seed Centre, SJCTT has successfully unpacked numerous rights issues among citizens for them to remain vigilant and active in the promotion and protection of human rights.

He says the move by young people to use art as a tool to preach peace and educate the community on human rights adds to the initiative started by Dandora Transformation League in 2013 to reduce crime.

“We have seen a major impact of their work in the community because some of the youth who were indulged in criminal activities are changing,” said Gachanga.

Gachanga says in their meetings, the group discusses ideas for messages that deconstruct normalised harmful practices.

“Some years back, shooting of young people had become the order of the order of the day due to high crime rates. We fought to stop police killings and instead use the justice system and this youth group is still pushing for that message,” he added.

He noted that mob justice and discriminatory police arrests in the area have gone down significantly.