Just a little over a year ago, Bria de la Mare was returning from a summer experience working with a Theatre for Development group in Kenya through Performing Arts Abroad. Looking back a year later, she considers the enormity of…
As you work with Kenyan performing artists in the slums of Nairobi, you will begin to understand the unique role of theatre in East African urban society. Spend time teaching workshops in schools and to after school groups, attend theatrical performances around the city, and help with the administration of a vibrant and thriving theatre group (when they are meeting regularly). This volunteer experience will challenge and inspire you as you witness firsthand the power of theatre to change marginalized communities for the better. As an international volunteer, you will bring valuable skills to the table, but you will also gain unparalleled insight into the awe and resiliency of the human condition.
Previous independent travel (especially in Africa) is helpful, and/or a demonstrated ability to be self-motivated and flexible.
“Nairobi was such an eye opening experience that will always, always stay with me. I learned so so much, not just about this type of Theatre but about myself and about other people and other cultures. The people out there are amazing. It literally was incredible and honestly life changing and I can’t wait to go back again. If you feel drawn to this programme don’t hold back, just go for it and you won’t regret it.”
Performing Arts Points of Interest
The Goethe-Institut is a cultural center for Kenyan-German interaction. The center houses cultural events including spoken word poetry performances. Their cultural and educational programs encourage intercultural dialogue and enable cultural involvement in order to strengthen the development of structures in civil society and foster worldwide mobility.
The Kenya Cultural Centre
The Kenya Cultural Centre is the premier best known Space and Platform at The Kenya Cultural Centre. Built in late 1940s and opened in March 1951, KNT aka “The Shrine” as it is fondly known, is the largest proscenium theatre space in Kenya. The space houses a dance studio along with the theatre.
PAA Home Base
Our headquarters in Nairobi are at the Voices of Change All Over (VOCAL) performing arts center, which provides a safe space for local youth to come develop their talents in music, dance, and theatre. You will join rehearsals here, lead workshops, and use the building as a meeting point for excursions to other part of the city or travel to other volunteer placements such as schools or orphanages. The center is located in the eastern part of the city where most of the project’s residents live, and within an easy commute of your homestay.
About the Location
Kenya has an unrivaled unique combination of interests for any traveler. It is 582,644 sq. km. astride the equator and unfolds into a diverse topography with a variety of flora, fauna, and cultures. From the warm blue waters of the Indian Ocean with miles of sandy white palm-lined beaches and coral reefs it extends to the world’s second largest freshwater body, Lake Victoria. In between is snow capped Mt. Kenya, the Great Rift Valley, and shimmering thorn tree-dotted vast savannah teeming with wildlife. The central highland with lush tropical forests also features growth of the world’s richest coffee beans, tea, pineapples, and sugar plantations.
The cultural diversity of Kenya is truly astonishing. While there are vast differences among the 45 ethnic groups, they all share a rich history with the performing arts. Dance and music have been a part of the cultures in this part of the world for thousands of years, and some of these original traditions remain. Theater has moved from sacred spaces to public spaces, and is one of the most popular tools for political activism, community development, education, and social change.
All of these magnificent traditions collide in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, a cultural mecca and vital home for music, dance, and theater. Nairobi is home to over 3 million people, representing some of the richest and poorest people on the entire continent of Africa. Luscious, perfectly-manicured golf courses run alongside some of the densest and most dilapidated slums in all of Africa. In the business center of Nairobi, one can find glamorous casinos, five-star French restaurants, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway wrote the Green Hills of Africa, and modern architectural feats such as the Kenyatta Conference Center. Just a few miles away, there are roughly 750,000 people living on 5 square miles of land. Indeed, some sources claim that 70% of Nairobi’s population lives on less than 5% of its land. While the slums are poor and problems persist, they are also incredible cultural centers representing all of Kenya’s diverse ethnic groups in one small area. This diversity infuses all aspects of life, giving this area an overwhelming vibrancy that amazes and inspires.
Live with a family in a Nairobi apartment homestay, located in an enclosed compound with excellent security. Public transportation is available to the headquarters and field sites from near the apartment. You will receive breakfast and dinner each day in the homestay, you will have a private room, and be integrated fully into the family. All homestays are families who are directly connected to our project, and the most common home is the home of our site director, George.
You may share a homestay with one or more other volunteers on the program at the same time, but it is very rare to share a room. In the case of a shared room, you will be matched with someone of the same sex doing similar work as you on a similar schedule. Our enrollment on this program varies, but it is very possible you will be the only Performing Arts Abroad volunteer during your session. If this is the case, you will get an even deeper cultural immersion experience, and more chances to form bonds with the dance group you will be joining. VOCAL often hosts international volunteers from other organizations and countries also.
A Day in the Life
The Participant Experience
Feedback from an amplifier gives way to a bumping Afrobeat rhythm and a group of dancers appears out of nowhere with choreography reflecting ethnic groups from all corners of Kenya. Dust flies in the courtyard as the dance gets faster and more intense. Within 15 minutes, several hundred people have wondered out of their homes and businesses to see what the commotion is, and have formed a huge circle around the stage area. They recognize themselves in movements they used to dance with their grandparents, and songs their family has sung for generations. As the piece ends, an actor steps out with a loud exclamation in sheng, the local dialect that blends Swahili and traditional languages. The audience erupts in laughter and the play begins. By the end of the performance, each of the now 1,000 audience members has seen him/herself represented in a character, and has seriously considered consequences of behavior such as unsafe sex, drug use, and violence inspired by xenophobia. This is art for social change in its rawest and most powerful form…
During your time in Kenya, you may find yourself as part of a community performance like the one described above. This is one of many activities pursued by VOCAL, our partner in Nairobi who uses the arts to address pressing social issues. You may also join rehearsals at their arts center several days each week, teach workshops and classes in local schools, volunteer at a children’s home on the weekends, and help with the development of new work. A flexible attitude and open mind will be essential to your success, adapting to the needs during the specific time you choose to go.
When you arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi (NBO), one of our on-site staff will be there to greet you holding a PAA welcome sign. You will then be taken to your homestay, where you will meet your host family and settle into your room after a brief orientation to the home and neighborhood. Your first day may be free of any scheduled activities so that you can rest and adjust to your new surroundings. Sometime during your first few days, our Program Director – Mwas – will meet you and take you around Nairobi to get you familiar with public transportation and the layout of the city. He will lead an orientation about health and safety, and start introducing you to volunteer projects you will pursue during your time on the program. Throughout your stay, Mwas will be your main contact and will always be available when you need anything.
A Typical Day
There is no “typical” day on this program, and you will need to greet each morning with a willingness to roll with the punches. Given the relaxed culture of Kenya, some activities can be planned the very day they occur. However, you will likely be involved in one or more of the following activities on a day to day basis:
- Participating in rehearsals at VOCAL’s arts center and leading workshops for young theatre practitioners
- Collaborating with actors around your own age and experience level at studios, arts centers, and community organizations
- Teaching theatre in local schools as a guest artist
- Helping with the planning and implementation of community outreach performances that often draw crowds up to 1,000 people
- Volunteering at a home for abandoned children on the weekends by helping serve meals and leading creative activities such as theatre games and dance sessions
VOCAL (Voices Of Change All Over) is a network of young people using dance, music, drama, and acrobatics for development, education, and social change in their communities. The participants in VOCAL come from the most marginalized areas of Nairobi’s sprawling slums and address issues of drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, ethnic violence, rape, child abuse, and many others.
Probably the most important educative tool in VOCAL is drama. The main drama group consists of about a dozen young adults who meet every day of the week to rehearse and create skits to perform in the community.* They create these performances through brainstorming sessions in which each member gives a report on issues troubling their particular area. After identifying issues that affect the most communities, they create a working script through improvised creative dialogue exercises. In keeping with the African oral tradition, few of VOCAL’s scripts are written down. Instead, the stories change slightly with each performance. In this way, the actors feel that their characters maintain vibrancy and they are not restricted by set words for each show.
Occasionally, the drama group, dancers, and musicians join together for a community outreach. To attract a crowd, several musicians set up drums or speakers in an open area and being playing. Once an audience has gathered, the dancers often warm up the crows with choreography representing a variety of cultural groups from the area.
Sometimes, an audience of five hundred to one thousand people can gather to watch the spectacle. At this point, the drama group begins their skit and uses the crowd itself as entrance and exit points. The “stage” or playing space is surrounded by people in the same way as “arena theatre” or “theatre in the round” in the Western context. However, the drama group would hesitate to call their playing space a stage.
Most of the drama group feels that acting on a stage would remove them from their audience. The actors are members of the same community as the audience and they are addressing issues that affect each of them equally. In addition, the drama group engages the viewers in conversation and debate following the show. By separating themselves from the audience, facilitating discussion would become more challenging and less personal.
By presenting information orally in sheng (a dialect of Kiswahili), the actors/educators can be assured their message is being understood. High illiteracy rates in the area make this a crucial aspect to consider. Even if flyers or pamphlets were distributed in the local language Kiswahili, many of the less educated people would not be able to read them. Secondly, messages relayed through identifiable characters makes lessons stick in the audience’s mind. When people can identify with characters they recognize from their own communities, issues become real and the solutions become tangible.
*Please note that VOCAL meets regularly when funding is available, which is based on donors and grants from governmental organizations and NGOs. When VOCAL is not meeting, our volunteers play an important role in the local school system by leading workshops, teaching classes, and volunteering in children’s homes bringing the arts to children in need. Due to the erratic nature of available grants, we cannot guarantee that collaboration with VOCAL’s drama group will be the focus of the volunteer program.
Founder and Executive Director
Reynolds graduated summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis in 2008 with a degree in Theater and African and African American Studies. For an honors thesis Reynolds filmed, edited, and produced a full-length documentary in Kenya with Haba na Haba, a group using performance for education and social change in the slums of Nairobi. This project earned him the Forum on Education Abroad Undergraduate Research Award. A year later, Reynolds organized a trip to bring Haba na Haba to the United States for a tour of St. Louis and Washington University. Immediately after graduation, Reynolds worked in Rwanda as a filmmaker for Millennium Congregations, an interfaith organization connecting communities of faith in the United States with development projects in Rwanda’s Bugesera District. Reynolds then served two years with Teach for America, teaching in the South Bronx and receiving a Masters Degree in Education from Hunter College. He completed a second graduate degree in African Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington, and his Masters thesis focused on the impact of donors on the creative process of Theatre for Development (TfD) groups in Kenya.
Reynolds has traveled extensively in Africa, spending time in Ghana, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also studied acting, voice, and movement at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Reynolds is a two-time Rhodes Scholarship finalist, the inaugural recipient of the Dred and Harriet Scott Award for the Advancement of Human Rights, and the winner of two research fellowships. He was also a Dialogue Fellow for the Xenia Institute, has twice served as the co-director for the Roosevelt Institution’s International Diplomacy Center (Washington University branch), and was president of the Graduate Students of African Studies (GSAS) at Indiana University.
Reynolds lives in Northampton, MA with his wife Julia who is a professional costume designer and his daughter Lily who is a cute baby. In his free time Reynolds likes to play his guitar, go hiking, act in local productions, hit the karaoke bars, sing with his dog Captain (the best doggy singer in the universe), and play various yard games such as KanJam, cornhole, “cups”, and Kubb.
Kenya Site Director
George supports all participants on our Kenya programs. He coordinates airport pickup, arranges housing (often hosting volunteers himself), does strategic planning, and manages the 24-hour onsite emergency phone.
George is the Director of VOCAL, a group using the performing arts for education and development in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. He has also served as the Deputy Director of Culture, PR, and Marketing for Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), an organization with over 17,000 members in dozens of slum areas in Nairobi.
George is a graduate and International Fellow of the DeVos Institue for Performing Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. He also holds a certificate in jazz and Norwegian folk music, dance, and Norwegian culture and language from Sund Folkhogskole School in Norway.
George is a prolific musician and artist. He has traveled and performed in many countries, including the United States, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Senegal, Switzerland, South Africa, Tanzania, and the Czech Republic. George also starred as the protagonist in Peace Wanted Alive, a 2008 documentary on post election violence in Kenya that won second prize for best documentary in a prestigious African Movies Awards in Nigeria. Most recently, George developed the music for Generation Firimbi, a Kenyan musical on corruption.
George has also represented Kenya in many development initiatives. He was a consultant for UN-Habitat on “Image-In the MDGs”, a project aimed at empowering youth through photography. This venture has developed into a program called Shootback that now uses digital media of all kinds to promote Nairobi’s slums, and employs many young people to better their community. He has led delegations to Geneva for an anti-child labor summit, Vancouver for a UN-Habitat World Urban Forum, and Dakar for the African Cultural Diversity Conference, among many others.
In addition to his native tongue of Kikuyu, George speaks English, Swahili, Norwegian, and Luo.
Antony Mwangi (Mwas)
Kenya Program Director
Mwas accompanies volunteers on our Nairobi programs, and acts as their main day-to-day support throughout their time in the country.
Antony Mwangi was born and raised up in Mathare slums. He began
performing at an early age.acting school plays, set books and
participating in school festivals.He also loves playing guitar, drums
and enjoys singing.
Since 1998 he volunteered for the Mathare Youth Sports
Association(MYSA) Haba na Haba arts project, an organization with over
25, 000 members in dozens of slums areas in Nairobi. He undertook
various projects while at MYSA; including travelling to Moshi Tanzania
to perform at the East Africa cup tournament. Antony also travelled
across Kenya participating at the “Alive and Kicking” roadshows, a
program that used arts, counselling and sports to raise HIV/AIDS
awareness in High schools.
He currently volunteers coordinating theatre activities for Vocal
program,a group using performing arts for education and development in
the slums of Nairobi. He believes in nurturing young talents.he
teaches performing arts in various informal schools of Mathare slums
and it’s environs.
As Nelson Mandela once said,”As we let our Light shine, we
unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”., that is
one of his favourite quote.
“My experience volunteering in Kenya was nothing less than insightful. I was deeply immersed in the Kenyan environment, lifestyle, and culture touring and working in Kenya as if I were a native. The groups we taught and worked with in Nairobi were receptive, attentive and a lot of fun to work with. I hope to go back very soon!”
“The in-country staff were incredibly friendly and helpful and supportive. Just great!”
“Performing Arts Abroad (PAA) is a wonderful organization that allows you to gain valuable work experience, contribute to a new community, develop lasting relationships, travel and (in my case) learn a new language. PAA creates a comfortable experience abroad with their assistance and support.”
From the blog
The second half of my time in Nairobi was very different from the first half. A group of around 30 students from Norway came over for something called the Pamoja festival, an annual festival of mainly music. They spent two weeks doing…
When I first arrived in Nairobi, Kenya I was greeted with every bit as much culture shock as I had expected and more. To be honest I thought I’d never get used to it. And I was right; I never…
Summer 2019 (other start dates may be available, please contact us if none of the start dates below work for your schedule)
|Session||Application Deadline||Start Date||Maximum Duration|
|Session 5||May 21 2019||Jul 28 2019||5 weeks|
|Session 6||Jun 04 2019||Aug 11 2019||3 weeks|
Important Summer 2019 (other start dates may be available, please contact us if none of the start dates below work for your schedule) Dates
Summer 2020 (other start dates may be available, please contact us if none of the start dates below work for your schedule)
|Session||Application Deadline||Start Date||Maximum Duration|
|Feb 24 2020||May 05 2020||12 weeks|
|Mar 10 2020||May 19 2020||12 weeks|
|Mar 31 2020||Jun 09 2020||12 weeks|
|May 05 2020||Jul 14 2020||7 weeks|
|May 19 2020||Jul 28 2020||5 weeks|
|Jun 02 2020||Aug 11 2020||3 weeks|
Important Summer 2020 (other start dates may be available, please contact us if none of the start dates below work for your schedule) Dates
Apply today — How the process works
Submit a simple online application
Schedule a live video interview with a Program Coordinator
Upload program specific materials to an online portal
Receive your aceptance decision and begin your journey!
How the Process Works
To apply, click the “Apply Now” button below. You will fill out a simple initial application online and pay a deposit that is refundable if you are not accepted, and will be applied toward your overall program cost if you are accepted (not an additional fee). At this point, we will ask you to send us the following materials:
- Your resume/CV
- Online portfolio, personal website, or film reel (optional)
- Your availability in U.S. Eastern Time for a 30 minute video interview with your Program Coordinator.
- Be clear in your interview about your goals for the program. We work hard to prepare your hosts and give them the chance to design an experience that is customized to you as much as possible. To do this, we need a clear picture of who you are and what you want out of your time in Kenya (and don’t want!).
- The Skype interviews are our first face-to-face impression of you. Show up on time, dress well, and be personable.
- When applying for this program, you have the option of submitting a film reel and/or an online portfolio. This is not required for acceptance, but if you already have this available, we would love to see it. If you’re curious about the best way to present this, have a look at the following resources:How to Make an Actor Demo Reel, by the New York Film AcademyThe Actor’s Website: Dos and Don’ts by Backstage.com
Participants must be 18 or over the day they begin the program.
GPA / Student Status
There is no GPA requirement for this program, students and non-students are welcome to apply.
There is no language requirement for this program, English is one of the national languages of Kenya (a former British colony), and many of the young people you work with will speak at least basic English.
We give preference to applicants with at least one year of theatre experience. We also recommend previous independent travel in Africa, and/or the ability to be self-motivating and work independently in challenging environments.
We are looking for open-minded, flexible applicants who can clearly convey their passion for theatre and an acute interest in international travel and exposure to new ideas.