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I woke up this morning to the cacophany of birds chirping so loudly I could barely hear my alarm when it went off a half hour later. I took the 3 steps it takes to get around my bed and into the water closet (literally the size of a closet) and on the way the epiphany of choreography I spent hours working on yesterday came to my mind. My Soweto bunch are of street kids are such varied ages, 8-18 and have such a wide range of levels of discipline and artistic ability it is very difficult to come up with movement that makes the older ones feel challenged and cool doing it and is still within the realm of possiblility for the younger ones to pick up. Well, a simple yet vigorous syncopated clapping sequence I used on choreography for Kiss Me Kate some years back came to mind and combining that with some abstracted basketball and volleyball movement gave us a wonderful dance for them to perform at our big kick-off event on the 18th.
A note on local music. I cannot say the youth are innundated with any specific type of music because the music you will hear through a regular day here in Nairobi is random and eclectic. I had 2 over fried eggs this morning on burnt toast and some sort of porridge for breakfast as I listened to "Rocky Mountain High" and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" blaring over the crackling sound system. Then in the matatu on the way out of town I heard some heavy Swahili rap/hip-hop. We switched matatus and this one was playing Celine Dion's "Falling Into You". On the walk down the long dirt road to the slums twice I heard African chanting/singing with the half yelling half singing harmonies indicative of this style accompanied by the very high pitched pygmie squeals and calls. These were both coming from local churches. We use drums for our 2 hour class and on the way to the prison for our afternoon session I had to try to tune out some heavy pounding street rap using nonstop explitives and graphic sexual descriptives throughout. We get it all.
This country it stunning and beautiful as are the people. There are recent studies trying to find out why, with so many natural resources, such great weather, land, plant life, schools business etc the country remains in such poverty. They have come to a powerful conclusion after much cross analysis that subjects are being taught in the schools but basic life skills of discipline, creativity, logical reasoning and application of knowledge to real life are not being taught. An organization called Inside Out Learning has gathered information and are developing a curriculum to incorporate such teachings into the schools here. According to my friend working with the organization they have figured out the methods that work for math, english, and other such subjects but the arts has not worked so far. We had a long meeting with Lillian Odiero from Inside Out Learning describing our methods and results and she is sold. She attended our event where she saw the results of the programs on the street kids up close and personal after just 2 or 3 weeks. They want to adopt our methods into their system. They will be inviting our Project Manager for Kenya to explain the system and do training in Mumbasa early next year.
So much has happened in the recent weeks I cannot possibly share it all with you. A few highlights will have to suffice. We had some crazy set backs when Father Enos, the director of the orphanage we were beginning programs with (1200 children) was arrested on charges of fraud, misappropriation of funds, abuse and sexual abuse to the children. The chief of police of Nairobi got involved. We had to step back fast not to end up part of the hulaballoo and media hoopla. We are waiting for things to settle down there before we attempt to try to reconnect.
One day about 2 weeks ago I arrived at the Shamba in Soweto and due to some internal fighting between the villagers and those running the street boys project the building we were so happy to be using for dance classes, the construction space that was not yet built with lots of space, had been boarded up. No entry. We were again forced to change venues. This time we did class outside in the dirt yard under the hot Nairobi sun. We then split the class and held the next session inside their small room in the tin hut they use for a classroom teaching basics of English, math, telling time etc. Other such upsets have made it very difficult to build on the programs we have established, nevertheless the work has gone on and is, despite the opposition, flourishing.
Many of my teachers in training who are members of the Boys Choir of Kenya are busy with school and exams so have not been available for training or to come assist me on a consistent basis. This has worried me for when I leave and they are completely in charge. Teaching them their responsibility to these kids and the importance of having the discipline on a consistent basis to be the key to the success of all we are doing has been a challenge. Many of them have come to understand that we are not just teaching some fun dance steps, some songs and a little drumming. We are teaching life skills through the medium of these arts. Even though we had some major disruptions in the classes for the street kids in Soweto we were able to pull them all together on Saturday and combine them with 8 of the boys who were part of the program 9 months ago and create a piece of choreography we could present at the upcoming event.
On the day of the event (the 18th of Nov) we arrived early to gather the 32 children and youths and rehearse before we transported them to the church in downtown Nairobi (1 hour away). Sadly, the school had been broken into the night before and many things were stolen or vandalized. After cleaning up the mess, we rehearsed with drums outside again. I put Solomon and Sakwa in charge of the group for the day as I rushed out to prepare for the biggest Promethean Spark Event held in Kenya to date.
The boys from Kibera (20-28 yrs old) had been working hard and we were progressing well. The time came to be more strict. We told the group they were not allowed to come to class high or innebriated any more and we lost about 4 of them. The rest continued to come----sober and much more able to concentrate, discipline and focus. From that point on the progress from each session was visible, even tangible. They could feel it themselves. I made a point to mention individuals' progress each time it was evident and these young men moved forward by leaps and bounds---pirhouettes will come soon. Well, the event on Tuesday Nov 18th went better than expected. The church I have been attending since I arrived volunteered to let us use their big hall and it was perfect. They were worried they would have problems with so many street kids in attendance--nearly 50 in all---but to their astonishment the youth were all well-behaved and kept order through the whole program. I was surprised at their deportment from start to finish. They even helped set up and clean up. My whole being was smiling as I saw them all working together--church members, boys choir, street kids. The dances and songs were not the highest quality you ever saw, but they were amazing considering who was performing them, how long they had been in training and where they had been and what they had been capable of only 3 weeks previous. Literally miracles before our eyes.
The Boys Choir really embraced this as their own and took care of transportation fees for all the performers and provided food for all 125 people in attendance. They performed intermittently throughout the program which gave the whole event a very professional feeling. Such an amazing group of young men. We now have our Promethean Spark Kenya Team. Cliff Njora has time and again proven himself by stepping up and meeting the many challenges that have come our way and I have asked him to be our Project Manager for all the Programs here in Kenya. The 6 teachers working the programs will report to him and he will in turn report to me and the Promethean Spark Board in NYC. He has agreed and I have complete confidence he will not only keep the individual programs in order but help them to thrive.
A final word about the programs at the prison. For obvious reasons they could not be represented at the event. We had a wonderful meeting with Madame Jane Kirii, the Senior Officer in charge of Kamiti Prison and she welcomed the programs with open arms. What usually takes months of paperwork and reports to the Commissioner and others happened in 2 days. This was a Tuesday. She asked us to come start the programs Thursday. This we did and the outcome was amazing. The first day, Jane was not there. Kefa, the guard in charge insisted that we do class with all the inmates in the same room. So there I was standing in front of approximately 100 prisoners staring at me with a look of ---what are you doing here and what do you think you are going to teach us. I took the bull by the horns, set the ground rules. I speak this loud and no louder. If you are to hear me you have to be quieter than me. I had them all stand and told them if they remain standing and dancing they were allowed to ask questions but if they sit down on the side to watch they are not allowed to say a word. This was difficult to manage. Everytime we did a new step the ones sitting would laugh, point and jeer the ones attempting this new skill for the first time. The numbers dwindled drastically. By the end we had about 30 standing.
Each time I heard talking from the bystanders I would stop the whole class and wait for silence. Even the guards were to behave. I told one of the guards who was laughing at someone trying to do the steps that he was welcome to come join us. Otherwise he was not to laugh at those attempting to better themselves. One large inmate felt no compulsion to acquiese to the rules so at one point as he continued to talk I got in his face. "Are you the teacher here?! Then what are you doing talking?! ..... You think you can teach this class better than I can? Be my guest! It is all yours." I sat down and waited for him. There was dead silence in the room. "Well?! ..." He slumped back and shook his head. "Then SHUT your mouth and show a little respect!" I then took the opportunity to share a lesson of life with them about respect. Explaining that if they could learn respect (for others and for themselves) so many doors would open they would not know what to do. Education, good jobs, good friends and more. The head guard stood after me and translated into Swahili so those who did not understand English would get what I was saying. He felt it was that important a message. They were much better after that.
We took roll at the end to archive the original courageous few who were willing to stay standing amidst ridicule and persecution. We were to come back 2 days later. I informed Madame Jane before entering on Saturday, that the program would surely fail if we had to do class in front of spectators every time. She understood and chastised those who made fun of those dancing. She then separated those who wanted class and those who wanted to sit and watch TV. We had over 30 join us in the echoing square concrete room next door. This time we were able to concentrate more easily and took a huge step forward in discipline and skill.
I was surprised and thrilled to see the large inmate I had challenged in front of his peers, not only in the room but in the front row. I have now turned things over to Promethean Spark Team Kenya as I am leaving in a few hours to fly to India and start more programs there. "That which we persist in doing becomes easier. Not that the nature of the thing has changed, but our ability to do has increased." The spark has been lit and is catching fire here in Kenya and I am thrilled at all that has happened here in the past 3 weeks. Yes we have worked hard but doors have opened that we could not have opened ourselves. People have come forward to volunteer and spaces have been made available. Funds are still low so much of it has to come out of our own pockets but luckily most of the sacrifice is time, talent and heart. God has blessed us abundantly in our efforts. I pray this will continue as they take up the cart and run with it.
I just got word that Edwin Munyili, one of my teachers for Kamiti Prison went out there to teach class for the first time today, by himself. He had no music available to him because I am taking my ipod and speaker dock with me. We are in the midst of trying to arrange for a cd player and drums to be available in the space. He carried on brilliantly. More showed up than last time. Nearly 40. He taught them a traditional Kenyan song with harmonies sung in Swahili and then took the last hour to review what I had taught in previous sessions. I was so proud of him. These boys taking over the programs are all under 24 years of age and are proving to be great leaders and examples to those they are teaching.
God Bless you all,
As I sat on a sweaty, packed matatu (15 passenger van used for public transport here) driving through the muddy roads of the slums of Kibera on our way to class this morning, I reflected on the divine guidance and overflowing blessings received in recent days and my heart swelled with joy. These first couple of weeks here have been more fruitful than I ever could have imagined. I am staying at the YMCA hostel in a room about 7'x10' . We have either freezing water or scalding water and have not had electricity for almost 3 days now. I do all my journal writing and reading by candlelight. There are nice affluent places in downtown Nairobi if one can and wants to spend the money. I don't want to give you the wrong idea about Kenya. I just happen to be in an area that struggles.
On the plane flying in, my stomach was in knots. I didn't realize the emotional stress and deep-seated anxiety my experience from last time had left. All the high intensity running through the dark streets, hiding out, not being able to come back to Nairobi because of the villages being burned and neighborhoods being pillaged; memories and emotions flooded my heart and mind as the plane landed. I am happy to report I have found a much more civil and very busy Kenya than the one I left. The streets are filled with honking buses and matatus and businesses are all open and busy in the downtown areas. The slums are teeming with hordes of people in the streets, parks and marketplaces. There are even people lounging and relaxing in Uhuru Park (Kenya's Central Park) where much of the rioting happened a few short months ago.
It took a few days to get in touch with everyone that has been on board in the past but once we got things going so many doors have opened I have not had a moment to rest. First thing, I was able to reconnected with the people I lived with out in Soweto slums from last time I was here. They were so excited to see me back to do more programs. They said it was a miracle that I came back to rebuild what we started before. That was refreshing to hear. I was thrilled to hear that the majority of the boys we were working with before are now in school. I only saw two of them at our gathering so I asked where the rest were and they informed me they were doing exams for school. How wonderful. Now THAT is the miracle, these guys straight off the streets doing well as full-time students. YES! With the success of the programs from last time they were anxious for us to get an ongoing program established for all of the children and youth who wanted to follow in their footsteps. So we have established a set schedule of classes 3 times a week there in Soweto. The first time I showed up to teach we couldn't all fit in the small tin hut we had planned on using so I went in search of a new space. There was a large building that had been half build and was still in skeleton form that had nice open areas without walls built up yet. I had the kids clear out the bricks and lumber and voila, we had a new dance studio.
One of the boys from last time who didn't make it into school immediately, George, without instructions walked in the door and set up all the old drums we had used before. He had been practicing and was ready to play for class. We packed about 22 kids in the space that was covered in about an inch of dust/dirt and sawdust and had our first class. They were rowdy and unruly but I knew that was to be expected. Noone has ever taught them how to focus, discipline and accomplish a given task for more than a few minutes at a time. The first few classes are always the most difficult because as much as they want to be there they don't know what to expect. Those who stay have no idea what is in store for them. HA!
The second time we met threw me for a loop as we expanded the group by over 10. A bunch of the young men from the January programs came since it was a Saturday session and they weren't in school. What a joy to see them and to see the difference in their faces. They are growing to be mature, focused educated young men. To see the difference between them and the new boys in the class was a huge eye-opener. They were with me on every step taught. Every move they were strict to follow. Exacting, strong and disciplined with no problems concentrating for the full 2 hour session. The simple lessons I insist on in class that have nothing to do with dance such as looking me in the eyes when they talk to me and answering my questions in clear full sentences seemed natural to them now.
These same boys that begged and did drugs---that came to class high most of the time back then, are now setting a great example for the younger ones coming up. They even offered after class to do the dances I had taught them 9 months ago. They remembered them and danced with such vigor I could hardly believe my eyes. Moses, the drummer and head dancer had taken charge when I left and kept rehearsing with them for months until they got tired of the same stuff with nothing new to rehearse. I was so proud of them.
New doors unexpectedly opened in other parts of town. I was dumbfounded to go to the slums of Kibera where one of the boys from last time had joined a small drumming and dancing group called Wayo-Wayo. He had informed me in August that when I returned they had a number of boys from the streets of Kibera (the largest slum in all of Kenya) who were excited to start a similar program. We connected and off we went to new areas I would have never found myself. They had created a makeshift dance space outdoors on uneven concrete by putting a layer of rubberized flooring over it. It acted nearly like a marly floor with cement under it. The boys began arriving and to my surprise not one of them was under 20 years old. They were nearly all high---either from some form of drug or alcohol. It was very difficult to get them to do the simplest movement together. Their attention span was miniscule to nill. I was happy they were there but phew! was not sure if it was going to happen. I warned them that I had no tolerance for coming to class in such a state and next time they had better come ready to work and train their minds and bodies. We had a few less the next class dropping from 16 to 10 but the class was great. Basic, yes but they were with me the whole time. We had sifted some of the players out. Word had gotten out so by the third class some serious boys who wanted to train showed up. We are up to 14 now. I say boys but they are all in their lower to mid twenties. They are working hard and will improve by leaps and bounds over the coming months.
I say coming months because Promethean Spark has been blessed greatly by a small band of local volunteers who are going to be taking over all the programs during the interim when there is no one visiting from NYC. The Boys Choir of Kenya has been wanting to give back to their community and world in ways more meaningful than just performing for them and they have seen fit to adopt these programs and assign a number of the more experienced boys to be the teachers. I have been privileged to meet nearly every day with a representative group of the BCK. Besides the technical training I do with them to lift their level of expertise in their performing, I have begun teachers' training classes with them. Each time I head out to teach I have from 1 to 3 assistants walking through the mud with me. We are sorting out which of the boys are up to the challenge to be able to step up and dance....actually step up and be confident leaders and mold these eager new hearts. It takes a certain set of skills beyond that of an ordinary teacher to be able to not only pioneer these types of programs but to take this level of lack of discipline and lead them slowly to a place of self-respect and ambition. And from there, the spark having been lit, the students can then move to a level of personal volition where they go out and seek it for themselves. Then further down the road, they reach a point where they want to give back. It is all a process, an upward spiral.
This is already long enough so I will not go into detail about the orphanage with over 1000 children in it that we are beginning programs in and the amazing grace that guided our footsteps to the gates of the Kamiti Prison where young men are brought to do rehabilitation for a 4 month period. Currently they either do nothing during their stint there or some do agricultural programs working in the fields planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. The new matron of the prison wants to turn it into what it was
meant to be and really change the boys who come there. She has opened her arms to us asking that we start programs this week. As I spoke to the gathering of nearly 100 hardened street criminals, their eyes lit up when they heard they would be getting dance and musical training. After a whole slue of questions they all cheered at the possibility of being able to be a part of the program. I will be meeting with the matron tomorrow to coordinate and solidify our schedules.
I am so sad I will not be around to see the miracle of change take place over the coming months but I am so happy to have trustworthy members of our Promethean Spark Team-Kenya to turn the programs over to. Yes, I will be back and will be amazed once again next time I return but to see it first hand is sooooo inspiring.
On November 18th, 2 days before I fly to India, we are planning a large event where all of the satellite groups will be bussed in to perform for each other. The Boys Choir will also perform. They will have a chance to mingle, see what each other are doing and as these events continue every 2 months they will be able to see each other's progress and hear reports of who has gone on to do bigger and better things with their lives.
Like I said before, I could never have planned the amazing places Promethean Spark is being taken here inKenya. I owe so much to the local volunteers and organizations who have hearts as big as Africa itself. Thank you all back home for your support and prayers and love. God is real and has His hand is over us as we strive to do good amongst His children. May He bless you all abundantly.
Happy New Year to you all!!!!
The final weeks in India were filled with so many wonderful events I could not relate them all to you. I had very limited email access so I opted to wait until I returned to the U.S. to do the final update.
We at Promethean Spark are sooooooo fortunate to have made such a strong bond with our sister NGO, Rising Star Outreach. Without them none of these programs or outreach would have been possible in India. They have provided housing, food, cars and drivers and numerous connections that have lead to strong programs for the leprosy affected youth in Chennai and surrounding areas. There are also thick silver linings on the dark cloud of cancellation of the tour I was supposed to be out on even now. Because "Tarzan" got canceled, I was able to extend my stay in India for 2 extra weeks making the 7 week trip become 9. This was also made possible by the generous donation of Gordon and Vickie Gibb (former principal and full time volunteers at the RSO school).
As I prepared to take the 2 1/2 hour trip into Chennai early one sunny December morning the 15 and 16 year old class all gathered around me tugging at my shirt begging me to stay. "We dance today? Dance Master. We must learn our dance. When do we dance?" I assured them that we would have class/rehearsal the following day and hopped in the car. Honking all along the way, my driver, Velu, skillfully navigated around the dogs, cows, potholes and children in the streets of the neighboring village of Thottanaval. He then continued to honk for no apparent reason the rest of the trip. They like to hear themselves honk. I sat in the back seat of the Sumo Jeep with one leg out each side window in a split, much to the amusement of Velu and our other passenger, Vijay whom we were dropping off along the way. I was stretching my legs and hips since I wasn't sure if I would get a chance to warm up once we arrived. Dancing for hours each day on concrete takes its toll on one's body and my lower back was feeling it, especially this day as there were more potholes than usual due to the aftermath of the storm the previous night.
We arrived 1 hour late to the College of Hotel Management and Culinary Arts where I was scheduled to be given a tour, lunch with Rabindran, the President and then present a lecture. The tour was a bit rushed and the delicious culinary artistry lay unfinished in front of me, destined never to reach my yearning taste buds as we were whisked off to the lecture hall. After a short presentation on "The Path to Mastery" my driver took me through the midday Chennai traffic; hot, dirty and slow as cooling molten lava. When you are late for an interview with The Times India and have another interview lined up immediately following the first with The Hindu and Vyshnavi, the Marketing Director of the Marriott Courtyard Hotel who set it all up is calling you every 5 minutes to tell you the photographer has to leave and the journalist is here waiting for you, chaotic traffic jams are harder to smile through. We were trying not to let the journalists run into each other which in the end we were able to pull off. A different day we also had the India Express do a feature article on Promethean Sparks' work, which have all since been published with less accuracy than I had expected. Once word got out what we are doing and that it is actually working, a number of people have been very excited about doing what they could to help the cause along, including some at the Marriott and some in the film and television world industry.
With the interviews going a bit overtime, I had to push back my meeting with the Bollywood/Collywood choreographer who had been dubbed "Johny Dance Master". They were very forgiving and informed me that running late is common for doing business in Chennai. Getting around the city is not easy for anyone. We arrived at his apartment 45 minutes from the Marriott and he graciously invited me up to meet his wife, daughter and mother who were all living with him. Backtracking for one second here, Johny was one of the judges on the Prabhu Dheva show I performed on as a guest star for Star Vijay Television. He is quite a well-known celebrity in Southern India. I was slated to start my session with the Villivakkam Leprosy Colony youth at 6pm and it was 5:30. Since I had to leave immediately in order to make it in time, with a refreshing cup of orange Fanta in hand I wasted no time. I boldly asked Johny, a celebrity I knew next to nothing about, if he would join me to the leprosy colony to see our programs in action. He thought for a few seconds, smiled with one half of his mouth and nodded in the affirmative. I could hardly believe what had just transpired. He quickly changed clothes and joined us in the car.
Upon arrival at the Villivakkam Colony Community Center where I was want to teach classes, that being the largest open room in the colony second only to the Catholic Church in the square where Mother Theresa had visited in 1984, the youth and children ran along side the jeep leaping and waving their enthusiastic welcome. I greeted the clamouring crowd and shook their hands until I spied Babu out of the corner of my eye. Babu is the director of the youth and children in the colony. He has taken on the responsibility himself and tries to run a summer camp for them each year. He was the first one to jump on organizing Promethean Spark programs for Villivakkam. What a blessing to have him on our team now. Once Johny Dance Master stepped out of the car and was recognized I relinquished my celebrity status to a true indigenous celebrity from the Indian Film Industry. I introduced him to the gathering multitudes and a tangible excitement filled the air. Word began to spread down the street as it does in small
I motioned to Babu and he herded the crowd into the rectangular cement room with flourescent lights hanging in perfect rows except for the 2 danglers that gave the room a delapidated feel. The prize of the colony was on a table in the front corner of the room covered in a cloth of complicated Indian embroidery. It was their computer. This was the only computer in the whole colony or surrounding area for that matter. I have no idea how it came into their hands but through Rising Star a basic computer class will be starting there soon. Next to the computer was a pile of palm fronds drying out to be made into handbrooms, a chair and a smattering of empty paint cans. We pushed all this to the side as I set up my iPod and speaker dock, calling them to order; "Lines! Feet together!" They excitedly rushed to their spots.
Soon class was under way with Johny watching intently from the front of the room. As the class progressed, he saw how disciplined these unlikely candidates for dance were and how much we had to accomplished in merely 3 classes; he was visibly moved. At class end I gathered the students shaking each of their hands and having them look me straight in the eye and introduce themselves with confidence (part of the life skills training). They then sat around Johny and got a chance to ask him questions. After a quick Q&A I announced, unbeknownst to Johny, that I only had one more class left before I was flying back to NYC and that I was going to talk to him about trying to keep the program going after I was gone. Cheers came from the 20 some odd youth seated cross-legged on the cement. Without missing a cue, Johny stood and in their local tongue, Tamil, announced that he would make sure the classes continued. He would send his assistants and upper level students to run the classes "thrice per week". Again, this time an elongated round of applause and cheering and shouting.I could not have been happier. What a day! 3 hours later we were weaving around potholes, honking at sleeping piles of puppies in the middle of the street and zombie-like wandering cattle, arriving back at the RSO hostels well after dark. The children were all asleep on the tiny bamboo mats laid across the concrete floor. The dogs howled as we entered the grounds which in turn crescendoed the jungle orchestra surrounding us. Sleep was deep and sweet that night.
Well, we worked extra hard with the students at RSO on the days I was there. We even held night rehearsals for some of the older groups. The results were astounding. The production we presented on Dec. 20th there on the land was truly miraculous. Even the office staff and journalists in attendance commented on how amazed they were at what the young people had accomplished--that their performances were beyond anything they could have imagined. Padma Venkatraman came all the way out (remember this school is in a very remote area) and sat in on the media interviews, gave a small welcome speech and watched the presentation. When she had to leave a bit early, she came to the front of the stage where I was organizing the next number, stopped the show and in front of the 300+ villagers and leprosy patients that had gathered for the event she pulled me in and hugged me heartily apologizing for leaving before the final number but that she was so very happy with what was happening with young people. This cemented her approval of the programs in all of their minds. Padma is basically royalty in their minds. Her presence and seal of approval cannot be overvalued.
For the grand finale we all sang "Love In Any Language" doing the chorus each time in Sign Language building the numbers on stage by 20-30 with each verse. Starting with the older youth and having them bring the next younger to the stage on each verse until finally culminating in 160+ children filling the stage signing and singing. "Love in any language, straight from the heart. Pulls us all together, never apart. Once we learn to speak it, all the world will hear.....Love in any language, fluently spoken here".
It was beautiful and joyous. Many of the children were in tears as they said good bye, knowing I would not be there when they returned from their Christmas Holiday. Mr. Vayanathayan (one of the school faculty), gave a long speech at the conclusion of the program in Tamil. I had no idea what he was saying and wanted to stop him since we had already had our big climax and final applause but I am glad I restrained. Apparently the whole 10 minute discourse was on the Promethean Spark programs and how they have helped the students to learn discipline, focus, concentration, has given them added physical strength, health and vigor, all the while building confidence and social skills in a way that they thoroughly enjoy. He spoke of how all of these qualities have made a difference in the classroom and has changed the lives of the children and the adults alike for the better. This I found out after the fact when the Office Manager asked me how I liked the concluding speech. He explained it to me and I stood before him fighting back the tears, speechless.
Now that I am back to the rat-race of auditioning and networking in NYC, I can hardly believe it all really happened as I glance back at my other life on the other side of the world. It is almost like I have a double identity. Both Africa and India now have multiple ongoing Promethean Spark hubs. Something I thought would not happen until at least the 3rd trip. This was only the 2nd and the Lord has blessed us in great abundance. I don't claim to understand it but I know that when we put ourselves in alignment with what God wants, we are poised and positioned to have miracles bestowed daily. A way is opened, the universe moves and our path is made clear. All we have to do is be where we are supposed to be with willing hearts and hands. If He knows He can trust us to do His will, He uses us as an instrument in His hands. I knew not beforehand what I was to do but I knew I would be shown if I moved forward with purpose. May we live 2009 with full energy of heart and do all in our power to make this world a better place in which to live. There is so much to do, I know that the efforts of one are just a drop in the vast ocean. But if we do not do what we can, the ocean will be one drop less. Our drop.
Light, Love and Laughter,
Founder and Director
The event finale saw every RSO student on the stage singing and signing:
"Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart.
Once we learn to speak it, all the world will hear; Love in any Language
Fluently spoken here."
I write to you from the land of sari-wearing women, sacred cows, the 10 Gods of Vishnu, Ganesh with the elephant head and the originators of spicy food. These people amaze me with the ancient culture they continue to inhabit generation after generation. Many here are on the verge of breaking out of the dark cloud that has held them captive for so many centuries. I love to see them preserving their culture as they break out of the chains of beliefs that cannot exist in a new, educated and enlightened world. I speak of their caste system and their belief in the "Curse" of leprosy. Huge strides are being taken and we are on the front lines of the battle. Not an easy task but not impossible.
Some things that won't be changing anytime soon are the squatter toilets, the cows that ramble through the streets touting their elite status to all the cars in the traffic jam waiting for it to decide to saunter the rest of the way across the road, the 2 bucket shower system which isn't so bad once you get used to it (large bucket full of water and a small one to pour over you). Back to the squatters, I will probably carry TP in my pocket for a few weeks after I return to the states out of sheer habit. I forgot to cover my arms in Deet last night so I now have 5 new itchy evidences of the voracious vampires that have multiplied exponentially since the heavy rains.
After all the amazing success we had in Nairobi with The Boys Choir of Kenya taking on the teaching responsibilities of the 3 ongoing programs (Kibera slum, Soweto slum and Kamiti prison) I was trepidacious about what might happen or even worse what might not happen in India. Similar to Africa, the first Promethean Spark trip to India was hugely successful as a pioneering effort, however no continuing programs were established. Our wonderful sister NGO, Rising Star Outreach has provided us with a base from which to build. I am staying in the hostels with the children at the boarding school, all of whom are from the leprosy colonies. We have about 120 children and youths staying here. It was wonderful of them to remember me from last year and to be so excited for the return of "The Dance Master" as they have dubbed me. The children could not contain themselves the first couple of days of classes. We have no studio or room large enough to hold a dance class with 20 plus students so after the cyclone passed over and the grounds were still flooded, I took them up to the roof of the new school that has been finished between my last visit and now. We got rained on during class a few times but we just danced in the rain. Once things dried up a bit we found a clearing in a mango grove where we all are able to move about freely. Lots of ants and mosquitos, and dance class has been interrupted more than once by a monkey running by and climbing a nearby tree. Last week we were returning from a day trip to a colony and literally had to stop the jeep due to the families of monkeys crossing and playing in the street. We are in very rural southern India. After a heavy rain we find small fish in the puddles on the land. The critters in the jungle-esque surroundings rise to such a volume you can hardly believe it is not amplified. Nature's orchestra is truly amazing to hear even though it sounds nothing like Kiss The Girl in The Little Mermaid. The first week I was here I did not see blue sky. I arrived at the airport at 3:45AM and took a taxi 2 hours in the pouring rain in the pitch of rural Indian night with heavy cloud cover. Somehow I remembered each turnoff and junction from the airport to Thottanaval village where we are located. It was actually 3 days after I arrived that the cyclone really hit. During those first days we had a flying ant infestation. My room had not been inhabited for a couple of months, thus the screen covers for the windows were loose. Every time I entered my room I would go on a swatting rampage and kill anywhere from 10 to 50 flying ants. I finally figured out how they were getting in. Sprayed vehemently and sealed my windows. Then the rains and flooding came. Most of Chennai was in waist deep water at one point or another. Then the next week we got a phone call from RSO staff in the U.S. warning us to go on emergency lock down. We were forbidden to leave the property. Terrorist attacks had stunned the world in Mumbai where foreigners were being targeted. Our Managing Director, Ron Hanson was on his way to Chennai for meetings when he heard the word and they turned around and came back. For 48 hours nobody left the premises. Then we began to venture out to the nearest grocery shopping town we have which is Chengelput, 45 minutes away. Security is still high but life is back to normal.
Well, despite all the drama, Promethean Spark has made huge strides forward in the past 3 weeks. Besides teaching 5-6 classes a day for the children at the school here (mainstreamed with the leprosy-affected children we also have nearly 50 youth from the
impoverished villages nearby attending). Along with the technique training and discipline we are teaching, we are also putting together 8 numbers for the Christmas Program that their parents and/or other living relatives from the colonies will be traveling great distances to see.
Being so involved here in the hostels and at the school I was worried that my intentions of getting out to the colonies to pioneer programs there and of networking in the professional dance world in Chennai for volunteers to help solidify the programs was not going to happen. Heartfelt prayers were offered as I wrestled with what I ought to do. I made a number of phone calls to put the word out and asked the staff here to do the same. Soon, the miracles started flowing. The marketing and HR manager at the Chennai Marriott called asking if I could come in to do an interview with their people and do an exclusive article for the India Express. It went extremely well and will be coming out this week.
I spoke to Padma Venkataram who supports and drives a lot of the micro financing in the colonies. She is the daughter of the past President of India. She responded immediately and set up a day for us to meet at the Vilivakkam Leprosy Colony. Very uncharacteristic of Indian women, she greeted me with open arms in front of the villagers. This followed by a long heartfelt embrace and kiss on the cheek. This told the members of the colony all they needed to know. When she encouraged them to welcome their new Dance Master and to start a program through Promethean Spark, that it would teach them many skills that would aid them in all areas of life, they informed her that they had already filled a sign-up sheet full of 50 names of individuals interested in the classes. I was then asked to perform for them impromptu so I pulled out the old iPod and speakers I carry just in case I may need to give a class on the spur of the moment (I was an Eagle Scout—Be Prepared)danced a couple of short ditties for them. They were overwhelmingly appreciative and all asked when we could start and if I would come every day. We set up the first class for 2 days later, on a Thursday, then Padma invited me to sit with her at a meeting of 8 colony leaders who had met to discuss the micro financing budgets and hash over the problems. This was a unique experience for me. She stopped the meeting every 15 to 20 minutes to explain what was happening since they were all speaking in Tamil. She also expressed to me that my presence there was to get them used to seeing my face and hearing my name so that in the future when their colonies open their
vision to more expansive horizons and see that our programs are working so well in Vilivakkam, that they will come seeking the programs of their own volition rather than being told, "Here is something that is good for you. Do it." She wants them to seek it out it after they see its fruits. Amazing woman, Padma.
Thursday was a smashing success. 45 showed to class so I was able to bump the age limit so I was only working with those who could gain the most from the discipline. We set the age limit at 13 and up which whittled the attendance down to 32. Good full class. They worked so hard and I promised them I would come back on Saturday when we would continue where I left off.
Friday night rolled around and I was rehearsing the 15 and 16 year olds in the dark outside after dinner because they were so upset I hadn't had time to work with them the day before. Mid-rehearsal I received a phone call from a man I had met with the week before who was an Art Director and Set Designer for television soaps in Chennai. He and his wife loved our cause and had made a connection for me with the director ofIndia's response to "So You Think You Can Dance." It is called "Who Will Be The Next Prabhu Dheva?" Prabhu Dheva is alegendary director and choreographer of Bollywood and Kollywood films. The director told me they were shooting on set tomorrow and would like me to appear as a guest Dance Master and performer from NYC. We worked out all the details (it is not easy to get into Chennai on a moment's notice from the Mayberry of India) and I spent the whole next day on set with the competitors and judges for the show. I was asked to perform for the judges and television audience. I did so and really turned it on for them. They loved it. Went crazy. Then when I told them all what I was doing in India and how I spent most of my time out in rural villages and leprosy colonies using dance training to teach the kids off the streets life skills to help them help themselves, the response was deafening. Standing ovation that lasted for 3-4 minutes. The guest judge there that night was Sinaeha, a brilliantly famous heroine of the Tamil movie industry who is highly trained in Indian Classical Dance. I asked her to join me on stage and we improvised a bit of swing partner dancing as the audience went wild again. On a break the director, Rajkumar came to ask me if I could stay into January to do a full grooming session with the remaining contestants at the time. I will not be able to do that due to commitments I have back in NYC right after Christmas. My nephews are coming to visit me in NYC the day after Christmas and that committment was made before I spoke to him. So he has requested I stay as long as I can so we can do another shoot before I leave. I have extended my stay until Dec. 24th.
For those of you who know that I was supposed to return by the 15th to start rehearsals as the cover for the role of Tarzan in a National Tour of Tarzan the Musical, it has been cancelled due to the speculative nature of the show and the recessing economy.
Consequently, I was able to extend my stay here.
So many amazing things have been happening daily, I don't have the time or space to relate them all but the blessings are flowing freely and the programs are going to be strong here as well. A man named Guna who runs a dance studio in Chennai with a 30 member company who do much of the background work for film and TV here pulled me to the side after the shoot was over and confessed he and his dancers had been looking for something to do to help the community and to give back through the arts in some way. He asked if we could meet asap. I am going into the city to meet him tomorrow and to teach again at the Vilivakkam leprosy colony. I had to cancel my second lesson with them due to the television shoot so we are doing a make-up session. They are located about 3 hours from where I am so it is not just a quick jaunt to teach them a class. Once the 20th comes and the big event is over, and the children and house mothers from the hostels all go home for break I will not have a place to stay so they have invited me to stay with them in the colony for that next week. I learn so much from these people who have so little and yet are so willing to share anything and everything they have with a stranger.
I nearly forgot to mention the miracle it is that I am even here in India at all. I missed the plane in Nairobi due to ridiculous traffic
on the way to Kenyatta Airport. So I had to pay $150 and fly the following day. On my way through the gate to the plane mere minutes before take-off the yellow-fever vaccination Nazi asked if I had my little yellow card as proof I had been immunized. I had forgotten to bring it from NYC. As I waited all the energy of my soul was focused upward saying "Lord, you sent me here and I am giving all I have. If you open this door, I swear I will continue to give all I have to the work you have sent me here to do." I was rushed to the airport medical office to see what they could do. A woman was pulled from the room and I was sat in the seat opposite this large black woman in uniform. The door was locked behind me. I was lectured on what a difficult situation I had put them in and that if they let me fly without it I would be put right back on the next flight and sent back to Africa. Then she asked how much I could pay to take care of this "problem." It took me a few repeats with similar wording before it dawned on me what she was asking me. I ended up paying 4000 kenyan shillings (about $60) cash that went right into her top desk drawer, for her to stamp and sign that I had received my immunization there at the airport soon after arriving in Kenya a month earlier. This took care of the 10 day waiting period after the shot you are required to wait before you fly. I ran through 2 wings of the Kenyatta Airport, slammed it on the counter and was taken through the now vacant gate and waiting room. They held the door of the plane and closed it just as I set foot inside. Once in my seat near the window I glanced out to the beautiful African sky. A big smile crossed my face and a sigh of relief preceded a prayer of thanks. My yellow fever card was never asked for upon arrival inIndia. It was merely a test of my faith.
Miracles are happening right and left. I know I am in the right place doing what I am meant to be doing at this time in my life. With hard work and perseverance great things are coming of singular small efforts. I thank God for the magnification of energy, strength, health and endurance. With others joining the cause my desire is that we will actually be able to fulfill the mission of Promethean Spark on the next level; that of established ongoing programs for the impoverished youth of the leprosy colonies and surrounding villages here in the Tamil Nadu District of Southern India. This will position us with a foundation upon which we can build and grow.
Love, Light and Laughter,