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Richard Hess receives Fulbright
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Richard Hess with Abdi Rashid

 

Richard E. Hess, the A.B., Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen Chair of Drama at CCM, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to teach and research at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya during the 2013-­14 academic year, the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board announced recently.

Hess’ research project, The Collapsible Space Between Us: Creating Artistic Identity through Theatre-­Making in Kenya, will allow him to work with actors as an acting teacher, on original devised theatre as a director and in educating theatre-­makers: actors who are story­tellers with strong identities interested in creating exciting physical theatre.

Hess is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2013-­14.

Hess first traveled to Nairobi in June of 2011 to create an original theatre piece with refugees from the Dadaab Refugee Camp and CCM Drama students. The Dadaab Theatre Project performed at World Refugee Day with support from the United Nations and the Great Globe Foundation.

“In Kenya I met a group of multi-cultural, international, multi-language strangers who used the currency of theatre to open hearts, share identities, and give voice to the unspoken,” Hess explains. “I encountered heroic bravery and tangible hope, and was surprised by the intense trust and humbling respect given to me so easily. The Africans made me feel valued as a teacher in a way I have never felt. I am eager to return.”

 
CCM Dadaab Theater Project Symposium
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Photo courtesy of Bailie Breaux

 

How the Hurt Helped

And How the Help Hurt

And Why Go Through It All Again

 

Dadaab and Beyond:

The Challenges of Global Outreach in a Changing World

 

On Thursday January 17th, The Great Globe Foundation in partnership with CCM Drama conducted a Dadaab Theater Project symposium at the University of Cinicinnati College Conservatory of Music.  Together with original Dadaab Theater Project members from Cincinnati, Julianna Bloodgood (co-founder of the Dadaab Theater Project) skyping in from Poland, filmmakers David Sutcliffe and Su Kim, Michael Littig (co-founder of the Dadaab Theater Project), Richard Hess (director of the Collaspsible Space Between Us), and moderator Michael Burnham, the panel shared their experiences of participating in the Dadaab Theater Project.

 

Abdi Rashid, African member of the Dadaab Theater Project, shared his thoughts from afar in response to his experience of participating in the Dadaab Theater Project.

The Dadaab theatre project helped me to transform after years-long depression and traumatization. It also helped me to express myself and as well communicate to different people and communities of distinct backgrounds.It also helped me gain some level of expertise and in the end acquired an artistry in writing.

My challenges of participating in the Dadaab theatre project include the lack of proper space for conducting the trainings. We conducted our trainings in small community halls that looked like a derelict buildings that was engulfed by a dust-trodden traffic road which has negatively impacted my health.

I would like to engage in an other international exchange program like the Dadaab theatre project because it will help me connect with international friends which I believe will help me rise up and make me feel, hear and see in the dark that will enable me to disentangle from what seems the inescapable terror and the circles of sorrow.Also another international exchange will help me learn new skills, experience and ideas.

The best lesson I have learnt in the exchange program was that, story telling can change the world because there exists a story behind every person especially on those whose luck suffered a cruel reversal.

 
My Girl Child Education is Lost!
Sunday, August 12, 2012

Kauthar performing with the Great Globe Foundation/Save the Children's Children's Club in IFO Camp.

Kauthar recently wrote us about her current situation in Dadaab.  She feels unsafe as her home is consumed with violence and instability.  She wrote this poem in hopes that people will continue to listen... 

My Girl Child Education is Lost!

by: Kauthar Asad Warsame

Because my life is in danger!
I fear of what I don't believe in,
darkness, pain and sorrow,
Fear my life is taken away, 
to be strong and not straying away,
fear of being left alone,
and attacked by unknown.


I fear that my flame stops burning,
I fear I don't find anything in future,
I fear being in another's custody,
I fear that I might be helpless.


I fear the darkness within my light,
so I don't need a reason to smile,
I fear for my soul being taken away,
I fear my enemies comes to kill,
steal and destroy me.


Fear for my last breath leaving me,
fear for my body,
fear of I dying young,
so I will never find it again.

Moment where I felt alive,
I fear for my pain and suffering,
when I leave my world ended,
when my ambition surrender.

Fear of sad explanation, 
hearing you're gone,
fear there will be no more you,
when it's just me,

Fear of human interest, 
with faith in God, 
fear for my birth,
fear for my mind,
fear for my creation.

 
The Joy Formidable

Dim lights

Dadaab Theater Project partner, Filmaid International, recently released a beautiful music video that was filmed in Kakuma Refugee Camp.  

 

 
its all about water
Sunday, April 15, 2012

By: Ojullu Opiew Ochan

Ojullu is currently continuing his education at a boarding school in Nairobi.  He spoke to us over the phone this past weekend.  He wrote another poem, he says.  He tells us to post it on the website.  "Let them hear my poetry", he says.  Let them know how much this encourages me.   

its all about water

Life was not what we thought
poverty,
the ragged clothing and the looks on the faces of malnourished children,
he was left uneasy and overwhelmed,
nobody minds their welfare.
On the queue it was another drama,
people pushing each other,
it's all about water,tents,food and firewood,
nobody tried to mind his etiquette.
"you fool"
you could hear from a far distance,
the impenetrable patience was not known,
the fighting was not a big deal,
the crowd out of patience overflowed
into the windy and dusty street.

What kind of life is this?

Children heaved a heavy sigh,
you could think it's a relief but
not!
that was not it.
One could be left disturbed if he didn't belong there.

What kind of life is this?

He now conspired to taunt the children
wondered if to smile or cry,
he would be left by every stroke of it,
his heart being torn and tormented,
binding in fear
vein running out of oxygen.

What kind of life is this?

The event had him fear the worst,
thinking heavily you could notice,
his sympathy to children was paramount.
The better is to the adult
and the worst is to children.

What kind of life is this?

A cry of freedom is now a chorus,
repeated voice after voice,
again and again,
but no action for responsibility,
people are doing nothing in their views to relieve the suffering of the
average refugees,
they would sense their hope is gone
and fear was the king for time being,
their hearts in their hands and their lives at risk.

What kind of life is this?

 
Stories from Dadaab
Saturday, March 31, 2012

Michael Littig recently shared his experience about serving as a panelist for "Stories from Dadaab" on Filmaid International's website.

 

http://filmaid.org/blog/2012/03/ny-council-hosts-stories-from-dadaab/

 
Voices of Dadaab
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dim lights

The University of Cincinnati recently featured the Dadaab Theater Project in UC Magazine.  John Bach, writer of the article, created this beautiful video featuring interviews from members of the Dadaab Theater Project.  

 
Growing Healthy...Growing Up!
Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dim lights

Made by the students of Friends Primary School, IFO Camp, Dadaab, Kenya.  UNHCR presents a FilmAid Production created by friends of The Great Globe Foundation, Lisa LaBracio and Melissa Merkel.  

Many of the members of The Great Globe Foundation's Children's Club in partnership with Save the Children appear in this film.  We are incredibly proud and honored.

 
Voices from Dadaab: Mohamed Abdi Rage
Monday, February 27, 2012

Dim lights

Mohamed Abdi Rage shares his happy memories of growing up in the Dadaab Refugee Camp. These videos were made as part of FilmAid's filmmaker training program in the Dadaab refugee camp in 2011 in collaboration with the Great Globe Foundation and Tiny Metal Buildings with visiting teaching artists, Su Kim and David Felix Sutcliffe.

 
Voices from Dadaab: Akune Obang Atale
Monday, January 23, 2012

Dim lights

Akune Obang Atale, an Ethopian national, discusses the emotional pain of losing his father during a massacre in 2003 in his home region of Gambella, and how he was separated from his family after the massacre. These videos were made as part of FilmAid's filmmaker training program in the Dadaab refugee camp in 2011 in collaboration with the Great Globe Foundation and Tiny Metal Buildings with visiting teaching artists, Su Kim and David Felix Sutcliffe.

 
Activista: Julianna Bloodgood
Sunday, January 15, 2012

You know that saying, "To wear your heart on your sleeve?" There really should be one about wearing your baggage on your sleeve, too.

This is the altered truism Julianna Bloodgood inspired in me when I first saw her perform three years ago.

When I saw Bloodgood, a CCM-trained actress and artist, she was performing during the 2008 Cincinnati Fringe Festival in a play called Body Language by the True Body Project (The True Body Project is a Cincinnati-based international organization working to empower females to connect to their bodies, their voices, and the health and safety of women). In one particular monologue, she assumed the role of a doctor, describing all of the sad maladies of the woman before her. Armed with a harsh pointer stick and a generous amount of sticky notes to mark her patient, Bloodgood mapped out her patient’s problems.

What started out as a clinical diagnostic, though, quickly became a personal and deep-rooted story. Bloodgood describes the day the patient fell on the playground, leaving the scar on her knee (Wham! Green sticky note); there’s that time her father hit her here on the arm (Bam! Hit ya again); she fell in love for the first time, these lips learned how to kiss and desire (Whoosh! Pink sticky); for two years she didn’t eat much, (Slap!) her stomach rumbled; she worked too hard, tried to do too much, (Thud!) just look at these hunched shoulders, she wears it on her sleeves.

When I talked to Bloodgood recently she explained that this performance was a healing experience for herself, as well as a truism-making one for others. As an actress turned activist-actress, Bloodgood believes, above all, in the healing power of theater. She believes that when you give air to a thought or an issue, or when you hold space for the expression and reception of a feeling, a transformation occurs. Put an idea out into the world and it is no longer entirely yours. It looses some of its sting. Or it brings the sting to bear. It becomes both more personal and more universal. It is your story to have and tell, but it is everyone’s for the taking, to know and share, and ultimately learn and grow from it. (It is yours to experience, and mine to make a truism of.)

It may seem counter-intuitive to lump activism and theater onto the same stage, but what is activism about if not transformation?

With that in mind, this year, Bloodgood traveled to a place acutely in need of healing: the Dadaab Refugee camp in Kenya. It is the largest of its kind in the world—a quasi-city at nearly 500,000 people (almost a veritable one if it had any of the public works perks of a functioning city). Here, with friend and colleague Michael Littig, Bloodgood assembled a theater group composed of the residents of the camp. The point was not just to put on a show. Bloodgood and Littig wanted to explore what happens when you create a space for people who have had serious trauma and stress and invite them to tell a story publicly.

The hardest part, Bloodgood explained, was simply finding "a group of people that were willing to take this journey with us, and then try to set up the right circumstances for people to feel safe and creative." After that, the healing process took care of itself. Well, mostly.

Healing takes care of itself, but not without a few bumps in the road. Being that Kenya is a contentious, foreign country, many people were not welcoming to Americans coming in to the camp; being that Dadaab is a sub-developed "city" of little infrastructure and means, efforts easily went unfulfilled. “I would have dreams all the time that I was going into war. The odds were always against us… things would end up just unraveling at the seams all the time,” she says.

Bloodgood and Littig were in Dadaab for five months. In that time, they created an arts education curriculum in one of the most survival-mode areas in the world, started an exchange program between students in the United States and students of Dadaab, and saw transformations on the voices and faces of their theater participants.

"The majority of our participants weren’t able to express how they felt. That wasn’t really a part of their human vocabulary. Either it wasn’t a cultural norm, or because of trauma, that voice had been stopped," Bloodgood says. By the end, they had a show. In the process of working with other people, Bloodgood experienced her own transformation. It was a radical personal activism, of sorts.

In the midst of her humanitarian work, she realized the supreme importance of maintaining personal health. "My relationship to my body and my psychological health has been a huge priority for me. The most important thing in my life, truly, is my own well being. It has to come first."

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who is so driven outside of herself to do humanitarian work. It reinforces the importance of the giver to give to herself. "Woman all over the world celebrate themselves and they adorn their bodies and they decorate their bodies. That kind of celebration or decoration occurs across the board," Bloodgood observes. "The body will naturally heal itself, if you give it the right environment."

In whatever way we choose to nourish ourselves—whatever gives us a sense of fullness—it is necessary to stay acutely aware of the codependency of internal and external change. Just think about psychological gestures, Bloodgood says, "The way we hold our body says so much. If we put our body in certain positions, it will evoke certain emotions."

Wear your heart on your sleeve—no doubt, that’s wonderful—but dare to acknowledge, to speak, the baggage on your sleeve, and you may find yourself a transformed person.

For more information about the True Body Project visit http://www.truebodyproject.org. ACTIVISTA is a True Body Project initiative pairing True Body alums with activist mentors.

For more information, visit this site:  

http://a-linemagazine.com/articles/2011/12/28/activista_julianna_bloodgood

 
Voices from Dadaab: Abulony Ojulu Okello
Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dim lights

With the ever increasing attacks on the people of Dadaab, it is important to let them know that we are still listening.   

Created by filmmakers Su Kim and David Felix Sutcliffe, the Voices from Dadaab series is a Filmaid International collaboration facilitated by the Great Globe Foundation.  Here, Abulony discusses the difficulty of being seperated from his family in Gambella and his efforts to overcome the challenges of being a refugee. 

 
Voices from Dadaab: Liban Rashid Mohammed
Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dim lights

In June 2011, The Great Globe Foundation facilitated a collaboration between Filmaid International and Tiny Metal Buildings in the Dadaab Refugee Camp with the support of the US Department of State.  Filmmakers, Su Kim and David Felix Sutcliffe, taught workshops as part of Filmaid's Filmaker Training Program.  This is the first in a series of videos that highlight stories from members of Filmaid's participatory video program. 

Liban Rashid, a dear friend of the Dadaab Theater Project, discusses the lessons he received from his father and how he was seperated from the remainder of his family after they were resettled in the United States. 

 
Dadaab and Beyond Performance
Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Dim lights

After returning from Africa, members of the Dadaab Theater Project perform The Collapsible Space Between Us for the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. 

 
The Flowers Monday
Friday, November 25, 2011

Dim lights

Lisa LaBracio, dear friend of the Dadaab Theater Project, conducted an animation project in collaboration with our partner, Filmaid.  Recently, she created a video featuring member of the Dadaab Theater Project, Ojullu Opiew Ochan.

 
Persecution
Friday, November 25, 2011

Photo: David Felix Sutcliffe

Due to the most recent attacks at the Dadaab Refugee Camp, all activities other than life saving programs have been discontinued until further notice. Ojullu Opiew Ochan, member of the Dadaab Theater Project, has taken it upon himself to teach poetry to his fellow homeboys (group of young Gambela men living without family) in block G of Ifo camp.   Singo Okumu shares his first poem.

Persecution

by: Singo Okumu

 

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over,

and the society is no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of despair,

like a boil that can never be cured unless it is exposed to the air

with all its ugliness for medication.

 

The evil injustice of the representatives shall be put to a fascination watch of the people.

 

Hence, allow flames of freedom to sweep across the land.

The tide of history will be flowing towards open accountable and the face of change.

 

To accelerate as per this digital network in defiance to those who

hide behind veil of hypocrisy and continue to corrupt our culture

through an abuse to the position of power, shall be brought under the scrutiny of the law. And pay for the

depriving the under privillage rights to enjoy full development.

Hence, no body can ride on our back, unless it is bent. So, lets stand for the final to free our people!

 
Bloody Saturday
Saturday, October 29, 2011

by: Ojullu Opiew Ochan, member of the Dadaab Theater Project

 

It was in the noon and river was churning against the bridge.


It could have been worse for us,
to drink from cup of the sorrow and endurance,
bitter of poision and sour of the yellow lemon trees.
We thought it was a time for us, a time to pay the prize for our
ancestoral land.
Since nothing in this world's certain,
we thought it was an eclipsed face of racism that sent uncertain
light, winnowed by times into an unstable life,


when Anuak,
lied death in the lap of their own land.
Lied death in unfaired weather of discrimination.
Lied death peacefully on streets,
when my eyes reached far more then i could have imagined

looking for
someone, a someone who can stop this unquenchable fire.
We thought it was our dumbed ears beat, echoing deepen into drums,

when men craved for the mask to hide their faces,
wore skirts to disguse, to be looked like women,
while forgotten beards.
And a sign of hell appeared accompanied by the ugliest faces of death.
When sky sang a good bye somg to educated, religious men and students
in Gambella.
It was like a hot potato stuck in thoats.
She shocked into sleeplesness, scared of bed, back during the day
husband dropped death infront of her.
Quiet she sit, never sleep, stranger as she stared in the dark blue jean night.

What's remained?
For their thirsty they drank the blood.
For their dance they teared our flesh.
For enjoyment they wrapped women and under ages

back in our silence and grief, we remained with smoke, orphans,
widows and widowers.

For such mass murder, who will bring justice?

 
Acts of Mercy
Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dadaab Theater Project was recently featured in Sublime Magazine.

 

http://sublimemagazine.com/view/a/174/Acts_Of_Mercy.html

 

 
Dadaab and Beyond
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Will Kiley, member of the CCM Drama Dadaab Theater Project, shares the work of "Dadaab and beyond"

 

Dadaab and beyond is a student organized arts outreach group created in response to this summer's Dadaab Theater Project. The goal of the group is to continue with objectives that made the dadaab theater project so inspiring. We search to find ways in which we can use our developing craft to aid our local and global community. We organize once a week to make our plan for the following week. Out doors are open to everyone and we are grateful to have the constant support of both Michael Burnham and Richard Hess.

In the last two weeks we have helped lead protests for both the 'occupy' movement and the homeless coalition of Cincinnati.

Other current projects include: 

Developing an open room of creativity for young abused women by other young woman.

Finding ways to make use of the extreme excess at university cafeterias (excess swipes, wasted money and wasted food).

 
The Dadaab Theater Project
Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cincinnati, Ohio/Nairobi, Kenya

September, 2011


A.B., Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen Chair in Drama
Richard E. Hess

University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music

Department of Drama

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: The Seeds are Sown
Last June, as I pulled in to the Sears parking lot in Florence, Kentucky to fight with the store about a refrigerator delivery, I received a phone call on my mobile phone from Michael Littig, a former student. I am an acting teacher and theatre director, a twenty-five year classroom veteran who thought he had more answers than questions. As I sat in my car in the June heat with a dead refrigerator at home after an exhausting school year and poor customer service lying in wait in my future, I was not prepared for Michael’s question. With the trademark smirk of joy in his voice I heard Michael say, “Would you like to bring a group of drama students to Africa to perform with refugees for World Refugee Day one year from now?”

 

Forty-five minutes later I heard myself say ‘Yes’, and the idea for the Dadaab Theater Project/CCM Drama collaboration was born.

 


The Dadaab Theater Project: The Journey Begins
Last month I traveled from America to Africa. I traveled to Kenya, to Nairobi, through the Rift Valley, to Lake Naivasha. Although the journey covered many miles, the distance covered was slight in comparison to the intense personal relationships created, developed, and explored with eight brave individuals living in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. Five months earlier these eight had joined the newly former Dadaab Theater Project under the leadership of Michael and fellow classmate Julianna Bloodgood, another 2005 graduate from the CCM Drama program. As advisor and director of the five member American company also named The Dadaab Theater Project, from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Department of Drama, I was about to meet eight strangers, youth from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan, through the art form I have practiced and loved since I was 12. I was nervous and everything was unknown.

 

We met through theatre, we created original theatre, and we performed theatre together for five intense days. We were a group of multi-cultural, international, multi-language strangers sharing the currency of theatre to open our hearts, share our identities, and give voice to the unspoken. I encountered heroic bravery and tangible hope, and was surprised by the intense trust and humbling respect given to me so easily. The Africans made me feel valued as a teacher in a way I have never felt.

 

If we had been on a mission and were put together with eight strangers in a camp, we would have slowly met, and slowly found a way to communicate and share. We might have had an average exchange. Instead, we met by sharing 25 minute long original theatre pieces that we had each written and devised during the previous months on separate continents, expressly created to share our identities theatrically.

The Dadaab Theater Project: The Cincinnati Company

In November of 2010, Michael and Julianna did a week long residency with CCM Drama in Cincinnati, offering classes and auditioning students to participate in the pilot exchange program. More than 40 students auditioned, hoping to be selected as one of the four to travel to Kenya in June. Students sang, and danced, and presented solo work and created group work as part of the audition process. With acting ability a non-issue, Michael and Julianna were looking for students with a spark of leadership, a strong identity, and a connection to service through art. They chose five students, and invited a sixth, an alumnus from the Class of 2010, Casey Scott Leach, to form the American company of The Dadaab Theater Project. Chosen were Alyssa Caputo (CCM Drama 2014), Will Kiley (CCM Drama 2013), Cameron Davis and Kristopher Dean (CCM Drama 2012), and Mikayla Stanley (CCM Drama 2012). They chose a diverse, multi-year, gender-mixed ensemble ready for the unknown.

 


The Dadaab Theater Project: The Collapsible Space Between Us
In January we worked together for a week and I gave the American students writing prompts and asked them to journal about the following phrases to explore their identities:

 

I am . . .

I remember . . .

I hope . . .

 

Like William Butler Yeats at the end of his poem Sailing to Byzantium (1927), I wanted the actors to confront the continuum of life:


Or set upon a golden bough to sing
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

 

‘I am’ dealt with the now, ‘I remember’ focused on the past, and ‘I hope’ took the students toward their futures. We also danced and sang, sharing both personal and cultural identities. The students were asked to be authors and actors, to have no characters to portray except their own. It was a challenge of the heart. I learned first hand the power of the arts to break barriers, to express the elusive, to empower the powerless, and to express the unspoken.

 

When the American company was first formed in November Michael gave us the assignment to read Dave Eggers What is the What?, a semi-biographical novel about the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a ‘lost boy’ of Sudan as he traveled from war torn Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenyan refugee camp to America. I fell in love with the closing of the book:

“I speak to you because I can’t help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive and so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run."

 

In January we named our original show The Collapsible Space Between Us before we had any other ideas about our show. We didn’t know what we were going to make, we didn’t have a lick of text, and we weren’t sure how we should proceed to make a show for African youth in the abstract, but our chosen title gave us a direction and a mission; is it possible to collapse the space between two continents, two cultures, even two people?

 

 


The Dadaab Theater Project: Collapse

One of the African youth who found Michael and Julianna in February in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya was named Ojullu. He is an intense young man from Ethiopia, a 22 year-old poet separated from his family, alone in the refugee camp without support. He had questions about this Dadaab Theater Project and attended the sessions run by Michael and Julianna in Ifo Camp, which in turn caused him to begin to write, to explore his new feelings through poetry. Michael could sense that he needed an audience, a point of connection for his writing, and through e-mails, Michael connected Ojullu and Will Kiley, a 20 year-old member of the American Dadaab Theater Project. They began to exchange intense e-mails, and a relationship was formed between Ojullu and our most intense member, a 6’ 4”, blonde, wholesome American youth from Cincinnati, Ohio, who Ojullu loved to call ‘Kiley!’. I love hearing Will argue a point, and I love his passion and determination. One of the lines ‘Kiley’ wrote for our show, which always got a laugh, is perfectly true: ‘I am prone to radical optimism.’ These two were the first to begin collapsing the space.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Play Practice

In May, after the CCM Drama Dadaab Theater Project participants had finished their production obligations at school, we met for four hours each night as an ensemble to build our original show about identity. We scripted, staged, and created an original 20-minute show in two short weeks. With a goal of being ready for a benefit performance on May 21 to help fund our project, we worked in a crucible of pressure. The ensemble of five Americans, freshmen through senior, created a group identity as a show about five individuals grew.

 

Early on the cast decided that they wanted to create a very physical show. A show about identity could be a boring stand-and-talk show, with no structure. I agreed, and together we built complex movement sequences full of effort and visual interest, and then layered the text written by the students on top of the movement phrases. Unexpected moments of power unfolded without effort by pairing a physical story with lines of text revealing hopes, and dreams, and memories.

 

Signature imagery developed. Men jumped wildly over the women. A human tower was built. An amorphous mountain of humanity was built by the ensemble of five. Again and again the ensemble stood in a straight line, turned, and walked away from the audience, or turned, and walked toward the audience. Actors ran as fast as they could and leapt into waiting arms. Cameron taught a stomping routine, and everyone joined in. The grasping of hands became necessary.

 

Kanye West’s POWER and Amazing Grace were chosen as a capella song choices. Truths were revealed, both serious and funny, in short bursts of text that accumulated to paint clear pictures of past, present, and future. We borrowed favorite text from novels, poetry books, and What Is The What? The show grew easily in five short days, and we were ready to begin testing our work in front of small invited audiences.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: We Have A Show

The actors wrote special segments that resonated with emotion and theatrical energy. I never tired of watching Kristopher Dean run full speed toward the rest of the cast and leap into outstretched arms, and as they lifted him high in the air, hearing him share a universal truth: “I hope my father is proud of me.” Alyssa Caputo made me miss my parents every time she bravely shared this memory: “My father and I were sitting together in church a month or so ago. I reached over and put my hand in his, so he would squeeze it like he used to when I was a little girl. My father smiled; his eyes watering and his face beautifully crinkling up, he was remembering too.”

 

What can launch us into singing Amazing Grace? Will Kiley supplied the perfect lead-in, delivered with clear-eyed candor. “My sister has been profoundly deaf since birth. Dependent on hearing aids and a sign language interpreter, four years ago she underwent surgery for a cochlear ear implant. It took months of rehabilitation but soon she could hear for the first time. The doctor who performed her surgery that morning, performed another that afternoon. He left work that day having given hearing back to two people.” Cameron Davis, sweat dripping from exertion, gently took the moment from Will and sang with sweetness and grace, completing the wonder.

 

Mikayla climbed the amorphous mountain of humanity, stepping on Cameron to arrive on Will’s shoulders, as she soothed us with her unique text: “I am writhing, got a lion, in my belly, whose roar didn’t get any softer, you just stuck a pillow down its gut, swore him kitty, baby you can swear me sober, watch me strut, but I ain’t never going to be that pretty.” She was beautiful.

 

We performed our show for invited audiences for four nights, making changes and tightening and deepening moments, and we were ready for our special benefit performance. An audience of 150 supportive friends, family, and classmates attended the May 21 benefit performance in Werner Recital Hall at CCM. It was a glorious evening, the perfect validation that our work touched an audience and was ready to be taken across the ocean. We educated them about the project, the Dadaab Refugee Camp, and our hopes.

 

We were confident, and we knew nothing. We were ready to go to Africa, with courage, innocence, and hope.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: In Africa
Three weeks later, after two days of travel across three continents, we arrived in Nairobi at midnight, from Cincinnati to Montreal to Amsterdam to Nairobi. The next morning began with a beautiful van ride out of Nairobi through the Rift Valley with the 8 African members of the Dadaab Theater Project and the 6 jet-lagged American members of the American Dadaab Theater Project, with Michael, Julianna, and our documentary film crew, Su and David. The sights out the window were sobering, exotic, and unfamiliar. I saw a passport photo sign using photos of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as the advertising samples. The two ensembles, looking forward to this meeting for four months, behaved like young school children on a bus to summer camp. They sang and made noises, and they laughed.

Out the window I noticed that in Africa the rooms were dark, and if there were light bulbs, they were dim. It was dark indoors. On the bus I listened to the exotic sounds of languages I had never heard. I saw a policeman with what looked to my nervous eyes like a machine gun in his hands. I felt old and invisible. The American and African youth seemed to be having an easy time, traveling in the bubble of the bus, enjoying each other with a frenzied energy that I recall but can’t summon. I saw a man with an enormous branch of green bananas on his head.

The only woman in the African company, Sumayo, was behind me. I heard her listening to Somali pop music through her mobile phone. The voices on the bus got louder as we rolled through the countryside.

Everyone I saw out the van window was working with his or her hands. I saw so much manual labor out the window during this bus ride. I noticed it. I saw men pulling large two wheeled carts. I noticed small boys that looked 7 or 8 herding goats and cattle, hitting flanks with a small stick to keep the animals moving. I saw a man hand-sawing, and another using a hatchet. I noticed men on a rooftop placing cinder blocks by hand. A woman carried a yellow jerry can of water. A man tended a fire where he was roasting ears of corn. He waved his arms at our van, hoping we will stop to buy. I saw work and I saw no machines.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: A Joyful Noise
We arrived at Camp Crayfish at Lake Naivasha, our home until Sunday. As I exited the bus I saw a small hand-painted sign with an arrow pointing the way to Laughter Pub. We didn’t go to Laughter Pub, instead toasting under the flowering tree with Papaya Juice, orange and bright and thick. It was delicious. After a tour of the camp, an hour later, as we waited for our rooms to be ready, I heard more laughter than I ever heard from Laughter Pub.

 

The youth were all sitting in a large circle on the grass in the sun. They were sharing children’s games. How did this start? Ojullu, sitting next to Will, began to chant an Ethiopian children’s game, reminiscent of eeny meeny miny mo. He tapped his right leg, then his left, then Will’s right leg, then Will’s left, round and round with their legs out in front of them. He stopped on his own right leg, and he pulled it under himself, leaving him with one leg and Will with two. We roared with laughter, as we realized that to ‘win’ this game you must not become legless! We don’t know what Ojullu is chanting, and the next time Will lost a leg. Everyone is giddy, enjoying the freedom to play. Ojullu became legless first, and it appeared that Will won.

 

Cameron Davis, our strong African-American male from St. Louis, next began an American chanting game with which I was unfamiliar- Big Booty. I felt old again, as I laughed at their antics. Numbers were assigned to everyone and the rhythmic chanting began, hands clapping and thighs slapped, laughter rolling into the fresh air when someone failed to repeat their assigned number in time. The space between continued to collapse.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Time to Act
Later that afternoon after checking in to our rooms, we had brief, separate rehearsals. After creating an original show for this place, for these people, sight unseen, the time to share our shows was fast approaching. This felt so different than an opening night, and it felt good. Our senses were alive to the newness, our awareness keen that everything we were about to do and say in our show would have a completely new resonance here in Kenya. My breath was deep as I watched our rehearsal in the hot sun.

 

As hosts, the African Dadaab Theater Project performed their original piece first for their American guests. All were nervous. We didn’t really know each other. Nothing was familiar. Marabou Cranes, with enormous eight-foot wingspans flew overhead, startling us with their exotic sights and sounds. We were in a field, in Africa, on Lake Naivasha, with strangers, and we were about to share personal work, work that had been gestating for six months, since the beginning of the new year. We wanted to impress each other, to be worthy, and I think we all wanted our work to matter. The Africans spoke in Somali, they sang in Dinka, they sang songs they wrote, and they shared a poem that Ojullu had written in English:


“ I remember December 13, 2003 when my siblings and I gathered under the tree in the forest with our lips dry, hiding for our precious lives. I remember that day when I saw one of my people convulsing in blood, and some were limping because their legs were shot. I remember that day when my mother prayed for water in order to quench our thirst, while my father cleared somewhere to sleep in a part of our hut. I remember the time when I saw people panting like dogs and elders thinking of the reasons for killing people which cannot be fathomed. I remember kids running by themselves without their mothers holding their hands when the scorching sun burned the dead bodies and let vultures celebrate on them. I remember the day when mothers forgot to sing the lullaby to their young babies. ”

The poem had been sent to Will Kiley in an e-mail message and we had asked if we could use it in our show, not knowing that they would be using it in their show. To hear this poem spoken aloud, with memories intact, by the author and African cast, with these memories and worse coursing through their bodies, was almost too much to bear. We knew these words, but we didn’t know these words.

We chose to speak the poem written by Ojullu in our ‘I remember’ section, to share his memories, with acknowledgement of our different memories as a bridge to shared memories.

Mikayla: I don’t remember December 13, 2003 when my siblings and I gathered under the tree in the forest with our lips dry, hiding for our precious lives.  I don’t remember that day when I saw one of my people convulsing in blood, and some were limping because their legs were shot. But I do now.

Will I don’t remember that day when my mother prayed for water in order to quench our thirst, while my father cleared somewhere to sleep in a part of our hut. But I do now.

Cameron: I don’t remember the time when I saw people panting like dogs and elders thinking of the reasons for killing people which cannot be fathomed. But I do now.

Kristopher: I don’t remember kids running by themselves without their mothers holding their hands when the scorching sun burned the dead bodies and let vultures celebrate on them. But I do now.

Alyssa: I don’t remember the day when mothers forgot to sing the lullaby to their young babies.

All:                                                                        But we do now.

When it came time for us to share these words written by Ojullu, months before he was a face and a voice and a breathing person to us, it was almost too much to handle. As I sat in my plastic chair in the field, feeling not worthy and unsure of the deep waters in which we were treading, the ‘I remember’ section arrived and I watched our young American cast of five try to share these words without breaking. Suddenly the weight was real, the words were real, the death was real, and the life was real. The accomplished actors were at a loss for words and could barely breathe as they struggled through this section of the show that has always been an easy pronouncement. Ojullu was watching and listening.

 

Our show ground to a human halt as they walked their 7 steps upstage and turned, the poem complete, all five Americans in tears. Will had to speak next, and he couldn’t. He could not breathe. He could not find his voice. His stage self was gone, in public, on stage, in a field, in Africa. For what felt like a full glorious minute I watched the most human struggle I have ever seen on stage. I watched Will struggle with finding his voice, with his identity, with Ojullu, with memories of his own father, and it was O.K. All the ensemble could do was take deep breaths together, emotions welling, until a breath arrived that allowed Will to find his voice again.


 

After sharing our two shows for each other, in a field as the sun set, a dam broke. Our performance ended and the American cast stood there, shell-shocked, in silence, un-bowing, unable to bow, so I started to applaud, like a needy director, wanting to fill the silence because I couldn’t breathe, and the collapse began. Ojullu charged the space, knocking over his white plastic chair, leaping over those in front, to get to Will to embrace him. It was a complete, abandoned, pure embrace, full of that which could not be expressed with cheap applause or words. His action enveloped Will in love and hope. Others joined, and the African and American companies embraced, strangers no more, embracing with a connection not borne of cultural ease or shallow back-slapping. These were full embraces, across cultures and nationalities, embraces that enclosed the living and the dead. Hope was very alive.

 

I witnessed, and my eyes burned, scalding hot. Questions asked in the Sears parking lot twelve months earlier were being answered.

 

I gave everyone Cincinnati Bearcats T-shirts, and the Americans gave favorite scripts and books to our new friends. After dinner we shared stories around a campfire. We saw stars in the African sky we had never seen. We had spent a day together and we would never be the same.

 

 

The Dadaab Theater Project:
The Great Work Begins
The next day we were united as a new Dadaab Theatre Project, with sixteen members, eight Africans and eight Americans, and we began to make one new show about our new identity, an international, multi-cultural cast of integrated youth. We didn’t all speak the same language, yet we did. We spoke the language of theatre, and we agreed unconditionally to find one story to tell together as an ensemble. We worked fast. The work was intense. Choices were made and theatrical moments were built with clarity and decisiveness. We had two days to write and stage an original thirteen minute show that would first be seen in Kangemi, the Nairobi slum, and then the following day at the University of Nairobi for World Refugee Day, sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). We needed to create under delicious pressure.

 

On this Friday, our second day in Kenya, one by one the American students and one of our African ensemble members became sick. They couldn’t keep down food, they were dehydrated, they were running to restrooms, they had allergic reactions, and I watched them all, to a person, soldier on. What a strange position to find myself in as an advisor and care-giver; I was completely unable to cure their sickness, I wanted to wave a magic wand and make everyone feel better, I wanted to send everyone to bed, and I needed every person at rehearsal. I put on my optimist’s hat, became a leader with a mission, and I willed small portions of our show into shape as quickly and efficiently as I could when ensemble members were not being sick. We created an opening and ran it, we wrote our affirmation section with brand new ‘I am’ phrases written by the African ensemble, and we staged a complex running and jumping section for five of the men with the new text. Despite the sun, the cattle being driven through our rehearsal field by the shepherds, the Marabou storks that we now referred to as pterodactyls, the cast members digging deep and not allowing themselves to feel sick, and the dog who attended every rehearsal begging us to throw boulders for him to retrieve with his German Shepherd teeth, our creativity blossomed and our show took shape. It was a process unlike any I have ever experienced, and it was glorious.

 

My words were being translated into Somali by Abdi Rashid and Moulid, two members of the Dadaab Theater Project, who would not be performing in our new show. They were writers, and they served as my assistant directors. What does it feel like to be translated? I have never been translated. I loved looking in the eyes of Abdi Rashid and Moulid as they listened to my instructions and carefully expressed my thoughts to their colleagues in their beautiful native tongue, making exotic sounds and trills that thrilled me. I felt heard and cared for and I felt like we were a team. I trusted these two men with my soul.

 

Our new ensemble was supporting each other and pushing each other to new heights, and individuals who I had just met and who seemed shy began to develop a swagger and a confidence that was borne of admiration. We liked working together and we liked what we were making. The Africans and Americans were wallowing in this newly found theatrical language that was being developed and I was constantly being surprised.

 

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Beginning to Build
We started our show with each actor entering the performance space from the audience and announcing their arrival by counting from 1 to 14. The movement choice for each entrance carried a story of identity. Each actor was responsible for his or her own creation. Kristopher Dean was our natural leader, and he somersaulted across the ground into the space and stood to announce our beginning with a proud ‘ONE!’ Did Peter and Alyssa really enter together as reverse clowns, one mincing with hilarity and one strutting and swaggering? Alyssa finished by jumping onto Peter’s back and I hear ‘FOUR’ and ‘FIVE.’ Was it possible that the reserved Abdi Wali really leapt into the space as a muscular gazelle, spinning in the air, landing on one knee, and confidently claiming his power with a confident ‘SIX’? Is that really Sumayo, our young Somali woman, soft and petite, entering the space to announce her presence with a time-bending strut that made her a mature goddess? ‘ELEVEN!’ There was such joy and pride as we created our integrated show opening, strangers no more, fourteen becoming one.

 

Can two men kneel on the ground on one knee next to each other, while a third man climbs to standing position on their shoulders? I asked this question of Kristopher and Mustafa, the two who would be the climbers. Yes they can. I watched them climb and balance. I asked the bases, our blended cast, Cameron and Peter Okello, and Ojullu and Will, can you stand up with a man on your shoulders? Yes they can. We go further. Can you walk forward as a team while still balancing this man on your shoulders? They struggled, they solved, they pushed themselves, and they succeeded. Everything seemed possible. Can they speak while doing this? The answer was always ‘YES!’.

We chose to build our two tall stationary towers side by side, and to share the poem Roots, by Lucille Clifton, which the refugee cast had memorized and included in their welcome show. The words rang out loud and clear, enhanced by the group effort needed to succeed at this extraordinary task:

 

“It is the life thing in us that will not let us die.
Call it our craziness

our wildness
call it our roots,

it is the light in us
it is the light of us

it is the light.”

I can’t take my eyes from Mustafa and his bare feet balanced on the shoulders of Ojullu and Will. His humanity grabs my heart and squeezes.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Hope
The next morning Ojullu and Will were missing from our morning Tai Chi class taught by the indomitable Casey Scott Leach. Will rose early and walked to the lake with his African brother, Ojullu, and together they wrote an original poem. They traded every other stanza, writing as one. Will had just finished throwing up and still he wrote. Ojullu made a dangerous request toward the end of the co-authored poem:

 

“Come on, Kiley, take my hand

Don’t let me fall.”

 

With this simple phrase, read to me later that morning, the centerpiece of our original theatre piece was born. I was given a director’s dream. How brave to ask for someone’s hand! With need exposed and heart open, the action of our trip coalesced into this one poetic sentence. Two hours later I staged Ojullu’s words and there he was, reaching and falling and being caught by ensemble members and lifted into the air, and there was Will, reaching and falling, and also being caught. As the two were lifted high in the air, reciting a newly written poem, they were slowly brought closer and closer until their hands could finally grasp. I have staged many dramas in my life, but few moments have resonated with such simplicity and power.

 

I think the reason I went to Africa was so I could stand in a field and watch a 22 year old Ethiopian refugee, lifted high in the air by 6 other cast-mates, grasp the hand of a 20 year old drama student from Cincinnati, as he too was lifted high in the air by 6 other cast-mates. As they reached for each other, as they fell and were painstakingly lifted high over head, as they were slowly brought together for the needed and inevitable grasp of two strong hands, I felt my heart crack open with hope. It was a hope not recognizable as an American hope; it was a wide, easy, light hope, all the more powerful for its grace. It was hope born in Africa.

 

“Come on, Kiley,
Take my hand.
Don’t let me fall.

My heart rises and sets with you.

Only together can we create this new,
far more beautiful and expansive horizon.

I am strong, focused,
and determined to change the whole world.

We cannot fall

It is not within us.”

 

The Dadaab Theater Project:
Memories and More Hope
There were three more sections of our show left to stage and create. I was leading without knowing our destination. I was always leaning forward, pushing our cast of 14 to the finish line. We had to finish our original creation. I could not stop. I was nervous and I have never been happier. Our mascot, lovingly named Rock Dog, was in the field and at the ready. The Marabou Storks were standing like wise old men in the field next door watching. We had four hours, and I could not forget that we would be performing for an audience the next day.

 

We next needed to create our ‘I remember’ section from journal entries the refugees had prepared earlier. Our new friends shared their memories about war and past atrocities, their voices drifting through the soft air in the field as the Americans learned of new worlds in the shade of the trees. The memories and voices were Ethiopian, they were Sudanese, and they were Somali, distinct and strong and brave. They share so much, despite the geographical and cultural differences, and I wanted the Americans to hear every memory. These short phrases, simple and succinct, carried such weight, and they needed to be honored and heard. How different these memories were from the American memories in our introductory show, memories of listening to baseball games on the radio, a first kiss, holding hands, and the safety of a mother’s arms.

“I remember the day, the week, the month, the year when my hometown was in total mess.”

- Peter Okello


“I remember when my mother, father, and siblings were killed for no apparent reason.” - Abdi Rashid


“I remember when I left my country and everyone was laying like a stone.” - Peter


“I remember being separated from family, and up till now I don’t know where they are and they don’t know where I am.” - Abdi Wali

“I remember when my mother kept us indoors, praying for my father.” - Moulid

“I remember the day when the earth opened its mouth to swallow us.” – Ojullu

 

I felt we needed to sing in our show next, as we continued to build toward an ending for our show. We had Abdi Wali sing his original composition, a love song that he sang with Sumayo in Somali. I loved the way the song lived in his body, how it floated and bounced, and how he always made a small gesture of tears flowing down his cheeks toward the end of the song. Sumayo’s eyes were always so bright and alive when she sang.

 

As we headed into our high-energy ending, we built our section of hopes. How similar the integrated international cast really was. As the African youth read their hopes to us I heard shared refrains about education and dreams loudly and clearly.

 

I asked everyone to run and scatter in our playing space, and to squat when they arrived in an interesting place. It was a silly and unexpected moment, a release of theatrical tension. One at a time I had five of the actors pop up and loudly proclaim, in their unique voices, their common hope for the future. Their shared cry was powerful: “I hope to be educated!” first from Musdafah, then by Alyssa to Sumayo to Casey ending at Abdi Wali, who shouted the line in a joyful desperate plea, his hands raised and fists shaking, “I HOPE TO BE EDUCATED!” It was so wonderful that we did it again, our crazy wild run, giving the same five the chance to stand and proclaim another shared hope: “I hope all my dreams will come true!” again started by Musdafah, and passed to Alyssa then Sumayo to Casey ending again at Abdi Wali, who shouted the line with conviction, his hands raised and fists shaking, “I HOPE ALL MY DREAMS WILL COME TRUE!” These hopes were not tender and fragile, they were shared, owned, and shouted.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: It is the Light
Why was I in Africa? I was in Africa because of Michael Littig. Why was I in a field building a show with refugee youth who were willing to share so willingly from their hearts, who would do anything I said, who agreed to work with virtual strangers as if they were brothers and sisters? I was about to finish staging and writing our original show because Michael Littig and Julianna Bloodgood spent four months with these eight individuals in the Dadaab Refugee Camp laying the groundwork. They gave these eight hope, and purpose, and identity, which exposed their brave and trusting souls. And I was the recipient. It wasn’t about the show, although it was our means. The show was just the event, the thing, our common goal.

We were active together, writing and sharing and staging and rehearsing, we were doing and laughing and lifting and falling and singing and dancing and jumping and running so every human interaction was magnified. “It is the light in us,” said Lucille Clifton. “It is the light of us”, she said. “It is the light.” And she was right. We were bathed in the light of creation together, and we mattered.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Teacher
The eight refugees called me teacher. They called me teacher, and my heart skipped a beat each time. I have been a teacher for 25 years and my title never mattered. When the refugee friends looked at me and called me teacher, and bowed or shook my hand, I felt a responsibility that made me catch my breath. I struggled with the weight of their respect, being used to indifference as a teacher in America. Why was I being revered? What have I done to deserve this? Why was their reverence so hard for me to accept? They were so thankful, and I was so moved. “I WANT TO BE EDUCATED” they shouted and my life mattered.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Michael and Julianna
Abdi Rashid wrote a line for our section on ‘hope’ that needed to be spoken last. I assigned the line to Michael and Julianna, my former students. These two were the teachers of the eight refugees for the past four months, and now, as fellow performers, with the refugees and my current students from America as witnesses, I wanted to hear them say this simple and powerful wish together:

“I hope for a moment when the universe will be a global village with a common objective and understanding.” – Abdi Rashid

 

Julianna stood from her squat with her long legs and regal presence, and walked through the field the first time we ran this new section. “I hope for a moment when the universe will be a global village,” she said, and the word hope was stretched and emphasized in that Julianna way, as her hair blew in the breeze. Michael rose and his voice filled the field: “I hope for moment when the universe will be a global village with a common objective and understanding”, and he finished the line standing next to Julianna, and I saw Michael and Julianna look at each other, and then reach for each other to hold hands.

Every single person was in that field because of the energy and beliefs of these two individuals. We were from Georgia and Ethiopia and Florida and Somalia and Pennsylvania and Sudan. We were our own global village, and at that moment we had a common objective and we had understanding. I saw what this meant to them, to share this line and to say it aloud together for the first time. I saw their eyes begin to fill. I heard myself exhale loudly. I knew I must breathe it all in, even though it threatened to overwhelm me.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Courage
We finished our show as we started, by taking ingredients from our separate welcome performances and blending them into a new crazy stew. We taught the American stomping rhythm from our finale and watched Peter Ajang master the claps and stamps and stomps. The Americans had stomped the rhythm as they chanted the Kanye West song POWER, but for our new show we found that the stomps fit more beautifully with Peter’s Dinka song. We all learned his words and notes, and we ended our show with unified voices. "Aba wey ley Kung ga ba wey ley. Oh wey ley Kung ga ba wey ley." Alyssa Caputo, our spitfire from Georgia, walked over to the two dancing men, shrugged her shoulders, and danced like a dynamo between them. She completed the trio of joyful dancers stomping.

 

At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday night we ran our new 13-minute show for the first time. We had started working together the day before at 11:00 a.m. and had succeeded in writing and staging an original show with a cast of 14. We succeeded in shining a spotlight on the uncommon ensemble while still giving each individual a moment to shine. We had successfully created new text, new staging, and new songs, which harbored new hopes and new dreams. How proud we all were as we shared the stories and identities of our refugee friends as an integrated cast of Africans and Americans.

 

I was rung dry as I watched. I saw such courage. I felt such hope.

 

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Arrival in Kangemi- The Nairobi Slum
On Sunday morning we boarded the bus after breakfast and our morning rehearsal, and returned to Nairobi. We arrived in Kangemi, a Nairobi slum, in the early afternoon. We had been briefed about the Nairobi slum, and I was prepared for the worst, even though I really couldn’t have explained what I thought we’d see. We entered the slum ‘from the back way’, which meant we exited our van next to wealthy estates surrounded by fences and walls and barbed wire, and walked along a red clay path into the slum.

 

We were a rag-tag group, walking in to the unknown, happy and exhilarated. We felt like a parade of entertainers on a mission. We were a new family, and as a family of artists we had created that quick bond so common in our profession. It is always necessary for us to share quickly and fully, giving us the ability to create deep togetherness as a way of life. I don’t cry in front of strangers, yet I had cried already when trying to express myself to the refugees at our evening campfires. This ensemble had seen me at my most vulnerable, that place where I am so overwhelmed with feeling that my voice catches and I can’t breathe and I can’t speak. It is my crying place, and it is a place I try to avoid. However, it is a place I frequent often, the place where my heart opens because it has no choice. It’s a good thing I’m not an actor, because I seize up when I feel too much.

 

We arrived at the edge of the slum and found the Shangilia Youth to Youth Network building. It was a corrugated metal building, and unlike the rest of the dwellings, it was painted a bright sky blue. It announced its presence with joy and pride, serving as a focal point on the edge of the slum next to a cornfield. Our cultural exchange would take place in that field with three other groups after an afternoon of sharing. We were to be joined by an a cappella singing group from Nairobi and actors from Shangilia who would present a performance about condom use. In addition we’d be joined by The Survival Girls, another acting ensemble, which was formed two-weeks earlier to perform on World Refugee Day as well. These brave French-speaking girls from the Congo had created The Survival Girls under the leadership and direction of Ming Holden to give voice to the sexual abuse they had suffered.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Shame
We met Shadrack Vigedi in the small blue building, a youth leader with Shangilia, and he proudly shared the mission and history of his group. His bright eyes and beautiful smile lit up the room. He spoke of the need to act, of over coming drug addiction and street violence to become leaders in the community. He spoke of being so hungry and having no food, and instead feeding on rehearsals and the desire to act together and work harder. They created edu-tainments, theatre pieces about AIDS and HIV awareness, condom use, and care of the elderly. They act when and where they are needed and are not afraid of difficult subject matter. They are all volunteers and they all feel the responsibility of being model citizens as artists. I felt shame, and I felt ashamed.

 

Shame is such a powerful feeling, one that was not common to me. I have often felt pride in my life, pride in my students, productions, and accomplishments. I felt ashamed. Students in CCM Drama earn thousands upon thousands of dollars yearly in scholarship money, and in return they are asked to volunteer in the community. I have signed bogus claims on forms for students for years, giving hours of credit for tasks not worthy of meaningful community service hours. I did not demand more engagement and that is all I could think about as I sat there in the presence of the true definition of volunteerism. Shadrack shamed me with his true commitment to meaningful volunteerism. His commitment to those in need was palpable despite being in need himself. He was clearly a product of this environment and he was not defeated by poverty.

 

He has inspired me to demand more of my American students, to redefine what it means to volunteer with true selfless engagement. I saw his smile as he shared his passion. I felt his enthusiasm for life and for humanity. I was inspired to demand more of my students and myself.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Play
We waited in the field at the edge of the slum next to the sky blue building for some of the other groups to arrive for our cultural exchange. As we waited we played in the African sun. Children emerged soon after our arrival and they kept growing in number. There were always 40-50 beautiful children vying for attention from our American ensemble.

 

I watched Casey become a clown and entertain children with juggling and gymnastics and handstands. What he did, they copied. I watched Cameron and Alyssa dance a hip-hop routine as the children smiled and bounced along to the rhythm. I watched Mikayla become surrounded by little girls, vying for her attention and her lap. They touched her hair surreptitiously. I watched Will as he ran full speed across the uneven ground with a posse of a dozen children in pursuit. He zigged and they zigged, he zagged and they zagged, with laughter ringing out in the warm afternoon sun. He let himself be captured, children hanging off his arms and legs. He collapsed on his back and was swarmed by happy children who had felled the giant. Then they did it again.

 

And I took pictures. I don’t run and I don’t dance and I can’t balance on my head but I could take their pictures. I learned that these children were eager to have their pictures taken if they could see the photo immediately after. I obliged and as a result was surrounded by excited children begging to be photographed. They would pose, alone and in groups, being serious and silly. I would snap the photo and show them the results on the back of my digital camera and they would squeal with delight and say ‘Again!’. That was the gift. It was an easy game and I played joyfully with dozens of children.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Our Play
As the sun began to set late in the afternoon it became time to share our play. The city singers sang first, cold and detached. They displayed a familiar ego and departed early. The Survival Girls performed second and they shook the earth with their power and commitment. Despite the language barrier the message was palpable, and I was moved to my core as I watched these girls share their abuse, their frustration, and their strength and recovery through text and song and dance. They were kindred spirits.

 

It was time for the Dadaab Theater Project to present our original show for the first time. I was in a strange lost time zone, where a day was a week, so I was calm and expectant as Kristopher rolled out of the audience into the playing space to stand and shout ‘ONE’ to begin. Our rehearsal that morning felt like a week ago and I knew all would be fine. I became aware that this experience wasn’t about presenting a ‘show’ in a normal sense, but about the experience of play that defined the day.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Ease
We were presenting a play and it felt like play. It was a pure innocent feeling, a foreign feeling, as I sat in the grass watching the birth of an ensemble in a field in front of a cornfield backdrop in the Nairobi slum in Africa on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I felt at ease.

 

The highlights from our 13-minute performance in Kangemi were many. The children on the hill laughed with joy as our clown Peter took the stage, and everything he did connected to the funny bone. The laughter of the children in the audience was pure.


Watching the men in the ensemble run across the uneven ground and conquer the terrain to leap with conviction before announcing their affirmations in our ‘I am’ section, announcing their hearts to a listening audience for the first time, was exhilarating. I loved hearing Kristopher as he leapt and spoke the words written by Sumayo: “I am a little boy (girl) who loves theater and wants to be a super artist.” Ojullu leapt and shared the deepest of simple truths without apology: ‘I am a boy orphaned by war.’ I couldn’t breathe deeply enough. These youth dared to say “I am strong, focused, and determined to change the whole world” at the same time as being able to admit “I am sometimes scared, unsure how to live this life.’ Their purity was disarming.

 

Abdi Wali and Sumayo had never sounded better as they sang with smiles that would melt a glacier.

 

As I watched Ojullu and Will reach for each other and fall and get lifted for the fourth time in my life, as they shared a poem written and staged the day before, my heart broke open, again. When they were slowly brought together, and their hands finally grasped, the moment transcended theater. This image, in the tranquility of the cornfield with the silent rapture of an audience that wanted to share in our work, was peaceful completion. It was enough.

 

Why is it so incredibly moving to watch 14 people turn upstage together, walk in unison for seven clean steps, and then turn back downstage and face us with nothing but their openness and identities revealed? Words fail.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Hope and Courage

Peter wrote a simple memory: “ I remember when I was in an airplane for the first time. I felt like I was a white person who uses a plane only.” I assigned this line to our American clown, Casey Leach, and the awkwardness of having him share this line as a white American was the perfect impetus for the ensemble to explode with child-like silliness into noisy airplanes, flying through space toward the end of our play. It allowed our audience to laugh at us, with us, as we prepared to share our hopes with them without apology.

 

How brave to stand up and say ‘I hope to be educated’ and mean it. How much courage does it take to say “I hope all my dreams will come true’ and mean it? How can I express what I felt as I watched Michael and Julianna hold hands and hope for a moment that the universe will be a global village? Did I really believe we mattered? I did. At that moment I felt the cast of American students and myself enter into an unspoken contract with the Dadaab Theater Project participants. The courage to hope was there in front of me, there, as lives were connected through the art form I know and love.

 

Hope is dangerous. Hope was real. Hope is fragile. Hope was undeniable. That will be our burden.

 

The amount of hope and courage that was needed to will the Dadaab Theater Project into existence was immeasurable. It was unquantifiable and personal. It was so large that it could not be seen. And it existed. I was there.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Chaos

The next day was World Refugee Day and we were scheduled to perform at the UNHCR sponsored World Refugee Day activities at the University of Nairobi at 10:00 a.m. We walked through the city to the University on a cool and overcast Monday morning. As I said before, a day in Kenya felt like a week, so our day in the sun in the field performing together felt like a week earlier as we walked toward the second performance our of our original show in the morning coolness.

Nairobi was teeming. Crossing streets was always an adventure. We played follow the leader, our multi-cultural parade of refugees and American youth. We moved briskly and I couldn’t take it all in quickly enough. I focused on keeping us together, which was difficult in a group of 15, destination unknown. We had a guide to help us, but I had been told before we started walking to pay attention since we would be re-tracing our steps without the guide on our return trip. I could not imagine how I would feel if we lost anyone, which felt like a distinct possibility in my over-loaded mind.

 

Pay attention. Enjoy the journey. Take it all in. Look at all the people. I was happily in chaos.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: World Refugee Day

We arrived at the University of Nairobi after our 30-minute walk through the city. We were welcomed by a UNHCR banner and the site of about twenty huge pointy white tents set up in a sports field. Stages had been erected at either end of the field, and we walked under a balloon arch of black, green, red and white balloons, the colors of the Kenyan flag. Organizations set up booths around the field that displayed literature on the plight of the refugee and ways to help. It felt like so many fairs I have attended, but with higher stakes. The theme for UNHCR, in its 60th Anniversary year, was “One refugee without hope is too many.”

 

As a director I am used to shepherding huge events with many people toward smooth completion where audience and performers and crew all are on the same page with the same goals with the same timetable. I am used to being in charge. We were on time, we were ready, and I felt like a small ant at a huge picnic as I watched the other ants go this way and that, following, leading, running blindly in busy, busy orchestrated chaos. Once our 10:30 start time passed with no guests of honor and no audience present I knew that sitting and waiting with patient readiness would be the order of the day. We were told we’d be the first group to perform, the place of honor, and that we would start soon.

 

Tribes with colorful garb denoting the many nations of Africa began and arriving and preparing as well. I saw such colors! I saw dancing and drumming and acrobatics. I saw proud pageantry and felt the tribal pride. It was glorious. Something was going to happen, and we didn’t know when or how, and we would be a part of it.

 

After our newly announced 11:00 start time came and went, we went to rehearse in a field next to the tents. We were on Africa time, we were waiting for the UN minister to arrive, and we needed to be loose until then. Half way through our rehearsal we were stopped and told to get ready, and our rehearsal was stopped mid-sentence. We started more than an hour later.

 

From performing in a field in Kangemi to performing before an audience of more than 500 at the University of Nairobi in matching blue UNHCR T-shirts in a 24-hour period was brilliantly disorienting. At this event our show was to be performed in a tennis-court style, with an audience of 50 or so dignitaries on a raised stage on one side, and an audience of hundreds on white plastic chairs facing the dignitaries. Because we were not a dance or music group like all the others, where having a ‘front’ was not crucial to enjoying the artistry, our theatre piece was designed with a clear ‘front’, so no matter how we performed in this tennis-court set-up we would have our backs to someone. This was upsetting, and unknown, and we adjusted as best we could. We had to face the guests of honor, but we tried to be inclusive to those in the audience behind the actors.

 

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Show Time- Theatre in Chaos

After welcome speeches, after the singing of the Kenyan national anthem by a mixed choir, after a performance by the Kenyan national acrobats, men who climbed poles and balanced on shoulders and scrambled athletically, it was our turn to take the stage. Kristopher somersaulted through the grass and ran on to the stage to yell ‘ONE’ and our show had begun. I was nervous and excited and prepared for 13 minutes of authentic performance as our fragile relationship, American youth and refugees from Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia, stood together without apology to share their identities, hopes, and dreams. How fulfilling to see Ojullu and Will Kiley, brothers who met days before, striding toward the audience together demanding our attention with the shared line, ’I am alive and you are alive and we must fill the air with our words!’, identities blazing, hopes alive, virility defined.

 

So much happened that was unexpected, so much for the actors to process and handle without preparation. Television crews and photographers with tri-pods had moved directly into the performance space to better see the acrobats off to the side, and our actors infiltrated their space. As our opening unfolded, a voice began to narrate loudly through a microphone, explaining who we were. The actors continued. A lone microphone stood at the foot of the playing space, and it was live, causing booming loudness when actors came near. Adrenalin made performances excited and loud. What did the audience think of us? Peter Ajang started to sing Nali Choo, a Dinka song about returning to the homeland, and a man at an amplified keyboard joined in, trying to improvise, a strange accompaniment from an intruder.

 

Then out of the performance chaos came order. Ojullu yelled ‘Come on Kiley, take my hand’ and began to fall. The other actors caught and lifted him beautifully. Will Kiley did the same, and our two actors were airborne, a strong and powerful ensemble hard at work. The distance between the two was large, and as they slowly came together, an American and Ethiopian reaching across time and space, I heard applause break out, and grow, and crescendo as the two men were slowly brought together and grabbed hands for all to see. We made a connection, and it was glorious, to cheers in Nairobi.

 

I smiled with pride hearing Mikayla Stanley proclaim Sumayo’s dream- “ I hope to be somebody who promotes her country.” I felt a recognizable tug when I heard Michael Littig share Peter’s simple wish- “I hope my mother will not forsake me for being away from her.” I tightened inside when I heard Kristopher Dean exclaim, “I am not a traitor”, the brave line written by Abdi Rashid. There was poetic mystery as Alyssa Caputo spoke Ojullu’s memory in the cool Nairobi air- “I remember the quiet forest where I hear only the voice of the birds.”

 

I felt pride hearing Will Kiley tell the African audience, “I am a poor refugee boy, and work using my muscles and sweat,” a line written by Musdafa. I experienced unspeakable inner stillness when Cameron Davis dared to admit the truth written by Abdi Wali- “I remember being separated from my family, and up til now I don’t know where they are and they don’t know where I am.”

 

Soon I saw Kristopher and Mustapha climb on strong shoulders, as our theatrical images created in Cincinnati resonated with new meaning with an integrated cast in a new setting. Our airplane explosion was met with welcoming laughter as our performance careened toward its ending. Soon enough we were at our finale, dancing and singing a Dinka song about strength, “Aba wey ley Kung ga ba wey ley, “ as Cameron and Peter and Alyssa stomped and slapped with grins as wide as the Nile. We had done it.

 

After watching the Americans perform in Naivasha, Peter Okello told us, “I was rooted to my chair, but my heart was in the show with the actors moving with them.” I knew what he meant.

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Destiny is in Our Hands

After returning to our hotel we prepared to end our project. The refugees needed to head to the bus station at 5:00 a.m. the next morning to catch the bus to return to Dadaab. Kristopher and Will would be off on a three day safari the following day, Casey and Mikayla were off to Europe, and the rest of us were flying home. That final evening we met in the Hotel Kipepeo dining room one last time and each person was invited to share a thought.

 

Moulid told us, “Thank you for making my days brighter.”

 

Sumayo told us, “I can’t remember the last time I was as happy as I am tonight. My happiness can’t allow me to say anymore.”

 

Mikayla told us, “I learned that I am sometimes scared.” This was a line written by a refugee for our show. We all conquered fears to be together that day, and we all looked fear in the face. It is O.K. to be scared, and Mikayla owned her fear.

 

Ojullu dared to share these thoughts- “ I am not a man who cries. I have scars on my body and still I don’t cry. But I cry now when I feel something.” Me too. I told Ojullu to keep crying.

 

Alyssa told us, “I didn’t understand the phrase ‘You are enough,’ until this trip.” This is a phrase I use when teaching, a phrase I drum into every actor’s head during their freshman year at CCM when they start inventing more than they need to. It is a path to truth in performance and life.

 

Julianna told us, “Sometimes beauty can make your break.” She is right. Peter Okello told us, “We can’t say we’ve done enough.” He is right.

 

Finally, Abdi Rashid said simply, “Destiny is in our hands.”

 

 

The Dadaab Theater Project: Saving a Life

 

I saw my first Marabou stork in Naivasha. It flew overhead so close that I heard it before I saw it, and with a wingspan of eight feet, it was unmissable and startling. In the air, the bird appeared to be majestic and otherworldly. I knew about sparrows and robins, not gigantic birds. It seemed to float on the breeze with such ease, and I swear I could hear it breathing as it flew overhead.

 

Up close, the bird is ugly. It is called the "undertaker bird" due to its shape from behind, resembling an old man with cloak-like wings, skinny white legs, and little head with tufts of hair. They were exotic and other-worldly to me. To the Africans, these scavengers are an unremarkable annoyance, meat and garbage eaters found at dumps. In fact, I discovered that we saw so many of them because of the open garbage dump two fields over, where they stood guard and picked through the scraps of the day.

 

At the end of our first rehearsal, when I was busy planning what to do at our next rehearsal as everyone scattered for dinner, a remarkable event occurred. It haunts me to this day.

 

As I spoke to someone about something, lost in thought, I heard a Marabou stork clatter on to the roof of the shed behind me. I turned sharply and saw the large, ungainly bird slide, and slip, and fail to gain a successful perch on the roof. It had a broken leg, a dead leg, and its one good leg failed to gain a footing. It awkwardly took to the air as it slid off the roof and flew to the next closest item, a wooden structure of unknown usage, like a frame for a scoreboard long since gone. This too was an unsuccessful attempt, and without the ability to gain flying momentum, the bird crashed into the top of the structure, its leg dangling limply. With a final push the bird left the structure, and dropped the final ten feet toward the ground and landed half on and half off the fence between the fields exhausted and trapped. Its large wings were useless and he could not get off the fence.

 

The journey of this bird from rooftop to being trapped on a fence probably lasted 30 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I can see it all so clearly, and remember the awkwardness I felt seeing this damaged bird unable to fly and save himself.

 

A shepherd in the field next door walked toward the bird, laughing at it. The bird was completely still. I think it was embarrassed. It was tired. I remember being in conversation with someone as this happened, unfocused, but aware of a large stuck bird. It never entered my mind to go to try to help the bird, even though I know I took note of it for a moment.

 

I re-entered my interrupted conversation with someone about something, going back to my preoccupation. A few minutes later I heard a commotion behind me and I turned. Ojullu had gone to the fence, gone to the bird, and somehow lifted it from behind. I remember seeing Ojullu’s arms go up in the air as he tossed the enormous bird, and I watched it glide about ten meters and land on its one leg successfully. It stood there unmoving, free, confused, tired, and alive. Ojullu turned and walked away from the fence, a life saved, and our world returned to normal.

 

I was haunted by his effort, and my lack of effort. I was aware of his engagement, and my lack of engagement. He had courage I lacked.


The Dadaab Theater Project: Conclusion

What can and what will I do now that this project has ended? I know I can do small things. Can I do large things? What will they be? Can I be as brave as Ojullu?

 

How can we not be overwhelmed? The Dadaab Refugee Camp of June is not the Dadaab Refugee Camp of August. The population has increased by tens of thousands in two short months. The drought and famine in Somalia have brought a new wave of displaced refugees into the camp where our eight African friends live. According to the United Nations, 12 million people in East Africa are in need of help. 29,000 Somali children under five have lost their lives. It is overwhelming. Already meager rations in the camp have become even more meager.

One year ago I had never heard the word Dadaab in my life. Now I see reports on the nightly news and read about Dadaab in the New York Times on a daily basis. I know people who live in Dadaab, and they call me ‘Teacher.’ Our friend Moulid served as translator on the CBS morning news the other day. We are Facebook friends, we e-mail, and we telephone.

To explain the mysteries of cause and effect, the analogy of throwing a pebble into a lake is often used; a tiny stone will cause ripples far beyond the source of impact. I feel like we threw a boulder.

Because we spent time together in a field in Africa a Somali girl sang, two men grabbed hands, and a bird was set free. We dared to call ourselves The Dadaab Theatre Project. Did we help in a tangible way?

 

We did.

 

Let the ripples begin.

 
A Desperate Old Woman
Tuesday, September 06, 2011

By: Abdi Rashid

 

Darkness covers the day

As the old woman goes to roost

Always numb with sorrow

Her limbs withered by both age and starvation

As her lean body sears the pain against the bare floor

 

Her heart giving her a leap

to contrast her present with her past

The past that she thrilled with raptures

That only burns up her life

Forcing her mind to burst to wail

 

Groping about in the dark Ashanti alone

And sobs her heart out

As tears trickle down the creases around her cheeks

Creating a multiple steams on her face

 

And as the dawn draws

Her cheeks pallid and wan

She wiggles using a walking stick

Warbling with the morning birds

And feel the warmth of their company

 

In the realm of her imaginations

Feeling in her bones that death is looming

Needing someone to listen to her tale of woe.
 
A Moment In Time
Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A MOMENT IN TIME

 

By: Abdi Rashid

 

A moment in time when doors closed and windows shut

and I felt the duo scarlet arrive at the heated camp

And our gaze met

their eyes wide awake to catch the scuttling weak folks

their ears strained to listen to the news of the broken souls

 

a moment in tme when our hearts connected

and a dream was created

ushering a secret of existence in my ears

that raised a possible hope for an identity,

 

a moment in time when i was marooned to the place of my historical origin as a mankind

to assemble people of all colour and creeds

and discuss the agenda of identity

in order to restore its values and virtues

and give it the great care it deserves in the great rift valley

the basis of the human race

 

a moment in time when the world race was reformed

and the lost culture ,credit and credentials

were reunited through mutual interaction and integration

 

a moment in time when martyrdom was marked around bonfires and fireworks

and the master teacher stood like a monument of a new race

amidst a ring  of a mixed races whose souls melted into one

 

a moment in time when i could clearly see the meagre faces

of the starving old and young

as i watched the optical illusion of the unfulfilled mirage on the hot road

in the heated camp

suffering the misery of poverty.

Last Updated on Tuesday, August 09, 2011
 
Untitled
Tuesday, August 02, 2011

by: Ojullu Opiew Ochan

 

photo by David Felix Sutffcliffe

 

Man can unite and become one flesh.

Two can sit and build tower in the air.

Snakes twine round each other and roll about and hiss,

to win the mate.

She can imagine it,

I am a sparrow in the hand of prowler, rat under lion's jaws.

 

I travelled on sand beach,

where it glitter and shine like diamond in still water,

a twinkle of fireflies at night.

Every day I wait, I wait in the shade,

I wait in the light of ice moon,

in yellow echoes with a throbbing chest.

She smiled, revealing a row of shining white teeth.

Her silent and split lips is teasing me.

 

Can you imagine a bird in little black feathers?

She is a spring flower in the heart of someone like me.

I love the flapping wings and moving water,

but the important thing is being loved by someone.

If ever man can fall in love.

if a woman can text her beauty,

her desire leaving parents behind,

Sea will breathe,

it surely could bring both lovers to the sea shore.

 
Michael Littig
Tuesday, August 02, 2011

featured on www.youngarts.org

“What will this day be to me?
How do I call it?
The day that made me know
That I am a human being.
The day that make me realize
That I am a part of people.
The day I taste chocolate.”

-Ojullu Opiew Ochan, 
Ethiopian Gambela refugee.
  

I remember the day that Ojullu gave me this poem.  He had gotten the chance to perform as an actor for the first time in front of an audience the day before and he was overjoyed.  I can still remember us walking through the desert and the way he seemed to skip through the air as he recounted his feelings.

It was also the first time he had ever tasted chocolate in his life.  I remember asking him in that moment, “Really?  You’ve never tasted chocolate?”  As he placed the chocolate in his mouth, he shared with me that “It looks like mud.  It’s very sweet.  It tastes like honey.”

Ojullu was a member of the Dadaab Theater Project, which facilitated an artistic exchange between theater students from America and refugees hailing from the war torn countries of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.  With my colleague Julianna Bloodgood, we created and facilitated the program in Dadaab for five months living and working in the world’s largest refugee camp with over 380,000 refugees.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still feel the way the young children from Ethiopia delicately trace my skin because they have never touched a white person.  Or the advice my friends gave me, “Listen, if you hear a sound like, boom, ka, ka, ka, ka, the fighting is very far.  But, if you hear whizzing sounds, woo, be very careful!”  And then how after revealing such a disturbing truth, the laughter that followed as they enacted the dance of dodging bullets.

Humanity and one’s own story, I have come to learn through travel and experiences such as the Dadaab Theater Project are complex.  The act of facing one’s own cultural assumptions and learning of another’s is often quite difficult.  The beauty of theater is that the empty space can act as a neutralizer for this encounter and be used as peace building and diplomacy, beginning the healing process between one’s self and others.  Travel and exchange, I have come to learn, can become an encounter of one’s own identity.

For the past six years, I have travelled three continents on a deep search of my own identity as an American theater artist.  I have lived as a nomad studying shamans in the outer reaches of Mongolia and spent months living and working with survivors of war on the border of Somalia.

I wanted to learn, is theater necessary?

Is it essential as water, food, and love?

What is the magic of theater?

 

In these past six years and especially in the context of the Dadaab Refugee Camp, I have learned that storytelling, the theater’s oldest roots and heartbeat, is alive and well in the world.   Like Odysseus and the many others who have come before, I have learned that stories will lead you home and uncover the truth.  But, I have also learned that the truth is often complex and difficult.

As an American theater artist, I have learned that as a young nation in America we are able to invent ourselves, which carries with it the risk of being able to disconnect from our own history.  The act of theater, for me, has now become an affirmative act of awakening and remembering.  The spirit of imagination is something that affirms our existence on this planet and our personal identity, and is needed just as much as food and water.  I have come to believe deeply in the role of the actor in our society to create a state of wakefulness, to heal and maintain our culture.

As I write this, Somalia is facing the worst drought in fifty years and has been labeled a humanitarian crisis, facing pre-famine conditions.  The numbers of refugees fleeing to Dadaab are staggering and I am left feeling helpless.

In the midst of it all, I often find myself without words when one asks, “How was Africa?” or “Tell me about Mongolia.”  I only know one thing: that, as an artist, I can tell the story.   But, truth be told, I am afraid.

These words are my beginning.

Thank you,
Michael Littig

 

 
Alyssa Caputo
Monday, July 18, 2011

 

“Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done, and done right.”—Walt Disney.  

 

Thank you Michael and Julianna.  I also want to thank the Shangilia Youth Network for teaching me that anything is possible; you just have to be willing to take a leap.

How do I start? My heart has been transformed by this experience.  Starting at day one, when we all met for breakfast and smiled so large at one another, excited for the journey to come.  I was already in love with the 19 individuals crowded in the breakfast room.

Day One: It’s Showtime! The refugees show us their performance piece about identity.  How amazing was it that the American piece and the Dadaab piece shared many similarities? They clapped and danced, and we clapped and danced. They shared their hearts with us, and us to them.  We are all human beings.   We share the same basic wants and needs.

I’m going to skip to what I believe was day two at Lake Naivasha.  By the end of the day, I experienced so many emotions that have changed the Alyssa Caputo we all once knew.  We start the day off in rehearsal, and before rehearsal, Sumayo, Mustafah, and I decide to play on the swings in the field.  We are three of the youngest members of the project.  The three of us celebrate our youth by reentering our younger days—twisting one another around on a swing and letting go, so the rider spins around quickly.  Sumayo then takes the lead by inviting other members of the group as they enter the rehearsal space onto the swing set, twisting and pushing them around.  Sumayo has been a huge influence on me this entire trip.  Her courage, passion, love, and heart inspired me to become a better human being, open to all and accepting everything that seems foreign to me.  She was beautiful to watch push the men on the swing sets.  They were having so much fun! She was proud and shameless to be herself.  I wanted to be like her.  So, my first victim was Abdi Rashid.  He closed his eyes and squealed the entire time the swing spun him around like a top.  I laughed so hard and felt so much joy I still carry in my heart today.  Pure happiness and joy was and still is in the air.  Who cares if we were acting like we were six? We had fun and enjoyed life as it was.

Later that day, Sumayo received a phone call. Her uncle had passed away.  The two of us walked to dinner together in silence and I asked her what happened.  One thing led to another, and soon we were sitting together outside of the cafeteria.  She told me the story of her father and how she ended up leaving Somalia for Dadaab.  I felt so much weight in my heart. Anger. Disgust. Hurt. Sadness. Love for Sumayo. She cried in front of me, reliving that experience.  I cried reliving it with her.  I could never be as strong as she is.  A lot of people have asked me about the language barrier and I am proud to say, that despite the fact that words are different, the message was clear.  When we didn’t know how to express ourselves in sentences, we used motion and acted out what we wanted to say.  Her emotion was enough to tell the story.  The knots in my stomach helped tell her story as well.  There is a language older than words.

Abdi Rashid, thank you for showing me that I am enough.  I don’t need to try to be anything but myself.  I also want to thank you for showing me that expressing what is in your heart can lead you to freedom—to the freedom of expression and identity.

Sumayo, thank you for showing me what true love, passion, friendship, and emotional connection is.  Thank you for being my friend, sister, and role model.  You are powerful and beautiful and I look up to you more and more every day.

Thank you all for allowing me to be myself and accepting the human being that I am.  Thank you for opening up to me and giving me the honor to peep inside your huge hearts and intelligent minds.  I am blessed to have met nine remarkable individuals such as you.   I only hope my heart will be as large as yours one day.  I only hope I will be as driven and as passionate as you are one day.

Love and passion are two powerful tools.  All of my friends from Dadaab have taught me this.

Never give up. Be yourself. And live. Nothing can stop you.

“You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world…but it requires people to make the dream a reality.”—Walt Disney

 
Cameron Davis
Monday, July 11, 2011
Cameron Davis, a participant in the Dadaab Theater Project, shares a haiku.

 

The African soul

Stretches across space and time

Who will hear the voice?

 
Kristopher Dean
Monday, July 11, 2011
Kristopher Dean, a participant in the Dadaab Theater Project, shares his thoughts.

I HAVE SPENT A WEEK LOOKING FOR WORDS

 

I just don’t know how to feel about what I experienced in Kenya with the Dadaab

theater project. I am only left with questions:

 

Was I a positive participant in this event?

 

How do I put what I experienced into my art, my life?

 

What should I do know?

 

Why am I angry?

 

Why do I feel guilty?

 

A former teacher of mine told me once that you will always say “I wish I had done

more, worked harder, started sooner.” But that is all that I can think of to say when

it comes to the experience to sharing 5 days with 8 refugees.

 

I want to say my heart breaks for them, but I don’t think pity will do anything.

 

I wish that I could give each of them the education they yearn for.

 

I just don’t know what to do or how to feel.

 

What happened between all of us? How can I take the experience and grow it up into

the future?

 

The Americans made a show called ‘The Collapsible Space Between Us,’ and together

the Americans and the Refugees from Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia created a show

that to my knowledge was untitled. And now, it seems there is a final act waiting,

and fortunately I have so many questions to guide me toward it’s manifestation.

 

And I know, with my fist clenched that I am strong.

 


 
Will Kiley
Monday, July 11, 2011
Will Kiley, a participant in the Dadaab Theater Project, reflects on his experience.

My time in Kenya was polarizing. Throwing up moments before Ojullu and I wrote our poem together (easily on of the biggest high lights of my experience). Walking through Kangemi and then immediately through a gated community with Mercedes driving by. No second or aspect of the trip was neutral. I found myself swinging from exhilarated elation to exhausted anger and sadness in a moments notice. I could never stay angry or sad for long, it wasn't about that. It wasn't about me. It was about being there, as present as I could and celebrating the opportunity we had with all of my heart. As vastly different as our backgrounds all were, for a few brief days we could live, create and share together as equals and although you would catch the occasional eyes glaze over with tears, no one dared let our time together go to waste. When we were down, we picked each other up and swung back to the heart of our project. In this, there could only be joy.

For a few days after our project ended I felt a level of resentment that was surprising and unsettling. It took a few days to label and understand and I am still working on understanding these feelings, but I am much closer now than I was initially.

History has unbelievable inertia. The effects of those that have come before us, good and bad, are momentous. There are deep rooted inequalities and injustices all over the world that were forming or formed way before I even began to think consciously about anything. It is as if I am taking over playing a Tetris game with most of the blocks already stacked almost to the top of the screen. I can scurry and play the best I can, but I will be lucky if I make a good dent into the already stacked levels. Although it is conceivable, my chances of being able to actually clear the entire screen are seemingly minuscule. The childhood hope and radical optimism in me that I love to cling to resented this realization wholeheartedly.

Then as days went by I made a realization that I predict will drastically change the way I move forward into the world and my maturation process as a man. I am not the only one playing Tetris and the screen doesn't have a predetermined end. My job is not to clear the screen and mend all of the inequalities and injustices of history, but rather to do the best with the blocks currently coming at me. If I spend all my energy angry at what has already occurred I don't have the energy to help with what is to come and celebrate what currently is.Just as when we were upset or discouraged we would swing back to the heart of why we were all in Kenya together I must also do this with why we are all on this planet together. These sound like bigger words than I would ever have felt comfortable owning before this trip, but now I can say them with pride and confidence. I know they may sound heavy winded to many, but that is why experiences like what we all had in Nairobi need to be shared with people all over the globe.

I learned that to do something extraordinary you often must dive into it before you are ready and before you are affirmed by others that it is ok. I learned that self expression can be nearly as vital if not just as vital as food, water and shelter. That to celebrate your life, your feelings and your ability to create is the fastest, purest road to hope. I learned that we share the ability to laugh together, dance together and cry together with every person on this planet no matter the language barrier or perceived chasm of cultural differences. I learned that the distance between any two people on this planet is undeniably collapsible.


 
Mikayla Stanley
Monday, July 11, 2011
Mikayla Stanley, a participant in the Dadaab Theater Project, shares a poem.

We performed in Kangemi

A slum

With an audience of 50 smiling,hopeful children

Quiet as the mice that probably occupied the field we danced in.

The field that looked as close to eden as anything ive ever seen.

The word refugee was an illusion.

The word American was an illusion.

All that was real were the games that we played together until the stars came out and it was time to go home.

 

My heart oh my heart

 

We performed in Nairobi

At world refugee day

With an audience of thousands

Who are paid to care about what we are saying

And they only looked at us with blank, tired faces.

(but hey. We at least finished our piece. That wasn't true of the other refugee group that got booted half way through their show about not being listened to)

The word refugee was palpable

And was sold to us on t shirts.

What was real that day was the inevitability that our time together was coming to a close.

 

My heart oh my heart



 
Casey Scott Leach
Monday, July 11, 2011

Casey Scott Leach, a participant in the Dadaab Theater Project, shares his thoughts on the experience.

 

The excerpt, from Paulo Coehlo's book the Pilgrimage, went like this:

 

When you travel, you experience, in a very particular way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don't even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were en episode you would remember for the rest of your life.

At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive. That's why a religious pilgrimage has always been one of the most objective ways of achieving insight."

 

During this trip, I was able to be a child again. And it wasn't just me, but I felt the whole group made this transformation. Some of us, who weren't able to have childhoods, were able to have one for the first time. This was made manifest in many ways; we played camp games, hand games, we sang songs, we danced silly dances. We swung on a giant, slightly dangerous swing set. We ran after animals and were scared when they didn't run away. We raced each other. We laughed, all of us, very hard, and often. We also cried, each of us, very hard, and often. We didn't know our place in the world. In fact, our entire worldview didn't make sense anymore (we were passing through the stages of adolescence too, it seems). We had to deal with the duality and complexity of life, that it is both beautiful and ugly in the same moment. Good and Evil. Comedic and Tragic. That life is unfair, uneven, and doesn't play favorites, even though sometimes it seems that like it does. I have heard about this from great authors I've read and plays I've performed in. Going to Africa made it very clear to me that I only knew the idea of that truth. This trip was a step towards that truth; by no means do I believe I fully understand the complexity of that paradox. But, just as the quote indicates, regardless of the hardships, whether we were in the throes of ecstasy or of agony, it was all still beautiful, and I was happy to be there and to be alive. My mantra for this trip was 'there is no adventure without risk.' I took risks, many different kinds of risks. Some went in my favor, some didn't. But it was an adventure just the same. Yeah. It was an awesome adventure.

 
The Iowa Writers Program
Sunday, June 05, 2011

Recently, the Dadaab Theater Project participated in a masterclass taught by poets Major Jackson and Jenny Browne during the Iowa Writers Program mission to Dadaab.  Ojullu Opiew Ochan, member of the Dadaab Theater Project, shared his work with the poets and during the engagement wrote a few new poems that he would like to share to the world.

 

Iowa Writers Workshop

 

Yesterday I was a tortoise

That lay in the sun on the bank

Of placid waters lake.

 

Today I get small wings like

A tiny butterfly getting on the branches

Of flowers with very different colours.

 

Tomorrow I will be green and beautiful

Like paradise with all types of creatures.

I will grow up and become older and older

And then I die.

Who will be called Ojullu again?

 

You can’t count it

 

The sun will rise and set

The dust will come and let the dawn come to

The morning

There is no scent of the morning

Today is like yesterday

No one should give us the opportunity to tie a

Tie like those who tie a tie

No happy giggling of children and laughter of mother

There is no game the fish and rivers No dance

Only dark memories of violence that come in our mind.

Its all grief and suffering, mourning and pain

Our hope and future has already died

The vulture has snatched away our hope

The nest of faith has torn apart

Here we are, moving from place to place

No place to lay our head, no rest, no place to call

Our home.

Our beautiful land has turned to a rough land of draught

No permanent place.

You can’t count our destruction on fingers.

We are lost and lost

All you can see is a plopping tear on people’s chests

Weariness and sorrow line our faces

Our dreams have come to nothing

When shall our land regain its soul?

When will we play in Gilo river?

You can’t count our destruction on your fingers.

 

 

Healing Comes After Great Pain

 

Dark clouds can gather and form a rains

Night will come and let the soft wind blow through the

Twig leaves of trees, form a dew on the grass

The sun will shine in the morning and melt the dew

On the grass

I cannot point the color of rainbows, one by one

The row of the Gazelle standing outside the village

Gaze at the dogs who are laying around the fire

It is pain in my mind, pain in my heart, pain in my

Soul

I remember thinking that even though my body was

Going to be full of scars and my leg broken from being

Beaten up by my enemy.

I will still rise up and fight for what I believe in without

Any offence

I don’t know what my future could be

So I seek to be able to enter into the world of the

Poor and live with the mystery of suffering.

I saw that I had to enter into my own experience

Of pain and face up to it. I allow myself to be changed by it.

I saw that healing comes after great pain

I felt worried about those who are sick, the pain in their

Face, all depression of the hurt inside.

It was only when I escaped from my country that

I began to feel their condition, through what had

Happened to me in my country.

 

 

Guest of Iowa

 

How do I start?

The sunbird set on the branch

Of a tree sucking the nectar from flowers.

When queen bee left the waxcomb

to collect the nectar and

carried it on her back legs.

It is the sweet day in my life.

The marking day of my future.

The image of my beautiful mother.

I saw the sweat coming out through

The holes of my hairs cascaded down

On my lap.

This day has reminded me about that day

I killed the Gazelle

The honourable guests of Iowa.

Not guests only, but poets

Not poets only, but professionals,

Not professionals only, but my furtherance,

Not furtherance only, But refulgent of

My future.

I saw them smile at me with

Their glistening heart

I heard them saying my name

I hear it from their mouth

I saw their happiness on their face

Saying “yes you are”, “you did it”

“it is your turn”.

I haven’t seen a professor in my life

Before. I keep asking myself many

Questions about a professor.

What kind of person he or she is?

But today all my questions have

Been answered. I saw them

I know them now! We exchange

With them

Guests of Iowa

This will be the great day in my life

The backbones of poets

The author of the world poetry

Yes they are

The breathtaking words they said

That kept me fidgeting

I was pent-up to speak

How do I start?

 

Longing

 

I long for all dark clouds of smoke that accumulate and gather against us.  And the all their weapons that forge a metal shield to scatter and turn into rains will cascade on bare land making a seed of grass to sprout and produce beautiful flowers of all kinds and let the whole world say “wow” to open their mouth together say “yes to peace!” “no to war!”

 

By: Ojullu Opiew Ochan

Ehtiopian National

Under refuge here in Kenya at Dadaab

 

 
Thoughts
Saturday, May 21, 2011

by: Ojullu Opiew Ochan

Recently, Ojullu was asked by Will Kiley, member of the CCM Drama Dadaab Theater Project team, on what he would like to express to a group of Cincinnati theatergoers.  This is his answer:

 

"I want to say that everyone should hear these stories of loss because they will see that hope is alive and well in the world. As you can see from the darkest sides of the world where power is in the hands of rulers where people don’t know about the power of democracy and human right. They are showering the bullets upon innocent people killing them tortured, holding on power and cheating vulnerable who don’t know about politic with impunity.

 

People are suffering and are looking for refuge in other countries. Being a refugee is a hard thing, you can’t live for 24 hours without thinking about bad thing about yourself or other’s because there is so many unaccountable problems that one suffers. So much so I can’t even name them.

 

I have been eager to meet with the American students and tell them that God is with us because I haven’t think that such a time will come where I will get to exchange with American people. I am looking forward to getting knowledge. I am looking forward to more friendship.

 

To me, America is a place that calls to people saying, “hold my hand, come to me, you get freedom, justice, and equality.” While there is some people in Africa pushing people away from their home.

 

This will change my life. I wish you were here before and saw who I was and who I am now and some useful character traits that I have realized through Michael and Julianna. They have already changed my life.

 

I really want to be an actor. I want to be the mirror of the society and open their mind to see the world through me because we have been lost the last years ago.

 

Thank you for this opportunity."

 
This Day
Sunday, May 01, 2011

After performing for the first time for UNHCR Korea and tasting chocolate for the first time in his life, Ojullu (member of the Dadaab Theater Project) wrote this poem in response to the experience of what it felt like to perform in front of an audience for the first time.

This Day
By: ojullu opiew ochan

What will this day be to me?
How do I call it?
The day that made me know
That I am human being.
The day that make me realize 
That I am a part of people.
The day I taste chocolate.

The day that open new world
To me.
The day that make my heart
Overflowed with joy.
Even if I am on my bed, I still
Remembering my team work.
How do I call this day?
I will call it whatever I have to
I will call it anything.
It is the day that I am inspired
That I can make a difference.

When I was in the dark side of 
The world, 
I don't know about love, unity,
And friendship.
But this day open the door for love, unity, and friendship to me that last forever.
My hope will rise with this.

How do I take this day to my life?
The day that give kiley, julianna, and Michael to me.
The day that introduced Moulid
Mustafah and Ganda to me?

It is the joyful day in my life
It is my light.
My happiness.
I will never forget this great day in my life.
I will let this day be known by
The people who are on this planet
Who want to be part of it
I will let this happen
I will do it!

 
What do you live for?
Monday, April 11, 2011

by: Julianna Bloodgood 

Well, I could write novels to you based on the past two months of living in Dadaab, Kenya, but I won't. I'm learning that silence is often times better than sound.... But I'm not so good at this yet. This is surely a journey of a lifetime where I have encountered such extremes of experiences that I never knew possible. Life is harsh here, and people carry within them such deep and harrowing stories of suffering, torment and pain that it has brought me to my knees over and over. But, what I quickly discovered is that within every person here, who has escaped death, fled genocide, watched their families being murdered, tortured and burned before their eyes, there is something that exists, that rises up and clutches onto life; it is the ultimate will and strength of the human spirit. I have learned that love is the strongest power on this planet and that hope is the essence of life, stronger than steel, stronger than death. I am inspired every day to be a stronger human being, to be a woman of integrity and love. I am learning that there is no room for fear; that I am blessed beyond utterance and the only way I can possibly live my gratitude is by living a life free of fear. But, this is a daily battle.

I've realized something vital to my existence. There have been moments, here, where I have thought I would break. Moments when I thought I would have to turn around and give up. We are creating in the face of the impossible. What we are doing seems impossible most days, and I am knocked over daily. Truly, I have never failed so much in all of my life. But, giving up is not an option. Here, giving up means dying. It does. It means giving away hope, will and survival and that is not an option. The only option is to fight to live. Fight for love and fight for hope. But it is not fight alone, for I also realized that the fight sets you on fire. Sometimes you need the fire, but the fire burns out. Surrender must occur, too. I remember the valuable words of one of my teachers in Poland, "Julianna, do not escape from yourself. Come back, come back." I have to do this everyday. I thank the friends and teachers in my life for for telling me this, through their bravery, words and actions. It resonates within me. But, the boon that I've come across here, is that in order for me to survive I must create. It is simple. My hope, my love, my ability to understand myself and the world in which I live, has to come through creation. It is in the stories that we tell, teaching me of where I have come from and what is possible in the future. It is in the songs that my voice shares with another. It is the rhythm of the drum that we dance to, this common pulse that calls out into the air, "Live. Live. Live."

When I first arrived here, I only gave of myself. I thought I could save the world and said, "I am living for them now". I nearly broke. I realized that I will one day rise and walk away from this Refugee Camp, but who is it that will walk away? Who will I be? What will I do? Create. It is simply the only thing I can do. I must, absolutely must, do something with these experiences, these songs, these stories. I don't know what the future will hold, maybe I am beginning to carve a way for myself, letting some idea of how to continue this cycle of bringing in and giving out, how to continue to let my heart touch other hearts be slowly revealed to me.

My dear friends, I am thirsty for creation, for a funneling of this energy, I am thirsty for a guiding hand that I trust, I am thirsty for the peace and clarity and focus of walking into a theater and knowing that there is one task ahead of me, to listen, deeply listen, and respond. It seems so simple, and yet it just might be the only answer.

I cannot help but ask myself, what will I create? How will I begin? What will I say? My friends, I ask this question to you. What can we say through our work? How will we say it? But I ask this question not just of you as artists but as human beings. What will we say with our lives? What are we living for? I know you have all glimpsed moments of clarity, when you understand what it is you live for and it manifests in such vastly different ways. Maybe it is in the moment when you first felt life stir inside of you. Maybe it is in a moment of silence, witnessing the slow and painful emergence of spring, steady and immanent. Maybe it is in an act of kindness where two strangers reflect their humanity to each other. Maybe it is the laughter we share, reminding us that we are truly all clowns upon this earth. Maybe it is through looking directly into the eyes of the person you love. When is it for you? What is it for you? What propels you forward? Hope. Connection. Love. Possibility. Creation. 

 
I remember
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

By: Ojullu Opiew Ochan (member of the Dadaab Theater Project)

After seeing a piece of theater devised by Michael and Julianna, participants of the Dadaab Theater Project were asked to write a response to the work based on the following writing prompts:  What did you feel?  What did you see?  What did you remember?  Ojullu, an Ethiopian Gambela, who fled the genocide of his country responded with the following words.

 

I remember December 13, 2003 when my siblings and I gather under the tree in the forest with our lips dry, hiding for our precious lives.  I remember that day when I saw one of my people convulsing in the blood, and some are limped because their legs were shot, some are crouching, it was that time I realize that man die simply without taking a minute.

 

I remember that day when my mother pray for water in order to quench our thirst, while my father clearing somewhere to sleep in apart of our hut.  It was the time when I saw people panting like dogs and elders thinking for the reason of killing people which cannot be fathomed, when elders tried to give incoherent torrent of words for their lives.

 

I remember kids ran by themselves with out their mothers holding their hands when the scorching sun burn the dead bodies in our region and let vultures celebrate on them. I remember the day when mothers forgot to sing the lullaby to their young babies.

 
An update from the field
Sunday, March 20, 2011

By: Michael Littig  (also featured on www.youngarts.org)

There is a myth I have been telling myself that I'm not strong enough.

 

(To endure pain. To carry these people stories. To be an artist.)

 

I remember stepping off the UN plane and already wanting to turn around. I shield my eyes from the sun and peer onto the Kenyan horizon and nothing seems possible. The world’s largest refugee camp: 320,000 refugees with 2,000 coming over the border every month.

 

“How does theater fit into all of this”, I wonder.

 

I had come because the youth had told me months earlier that they wanted their voices heard. “We want people to understand that we are not warts on society, that we exist, and we are not terrorists. We are human beings.”   I looked them in the eye, and told them I would return.

 

I love those moments.

Turning the pages of your life.

Knowing nothing would ever be the same.

 

And so here I was to create theater in a refugee camp with youth who wanted to feel connected. The same ritual I felt nightly stepping on a stage at home was now part of their survival. The Dadaab Theater Project, as it came to be called, was a theater engagement collaboration connecting youth across cultures, especially American youth and youth from the Dadaab Refugee Camp.

 

The first three weeks became filled with stories of pain, survival, and love. You quickly realize that fellowship and love triumphs all and that cold, sweet coca cola is a way of survival.

 

It is now a hot Friday afternoon and I am reading Abdi Rashid’s essay on his search for his own identity.

 

We had selected our diverse group of four Somalis, one Somali Bantu, and four Ethiopian refugees for our theater company, who together would travel to Nairobi in June to participate in a theater festival with American students and Kenyan youth surrounding the events for World Refugee Day. We were still looking for another member when Abdi handed me his crumpled notebook piece of paper, words scribbled in pen.

 

He writes,

 

“It was really my most ugliest tragedy with a blend of harrowing experiences. It was a tragedy that has taken away all my beloved family except my two young sisters. It drained all the blood of my father out, and also reduced the beautiful bodies of my mother and siblings into a charcoal and turned them sooty and unidentifiable. It was really a tragedy, a dreadful tragedy that is imprinted in my mind.”

 

I read it over and over again until I couldn’t tell where his voice begins and mine ends. It’s not that it never happened.   Its just, these stories don’t seem possible. I understood the responsibility an artist carries when holding someone’s story in their hands, for it is this compassion that makes us human and reminds us that we are all the same.

 

As I sat under the hot sun reading his words, my mind drifted to a suburban Ohio street, when a friend who had been to Dadaab many times turned to me and said, “This will change you.”

 

And it has.

 
I hunger
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

by: Abdi Abdullahi Mohamed

 

Seasons pass without notice,

the apple spring in full blossom, the nesting autumn,

the football summer,

All in a presence without a share,

except the harsh winter in the dark continent.

Only accosted, accosted by despair,

Life is struggle, struggle of exhaustion.

Suffering becomes a crack of doom,

Calling on an abyss of loneliness.

Typhoons feel, typhoons hear and accrue,

and accumulate.

What I long for is peace, peace of my

own mind.

What I need is rest, rest for my torso,

and rest for resilience.

So as to respect my soul the dignity of my life,

as it prepares for the short journey, the journey

with no expenses, the journey of all resolutions

afterwards.

A tour to the permanent residence,

where my beloved ancestors dwell.

The home of the good apostles,

the place of the true justice.

I hunger it, I eager it, as-

as this is my heartfelt farewell,

until we meet again!

 
The Voice of a Girl Child
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
By: Kowsar (16 years old, Somali refugee)

Ssh! Listen
Do you hear that?
That is the voice of a girl child
A child who is a future teacher
A future doctor and a future pilot
If only my dreams are not shattered

I think of myself as a star
With my own passion of light
I can shine if given the opportunity
Opportunity to follow my brothers to school
Opportunity to grow up and learn more from the teachers
And if only my dreams are not shattered

I think of myself as a giraffe
My sight set high
Big vision on big things
You don't have to marry me off to an old man
Just because you think school is not the right place for a girl
I need to go to school and pursue my goals

I think of myself as a live engine
Always going never slowing
Time is elapsing
Let my education not be a hot spot
The old man is waiting for my hand in marriage
The old woman is waiting with a knife
I need to go to school and pursue my goals

I think of myself as a lion
To roar loud and be heard
You don't have to take me as your wife
Just because I am a beautiful girl
Instead teach me a mathematical formula
So that my dreams are not shattered

I think of myself as a star
I think of myself as a live engine
I think of myself as a giraffe
I think of myself as a lion
Dear teacher, parents and guardians
Give me the rights I am entitled to
 
I have no identity, so where do I belong?
Sunday, March 06, 2011
BY: MOULID IFTIN HUJALE

One day we had to run away from our homeland to save our lives from deadly killings and persecution. It was a country that hosted people of the same origin and culture with common language and religion-that was Somalia of one Somali people. However, the civil war that broke never displayed a sense of such a country with such people.

We had no option but to quit for our safety. The memory of a beautiful coastal town that was ravaged by war still rages in me. The town in which I was born could not stop me from running so that I could play on its soil. In the midst of mass devastated families who were running, we struggled to keep their pace to the unknown destination.

Our aim was to reach the nearest safe haven regardless of what the situation would be thereafter. After weeks of long tiresome journey, we made our way to Dadaab camps, in northeastern Kenya. These camps served to be our safe haven but with full of life threatening challenges ranging from poor shelter, harsh environment, lack of enough food and inadequate healthcare. However, beneath all those obstacles lay a foundation of hope and peace of the mind.

Dadaab which made many people sleep hungry but peacefully became a centre for the homeless people who fled from the various countries neighboring Kenya. However, these multiethnic communities dwelling in the camps have acquired one common name that brings them together….they are called REFUGEES!! This title makes them feel a like and also symbolizes unity for people of diverse origins. 

Twenty years in a foreign country as a refugee in a confined camp made me completely desperate. I am forced to accept/love the situation and status in which I live. I was brought up in a refugee set up and went to school until I graduated from high school and that was all about my education. They say secondary education is a privilege for refugees therefore, whether qualified or not, one can never claim higher education. Simply because he/she is A... REFUGEE!

One of the most disturbing and embarrassing moments I always encounter is whenever I want to identify myself; I am forced to express myself as “ A Somali refugee living in Kenya” I am no longer in Somalia and neither Kenyan citizen but feel like lost in between…. I have no IDENTITY SO WHERE DO I BELONG?
 
Give it to me!

by: Abdi Abdullahi Mohamed

I was exactly in my first ages of life, I had a burning curiosity for everything. I enjoyed the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean and felt its breeze and inquisitively looked up the blue flag flapping above me.

 

It was really my good moments, moments of happiness, moments of freedom, moments I never thought they will changes their courses.

 

I strongly remember my mother having a fine figure and strong dignified appearance. I still picture the chocolate faces of my siblings-- my sister and by brother, whom I always treasured the many moments of pleasure we spent together.

 

But after learning all these adventure of the enticing world, after I felt the freedom, everything drastically changed unexpectedly. Everything changed to the worst, it changed to what my young mind could not figure our and indeed could not think of.

 

It was really my most ugliest tragedy with a blend of harrowing experiences. It was a tragedy that has taken away all my beloved family away all my beloved family except my two young sisters. It drained all the blood of my father out, and also reduced the beautiful bodies of my mother and siblings into a charcoal and turned them sooty and unidentifiable. It was really a tragedy, a dreadful tragedy that is imprinted in my mind.

 

And within just a month, by beautiful world in Kismayu swiftly changed. It was my first time to hear a refugee and saw a refugee camp. It carried many troubles, it was really security hazard with many bandits. I really hated, hated and hated. There was no the sea, the fish, the games and there was no the blue flag, but only a narrow tent that was hot during the day and cold at night where bandits could creep into.

 

There was no company, life was really alone and there was no parent to turn to for resolution. I really ploughed a lonely furrow without the support of anyone when I was less than ten years.

 

Later, Sharifo, my younger sister fell prey to the cruel bandits and died as a result of the rape complications. It was more distressing and I only remained with Abshiro as the only sister on earth-- the youngest of all. This made me hate life, hate the whole world and too hate existence at all.

 

Many were the times I asked myself where I belonged but remained unanswered. I realized I was lost and never belonged anywhere. I realized that I had nothing that could give me my identity and a sense of belonging.

 

But luckily after sometimes I was one of the few families who were granted a resettlement opportunities as in 1991 protection cases. I fulfilled all resettlement criteria and I was clearly approved. This gave me a glimmer of hope. I thought I had a foreseeable future and got a true identity.

 

Immediately, the American Embassy imposed a DNA test-- a test on the deoxyribonucleic acid which the basic constituent of the gene to check if families were truly related.

 

So the Embassy told me, Abshiro was not my biological sister using the DNA test result as justifications and took her to America leaving me behind alone. What have I done? Is this my mistake? Am I a parent to justify that? These are my day and night questions…

 

Currently I feel I am abandoned and lost in between nowhere, since I am unable to unravel the full mystery of my identity, but a chance! A chance! A chance will give it to me!!!

 
The Somali Bantu Boy
Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Somali Bantus are considered the lower class of the Somalis, the “slaves” of their society. We’ve spoken to Somali Bantu youth here and they have expressed how they are marginalized and discriminated against in their communities. Actually, I have been learning more and more of the difficulties that different nationalities face amongst each other. Racism often leads to violence and in some cases riots. We went to the Transit Center where they keep minorities that are under protection within the camp. These people are truly idle and marginalized, we wanted to read out to them and try to include them in our final group. We will go back tomorrow to watch them sing and dance and hopefully invite one to participate.

 

Yesterday a young Somali Bantu boy walked in to audition. He is 19 years old and brought his brothers and sisters to sing while he played the drums. He was timid and shy in his introduction, we could scarcely hear him speak. He started to drum on a plastic chair, within moments he began to wake up, to come alive and this young boy turned into a man, a warrior in front of our eyes. The rowdy crowd that was watching through the metal fence of the room was silent. When he was through, it was us who felt the need to bow to him.

 

We asked him questions about his schooling. It is so important to us that we do not take people out of school, education is essential for progression in any context but in the refugee camp, it might literally be the only way out. This Bantu boy could hardly speak English and his younger brother was the one translating for him. We found out that he is in a class level far younger than him, probably going to school with children aged 11 or 12. But it struck me that when he was drumming, I could see his skill and his own brilliance and I realized that we had someone very special in our midst. I realize that not everyone learns the same and maybe for this young man, an academic setting proves impossible for learning. Or what if he was fleeing his country during those formative years and only now is he able to learn what he missed. Watching him I felt like I could really help him, that we could, that our program could. If he was to work with us, he would miss several hours of morning school. But something inside of me believes very strongly that he would gain so much more from working with us than he is gaining in school. We would give him something that maybe he’s never gotten before: attention, acknowledgment, a chance.

 

For this boy to wake up so brilliantly while he was drumming on the chair, to see his strength and his power through this moment of expression, I knew that we could mentor and foster his skill level in a way that has never happened before. His English speaking would improve, interpersonal skills, listening, musicality, writing, planning and leading. Plus he’d be given the opportunity to perform for the community in June, exchange with students from the US, Kenyan youth and perform in Nairobi as a representative of the Dadaab Refugee Camp. We want our participants to be leaders in the community.

 

So, we found out where he goes to primary school and who his teacher is, and today we went to his school. As we rolled into to the school yard in our big truck, raising up a cloud of dust, the students all rose out of their chairs to watch, wave, smile and hide. We sought out the leaders of the school and spoke with the assistant principle on his behalf. We said we want to work with him. We want to give him an educational and artistic opportunity, something unique and certainly rare. The assistant principle said, “We understand what you are requesting and cannot refuse you. But we also cannot say yes. We need to speak with this boy’s teacher, the principle and with him. We will find out what he needs to achieve and if we believe that you can offer this to him through your program, then we will consent.”

 

Michael and I will go back to the school tomorrow.

 

As we left the school yard, I rolled down my window to smile and touch the little hands of children too curious to stand back. I started clapping out a rhythm I heard in the distance and within moments hundreds of children from the different class rooms and tents of the school were clapping in unison.

 

Can you imagine, the underdog of this society, a shy boy who no one ever looked at or gave a chance to before: We say you are special. We believe in you. We want you. Maybe this could change his life. It certainly has changed mine.

 
Dadaab:week three
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Julianna let Dolo, a young Ethiopian refugee borrow 'What is the What' by Dave Eggers. He started reading it immediately.  Before she knew it there were several young men standing around him, reading over his shoulder.  "Julianna, come, I'll show you where I was born."  Angelo traced with his finger on the map his journey to Dadaab on foot.  "So, this book is your story?", she asked.  "It is all of our stories.", they said.

 

The Dadaab Refugee Camp registration center

 

Filmaid screening workshop in Hagadera camp.

 

Save the Children Child Friendly Spaces (Ifo Camp)

 

Michael mobilizing youth in section G of IFO camp

 

Julianna visits with the Ethiopian community of IFO camp

 

Children running through IFO camp

 

On the road from Dadaab to IFO camp

 

Children in IFO market

 

Mobilizing the Ethiopian community in IFO camp

 

Julianna and the girls of section G in IFO camp

 
Dadaab: week two
Sunday, February 13, 2011

 

We hear stories of escaping death, losing family, being alone in this world.

But, we also hear stories of marriage, birth, hopes, and dreams.  

We are reminded that love always wins.

And we begin to weep.

 

Dancing with Somali girls in the Save the Children Child Friendly Spaces

Dadaab, Kenya 2011

 

Hanging with the boys in the Save the Children child friendly spaces

Dadaab, Kenya 2011

 

a dust cyclone outside IFO camp

Dadaab, Kenya 2011

 

a young boy plays the drums in the Save the Children Child Friendly Spaces

Dadaab, Kenya 2011

 
Nairobi: week one
Monday, February 07, 2011
Kangemi youth
Nairobi, Kenya 2011
Shangilia Youth to Youth Network
Nairobi, Kenya 2011
Shangilia
Kangemi slum.  Nairobi, Kenya 2011
Drumming skills
Nairobi, Kenya 2011
 
A beginning…
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Julianna Bloodgood, artistic director of The Dadaab Theater Project
"Bulgakov's Table", MA Student Thesis, Teatr Piesn Kozla, 2010.
Photo Credit: Arkadiusz Susidko

Michael Littig, founder of the Dadaab Theater Project
“MASTER HAROLD…and the boys”, Portland Stage Company, 2010.
Photo credit: Darren Setlow

Michael Littig meets with students from Dagahaley school.
Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya.  May, 2010.
Photo credit: Michael Littig

Julianna and Michael conduct a workshop with students from CCM
Cincinnati, OH. November, 2010.
Photo credit: Richard Hess

Through these workshops, we selected five students to join our work in Kenya from the Department of Drama.
The University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music
Photo credit: Richard Hess