The Dadaab Theater Project

The Dadaab Theater Project

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.