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Street Theater Aims at Transforming a Kenyan Community

In the Kibera section of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, a 25-member youth group is transforming the community, which is commonly plagued by a host of social problems. The young people act, sing, dance, recite poetry and do other things to get residents to think about, and change, destructive behaviors. The street theatre performances tackle such issues as drug and alcohol abuse, HIV infection, and sexual violence - with positive results.

Rape, domestic violence, drug abuse, HIV infection: these are daily realities for many living in the harsh world of Kibera - the Nairobi slum also referred to as an "informal settlement."

But a group of young people in Kibera sees that a different way of life is possible.

Joseph Alphonse Ochieng, a leader of the group, which calls itself "Pillars of Kibera," says the group tries to sensitize and involve the community through what he calls "participatory educational theater." "The artists, they come themselves and gather together, and they share the themes that they want to tackle. They go on the ground and involve the community members in selecting the themes by doing some of the interviews and then they come up with the theme," he said.

In this particular skit, actors depict a male employer demanding sexual favors from his female employee, in exchange for higher wages.

Afterward, the young people moderate a discussion about why sexual harassment in the workplace is wrong and how it affects victims and society.

Group member Innocent Nyakundi says these community discussions often lead to powerful behavioral change. "Sometimes part of our audience may be those people who are involved in drugs, and when they see people talking bad about people who abuse drugs, they feel like they really have to change; they feel like the community will love them if they change their behavior," Nyakundi said.

One common theme for the group's presentations is HIV infection. Here, group members recite poetry about accepting those who are living with HIV.

Nyakundi recalls a recent breakthrough, from a similar skit. "We seated someone who had the negative attitude towards those people who are infected with HIV, saying that he cannot do A,B,C with such a person. The people themselves from the community made him know that such activities that he thought unsafe were really safe and it enabled him to accept the people who are infected and see them also as brothers," Nyakundi said.

Joseph Alphonse Ochieng and five other young men formed Pillars of Kibera in 2003. The group now has 25 members who host performances on a variety of themes.

Ochieng says participatory educational theatre gets people to think - and talk. "They are open-ended questions, you can ask somebody "in case you were in the shoes of Kadogo, what would you do?" and then you get the response from the people. It would be much of storytelling and then you will get some of the ideas," Ochieng said.

Some audience members, such as Said Mugendi, say the group's performances have transformed the community, and even the group members themselves. "Due to these performances, some of the youth have changed their behavior. Here at Kambi Muruu, people used to be raped, people used to be robbed, but now these boys in the youth group changed. They have developed and now they are popular people in the country," Mugendi said.

Besides bringing about changes in behavior and attitudes, Pillars of Kibera also aims to cultivate and encourage talent among the local young people.

Group member Innocent Nyakundi says he feels he is receiving valuable training and experience toward his future. "I saw acting in TV, I saw the Papa Shirandula [a local sitcom], all these local artists. Then I felt like I can also do the same. So I joined Pillars of Kibera in the hope that they can nurture me and probably enable me to propel to such grounds," he said.

Pillars of Kibera is registered with the Kenyan Ministry of Social Services and has local and international partners who support their work.