August 9, 2013

The Power Of A Community Conference

by Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith '14 is a Royce Fellow living in Kenya researching the power of sports-based community organizations.

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My work with U-Tena this summer has been a whirlwind of dance rehearsals, mentoring sessions, and family planning clinics. I have had the opportunity to sit at a table with Kenyan senators and UN officials during a gender based violence workshop, to perform with U-Tena at an Ugandan global health conference, and to explore the oldest settlement in Kenya. But by far the most rewarding experience I had this summer was the opportunity to work with U-Tena in putting on the first community conference that the Viwandani slum has ever had.

U-Tena is the definition of the phrase “community based organization” that today is so casually slung around the international health community. Each of their employees is under 30 and either currently living within the Viwandani slum or has lived there within the past five years. This background is what I believe gave U-Tena the authenticity to put together this successful conference that gave over 35 youth groups from within the slum the forum to present their ideas and innovations to a crowd of hundreds of community members, government officials, and NGO representatives. These groups showcased their sanitation programs, auto shops, and trash collection services that they have implemented throughout the community as a way to raise awareness and also as a way to share best practices within the community.

Because of the sports-based focus of my Royce research, my own particular interests lay in the youth groups that used athletics such as dance, acrobatics, soccer, and boxing in their everyday activities. The power that these sport organizations have became evident towards the end of the conference when it came time for the entertainment segment of the day. Hundreds of community members had been milling around the different groups’ tents throughout the day, listening to them speak and discuss their programs. But once the performances began the community truly began to get involved. There were acrobatics shows, dance performances, and even a boxing match between the reigning 8 year old champions of the community. Many of the community members stood up and danced and sang along, which in turn drew even more people from within the slum into our event and created the environment of shared learning that we were so badly hoping for.

My favorite performance was by the senior partners of a group called Mukuru Talent Development, or MTD. MTD is modeled after U-Tena with a few twists of their own. Their dance was not the commonly seen hip-hop or traditional Kenyan style of this slum neighborhood, but instead of the contemporary genre. The storyline of this dance spoke of the difficulties of being epileptic in Kenya and a young woman’s struggle to be diagnosed and treated while enduring the existing stigma of being possessed by the devil. While this dance did not by any means garner the loudest cheers of the afternoon, it demonstrated to me the evolution of sport that I witnessed in the Viwandani slum this summer. The evolution of sport from a simple recreation activity to a culturally relevant tool for popular education. It has renewed my excitement to work with U-Tena over the following year because I now know the receptiveness of the community and the breadth of the sports initiatives occurring within it.

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