Kuruka Maisha Foundation

Kuruka Maisha Foundation

c/o The GoDown Arts Centre
Industrial Area, Nairobi
PO Box 27772 – 00506
Phone: +254721439665
E-Mail: info@kurukamaisha.org
URL: http://www.kurukamaisha.org

Focus: Performing Arts

Annual Number Participating: 50

Ages: Middle School, High School

Annual Budget: US $52,000

Partners: Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP); Renegade Juggling

Funders: Africalia Belgium; U.S. Embassy, Nairobi; Vortsvoitchen, Belgium

The power of the arts and the humanities transcends the boundaries of language and geography — the sound of children’s voices raised in song, or the joy in their steps as they dance, needs no translation. For this reason, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award also highlights the importance of arts and humanities learning across the globe. Each year, we present our International Spotlight Award to one exceptional program from another country. This year, we are proud to recognize the Kuruka Maisha Foundation, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Kenya merges ancient traditions with modern influences, creating a vibrant country of contrasts. Its population surpasses 40 million and comprises more than 40 ethnic groups. Although each has its own dialect, Swahili and English unify this multifaceted nation. Kenya’s agriculture-based economy includes exports of maize, cassava, beans, and fruit. A robust tourism industry also contributes to Kenya’s financial growth.

The country’s rich cultural heritage is reflected in its arts, music, and dance. Among popular Kenyan artifacts are carved-wood sculpture, handmade sisal baskets, jewelry, tribal masks, musical instruments, paintings, batik cloth, and traditional African sarongs.

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is a gleaming commercial and industrial center. Alongside its upscale suburbs, however, are poverty-stricken neighborhoods, swollen from an influx of residents from rural areas without enough jobs to sustain them. An estimated 150,000 young people live on the streets. Many of these “street children” engage in dangerous activities just to survive.

To address this plight, in 2004, Kenyan engineer and community activist Nick Balongo partnered with friends and community members to establish Kuruka Maisha, an arts school whose name in Swahili means “jump into life.” Through intensive training in circus and performing arts, Nairobi’s street children are finding hope and joy and pathways out of poverty. With its performing arts program, Kuruka Maisha is transforming the lives of vulnerable street children in Nairobi every day.

We are grateful to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation for their assistance in selecting and supporting this year’s International Spotlight Award winner.

The goal of Kuruka Maisha is to provide Nairobi’s street children and youth with training in the visual and performing arts so that they can become self-sufficient and improve their quality of life. A mentorship program supplements the teens’ arts education with life-skills and leadership training, to support their ongoing development as responsible citizens.

The program recruits participants with help from community organizations and alumni participants. Students receive intensive instruction, five days a week throughout the year, at a rented training space. Interactive programs and activities focus on developing abilities that empower participants, increase their socialization skills, and boost self-esteem.

Professional circus artists, dancers, and musicians serve as both instructors and mentors. Circus training — which includes acrobatics, clowning, juggling, balancing, and aerial work — appeals to young people because of “the inherent ‘fear factor’ associated with it and the fact that it harnesses risk taking in a safe environment,” explains Nick Balongo, one of the school’s founders.

In addition to circus arts, students also study music and dance. Along with song structure, lyrics, melody, and composition, participants learn choreography and improvisation, to prepare dance performances. Kuruka Maisha includes a visual arts component, as well.

The physical and mental discipline involved in circus and performing arts training build participants’ confidence, trust, and concentration, as well as communication and interpersonal skills, Balongo notes. Participants have the opportunity to showcase their talents during regularly scheduled public performances and exhibitions.

The organization works with about 50 young people a year and helps homeless participants find housing with current or former students. To encourage attendance, the youth receive meals, as well as a transportation stipend. Although some students do not complete the program, Kuruka Maisha retains about 85 percent of its advanced students, who typically attend classes for three years.

Balongo estimates that since its inception, the program has “rehabilitated” nearly 400 street children. These youth have successfully established themselves within the community and no longer live on the streets. In addition, they have either pursued further training in vocational schools or found employment. About 200 of those young people work as artists, painters, dancers, acrobats, musicians, clowns, or yoga instructors. 

Artistic activities, on the one hand, help social workers to establish contact with the children in the street, while, on the other hand, these activities have an important impact on the physical and mental condition of the children.

From the Kuruka Maisha Foundation website