The Friendly FolkDancers

1996 Kenya Tour Report
by Rosemary Coffey
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Map of Kenya, Africa

1996 Kenya Tour: Kenya, Africa, May 8 - 22, 1996

A group of Friendly FolkDancers set out from the United States and Britain in early May 1996 to bring the message of peace through dance to Kenyan Friends. What began as an exercise in faith on both sides ended as a heartfelt appreciation for each other's values and principles despite different customs and forms.

The trip started with a dream, articulated by Mark Judkins Helpsmeet, one of the founders of the Friendly FolkDancers and a member of Eau Claire-Menominee, WI, Friends Meeting. Tours had been carried out in the United States for ten years; other groups had visited England and Scotland. Surely it was time to bring this ministry to Kenya, home of thirteen Yearly Meetings and tens of thousands of Quakers. But the FolkDancers came from silent, unprogrammed Meetings, mostly in the East and Midwest, while the Kenyans favored Friends' churches featuring pastors, programs, and lots of prayers. How could the connections be made? And how would Kenyan Friends react to the idea of dancing as a form of prayer?

In 1994 one of the FolkDancers, Rosemary Coffey of Pittsburgh Monthly Meeting (Pennsylvania), attended the Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, where she met some Kenyan Friends and introduced the idea of a Friendly FolkDancer tour of their country. The Kenyans were polite, but skeptical. Surely we meant well, but what on earth were we really planning to do? Negotiations went on by mail, but progress seemed to come to an end when the Kenyan connection left FWCC for other activities. Then Barnabas Lugonzo, Assistant Clerk of FWCC—Africa Section, wrote to Rosemary that he was turning over the correspondence file to Gladys Kang'ahi, a dynamic leader of the United Society of Friends Women of Kenya. With a renewal of energy on both sides, planning for the tour resumed.

Meanwhile, the FolkDancers were receiving advice from Friends "in the know": Women should wear skirts (the longer the better), not slacks. We should not expect Kenyan men and women to hold each other's hands and dance together. We ourselves should not do dances with men and women facing each other unless they were married to each other. We should avoid discussing politics. We should be prepared to stay in homes with no plumbing or electricity. We would be traveling in the rainy season. We needed malaria pills and immunizations against yellow fever, cholera, meningitis, hepatitis, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, and so on. What on earth were we getting ourselves into?!

But Mark continued to line up potential tour members, and by the time Gladys had an itinerary in place he had commitments from nine Friendly FolkDancers, including Elizabeth Cave from Britain Yearly Meeting. The others were: Mark and Sandra Helps- meet, Denise Madland, Demi Miller, and Grace Valentine, from Northern Y. M.; Liseli Haines from New York Y. M.; and Rosemary Coffey and Zig Dermer from Lake Erie Y. M. When they arrived in Nairobi, immunized and exhausted, on or about the 9th of May, they were met by Gladys and other Nairobi Friends and distributed among them for hospitality. The first performance was to be at the Friends Centre—Ofafa, in the eastern part of town, on Saturday, May 11.

The program, titled "Dancing the World Together," featured sets of dances from peoples and regions which are, or have been, at war. The dancing was presented as a prayer for the well-being of all people. In the tradition of Friends, we intended to go beyond taking sides; rather, we chose all sides, in that we were reaching out to embrace all parties to a conflict. The sets united Russia and the United States; Arabs and Israelis; England and Ireland; France and Germany; and the three main ethnic/religious groups of the former Yugoslavia. Following the formal program, members of the audience were invited to join in performing simple dances from South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Our closing dance was usually The Bells of Peace, sung by all in three concentric walking circles.

After the event, attended by about 70 people, Barnabas wrote: "We welcome the message delivered through the various dances performed ... and pray that it will yield fruits of friendship and appreciation of efforts being made for closer relationships of the world's nations. May the Almighty God bless the endeavours of the dancing group."

Buoyed by our hosts' cordial response to our first performance, we left Nairobi the next morning, accompanied by Helen Kavugwi of Langata Monthly Meeting, in two rented vans with drivers. We were heading for Western Province, a region where fully 30 percent of the inhabitants are Quakers, thanks to the missionary efforts of the Midwestern Friends who arrived in Kaimosi in 1902. Even today efforts are continuing to spread the word, as one of the pastors in Nandi Yearly Meeting told us of his plans to follow George Fox rather more literally than we were doing, by setting out on foot to seek converts.

We were met in Kitale by the first of Gladys Kang'ahi's surrogates, Deinah Ongeti, Clerk of U.S.F.W.—Kitale, who announced that she had scheduled us for three performances in the next two days: Monday morning at the Serende Friends Church in Kitale; Monday afternoon at the home of Isaac and Esther Luvaga of Maliki; and Tuesday morning at the Sipala Friends School near Lugulu. We were on our way! Deinah made it clear that she was not at all sure what we were going to do, but local Friends had nonetheless been praying for our safety and our ministry.

In Kitale most of us stayed at the home of Ezekiel Wanyonyi, a former Clerk of East Africa Yearly Meeting—North. We performed a Bosnian/Croatian mourning dance around the grave of his recently deceased wife, Rachel, before leaving for our first engagement, where we danced outside, on rather uneven ground, with about 300 people in the audience. Some of them later danced for us, as well as with us. Since electricity was not available, we connected our sound system through a transformer to the battery in one of the vans, a solution which served us well throughout most of the trip. On the side of the van we hung for a backdrop a plastic shower curtain with a colorful map of the world, on which we had marked the countries of origin of our dances.

In the afternoon we presented a somewhat shorter program to the Maliki Monthly Meeting, also outside, at the farm belonging to Isaac Luvaga, current Clerk of East Africa Yearly Meeting—Kitale. Isaac was not there, but his wife Esther and other family members welcomed us and put us up for the night, when a heavy downpour prevented us from driving on to Lugulu as originally planned. Meanwhile, we were becoming accustomed to sumptuous meals of local foods: rice, bananas, plantains, cassava, sweet potatoes, cooked cabbage, bean soup, meat stews, hard-boiled eggs, and the ubiquitous ugali, a Kenyan staple made of ground maize and water, served in both light and (with sorghum added) dark versions. Whatever else happened, it was clear we would not go hungry.

Our next three performances were at Friends schools near Lugulu and in Malava. They provided us with our first experiences of dancing for an audience of nearly 1,000 people at each stop! Youngsters enrolled at nearby schools had been invited, along with the regular students at our host schools and a good representation of adult Friends from the local monthly or quarterly meetings. Our first try at participation dancing was scary: when we invited the students to move their chairs and benches out of the way and join us in the center, near-chaos resulted. No one was hurt, however, and we learned quickly: at the next stop, we each personally invited three or four people to join us and then stressed dances with lots of hand movements (such as the subsequently famous "Macarena"), so others could participate from their seats. Since our audience on U.S. tours normally numbers from 15 to 60, we were thunderstruck by these opportunities to share our ministry with so many.

Around this time Mark was inspired to introduce our performance by observing that we were all familiar with using our lips, our voices, and our hands to pray; what we would show them here, however, was how we used our entire bodies as a prayer for peace. This formulation, which was comfortable for everyone, enabled us to use dance in a non-threatening manner. In fact, contrary to what we had been told, we found that men, women, and children were ready to join in the participation dancing with unfeigned delight.

The other point of instant connection turned out to be our families. Kenyan Friends, when hearing the word "dancers," had assumed that we would be young, bold, and maybe hard to relate to. When they saw that we were essentially middle aged (ranging from 41 to 59 years old), most of us with several children apiece (and some even with grandchildren), everybody relaxed. One man even remarked: "Some of our members use their advanced age as an excuse not to do something they've been asked to do; now all we'll have to say is, 'Remember the FolkDancers! If they could do all that, you can do this!'"

Before we left Malava, Zipporah Mameti, Vice Presiding Clerk of United Society of Friends Women—Malava, wrote: "It is very true that your dancers have presented very interesting, entertaining and refreshing dances. The main ideas of the performances are very educative and also reveal the spiritual peace in one's life. We shall continue praying for you."

Our next stop was Kaimosi, heart of the Quaker presence in Kenya. Liseli Haines, who had spent a year at the Kaimosi Friends Mission when she was fifteen, was especially eager to glimpse her old house and rekindle her memories of a pivotal period in her life. Our arrival coincided with "Education Day" for the Tiriki East Division and featured the 1995 Prize and Trophy Awards. We were first on the schedule, with other performances offered by local school children in between numerous speeches in Swahili and Luhya. It was not the vest venue for our ministry, especially since the hall was reserved for the adults; the children had to stay outside in a large courtyard, pressing up against the windows and doors to try to see what we were doing. Fortunately, we had another chance the following morning to perform for many of the same Friends, who were then better able to understand our intention. Rasoah Mwashi, Presiding Clerk, U.S.F.W.—East Africa Yearly Meeting, told us that they were encouraged "with the different ways that can be applied to bring about peace among Friends and friends of Friends. In order to have peace and unity in our yearly meetings and among friends, we shall endeavour to apply this technique."

Our final two performances were held under the auspices of Nandi Yearly meeting, the most recently founded of Kenyan Yearly Meetings. Before the last one, however, our valiant van drivers rebelled at the depth of the potholes on the muddy roads leading to the Tilolwa Friends Church. We thereupon walked to our various hosts' homes, wondering how we would get our sound system and numerous costumes to the Church the next morning. We needn't have worried; Dorcas Kinyangi, Presiding Clerk, U.S.F.W.—Nandi Y. M., arranged for a couple of stalwart young men to transport our necessities in wheelbarrows. It was a Sunday, so we took part in Meeting for Worship and then did our full program of five sets. Tilolwa Friends were having such a good time dancing with us afterwards that it was hard to break for the afternoon meal.

Dorcas's later comments seemed to sum up the general impression Kenyan Friends had of our tour: "We received the group with joy and appreciated their ministry through dancing. It was quite a new way to minister to God's people. It has never been the concept of dancing as contributing to the Quaker way of thought amongst East African Friends. It's now a new dimension, more so as it strives to appreciate and unite the cultural values in each of the hostile and warring systems and peoples of the world."

It was also at Nandi that several Friends talked with us about how they might use dance to attract more young people to Quakerism. The idea of learning dances from various Kenyan tribes and presenting them, as we had, as a prayer for peace among warring peoples fired the imagination of many. The Nairobi Friends who accompanied us on our travels was also inspired to work toward this goal through her own Yearly meeting. The FolkDancers are, in addition, exploring the possibility of arranging for a Kenyan Friend to join one of our tours in Europe or the United States at a future time. We are humbled by these fruits of our ministry, which we could not have imagined when we first began. The Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways.

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