NAIROBI – The coronavirus pandemic is forcing children to stay home and learn remotely. But in the depths of Kenya’s slums, 12-year-old ballet student Eugene Ochieng faces huge obstacles to remote learning: no computer, no internet access and very little space to practice.
With his ballet studio closed, he finds open spaces in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, spinning and jumping in his sneakers against a backdrop of crammed metal shacks. Half a million people live in Kibera, most with no running water. Many dream of a way to escape.
Ballet isn’t just a passion. It could be a way out of poverty. Ochieng discovered the dance two years ago when teachers from the non-profit Artists for Africa visited his school and showed his class a few moves. He was instantly hooked.
But when the coronavirus started spreading in Kenya the government closed all schools, including dance studios.
So Ochieng had to overcome his stage fright and find open spaces in the slum where he could practice.
But that’s hardly the only challenge the virus has posed. Restrictions on movement have put millions of people out of work, including Ochieng’s father, a mason, and his mother, a tailor.
“Ever since the first case of COVID-19 was announced, my father has not gone to work and there is no food,” the boy said.
His mother, 38-year-old Gladys Akinyi, has encouraged his ballet dream, but now she has more pressing concerns: How to provide for five children with no regular income. “Even though I want the best for him, I just can’t afford private dance classes,” she said.
Her son is undeterred. He recently seized the chance to visit a Dance Centre Kenya studio in Nairobi’s upmarket neighborhood of Karen, where he collected a donated pair of hand-me-down ballet shoes.
Normally, more than 500 dancers train at Dance Centre Kenya’s network of studios in Nairobi, and the school works with Artists for Africa to support talented dancers from low-income families. The non-profit also sponsors a handful of scholarship students who live in a nearby boarding house so they can attend daily classes.
When Ochieng arrived at the studio, only the scholarship students and artistic director Cooper Rust were there. Classes are now being taught remotely via videoconferencing. While there, Ochieng took the rare opportunity to join a class while Rust watched and advised the young dancers.
For Ochieng, it was a soul-lifting experience after weeks of hardship and uncertainty.
“The more privileged students ... are able to do classes virtually online with us and we are still connecting with them,” Rust said.
“But with the underprivileged students in the slums like Kibera, they have a much harder time getting to those virtual classes and not a lot of computers, even if they had internet access. So not only are they missing the training, but they are also missing the personal interaction with their teachers and probably even more importantly than that, they are missing the opportunity to be able to express themselves through their favorite art.”
In spite of the challenges, Ochieng does all he can to keep up his training.
“My mother is my main source of encouragement,” he said. “She always tells me that things will get better. This is just a passing cloud and when it is all over, my wish is to visit my grandparents and to go back to dance school to achieve my dream of becoming a dancer.”