Mama Sarakasi Nurturing dancers and acrobats

When Marion Op het Veld first came to Kenya in 1989, she had one thing in mind: pay a visit to her friend who was then studying here. But as fate would have it, she fell in love with the country and decided to settle in Kenya. Since then, Marion, fondly referred to as Mama Sarakasi, has positively impacted the lives of many acrobats and dancers. She shares her story with HENRY KAHARA.

Marion Op het Veld aka Mama Sarakasi is the co founder and the managing director  of Sarakasi Trust, a performing arts development organisation that aims to develop, facilitate, support and promote arts and culture for social and economic development of society.

The organisation, the first one of its kind in the country, has played a big role in giving young people a platform to polish their acrobatic and dancing skills.

“We started Sarakasi in 2001 after realising that most talented local artists didn’t have a platform to enhance their skills,” Marion starts off our interview.

The idea of starting such an organisation was birthed after she travelled with some acrobats to her home country, the Netherlands, and her sister, who is a choreographer, requested them to take part in a circus she was organising.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to show case the African and Kenyan culture and the Kenyan acrobats did not dissapoint. While in the Netherlands dancing and acrobats were appreciated back in Kenya, they were considered hobbies that amounted to nothing. Those who took it seriously were regarded as failures,” explains Marion.

Dignifying dancing and acrobatics…
The team’s excellent performance in the Netherlands gave Marion a drive to start thinking of a platform where dancers and acrobats can nurture their talents.

“I started going round looking for talented groups of acrobats and dancers. I then enrolled them at Sarakasi Trust and gave them a platform to professionally develop their talents,” she says.

Marion notes that they faced a lot of challenges at the beginning, for instance, some of their members were mistaken for illegal groups operating in Nairobi in early 2000. To curb such incidences, members were given Sarakasi identity cards.

As time went by, they were able to streamline the training and in the process overcame some of the challenges.

She explains that they train dancers for six months while acrobats take a longer time due to the complexities surrounding the art. After training, the trust helps them secure jobs as it has connections with organisations in need of such talent.

“Performing art has become a career in itself and there are very many young people who are keen to develop in this area. This is in contrast to what used to happen a few years ago when the art used to be taken as a hobby,” adds Marion.

According to Marion, Sarakasi has incubated thousands of artists and today most of them are earning a decent income through their talent.

“I always feel contented to see young people who come to us while very naïve and leave as confident grown ups who know where they are headed in life,” observes Marion.

Besides developing their talents, Sarakasi also trains artists on how to package themselves so as to be marketable to enable them become self-reliant once they leave the nest. Sarakasi Trust also has other projects meant to help young people to lead dignified lives.

“We also train youths on conflict resolution, leadership and entrepreneurial skills among others, which is meant to prepare them for the world,” she notes.

Other programmes offered by the trust include Amani Lazima, Smiles for Change (formerly known as the Sarakasi Trust Hospital Project) and an international exchange programme where artists travel to different parts of the world to learn more about the art.

On Amani Lazima (peace is a must) she says, “We started Amani Lazima in 2009 after the 2007/2008 post-election violence. We realised that most people who were used by politicians to cause mayhem were young people who had too much time on their hands.

Amani Lazima’s aim is to act as a grassroots intervention mechanism for disenfranchised youth who are and continue to be susceptible to negative influences in their communities thus creating opportunity which not only rob them of their lives but also pull them towards livelihoods that are influenced by crime and drugs.”

Through Amani Lazima, they bring different communities together through workshops mostly in slum areas and train them on the need of coexisting peacefully. Some of the places they have training centers include Naivasha, Nakuru, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi.

A pat on the back…
According to Marion, they have managed to break the stereotype that acrobatics and dancing are for failures or idlers.

This is affirmed by the fact that parents are now supporting their children to follow their hearts in contrast to yesteryear’s where they would discourage them from pursuing art-related courses like dancing.

One of the trust’s most notable projects is the Sarakasi Dancers who have made appearances in major shows, conferences and music videos.

She advises those who want to venture into arts to have a clear trajectory of where they want to be in future as the challenges can easily make one drop out along the way.

“Think strategically and make a plan on where you want to be five years from now and then work towards reaching your destination. There is huge potential in art but for one to reap from it, you must be passionate and determined,” she advises, adding that hard work separates the talented individual from the successful one.

Marion notes that currently, online platforms have played a key role in helping artists showcase their talents, which translates into opportunities.

“At least we have managed to show the world that art is a job like any other and one can earn a decent earning from it,” she reiterates.

Marion says artists whose lives have been transformed by Sarakasi Trust inspire her to continue reaching out to more youth. She is further happy that both the county and the national governments are supporting talents.

Sarakasi recently partnered with Murang’a County government for a campaign dubbed Crime Si Poa (Crime is not cool). The aim was to warn young people against joining criminal gangs.

Sarakasi Trust also works closely with the Ministry of Sports and Culture. Children who want to develop their dancing talents have a chance to do so at Sarakasi Trust where they assemble every Saturday at the Sarakasi Dome in Ngara, Nairobi County.

“We recognise and appreciate young talent. We are cognisant that if we tap this talent at a young age, then it’s going to be even easier for the individual to reach their fullest potential. It also gives them a perfect opportunity to exploit their talents for longer,” says the mother of four.

While strides have been made in accepting dancing and acrobatics as a way of life, Marion notes that there are not enough trainers to cater for the growing number of individuals who want to venture into it.

“We need to invest in good trainers as this will help to produce the best in arts management. It’s only training which will help to put Kenya on the map when it comes to dancing and acrobatics,” she says.

On challenges faced, Marion points out funding as one of the main barriers holding them back.

“We are a charitable organisation with many projects and sometimes we find ourselves being limited by resources. This hinders us from implementing the projects we have although we are looking for ways to ensure that we stay afloat,” she says in conclusion.

Published in February 2017