MICHAEL WAMAYA Empowering slum children through ballet

Michael Wamaya might have dropped out of school in class eight but that did not stop him from becoming a teacher. Later on in an incredible turn of events, Wamaya is currently teaching slum children ballet. He has been nominated for the Global Teachers Prize 2017 for his unique and extraordinary approach to students’ issues. He shares his inspiring story with HENRY KAHARA.

When Michael Wamaya steps into his ballet class, his students quickly get into their positions ready for a practice session.

Wamaya, 31, has been teaching ballet for the last 10 years in schools in Kenya slums. Wamaya reckons that this is what he does best and he can’t figure out how his life would have turned out if it wasn’t for ballet.

“Ballet is everything to me. I sleep, breathe and eat it,” Wamaya confesses. But Wamaya’s plunge into the world of ballet was by chance.

“I come from a poor background and my parents weren’t able to raise my secondary school fees. This saw them enroll me for a vocational course, as it was affordable. After training as a mechanic, I landed a job though the pay was meager. During my free hours I would go and play ballet in our shopping centre. It seemed the talent was lying idle in me waiting to be tapped for I became so good at it that I got a scholarship to study it at the Kenya National Theatre,” the father of one explains.

His good performance impressed his sponsors, who further sponsored him to study and perfect ballet in England and Holland. “With the ballet world at my feet, I put my best foot forward and learnt all there was to be learnt. Ballet opened a whole new world for me and I felt obliged to come back home and offer children from the slums the same opportunity,” he says.

Wamaya reckons that ballet is not being taught in many schools as the government and Kenyan people in general don’t give arts the weight they deserve. Since ballet is a foreign concept, one would expect that Wamaya would teach it in international schools. But
no, he has chosen schools in informal settlements to ply his trade.

“I know I can get a good job in international schools and at high end estates in the country but I was brought up in the slums and I relate with life in the slums. I have vowed to play my part and help where I can to make the lives of children brought in these settlements better. The best gift we can give the children is to support them to realise their potential,” he says.

Wamaya notes that slum dwellers in Nairobi represent more than half of the city’s population hence the need to invest heavily in such places.

“Many slum children don’t go beyond class eight and those who do so manage through sponsorship. If we can manage to equip them with skills they can use to earn a living, then we will be making their lives better as well as building our economy,” he shares.

Wamaya reveals that slums suffer from lack of clean drinking water and adequate housing in addition to high crime rate, drugs and substance abuse and prostitution. It is against this backdrop that slum children are brought up and it thus takes sheer mettle and God’s grace not to be sucked in it. However, as he explains, only a handful manage to go through the system unscathed.

“And that is the precise reason why we need to involve slum children in constructive activities that will pull them away from such vices. Looking at the bigger picture, we also need to invest in talent development given the soaring unemployment rates. Our plan is to have an art centre in Kibera where we can accommodate more students who are interested in ballet, as the classes we are using are not ballet friendly,” he says.

Talking of talent development, Wamaya understands only too well its benefits for it puts food on his table. “Ballet pays my bills. It is amazing how far I have come despite learning it late in life. Imagine what more these children can achieve given they are learning it at a tender age,” he says wistfully.

Having tasted the sweet fruits of ballet, Wamaya is keen to see talented young people from the slums also benefit from it. Since ballet requires discipline, focus and commitment, his students replicate these virtues in their class work with positive results.

“Ballet isn’t just about learning dance moves as it is as much mental as it is physical. The focus required to pull it off rubs off in other spheres of one’s life. Additionally, it builds their confidence and as a result our students become very free to interact with teachers hence sharing some of the challenges affecting them. They are even freer to ask questions in the classroom, which helps them to improve on their class work as well as on their self-esteem,” he explains.

Wamaya notes that through ballet, school dropout rates as well as teenage pregnancies have significantly reduced especially among his students.

“The children now find school fun and their levels of concentration while studying have gone up. The programme explores their individual human potential and creativity in a much broader sense: who they are, what they think and believe in and what they want to achieve in future. Ballet gives them a sense of fulfillment and hope,” he expounds.

Apart from ballet, the children are also exposed to dance, music, creative writing and film. Wamaya is currently working with two schools in Kibera (Spurgeons Academy and K.A.G School) and one school in Mathare – Valley View School.

No good deed goes unnoticed…
Currently, Wamaya is eyeing the Global Teachers Prize 2017, an award sponsored by the Varkey Foundation. The Global Teacher Prize was set up to recognise one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession as well as to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society.

“I will be travelling to Dubai in April this year where the best teachers worldwide will be recognised. I am glad I made the cut,” he says jubilantly, adding that over 20,000 teachers teaching different subjects worldwide had applied for the prize and only 50 were shortlisted.

If Wamaya wins the prize, he hopes to use the funds to build toilets for schools in slums and find more space for arts development. He would also like to start a fund for volunteer and underpaid teachers.

Wamaya encourages teachers who work in informal schools not to give up as the work they are doing has started being appreciated. All the same, he is cognisant of the challenges of teaching in informal settlements. Wamaya explains that in addition to making do with limited resources, teachers also have to go out of their way to help students overcome challenges at home.

Wamaya singles out lack of school fees, books and children skipping meals as some of the challenges children in slums encounter. This makes it hard for them to concentrate in class, which translates to poor grades. He further reveals that most teachers working with the informal schools are volunteers.

“Most teachers working in slums are volunteers and they only receive stipends for their work,” notes Wamaya.

He encourages his colleagues not to get tired preparing slum children for future life as it is the only way to transform the nation.

Published in February 2017