Saturday, October 2, 2010
In 2005 I coordinated an International Storytelling Festival in Perth Western Australia: Storytelling on the Edge. Before I knew it the programme had taken on a life of its own. Storytellers from all states/territories of Australia, as well as from Canada, England, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United States of America, made contact, wanting to be part of this event. So many people from so many backgrounds — and that’s how I met twenty-eight year old, Pamela Ateka from Nairobi!
...As I read Pamela Ateka’s letter and proposal, something inside me sang. Here was a performance that promised to be as unique to Australian storytelling as it was ‘on the edge’ All at once I knew we had our Keynote Speaker/Performer.
Dressed in traditional costume, Pamela captivated all with her humour, her dance, her drumming and her ability of involve her audience as she recounted ‘The Parable of Writing’: a story she had developed to teach the principles of HIV/AIDS prevention. It told of a young man who, like the prodigal son, left his village home for the city lights. Here, he contracted HIV/AIDS and returned home, sick and dying, to experience the acceptance of a caring community.
... In the words of one of the participants: At the Perth Storytelling Festival in 2005, many of us were lucky enough to meet and hear Pamela Ateka from Kenya tell her amazingly vibrant and inspiring stories. We became aware of the great work she is involved with in Nairobi caring for AIDS orphans and using story as an educational tool in schools to inform students about the threat of AIDS and the ways in which the transmission of the disease can be avoided
... It was only in the breaks at meal times and between events that I began to appreciate the passion and dedication with which this young artist and peer educationalist committed her life.
‘Pamela,’ I asked, ‘where did the idea of this work come from?’
She looked at me and smiled a gentle smile. ‘My sister,’ she whispered, ‘my sister died from AIDS in 2000. I couldn’t understand. She left a small son and I took him to my heart and my home.’
How hard was that?
It just seemed right … I was suddenly aware of the growing number of orphans and I knew I had to do something about it.
But you did have other personal and family commitments?
Yes, apart from my nephew, I had a young daughter of my own, Joy Pendo … but I couldn't stop thinking how I’ve always loved poetry and acting, and I should use these skills to good purpose. So I talked with my friends and came up with a plan to use poetry and storytelling to raise money for the care of children orphaned by AIDS, and to create awareness in society at large.
Your poetry and acting took on a particular flavour - focus. Tell me about that.
I developed what I call ‘edutainment’. I wanted to increase HIV/AIDS awareness through theatre and poetry, and using story, as an educational tool in schools to inform students about the threat of AIDS and the ways in which the transmission of the disease can be avoided.
But why performance?
Performance is the language that everyone understands. Families won't come to a lecture; but they will come to see me perform. And off of that experience, they find it easier to talk about sex and AIDS with their children.
Apart from your artistic skills, did you need other training?
I’ve always been a bit of a social activist – concerned about injustice and human rights – especially for women and children in my country. I had a wonderful opportunity to join a community-based training programme for community groups and their organizers run by the East Side Institute (http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/) — part of a growing international movement of healthcare professionals, scholars, youth educators, and artists seeking to use performance to reinitiate and advance human development.
So your work didn’t stop with writing and performance to highlight community needs?
Oh no! Just looking around Nairobi and seeing hungry and orphaned children on the streets, pushed me into taking more hands on action. With the help of friends and volunteers, I founded a Community Focus Group. We set up a feeding programme. Initially, the feeding centre catered for 26 children orphaned by AIDS, who came daily at lunch times and received a meal and moral support from the helpers. Over time the children were found host families who were, in turn, assisted with food packages, and money for school fees and uniforms.Today the centre provides for almost one hundred orphans.
Who funded this programme? Government? Corporate sponsors?
Oh no! I was very inexperienced about fund raising. The Government wasn’t interested and corporate sponsors were wary of an unknown group with no track record.
So what did you do?
I turned to my local community for support -- organizing fundraising events, where I would perform my poetry and tell stories. The costs of the feeding centre were met by fees for performances and by the income-generating activities such as jewellry and craft making of volunteers, most of whom were young, unemployed college-leavers living in the slum area. Then there were the royalties from my book of poetry and from poems published in various newspapers. Many local businesses also offered support. I was able to organise clothing drives and find partners willing to offer the older children job training.
Where are you at now with all this?
The programme currently has three staff and three volunteers who help young people, ages 7-14. Another 200 children are on the waiting list. Most of them, like my nephew, are orphans and living with relatives.
And your performances?
That’s expanded enormously. Coming to your Festival in Perth was a wonderful experience. I made many new contacts. Some of the storytellers there helped me market jewellery; and, one man from the group set up a donation scheme from which I receive regular contributions.
But Perth wasn’t your only international venture, was it? You have taken your performance to quite a number of countries outside Kenya.
Yes, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to present and perform in many countries, including South Africa, Egypt, UK, Spain, Mexico, Ethiopia and Uganda
I understand that you returned to Nairobi from the festival in Australia and were on a plane to America before you hard scarcely time to catch your breath. I hope your performances there went as well as the ones you did here.
I had a wonderful time there too. But I was very tired
Not much wonder. In the midst of all this were planning your wedding and preparing for the birth of a new baby.
...Pamela, it has been refreshing to talk with you again and recall our first meeting. Your Perth festival performance of the "Parable of Writing" will long be remembered across Australia (and to other parts of the world where festival folk carried it). And here in Perth, the folk at the Aids Support Centre were greatly uplifted by your visit. I've also had good feedback from the Church groups you visited as well.
I want to thank you and the Storytelling Guilds around Australia so much for your continuing support. Poetry and storytelling are part of the program’s staples, helping to “soothe the children’s souls.”
On 25 Match, 2006 Pamela married Charles Muthiora. They have a baby daughter Shantel Neema Kagwiria (meaning ‘song of Grace’ in Swahili).
...On a sadder note, Pamela’s mother died in a supermarket fire earlier in 2010.
Yet Pamela continues her work.
To support Pamela’s work go to: http://www.creativexchange.org/hivaids/CFG
A copy of Sing Africa Sing may be purchased from
Community Focus Group
PO Box 447-00518