Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the August 2005 issue


Chokora. Garbage.

Now I know why they call them that. They are of the same color as the street, a noncolor, one that time, wear and tear leave on things like an indelible patina, a distilled filth, that amalgamates and stains hands, heads, shoes. They are walking rags. Their bodies are coated with layers of filth, they are lost, emaciated, rachitic, inside their shapeless jackets, beat-up overcoats, sweatshirts that the passage of days and months have totally faded into oneness with the leather color of their skin.

They draw closer, almost immediately, in flocks, reeling, raggedy. They have surrounded the Amref van, and at first, they frighten me.

John wants me, on my second day in Nairobi, before beginning the theater lab, to be taken here, to one of the outdoor garbage dumps that mark the various slums, in the center of Kawanware, the "Base" from which almost all the kids who attend the Amref welcome center in the Dagoretti neighborhood come. I think it's a sort of baptism given to all the white people who commit themselves to Amref's projects. Giulio later confirms this to me, explaining that it is the only practical and concrete way to understand the surrounding reality.

As soon as I get out of the van I'm assaulted by an unbearable stink; it makes me dizzy, a rush of almost uncontrollable vomit comes to my mouth. It's a nauseating smell of rot, of putrefaction, of shit and sogginess that comes in waves; the stink overwhelms my nostrils, I gasp for breath, I find it impossible to believe that anyone could live in this foul pestilence.

And yet, all around, a multitude of people go by, traffics, trades, lives, interacts, transacts; everyone seems to have a purpose, a destination.

This landscape should not be unfamiliar to me since I must have seen it who knows how many times in documentaries and TV reports, but now that I'm right in it, it delivers a direct blow to my stomach-there is no security zone.

Surrounding the mountain of garbage (on its top I can see people and big black birds moving) spreads an enormous agglomeration of huts, sheet-iron shacks, alleyways; I can glimpse a labyrinth of hovels made out of all kinds of materials that have sprung up around the place where the trucks every day dump the garbage from downtown. It's an immense swarming organism, a swarm of bodies that weave in interrupted directions; it makes me think of an enormous carcass bored by thousands of worms, a living decomposition.

Flocks of barefoot, snotnosed little kids play splashing in the muddy streams, amidst the foul smelling discharges. They are the only ones who, when meeting my gaze, immediately smile, showing rows of very white teeth that shine from their filthy faces.

The adults instead look at me in haste, gloomily; they avoid me, as if I didn't exist.

I'd like to leave right away; I don't know what I'm doing in this hell, I feel defenseless, an outsider, an alien tossed out of a time machine into the wrong era.

Samuel and John Chege place themselves at my sides, like tactful bodyguards not wanting to draw too much attention; farther ahead, Moha is greeting other street kids who are gradually approaching. They have a strange way of behaving with their street brothers; on the one hand they don't want to lose their friendship and complicity, but at the same time, since they are with us, they stay at a distance, ready to take us whites in another direction should things start going badly. They know that without them we would have no safety, we would be stripped and robbed in a second, if not worse.

I'm disconcerted. All around me it's like an anthill. People look at me from a distance, perhaps with disdain, as if to underline my foreignness. There is no sense of condescension, no one asks for money, at least not the people going by. They all seem busy: shattered people carrying bundles, dragging carts, pushing unbelievably loaded bicycles through the mud.

Angelo, imprudently, pulls out his TV camera. I notice that our kids immediately exchange worried glances. I try to tell Angelo that it's better to make it disappear, but he is as upset as I am by what he is seeing and feeling and he can't resist shooting it. But this makes the expressions of those around us immediately become more diffident and mean.

It's one thing to give cameras to the kids and follow them through the labyrinthine slum alleyways, they know what can and cannot be done. This way, instead, we risk seeming the usual whites in search of excitement. Within a minute we are surrounded by a band of raggedy kids, the Chokora must have sensed our vulnerability. Samuel and Moha, even though they know them, are on edge. John signals Selim and David pushes Angelo toward the van.

"Bad hour," whispers John Chege while calmly but resolutely making me retreat. I understand that if we show any worry it's worse. We retreat toward the van. Around me the faces with dead eyes multiply. One person has a little plastic bottle hanging from his lower lip: it contains their cheap drug. They don't ask for money, they ask for pieces of us, even only a shirt; if I had a hat they would have already taken it. I'm not wearing a watch or carrying a wallet-I had been told to dress like this: the less stuff on the better since, even though casually dressed in old jeans and secondhand shirts, in their eyes we are a cornucopia. I feel a hand grab my shoulder, I turn, a young boy, maybe thirteen years old, gives me a stupefied smile. Samuel nudges him away while speaking to him softly.

"Hurry up," whispers David. "Get in quickly, it's not a good moment." As soon as it realizes that its prey is getting away the group surges, someone tries to put a hand on Angelo, who already has his foot on the running board. Within an instant we are being yanked, grabbed, tossed. I jump in the van, lock the door, we are all inside. The faces of those left outside are pressed against the windows. They look like fish, with washed out, colorless eyes, carved into pale thin faces, faded like the rags that cover them.

The van starts moving slowly, without ever giving the impression of retreat. The people around us now look at us with hostility. We've committed an error and now we have to pay for it. The Amref logo on the van's sides is not enough to protect us. Angelo is very subdued, he feels guilty, but John Chege tells him with a smile, "it's the gum," and mimics having a little bottle at his lips, his eyes-for an instant-become as empty as those of the people left behind.

John, Samuel, and Moha are well aware of what it means to sniff glue. They still do it, but perhaps less than the others since they've started coming to the Amref center in Dagoretti. In an instant I understand the fear that overtook me a short while ago. It's not the first time I've found myself surrounded by a gang, it happened to me when I was a kid, I know what it's like to feel trapped-if you can't right away see a way out, an escape route, you have to expect the worst, or hand over something hoping it will be enough. Years ago in Naples, right downtown, four little kids surrounded me and threatened me with a knife. All around me everyone pretended not to notice. Luckily I only had a 50,000 lira banknote on me. If they had nabbed me one day earlier they would have ripped off, in one fell swoop, my just cashed entire paycheck from the Teatri Uniti where I was working with Mario Martone on the show Seven Against Thebes. Fortunately, that day I had decided to leave my money at home in a drawer. After being robbed I was overcome with bitter rage. I realized that I had been frozen with fear. I was furious with myself, I made myself crazy thinking I should have done something, creamed, called for help or even tackled them.

Here in Nairobi I had a different sensation of fear. What froze me was they way they advanced, how the moved in waves, their expressions, they were like zombies, it was as if the group was being moved by a kind of invincible need, an oppressing inertia, as if, attracted only by the fact that we were alive, they were ready to suck something away from us, anything.

During the trip back David explains that we had gotten there too late and that by that time of day sniffing glue begins to produce paranoia. Many haven't eaten all day, haven't accomplished anything, and so they sour. The day is drawing to a close and they become irascible. Taken individually they aren't dangerous, but as soon as they become a group they feel up to anything.

David tells us that if we want to go back it's better to do it in the morning. I have no desire to, it will take some time before I feel like repeating that experience. I'm shocked, not only by the risk run, by above all by what I saw and felt. I look at the kids in the van and I can't believe they belong to the same group as the ones outside and yet they too come from there, from the same hell.

If they call them Chokora, it's because these kids aren't people, they are things. They don't exist statutorily, they don't possess an identity, they are nonpersons who survive at the margins of what is already marginal. Their only form of recognition is that they belong to the gang, the group, the Base. They don't exist for the rest of the world. They can be killed, raped, beaten, or locked up in prison when the police flex their muscles and makes a clean sweep of downtown. I feel intuitively that my theater work must begin here, from the lack of individual dignity and identity. I know from personal experience that when you give people the tools to express themselves, even if in a simple way, suddenly they discover within themselves something they didn't realize they had, something that can become a story, and experience to be shared. If this process has worked so many times in extreme situations, in jails, in psychiatric hospitals, with needy kids and I have been able to use these same methods in my work as theater director, it stands to reason that it should work here too.

It's just that this "here" is a world that is completely foreign to me, far from anything I know, where I am the first to feel foreign, where my gestures, my body language, do not correspond in any way with what I see moving around me. I don't know the names of the plants, I don't recognize the stars in the sky at night, I am distant, maybe too distant to imagine the type of theater to be done with them.

Tomorrow will be my first meeting with about thirty boys and girls who have already filtered through the Amref center and to whom John Muiruri has already explained, in his sweet and persuasive way, why I have come, as if he knows it much better than I do myself.

I arrive at Roland camp, a nature reserve inside the N'gong forest at the outskirts of Nairobi, where John thought it best to bring the kids, camping, to help them concentrate better on the task I will propose. I find myself facing thirty-two boys and three girls (two are only five years old and the third is about thirteen). I have to select about twenty kids, the maximum number for a theater lab. The sticks I had requested for the training are spread on the grass. The first exercise is the one I always use when meeting new people. I launch myself into my makeshift English by explaining how to grab the stick and how to throw it to your mate. I demonstrate how to do it, how to catch it. I place myself inside the circle, I observe how each one performs, and gradually make the exercise more complicated until the thrown sticks intersect. At each throw you have to catch the eye of the person to whom you are throwing-only then can you throw the stick. With each error I show what happened, I demonstrate where they made a mistake, but I do it without reproach, like an artisan would do when explaining to a apprentice where he made a mistake in handling a tool. Within a short time five sticks are flying through the air simultaneously. The circle breaks. When you run you can move anywhere, always ready to give and receive. I keep this up for about one hour, then suddenly the world around me turns purple, the air chokes in my throat, I have to stop to catch my breath. "You forgot that we are at one thousand seven hundred meters height" says Giulio while laughing and handing me a handkerchief that immediately gets soaked with my sweat when I pass it over my face. I had forgotten. In the heat of the exercise I had acted as if I were in a normal place. Instead, here, it's as if I had run around and jumped up and down in an Alpine refuge, like a fool. But I notice that the kids too are gasping for breath, they didn't expect it either. Most of them have slow, dull reflexes. Two or three of them have trouble concentrating, while the rest play very seriously. I begin again with other exercises, focusing on the voice, on imitating and following. I go on for another two hours, until the break.

I feel I've made a good start. The only way not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the undertaking is to pretend they are all completely ordinary kids and to ask of them the same type of commitment I would of a group of young beginner actors in Italy and right from the start place myself among them, exercise with them, and stimulate them to demonstrate their ability.

By the end of the day I have to select who will stay at the camp for the next nine days. I have already picked them out, that's not the problem, by now-through experience-I am almost always right, my intuition helps me understand who is capable of creating, feeling, and perceiving, who is capable of being in a group, who can interact and so forth. It's the excluded ones that I worry about. For one moment a door has opened for them, there is a chance, I don't yet know of what, but maybe only for this one week of camping and theater, with three guaranteed meals a day, that already would be a lot, nine days in another world, a prize that seems a dream.

Twenty out of thirty-five, and what about the other fifteen? They will go back to their hovels, to life as usual. Then I am assaulted by a frightening question: what about the other one hundred fifty thousand street kids who roam Nairobi?

"What is the purpose of saving only one if they can't all be saved," asked one of the Karamazov brothers. In the 1970s I too thought like this, I was sure the revolution would save everyone; all we had to do was wait.

Now I'm here. I don't know if it's to save someone, it's too early to tell and in any event the concept of salvation is one that doesn't belong to me, but does it make sense that I am here for only one, for twenty, for a drop in the sea? If I think of the enormity of the problem, in its totality, I can't move, I am impotent. I can think of all the structural and economic reasons that have allowed for this hell, but then I wouldn't know what to do to change this state of affairs. I'm also not so sure that a revolution would solve the problems. Actually, while I feel inside all the old fire for the fight and the revolution, I am lost, I don't have access to political means, all I have is what I do, this series of exercises that might turn into theater and might not, if they break down. And yet to attempt this with one, to begin anyway, is the only means I have to also help all the others in the greater world, so I'm not forced to give up before I start and accept defeat.

I pick twenty kids, all boys. I exclude the only possible girl, the thirteen-year-old, who had good listening qualities, because she would have had a hard time fitting in, surrounded by these hoodlum faces that, most probably-at least the older ones-already know about having sex, even without taking into consideration the violence they themselves must have been subject to on the streets.

It's an all-male group, which has its limits, but there is no other solution.

The second day I begin to get to know them on a one-to-one basis. I do not regret my choices, but the beginning is very difficult. I have to fight their instinctive diffidence. For them, I'm not just a mzungo mzee, an old white man, but also one who is asking them to do difficult, tiring things that require concentration and discipline, things whose meaning they do not yet understand. They always look at me at a glance, they can't look at me at length in the eyes, they lower their heads when they have to answer me, their voices are hard to hear. They behave like adults, abrupt gestures, among themselves kicks, spits, pushes fly at the slightest disagreement. Very slowly, day after day, I transform them into a new gang, everyone learning to depend on the others; collaboration is needed for every exercise, its teamwork. Only later will I be able to begin exploring their individualities, to make the differences emerge. I advance slowly, paying attention to detail. I'm stubborn and they can feel my efforts, they fully understand the amount of energy I am expending in order to get them to force out a song, to agonizingly slow down a movement, to move in unison to the rhythm. As always I advance without a specific program, I propose exercises and games, often inventing them on the spot, re-elaborating old ones or discovering completely new ones. These exercises and drills can't be written down because they never work in the same way. You need intuition and experience to make them work.

On the third day I begin putting focus on contact exercises: flying catches, dead weight drops to gain reciprocal trust, showers of hands that all together run over someone's body, with eyes shut, being guided only by the balls of one's fingers, embracing tightly after darting away. Their eyes shine, they smile, they want never to stop.

I throw myself into the games using my body, participating in their exercises, letting them touch me, touching them a lot, massaging their bellies to make a sound that astonishes them come out, carrying them on my shoulders. Bodies always express themselves better than words and in the case of an encounter of different skin colors, different cultures, anthropologies that are light-years away, it's better to be quiet and let gestures talk. Plus my English is rather makeshift, theirs is worse, not all of them speak Kiswahili, but we understand each other anyway, we move forward and the effort to try and understand each other is part of the process, it actives their dormant intelligence. The words will come, at the right time.

But they tire easily, they tend to flop down, to get distracted. Kevin and Daniel (nicknamed Commando) are two loose cannons constantly provoking, acting out, being disruptive, but they are also very creative, and they only act this way to get my attention, it's a old trick that I know well, we all use it in everyday life, but here it's more exaggerated and blatant. On the fourth day I begin to see glimpses of creativity, small things, portents of possibilities, they begin to have fun and to be amazed by it, and I bring them along, step by step, to their first improvisations. Every time a game or an exercise forces them to lower their guard, their diffidence and defenses, a trace of the childhood they never had surfaces on their faces-it's something that is usually well hidden, behind their eyes, it appears for an instant then immediately disappears. It would take a long time to make it fully emerge.

On the next to last day I tell the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, the idea to do it came to me just like an intuition, I use gestures, speak slowly, seeking the English words.

Francis, a Kenyan actor who works with the Amref project, translates into Kiswahili. They are seated on the ground, in a group. I mix in the stories of other kids lost in the woods. It's incredible how many fairy tales there are that talk of escapes, of abandonment and of lost kids without parents who have to manage on their own.

Like all good storytellers I make good use of everything at hand, even the monkeys that peek their heads through the trees, and so Hansel and Gretel's forest soon becomes the one in which we are immersed. They follow the story with open mouths, their faces are childlike, even the oldest ones are wide-eyed. I continue up to the final solution, when the witch is thrown into the fire.

"It's a good story," comments Commando at the end while we get up to go toward the camp where the tents for our last night of camping await us. The smell of feet that emanates from the tents softens the surrounding air, but there's also a semblance of organization. They light the fire, listen to their favorite hip-hop music, turn back into street gangs and tell their inaccessible to outsiders stories. John Muiruri takes me by the arm, he tells me that he is very impressed by the changes he has seen in the kids over these nine days, he thanks me, he is happy, says the project must continue and that Amref will certainly do what it can to make it continue, that he has never seen so much happen in so little time. Now he has a greater understanding of the meaning of my proposal.

So, it will continue, that's good news, even though I am exhausted and can't enjoy what we have accomplished. I feel like I've been here for a hundred years, all day long under a blazing, exhausting sun, among immense trees, without a minute's break. In the evening I crash and I can't imagine going out to change menus, maybe to an Indian or Lebanese restaurant downtown.

I don't like Nairobi; it's an armored city that frightens. As soon as the sun goes down a kind of curfew takes over, and not only for the whites who lock themselves in their houses protected with barbed wire and vigilantes. During the day the city is swarming with lives on a constant march, human beings walking without cease amid clouds of smog and chaotic traffic.

Everything here is an extreme: the misery of the slums and the in-your-face richness of the good neighborhoods, the tiredness of having to go kilometers for a sip of clean water and the bounty of plants and flowers. When I see a luxurious flowering bush or a row of bougainvillea for a moment I feel as if I were at home.

And yet something begins to attract me. There's a fascination that astonishes me. When Selim drives the van and it leaves the road paved with holes and craters and starts climbing up to Roland camp and my mouth fills with the taste of dirt-a red dust that mixes with my sweat-a feeling of expectation comes over me, as if in the air there is something unique and grand, something that can still happen here.

The last day, when the work is done, I ask the twenty kids to go before Angelo's camera. He has followed all of the phases of these first nine days and the kids almost immediately grew accustomed to his camera and began to ignore its presence. The kids have to look at each other and loudly say their first and last names and how old they are.

One by one they do it. Their voices now are clearer, they can look at each other, and each one finds his own way of standing there, of naming himself, of existing, some perhaps adding two or three years to their age since no one knows when or where they were born. They laugh at what they say. I think the next step will be to make a biography for each of them, going as far back as possible. Without a history that gives a reason to why we are here now, we are nothing, and to do this personal history, in the absence of memory, with the forgetting required to survive the horrors and the calamities both received and given, you need a few traces of life to sew together so that some kind of path can be invented as if, somewhere, there were a meaning, a plan.

At the end I make them sit in front of me and I improvise a very serious speech. I risk saying too much and going overboard, but I feel that the moment is right and it's worth the risk. Angelo shoots everything and my words are in the first video montage that tells the beginning of theatrical journey of the group of street kids from Nairobi.

"I know your life isn't easy, that you sleep in the streets, that you sniff glue, that you are cold and hungry, but over these nine days you have tried to do something special, to do theater. We are only at the beginning, there's a lot of work still to do, but this project, if you commit yourselves to it, could change your lives. You've seen what is needed to succeed. First of all you must have a good body. You have to jump, dance, run, speak, concentrate, and be disciplined. You have to train every day, repeat the exercises I've given you, quit sniffing glue, immediately. If you are able to do all this there will be a second phase. I will come back for you. Otherwise I won't. It's a great chance for you, don't throw it away."

Out of the twenty kids only one didn't make it: Daniel Njoroghe, the oldest, the one who always had a woolen hat pulled down on his head, the one who when he looked at you with his sweet, lost eyes he made you feel how much he must have seen and suffered, slow in his movements, always late, stuffed with glue, but always had a strong influence on the others, like an older brother.

Daniel went back to the streets. What I was asking for was too much for him.


The next to last day I meet the kids at the campground. Their big tent is all muddy because last night it poured. I've brought Collodi's book with me. I found it at Casa Italia among the books left there by previous visitors and I thought it would be a good idea to close out the lab by leaving them with a memory of one of our stories, one alien to their culture. They are all waiting for me, sitting in a circle, under the enormous mango tree. They look like a bunch of kids on a field trip: they are laid back, smiling. The camp is much better organized than last time at Roland camp: the fire is lit, the pots and pans are clean and ready, they've built a kind of table where plates have been set; they've become boy scouts. I begin storytelling, using my faulty English. I use a lot of mimicry to tell the story and every so often I show them the pictures in the book. Sometimes I skip entire passages. I see that they are completely involved in the story: no longer sprawled on the ground but sitting straight up with their eyes full of wonder. They laugh and look at each other. I manage to reach the point in the story when Pinocchio decides to sell his ABC reader so he can go see Fire Eater's theater, but I can't go any further-the sun is setting and I am exhausted. They want to know what happens next and I promise to try and finish the story the next day-even though I'm not sure how.

The next morning, after exercises, Onesmus imitates Pinocchio running, as they had seen in the book. The other kids recognize the character and laugh. At that moment it hits me: if all it took was one afternoon for them to incorporate a character, it means that this type of narrative can reach them. So that very same morning we work on some already tried-out exercises based on a marionette's body-falling and catching-but this time we are doing it with a different consciousness.

That afternoon I tell the second part of the story. They listen with their mouths open, asking question after question. They want me to leave the book with them. I ask Francis if he will read them the story, from the beginning, over the next few months using an English translation and I tell the kids that if they like the story we can try to put on a theatrical version of it.

They are enthusiastic. I know it's a crazy undertaking and that I would be committing myself to a much longer project than previously anticipated. But having proposed it, their enthusiasm becomes contagious. Elisa looks at me perplexed-even though she is used to my habit of coming up with proposals on the spot, this one seems really too much to her.

We talk about on our way back. I don't know how to answer her correct comments about the time and means required, let alone the need to involve other artists. As always, I'm going on intuition. It's as if I were deciding to jump over a ditch. Up until now I had committed myself to putting a group together, to using theater to get them off the streets, and now I'm asking them to act on the stage-not exactly the same thing.

The ditch we have to jump over is a gorge. Pinocchio is an odyssey. It's big and cumbersome. Benigni is about to make a movie of it. Carmelo Bene made a pitiless and beautiful piece of theater from it. Comencini made a naïf masterpiece. We are here in the middle of a Masai village, covered in dust, with a group of kids that until a few days ago were considered Chokora.

It starts raining again. It's going to be another mud shower.

From Pinocchio Nero (Milan: Rizzoli, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Marco Baliani. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright © 2005 by Maria Enrico. All rights reserved.

Read more from the August 2005 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.