Michael Wamaya: Meet the teacher who is changing the world one day at a time through dance

The story of Michael Wamaya is one that needs to be told over and again. Life gives you a glass with water and you have the option of deciding whether it is half full or half empty. Our lives revolve around the choices we make, the positivity and motivation that comes from within, the belief that we are all gifted in our own ways.

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He dropped out of high school because he could not afford the fees. Despite this challenge, Mike was a gifted mechanic. He used to fix cars and would sell different things like motor vehicle spare parts to earn a living. At the age of fifteen, he had his own garage and was already staying in his own house with his younger brother. Later on, he got a chance to do mechanical engineering but his way of working is commonly referred to as ‘Jua Kali,’  just by watching and repairing vehicles where he could. Mike was also a good salesperson.

The field of performing arts was an area he was very passionate about but he didn’t know where he could nurture his desire. He also used to write poems, stories and television series. However, back then they did not have so much influence from television and social media. The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (K.B.C) had a Luo segment with plays. He would follow the stories that were developed every week from subjects such as HIV/AIDS. One Sunday while he had just come from selling his merchandise, he came across a poster from the Kenya Performing Arts Group asking anyone with an interest in dancing to join them.

Moving to Nairobi was not something he had fully decided to do. He just wanted to try and at least have a chance of interacting with the people at the National theatre. His focus was not on ballet then. However, he knew he would not earn as much as he was earning from his mechanic job. This gave him the chance to link up with his friends who used to live in Eastlands where he was born before they moved back to the village when he was twelve.

Once he passed the auditions, he was given a scholarship to train in the performing arts. They used to give him an allowance of about two thousand shillings. The money was so little but he decided to stay because of the proverbial ‘fire in his belly.’ This meant that he had to live his home for good. The most important thing he had was his friends and the relationship he had with other people.

Photo by Jamoh Kamau
Photo by Jamoh Kamau

The training was to take four years. This gave him the opportunity to travel to countries such as Holland. Challenges motivate him and he felt that the platform was not giving him the kind of challenges he wanted. He quit after three years and later started a dance company with his friends. This is how the Ghetto Potential Trust was started and the main aim was to give young people a chance to dance. There was still marginalisation in the field of the arts.

Dance was the main tool he used to help children in Dandora. He later moved back to Kariobangi where he was born. Unfortunately, the project was not sustainable enough because it faced challenges such as lack of finance. He decided to start entrepreneurship and networking platforms where young people would have the chance to interact with successful people. This enabled him to work with people who were even working for the Mungiki.

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He managed to get them out of crime because they got into more useful activities such as collecting garbage. As a result, this protected them from vices as there were many who were dying after being shot by the police or due to mob justice. They would even clean police stations at a fee. Hence, there were so many youth groups earning an honest building. Next year, they will be doing the Mara Work Boost Fund so as to give the youth grants to support their projects. Mike says that the best way of getting people together is by referring each other through word of mouth. Very soon, the entire city will be connected.

In 2008, Anno’s Trust, a U.K. based charity approached him to teach children how to dance. Now, he teaches ballet to children in the slums. There are so many informal settlements and he believes the concept of change lies within the people. Two years ago, a church in Holland raised money which was used to renovate a school in Kibera. This made the people know that it is their responsibility to change the perceptions they have about themselves. ‘Change begins from within. Do not look at other people’s worth, look at what you can do,’ he advises.

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Mike has had the privilege of travelling all over the world and has even taught in Dubai. He gave a master class during the Education and Skills Forum which brings together teachers from all over the world. There were so many people waiting to join his class. Lecturers from Harvard and Cambridge came to listen to him. ‘Once you believe in yourself and fully focus on it, you will eventually succeed,’ says Mike.

photo by #GESF
photo by #GESF

His advice to parents is that children must be allowed to grow, to learn how to socialise, learn how to save money and to learn how to treat people well. They need not be programmed to produce results. They must play to develop themselves. Investing in the right things is important and makes you know your strength as a person. He gives an example of when he took children to perform at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. As a reward, he ordered a pair of toughee Bata shoes for each of them. This taught them that if they work hard and do well, they will earn a livelihood from what they do.

children feel happy when rewarded
children feel happy when rewarded

 

Ballet has allowed the children to gain confidence, to be respectful and more social. As a result, they are even improving in their academics and some are even getting scholarships to further their studies. One of the children has been privileged to go to South Carolina to dance despite the challenges he went through such as lack of an identity because he did not have a birth certificate. Dance allows you to utilise the space you have. As a teacher, he does not allow anyone to laugh at another student but rather reminds them that they must work together and help each other. Older children are learning that they need not bully the younger ones. He pairs them up so that they can help each other to learn even in other areas beyond dance.

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Teaching has allowed him to grow as a person. The more you give, the more you have as Leonard Nimoy would put it. People must learn to breathe so as to allow themselves to think. Panicking is what makes people make mistakes. You need to breathe in case you go wrong. Peace gives your mind energy to handle stress.

In ballet, they follow the syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dance which uses classical music. However, he also uses local music to teach children.  The children have learnt to create their own pieces. They give ideas and then he puts them together hence creating a choreography. We must learn to walk out of our closets, be free and be ourselves.

The nomination by the Varkey Foundation for the Global Teachers Prize came as a surprise to him. The award is given by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who is the crown prince of Dubai, United Arab Emirates in a colourful ceremony. He made it to the top 10 in 2017 and this allowed him to interact with heads of states and teachers from all over the world. He is now a Varkey ambassador in Kenya. Social Media is so powerful in our generation and that has enabled his story to reach many people. His features by media outlets such as the Guardian, Aljazeera and CNN have touched many people. He has also had the chance of having a French Journalist come in to make a documentary about his work. ‘Dance is growing in Kenya and young people need to take advantage of this. It will give them the opportunity to open other doors.’

photo by Justin Trudeau
photo by Justin Trudeau

‘It’s the high time to look at teaching beyond an A. Let’s look at it as a mentorship opportunity, a way to develop our country. Teaching is a noble profession and we need to reward that so that teachers can have the dignity that they deserve. Teaching should be a way of interacting with people, showing concern and respect,’ he concludes.

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