Kenyan group spreads its message ‘step by step’

The Performing Arts Department (PAD) and the African & African American Studies Program, both in Arts & Sciences, will host a residency March 13-22 for a nine-member touring ensemble of internationally known Kenyan performance group Haba na Haba.

Courtesy Photo

In a Kenyan community, members of Haba na Haba perform a skit about violence at a sporting event. Haba na Haba will have an improvisational performance like this one March 19 on the South 40 during their residency on the WUSTL campus.

The group performs acrobatics, music, dance and drama to raise awareness and educate their communities on topics such as HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, reproductive health, women’s issues and violence. While here, it will participate in a number of performances and cultural exchanges both on campus and in the St. Louis community.

Haba na Haba, Swahili for “step by step,” describes the approach that some 1,000 performers in the group take in their mission to provide people in Nairobi and outlying areas with information to provoke debate on social issues and healthy alternatives to crime, drugs and other destructive behaviors. Their message is that all things are possible if you take them one step at a time.

Highlights of the St. Louis residency will include a discussion on theater and social change with a panel including George Ndiritu, the director of Haba na Haba; Carolyn Lesorogol, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work; and others at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, the co-host for the event. The discussion is scheduled at 4:30 p.m. March 18, in Brown Hall Lounge.

An improvisational performance of Haba na Haba will take place at 4:30 p.m. March 19 in the South 40 Swamp. All students are welcome to attend.

The residency will culminate at 8 p.m. March 20 with a work titled “Co-existence” based on the recent ethnic conflicts in Kenya following disputed elections. The performance, which also will feature WUSTL students, will take place in the 560 Music Center. The event is free and open to the public.

During their stay, the members of Haba na Haba will have the opportunity to learn about life outside of their country.

In addition to dining with host families, they will have dinner with members of the St. Louis Kenyan community, meet with students who have traveled or will travel to Kenya, visit area schools and participate in WUSTL dance, acting and Swahili language classes.

“We are truly delighted to be hosting this wonderful performing arts troupe on campus, especially with an American of Kenyan descent having just assumed the American presidency,” said Robert Henke, Ph.D., chair of PAD and professor of drama and of comparative literature, both in Arts & Sciences.

“The courageous and thought-provoking work of Haba na Haba in some of the most economically challenged areas in and around Nairobi demonstrates ways in which the performing arts can educate people from all walks of life and truly effect social change,” Henke said. “Their magnetic capacity to summon and sustain a theatrical audience in village and town squares with their medley of acrobatics, music, dance and drama can teach westerners that theater, looked at from a global perspective, can be much bigger than the well-lit stage.”

Henke said that Haba na Haba’s St. Louis visit came about, in part, through the efforts of WUSTL alumnus Reynolds Whalen, whose honors thesis in PAD included the production of a full-length documentary on the group.

Whalen, who graduated summa cum laude in 2008 with a double major in drama and African and African American studies, had seen the group perform in Nairobi during a semester abroad his junior year.

“The first performance I watched literally changed my life,” Whalen said. “It was the first time I had ever seen my two biggest passions — Africa and theater — meet to do something really important.”

“The extraordinary collaboration of Reynolds and Mungai Mutonya, Ph.D., senior lecturer in African and African American studies and director of the Summer in Kenya Program, has made this residency possible,” said John Baugh, Ph.D., the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences and director of the African & African American Studies Program. “Their efforts may well inspire other local ventures to enhance health awareness in less fortunate communities. This visit celebrates not only Haba na Haba but also the outstanding talent of our students.” For information on classes and workshops, call 935-5858 or e-mail For general information, e-mail