Tango in Nairobi, Africa

“Grevillea Grove in Brookside,” my sister Donna said into her phone, “right before Jade Valley, just past the red gate at Planet House.” And so that was her full address in Nairobi, Kenya, whether you wanted to find her physically—or take your chances with mail. She was working for the United Nations Office of Public Information and I was visiting her before her relocation to New York where she’d work at its headquarters.

Naturally, I hooked up with the local tango community. Oh, how many people told me “You won’t find tango in Nairobi?” They didn’t know Mario Ruggier, a native of Malta and naturalized Canadian who came by way of Geneva two years ago to work in Nairobi in an engineering capacity for the U.N. also. (There are some 25,000 expats in Kenya.) Mario found only ersatz tango—the ballroom stuff of stiff frame, bodies held apart, making like a tulip. So he began to teach the real thing, Argentine tango and now he has a good following. I was received with open arms and close embrace. Mario has a trademark way of teaching—he calls it the “free-leg principle.” I found the Kenyans I danced with all have a native intelligence for tango. Their elasticity gave their lead a muscular feel, a comforting presence. By the time I left Kenya I had more than a dozen new friends and as I keep telling friends, “I’ve been Africanized.” I’m not sure what it means. But every night I search for films about Africa. I’ve read and re-read It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong, about a Kenyan whistle-blower. I’ve joined an Africa Meetup group here in San Francisco.

Here are some videos and slideshows that tell some of my story. The first video is of these little boys I fell hopelessly in love with. I was not teaching them tango. Mario and I were teaching at-risk teens in the crumbling shell of a church in a poverty-ridden section (much of Nairobi, it seems). And these little fellows decided to mimic us. Aren’t they wonderful? You can imagine their living situation, but just look at the joie de vivre in their faces. My hope is to go back to Nairobi later this year and teach all these kids, teens and younger, for an extended period. Juliet Kisilu, my Kenyan friend who invited me to teach them, works for the NGO (Exodus Kutoka Network) that tries to give these kids art, dance, music, crafts—to feed their souls. I’d say they are triumphing in the most dismal of surroundings. Two years ago I was accepted into the Peace Corps. But the red tape and bureaucracy kept delaying my decision—and I must admit the fact that I didn’t want to be apart from tango that long. Here I have done what I wanted, at last, all cultivated in the space of a five minute conversation.

Scenes from my first night of Tango in Nairobi:

Mario & I teach at-risk kids:

For my sister Donna, our safari–at the edge of a metropolitan city:

African tango- Kizomba: