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Feeding the soul

CCM students and African refugees bond through theater

by John Bach

Balancing 8 feet above a field in Africa, Will Kiley found his "why."

In Kenya's Great Rift Valley 8,000 miles away from UC, the 20-year-old UC drama student's once-comfortable world began to come unglued. It was there over that field -- his 6-foot-4 frame perched on 14 sturdy arms -- that he locked fists and eyes with an Ethiopian refugee named Ojullu, who was also lifted high and horizontal above the lush grass.

"Come on, Kiley, take my hand," Ojullu Opiew Ochan called out with his thick accent. "Don't let me fall."

The line on which the performers' hands connected was from a poem the fast friends had co-authored at daybreak while sitting at the edge of a hippo-filled Lake Naivasha. Ojullu's plea was particularly poignant given that the 22-year-old had seemingly been in a free fall since age 14 when he witnessed a massacre in his village that claimed his parents. His cry was further hardened by eight years as an orphan in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp and the place he would return to after the performance.

"We cannot fall," the men recited as they closed the piece together. "It is not within us."

The finale moment represented a culmination of a weeklong trip to Nairobi in June 2011 for several University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music drama students who traveled to Africa to create an original piece about identity with refugees from Dadaab. It was a journey that allowed the CCM students to discover deep truths about themselves.

"I've been processing this trip ever since it happened," Kiley says. "I now question what I'm doing every day to make the world a better place and why I do what I do. You can be so much stronger when you find your 'why.'"

Home to nearly a half million

Set up by the United Nations in 1991 as a temporary solution for 90,000 Somalis who fled civil war, genocide and famine, Dadaab is now home to nearly a half million people, most of whom were driven there by incomprehensible horrors, such as Ojullu describes.

"I remember kids running by themselves without their mothers holding their hands when the scorching sun burned the dead bodies and let vultures celebrate on them," he writes in a poem. "I remember the day when mothers forgot to sing the lullaby to their young babies."

Every month, the fenced complex he calls home swells by another 5,000 who show up at the gates looking for asylum, scores of them malnourished and having buried family members along the way in roadside graves. Many, especially those who were born there, have little hope and feel as if the world has forgotten them.

The Dadaab Theater Project set out to allow a few individual voices among the masses to be heard. The cultural exchange included nine Americans, all with ties to CCM, and eight refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, who met while doing theater in a weeklong culture collision yielding a powerful performance on World Refugee Day at the University of Nairobi. The ripples of what they experienced together are clearly still spreading, and on both sides of the Atlantic. What isn't clear is who was most transformed, the refugees or the Americans, CCM students agree.

"It put my world in a different perspective," Kiley says. "'I love to act' isn't enough anymore."

The students' trek to Africa actually started in June 2010 during their professor's quick trip to a Cincinnati-area Sears. That's when drama chair Richard Hess, M (CCM) '93, first received the phone call from former student and project founder Michael Littig, CCM '05, who asked if Hess would entertain the idea of bringing CCM students to Africa.

"Lots of things told me to say 'no,'" admits Hess, a soft-spoken 25-year classroom veteran. "But after I talked with him for 45 minutes, I found myself saying 'yes.'"

Littig, who teaches at NYU, had built up significant trust with his professor both by his impressive work ethic while at UC and an inspiring post-collegiate resume. When he left Cincinnati in 2005, Littig went to New York and immediately began doing regional theater in New Jersey then Utah. But within a couple years, he became unsettled by what he noticed as a "lack of sacredness" in an actor's work. So he went across cultures looking for it.

Littig applied and received a Fulbright scholarship to study the relationship between actors and shamans in Mongolia from 2007-08. And when given the opportunity, he arranged for herders from the Gobi desert to do an artist exchange at CCM. "So when Michael asked, 'Do you want to go to Africa?' it was not like a stranger asking me," says Hess, who later convinced the CCM Harmony Fund, his dean and his division to pitch in $12,000 to make the Kenyan trip possible.

A promise of a trip out of the camp

Relying on his credentials as a Fulbright scholar, Littig had already gained access to the high-security Dadaab complex and convinced a U.S. Embassy diplomat to take a chance on allowing him to teach theater to people living at a subsistence level in the desert. As a carrot to refugees who were willing to train, Littig could promise a trip out of the camp, which many had never taken. He could also offer them the chance to work with actors from an American university.

Knowing he couldn't tackle the project alone, Littig turned to his former CCM classmate Julianna Bloodgood, CCM '05, who was studying in Poland.

"Julianna is a free spirit of the world, too," says Hess. "Who else would go live in a refugee camp in a corrugated hut in the desert to teach theater?"

With their slim staff now in place and a partnership with UC, Littig and Bloodgood returned to their alma mater for a weeklong residency with CCM Drama in November 2010. There they auditioned 40 students who applied for the pilot exchange program.

The auditions were less about acting ability ("that's a given here," Hess says) and more about assessing leadership, strength of character and a connection to service through art. Five were chosen, including freshman Alyssa Caputo, sophomore Will Kiley, juniors Cameron Davis and Kristopher Dean, and senior Mikayla Stanley. They also invited 2010 alumnus Casey Scott Leach to round out the American company.

By February 2011, Littig and Bloodgood were back in Kenya where they would live for five months while they found and prepared refugees to perform. "To step into that moment literally felt like jumping off a cliff and not knowing if we were going to get through it," Littig remembers. "It was 10 times as hard as we could ever have imagined. It was a place on the verge of humanitarian crisis."

To start with, their goal -- aside from avoiding camel spiders as big as their face -- was to identify a small multi-ethnic group from among the different tribes, some of which were enemies, to work on voice, language, writing and acting. Once the group was selected, they worked to find common ground and rehearse, a major challenge considering the refugees were often late or missed practices because they had to collect their monthly rations or were fighting off maladies like malaria, typhoid and dysentery.

Still, they started by listening to their stories, by hearing their songs, by offering a neutral space for healing.

"We sat down with them initially," Littig says, "and they said, 'We just want our voice to be heard. We want people to know that we exist and we are not warts on society. We are not terrorists. We have dreams.'"

In addition to the theater project, the UC grads also worked with Save the Children to teach trainers in the camps to engage with kids creatively. They set up a children's drama club and brought in master dance teachers from Ethiopia and Somalia to share cultural dances.

Day-to-day life was like nothing they had ever experienced. The meals, for example, never changed -- bread and tea for breakfast, and beans and rice for lunch.

"We lived in a compound behind barbed- wire fence," says Littig. "Every morning we would take a UN convoy with a machine-gun-armed escort into the camp.

"The heat would knock you out at 2 p.m. I remember laying on my bed and just sweating and thinking to myself, 'I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this.'

"You go to work in a refugee camp, and it sounds amazing," he adds. "But I would be a liar if I didn't tell you that every day I wanted to get on a plane and leave."

Might as well have been in Disneyland

After five months of doubt and exhaustion prepping the refugees, not to mention piles of permits and permissions, the UC and Dadaab ensembles finally united at a retreat center near Nairobi. Though the amenities were primitive by American standards -- cabins with skeleton keys and intermittent electricity from a generator -- the refugees might as well have been in Disneyland.

"Some of them took two or three showers a day," Hess says. "They thought it was fantastic that they didn't have to walk with their 'jerrican' to the pump and stand in line then bring it back to pour in a pan they could splash in.

"This was heaven for them. My eyes were opened wide to the differences in perspective."

And so were his students' eyes. Alyssa Caputo, 19, made a lifelong connection with her 16-year-old Somali roommate named Sumayo. Of the eight refugees, Sumayo was the only female, and because of her Islamic beliefs, she could neither remove her hijab in public or be touched by a man.

"The first time I entered the room with her, she took off her veil and was just dancing in the room," Caputo says. "Singing and acting was a huge thing for her. She was just so brilliant and inspiring. I consider her my role model."

Sumayo eventually shared with Caputo why she ended up in Dadaab. When she was 12, she heard shooting and walked outside her home to find her father and three sisters dead. "She tried to explain it to me," Caputo says. "She just sobbed. And I cried with her. I felt so much weight in my heart."

Despite the emotional toll and the many challenges (a few students became ill), Hess and his 16 cast members, which included Littig and Bloodgood, had only two days to write, stage and perfect the performance they named "The Collapsible Space Between Us."

In the end, Sumayo, normally extremely shy and reserved, sang of her hopes for the first time in public in front of 500 people during World Refugee Day.

"Being able to see my friend be heard was beautiful," says Caputo. "It inspires me to want to be a better human being and do things because I love it versus because I want to be the best at it."

Keeping in touch with refugees

Since leaving Africa, the UC group has stayed in contact with the refugees through, of all things, Facebook. Despite their circumstances, most of them still have Internet-enabled cell phones, which are far cheaper there and their only way of connecting to the outside world. Wireless Internet is made available in the camps by a charity organization.

Sadly, soon after the project, conditions at Dadaab grew grimmer as famine struck and violence intensified. Yet, the refugees continue to meet and even train others in theater. Ojullu, who started writing poetry for the first time last year, is now teaching others in the camp to express themselves through words.

As for the UC contingent's response since the trip, they started an arts outreach group at CCM called Dadaab and Beyond. And as participation grew larger than just those who went on the trip, the name was shortened to Beyond. Currently, 30 to 40 students meet weekly to brainstorm or create original pieces built around activism. Outreach projects have included support for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, the Occupy movement downtown and young abused women.

Student Will Kiley leads Beyond and says dozens of CCM students are connecting in a way they hadn't before, all because a few of them experienced the Dadaab project.

"I don't think you can learn about another culture in a week, but I think you can learn an outrageous amount about your culture by being taken out of it," Kiley says. "I don't know Kenya, but I know America better by getting out of it."

One day Hess hopes to be able to take more students back to Africa to continue the relationship with Dadaab refugees, but for now, he's focused on keeping the project alive by remaking the culture at home. These days, when scholarship students ask him to approve their required volunteer hours, he challenges them to get outside their comfort zone.

"Ushering at the jazz concert and handing out programs does not equal an hour of community engagement," Hess says. "That used to be volunteering. That's not good enough anymore. I want you out of this building, and I want you to find somebody who needs you."

Or as Kiley puts it, "Go find your 'why.'" 

Parting shots