Part-time Kenyan beggar, part-time dancer
When Sylvester Barasa, whose legs have been withered by polio, is not begging at the side of a highway in the Kenyan capital he is part of a contemporary dance troupe.
"It’s a way of surmounting my handicap. It means I don’t see the polio as something important any more. I don’t pay attention to it any more," he said.
At 34, Sylvester is one of the most emblematic figures in the Pamoja modern dance troupe, which started five years ago and which brings together able-bodied and disabled dancers.
Polio at the age of 10 left him with both legs withered but he has developed the shoulders and chest of a bodybuilder and a very strong stage presence.
Barasa admits to living in a "very tough environment". That is something of an understatement, given that he leaves the shanty town of Kayole every morning and parks his wheelchair in the middle of Wayaki Way, where he sits in the sand as trucks rumble past incessantly, whipping up clouds of dust.
He went with a friend to a rehearsal of Pamoja shortly after the troupe was set up.
"I felt shy, I was afraid people would laugh at me, but they encouraged me," he recounted.
Pamoja, which means together in Swahili, was set up by the Israeli-Canadian choreographer Miriam Rother and soon went from being an experimental workshop to a company putting on at least a show a year.
"I get many things from dancing, I get flexible. I didn’t know what contemporary dance was but I came to realise it is something that makes my body feel good," said Barasa, a father of four.
There are 13 dancers in the company, although the latest performance earlier this month featured only five.
The able-bodied dancers bring their skills. The disabled dancers, rather than trying to hide their handicap, make it dance, pushing their body to its limits to take part in collective ballets or improvise solos.
None of them seems to have any inferiority complex. John Kihungi, 40, who moves around clutching a pole as tall as he is, describes himself as an acrobat and says he sometimes puts on impromptu shows for tourists in front of hotels on the Kenyan coast.
"When I joined Pamoja I felt I’d come to the right place," he explained. During rehearsals "I give new ideas to the dancers – my acrobat ideas," he said proudly.
On stage meanwhile two young women who walk with a stick launch into a duet where they form arabesques with their arms and join hands above their heads.
"Our credo is that we don’t care whether you have no legs, whether you’re paralysed at the waist, or whether you’ve been amputated. We’re interested in what you bring to the character you’re playing on stage," the company’s director Joseph Kanyenje said.
He said he is impressed by his dancers’ progress, both on stage and in everyday life.
"Some have had good job interviews. Three now work as civil servants and another is a hotel receptionist."
"It’s all in the mind," Kanyenje says stepping into the shoes of one of his disabled dancers.
"People sometimes look down on me, but this evening they’re looking up at me because I’m the one on stage."