Nairobi youth put on their dancing shoes

The Tawakal Cultural Group gives young Somalis a chance to reconnect with their culture and find a creative outlet in a challenging environment.

It’s a regular Friday evening at the Tawakal Medical Centre in Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali neighbourhood of Nairobi known for its buzzing business district. A familiar keyboard tune emerges from two small speakers perched on a wooden stand, and the music that started out barely covering the hum of lively conversations now fills the room. 

A dozen young people stand in two lines facing each other, women on one side, men on the other. They’re rehearsing a dhaanto routine, their knees folding to the beat, head and arms swaying to and fro in rhythmic motion. The air quickly gets stuffy despite the three wall fans. As the evening progresses, more dancers join in, some sporting sweat pants and bright sneakers, others in neat Friday attire.

Tawakal Cultural Group rehearsal in Eastleigh.

Afsa is here for the first time. We stand on the sidelines, a little intimidated, as we watch the seamless flow the group has achieved. Soon enough, we make our own clumsy attempts at following the choreography until Ahmed volunteers to show us a few basic moves. The atmosphere at the rehearsal is relaxed and informal: everyone is clearly having fun, occasionally singing along and suggesting new variations to the well-rehearsed dance routine.

Later, Ahmed and I sit down on plastic chairs to chat. Everyone has taken to calling him 'Djibouti', after his birth place. He says that in the past five years, the Tawakal youth group has become like an adoptive family and Eastleigh a home away from home. Though he is studying for a nursing diploma, he tries to take time off to show up for dance classes three times a week and loves to play football on Thursday evenings with his friends Abdiaziz and Sadat.

From left to right: Tawakal members Sadat, Ahmed 'Djibouti' and Abdiaziz.

The troupe's volunteer dance teacher, Musharaf, tells the story of a childhood split between Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. What clearly stands out in our conversation is his passion and curiosity for Somali traditions, something he owes to his father. 

Musharaf is a trained research assistant working on mental health issues but he also finds immense joy in sharing his love of dhaanto and saylici dance with other young people. Since 2013, the troupe has been performing a range Somali dances and has recently started including elements of hip hop as well as Bollywood-inspired routines dubbed “Hindi dance”.

Musharaf teaches dance twice a week at Tawakal Medical Centre. He's passionate about sharing Somali culture.

Through word-of-mouth, the group has gained popularity, landing opportunities to perform at weddings, parties as well as events such as the Somali Heritage Week and the International Day of Peace. On the heels of this success, Musharaf has been called upon to help set up a similar cultural group in Kampala’s Gisenyi neighbourhood.

The Tawakal Cultural Group grew out of an initiative by two doctors who were increasingly concerned with the level of violence in Eastleigh, a neighbourhood that regularly witnessed deadly confrontations between the police and local gangs. After yet another bloody incident in which two young men lost their lives, Dr. Maimuna decided to take action to support the local community. She found a solid partner in her colleague Dr. Abdulqadir and together, they opened a counselling programme and a free madrasa for women who wished to become Qur'an teachers. 

This was six years ago. Today, the Tawakal Medical Centre hosts free activities throughout the week to help young Eastleigh residents deal with stress and work through traumatic experiences using a mix of art, sports and counselling. Dr. Maimuna and Dr. Abdulqadir's holistic approach to mental health includes social well-being into the healing process, and it seems to be working: many young people find in Tawakal a welcoming community that allows them to reclaim a sense of belonging.

The young men and women aged 18 to 27 who participate in the dance troupe are unanimous: Tawakal helps them connect to their heritage in very concrete ways, something they may not have paid attention to in the past. They come to release stress and forget about everyday hardships. Not to mention that it's also a great work out!

Photos: Laila Le Guen. CC-BY 2

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