Amani Peoples Theatre (APT) is an initiative of young African artists/peace-builders, who apply an interactive, multi-arts approach to conflict transformation training. The organisation was founded in 1994, and mainly works with grassroots and mid-level communities in rural and urban Kenya, and people in difficult circumstances. It also conducts workshops and performances across Kenya and the greater East Africa region. APT is led by Maxwel Okuto, who has a background in social sciences and first joined the organisation in 2005 as an intern, progressing to project officer and senior programme officer before his current position. He leads a team of six who work on a contractual basis, supported by 12 on-call volunteers. APT’s turnover fluctuates depending on funding from development partners, mostly international foundations and individual donations. It receives no government funding.
Mission: seeking to enhance the space and skills for communities to respond to conflict and development issues in creative ways that reaffirm the sanctity of human life
As described by Maxwel Okuto, “APT brings together a group of young volunteer artists committed to utilising their talents and skills in drama and theatre to fashion a story of peace with communities. The theatre for peace process integrates education, entertainment and research in exploring context-specific conflict issues and enhancing the search for creative non-violent responses to conflict.”
APT’s work is particularly inspired by the educational, therapeutic and meditative elements of African indigenous theatre, as well as the theories of the Brazilian educators Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal. From these it shapes a “multi-participatory approach, weaving together performance arts, peace education, reconciliation and African traditional forms of performance and rituals, in order to increase people’s knowledge and sensitivity, expand their awareness and creativity, sharpen their understanding and caring – all with the conviction that the cultural enlightenment and community involvement in fashioning stories of peace can help create a more civil society.”
Rather than attempt to impose resolution on communities experiencing conflict, APT works from the belief that: “People have solutions to the problems that affect them. What they lack is the space for dialogue on these problems. APT provides that space through its participatory theatre training. Dialogue is mostly conducted using artistic techniques including performance, forum theatre, storytelling, and art therapy processes. This makes it easier for people to overcome some of the conflicts, communication barriers, social stigmas, traditional and cultural barriers between them, and be able to talk to each other. People who have social problems are able to discuss issues of concern from their own experiences, so that they can have a common way forward to address their challenges towards social change. As an organisation we provide the space for them to reflect on issues that affect them in depth, creatively, and in their context.”
“People who have social problems are able to discuss issues of concern from their own experiences, so that they can have a common way forward to address their challenges towards social change. As an organisation we provide the space for them to reflect on issues that affect them in depth, creatively, and in their context.”
When APT begins engaging with a community, “usually our first step of entry is to contact the local government administrator, key community leaders and resource people, and selected community members, who are then trained to become community animators. These are people who have influence in the community structures, so it’s important for them to understand our processes and methodologies, in theatre, conflict transformation and peace-building. They will then support us in mobilising the community members. The trained community animators act as the link between Amani People’s Theatre and the target group, because they already understand our processes. This makes it easier for community members to know our goal. Our process becomes a mirror of their own lives.”
APT might work with the same community for “12 to 24 months – or more, depending on the grant period, project objectives and sustainability. But once the community and community animators are trained, they can continue to use the same techniques and the skills that we’ve imparted in them after we are gone. We train them to be self-reliant, so when Amani People’s Theatre moves out of the community, social change doesn’t stop there.”
“We train them to be self-reliant, so when Amani People’s Theatre moves out of the community, social change doesn’t stop there.”
Although a small organisation, APT is able to work across Kenya through its ongoing relationships with community animators. It currently has on call 12 volunteers, all engaged in other work, but trained to represent the organisation in new projects.
Cycles of conflict
Before deciding to work in a community, Amani will initiate “action research: looking at the dynamics happening within the community, and some of the issues leading to conflict. The process becomes a collective obligation of everyone in the organisation, and through that we are able to identify the key societal problems to be addressed and our terms of engagement.”
Among the recurring issues that APT deals with are challenges related to the violence that follows every election cycle, and the experiences of “drug abuse, unemployment, violent extremism and poverty” faced by vulnerable and at-risk youth living in slums in Nairobi.
Another project Okuto particularly mentions is non-violence training for women and youth in East Pokot, Kenya, where: “cattle-rustling is a menace and the root cause of many social issues, including violence. APT came on board because of the unique and effective participatory methodologies that were needed for the nature of the violent conflicts between the Pokot and its neighbouring communities, and the low level of levels of education among the pastoral community. The Pokot is a patriarchal community and men are the heads and decision-makers in the society, taking centre stage on issues of leadership and governance while women and youth are remotely involved or totally eclipsed.” And so APT has worked to “enhance the voices of women and youth in demanding good governance and accountability on the part of leaders, administrators and legislators, at both local and national levels”.
Okuto argues that it’s vital to continue monitoring communities with which APT has worked, “because if you leave them in a conflict situation then you will have done nothing. You have to analyse conflict and trends so that you can go deep to understand why it’s happening.”
“If you leave them in a conflict situation then you will have done nothing. You have to analyse conflict and trends so that you can go deep to understand why it’s happening.”
APT doesn’t struggle to find communities with whom to work: “Our network is big, and we interact with many non-governmental organisations. If you want to work in a particular region, you network with the locally based organisations, through partnering with the local government administration, which provides us with more insight on where to go and who you can work with. So, through different and instructive links you’re able to reach your target group.”
Once identified, however, a target group can present several challenges:
This can take many forms: it might be that “people are not sure what you’re up to, or they think that learning is always conventional, or they don’t accept arts as a process to be used. That is always overcome through the community leaders that we reach out to first.”
“People are not sure what you’re up to, or they think that learning is always conventional, or they don’t accept arts as a process to be used. That is always overcome through the community leaders that we reach out to first.”
2: Cultural barriers
“Communities which are more inclined to their traditional systems pose a challenge,” says Okuto, although again he argues that while “it wouldn’t be easy for them to open up through conventional training methods, our artistic methodology is synchronised with their culture. This creatively leads to dialogue on the issues that affect them.”
Kenya is a bilingual country, with more people speaking Swahili than English; there are also a range of other ethnic languages. This creates “communication barriers. People from different ethnic backgrounds have their own ethnic groups and their own languages, which could be the only language they understand. This makes it difficult to communicate, and those who do understand what you are saying may misinterpret to their colleagues, so perhaps your information becomes distorted as it is translated to those in the village or other traditional groups.”
APT focuses on interactive multi-arts approaches to conflict transformation and peace-building, and shares its methodologies with “people from different levels of society, and different practitioners in the field of arts around the globe”. Its goal now is to initiate “more research in its theatre work, and more publications, to share our use of theatre for peace-building and conflict transformation. We want to share with different institutions of higher learning and different practitioners, focusing on areas of arts and peace-building and showing how our methodology works. For us it’s a participatory theatre, theatre for development, and as a platform that can be used for different social engagements in addressing challenges that affect society. It’s about being creative: our process will empower community members to overcome barriers.”
Photo courtesy of APT.