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Changing Lives: Leonida Nanjala

The Power of Story to Heal

We are proud to highlight Leonida as one of the people featured in our Storybook: Perseverance & Possibility in Kenya – Stories Capturing an Image of Intensity, Persistence & Big Dreams

Leonida Nanjala, born in Mombasa, knows what it is like to face a challenge and come through the other side with hope. Her father died unexpectedly when she was just eleven years old. The tradition of her tribe dictates that the widow shall be inherited by another male family member or face being ostracized and even disowned by the rest of the family. Leonida’s mother refused to be inherited, and as a result, she and her children were shunned by the family and their home village. To make matters worse, all possessions that belonged to her father, including the house, went back to the father’s family of origin, leaving Leonida, her mother and her two sisters homeless. They eventually moved to a small room at an uncle’s home in another village so they could make a plan for their future. Being the eldest, Leonida was determined to keep the family together and make sure her younger sisters and herself continued their education. Even at the tender age of eleven she understood the value of school.

Through Leonida’s persistence, she graduated from high school, and at age eighteen she continued to care for her mother and younger sisters by working hard to send them all the way through high school. Leonida’s youngest sister is proudly serving in her last year of university. Leonida went on to university, studying drama and dance. The arts provided a much needed outlet sildenafil of expression for all the challenges and traumas she had experienced as a child. Suddenly she realized this kind of artistic expression could help others express their pain and struggles. She enjoyed the release of emotion and discovered a hidden theatrical talent. More importantly, she discovered hope for her future, and she desperately wanted to share this hope.

Discovering a passion for drama and dance led Leonida to attend a performance by zamaleoACT Storytellers. A spark was ignited. She realized the power of story has the ability to connect more deeply with the audience. Leonida worked for several years perfecting her craft, writing her own stories and sharing her life’s journey about overcoming the challenges and struggles she endured. This enabled her to create a folktale consisting of a beautiful flower growing among the weeds, blooming among obstacles. She also wrote a tale about a uniquely talented singing stone – a stone that, rather than being valued, was cast aside because the craftsman could not believe that a stone could sing. The stone was finally discovered by another man, one who honored its unique talent and helped make it shine. Her tales beautifully weave together her own struggles and ultimate triumph. The incorporation of songs, stories and movements within Leonida’s performances and workshops captivate audiences inside orphanages, schools and physical rehabilitation facilities for disabled children.

Leonida uses her personal stories to inspire and encourage others to see and realize their own gifts and talents; her ultimate aim is to demonstrate that anyone can overcome adversity. Leonida ultimately founded her own organization called TEMA Creations. She chose this special word because it carries many meanings of how someone can express themselves. In Swahili, tema means “to spit”.  Rap and hip-hop artists often refer to “spitting” lyrics. In Luhya, tema means “cut”. Tema also means “to try”. Leonida offers these words of wisdom, “Always remember it is not that bad; you can spit it out. The negativity, you can cut it out. You can go on; cut out all that negativity and let the other parts of you grow.” TEMA’s goal is to help children residing in orphanages find windows of opportunity. Often orphanages only provide the basic necessities consisting of food, clothing, shelter and education, but do not address the psychological affects of the trauma that so many children endured. On behalf of TEMA, Leonida’s work promotes creative expression by using drama, storytelling and physical movement as therapy. How does it work? Leonida offers a two week residency in which she presents team building exercises combined with a curriculum for teachers to follow that create a foundation for trust and cooperation through games and theatre activities. One game asks participants to imagine how a small group can help each other cross an ocean using as few stepping stones as possible. The game teaches players to literally and figuratively carry each other.

After the exercises, there is time for reflection in order to express emotions that arise. As an example, older children do not always wish to help the younger family member, because they are handling their own inner hurt and may not possess the extra energy to assist a younger sibling. These exercises encourage children to help each other, and afterwards they are better equipped to do so. Leonida develops theatre pieces based on themes the children wish to express. They feverishly work together, writing the piece, bringing song, dance and storytelling into the fold. Through these methods, they are able to share their individual life journeys. Over the course of five days – their stories, songs and dances are intricately woven together to create a beautiful musical performance. Upon sharing this meaningful performance with an audience, they reflect with each other its influence on viewers and how it felt to perform. By working with the Furyula- Ember Project and Kakamega- Uumilia Children’s Home, Leonida has become Kenya’s first Theatre Therapist. She is a true pioneer who strives to make a positive impact, while her own life illustrates the positive power of theatre and storytelling as effective therapy.