Muda Africa is a Tanzania-based non-profit organization dedicated to the growth of creative industries. With the overarching belief that the creative sector is critical for social development, Muda runs contemporary African dance and arts management programs for young people.
With the goal of empowering underprivileged youth, programs are free-of-charge and engage thirty students aged between eighteen and twenty-five on an annual basis. Along with that, Muda supports selected students with transport and meal stipends to minimize barriers to the full participation of youth and is committed to continuing expanding the positive and transformative influence dance is having in society.
The promising collaboration aims to develop and implement on-the-field actions promoting the creative economy, cross-cultural production and training, and creativity for social impact. Scenography Today aims to support Muda Africa’s work with awareness-raising and dissemination.
Since Muda Africa’s founding in 2013, there has been a remarkable growth in the dance scene in Tanzania largely due to its influence. Examples of notable changes over the years include a relative increase in government support and a positive shift in the community’s attitude toward dance.
Other noteworthy changes among dancers include increased opportunities for earning a living through dance-related jobs. Such developments have inspired Rachel Kessi (Co-founder and Director) and Ian Mwaisunga (Co-founder and Artistic Director) to continue improving the program.
Beyond their common passion for creative arts which unites them for this purpose, Rachel and Ian appreciate how dance facilitates the openness of mind and challenges the status quo — which is fundamental for the growth of any functional society.
“Our school is becoming a key professional learning center for dance in East Africa! We partner and support other dance initiatives in the region through Train-the-Trainer and choreography training programs. Having been a teacher by profession, and having promoted East African contemporary arts for years, I believe the education we provide helps youth become useful in a society.” — Rachel Kessi, Co-founder and Director, Muda Africa.
“I started dancing when I was 16 years old, it became my career! When the art of dance is done well it has a potential to improve one’s life and increase physical and mental health. I want to support talented youth to benefit from this artform.” — Ian Mwaisunga, Co-founder and Artistic Director, Muda Africa
Successful dancers from Muda Africa are now regarded as role models by the majority of aspiring dancers in Tanzania. Their achievements influence the community to start appreciating dance.
The cultural stigma, which has been traditionally attached to female dancers, in particular, is drastically diminishing. More female dancers are taking their place in Tanzania’s creative industry today. Encouraging female dancers and ensuring that dance becomes as respected as other professional occupations has been one of Muda Africa’s key goals.
It is for these reasons that Muda Africa is committed to continuing to expand the positive and transformative influence dance is having in society. Rachel believes that when the youth becomes skilled, they feel more valuable and start contributing and participating in the process of change to improve their own communities.
To even broaden the impact of dance, Muda has now relocated into a large community neighbourhood where they are building a creative dance school called “Muda Kona”. This location will easily allow Muda to deepen relationships with local communities, schools, businesses, and authorities. It is a place where the dream of Muda becoming a professional dance school will hopefully be realized – A place where young talented youth are built for lasting success.
To strengthen the talents of youth, Muda Africa uses a flexible yet practical curriculum which focuses on main areas of dance, career development, and life skills. Such practical focus has enabled the majority of Muda students to start winning part-time performing gigs while in the second year of their studies. This practice is highly encouraged at Muda as it allows students to start gaining real-life work experiences and build up their resumes while still at school. By the time they get to their final year, Muda students are experienced enough to start partaking in choreography design and performance tours.
When reflecting on his observation of students’ self-esteem over time, Ian remarks “It is so heartening to watch the transformation of our students. In the first year, their posture is lumbersome and sluggish at best. They act as if nobody values them! But over time, they start developing confidence and discipline, they start to walk up straight with their shoulders open, braced up with this special feeling that they have something to contribute.”
All the transformation experienced at Muda Africa can be traced to their commitment to research and innovation. At Muda, contemporary dance is called “Creative Dance” to signify the underlying principles of innovation, exploration, and open-mindedness.
The unlimited creative possibilities nested within the art of contemporary dance is what makes this art form so interesting for both Ian and Rachel. With that creative freedom, they have been able to weave into their curriculum other practices such as Yoga, Karate, Mindfulness etc. to enable their students to be more focused, cooperative, and self-disciplined. In addition, they have baked in traditional dances where students learn traditional dances from at least five different regions of Tanzania during their three-year studies.
Because of their influence on the Tanzanian art scene, Muda students have spread the values learned from Muda Africa and affected the entire dance community. The adoption of such values has resulted in a very supportive culture among dancers and other artists in Tanzania.
Unlike other places where solidarity among dancers is not as strong, Tanzanian dancers tend to show up in each other’s performances to celebrate the work and successes of their peers. Dancers who visit Tanzania from other countries have frequently expressed their astonishment at the level of camaraderie they experience among Tanzanian dancers. Rachel says that teaching students ethical values is as important as teaching them dance skills. It is crucial for students to understand that success is simply a byproduct of hard work and persistence,
“Among other values we teach our students about hope, we never say the word “impossible” at our school! Students have learned that, if a challenge appears, they can go over, under or through it—there’s always a way.” — Rachel Kessi, Co-founder and Director, Muda Africa.
This mix of value-based education, dance, and arts management has led to rather surprising results for Muda Africa. For instance, some alumni have ended up greatly excelling in fields other than dance. They have, for instance, started successful businesses; others are working as choreographers, trainers, stage managers, costume designers etc. Perhaps most importantly, they all attribute these successes back to the many lessons they have learned from Muda.
Some people have wondered what drives success at Muda Africa. And, while the progress is nowhere near the success Rachel and Ian are dreaming about, they have nevertheless learned a lot from their nine-year experience. Highlighted below are some of the factors that have contributed to the growth of Muda over time:
- The curriculum: Muda Africa’s three-year curriculum is never fixed, it is continuously refined and improved based on the feedback from students, alumni and trainers. This level of flexibility has led to a strong curriculum, which has brought forth many successful, competitive dancers.
- Partner relationships: The intentionality in building strong and lasting connections founded on mutual trust and support is another factor which helps Muda Africa to grow. Their great reputation is a result of many years of building strong partnerships with local and international stakeholders.
- Teacher training program: Becoming equipped with teaching skills has allowed Muda’s students to leverage their incomes through offering dance, Yoga and other artistic classes in their communities. This is one of the reasons which makes Muda Africa so compelling to young people in Tanzania who seek employment opportunities through dance.
- The will to adapt: Built at the core of Muda’s guiding principle, the capacity for the team and students to adapt has rendered Muda successful against odds such as Covid-19, limited infrastructure (intermittent electricity, poor studio facilities, delays, permit fees, etc.)
- The Muda Kona: This is a big and expensive step for Muda which is key to achieving long-term success. Although the centre is not fully completed, all classes and events have been accommodated there. Owning a physical space reduces costs associated with rent and makes sustainability considerations more realistic. The space has increased the team’s freedom, credibility in the community, and strengthened partnerships—particularly with government actors.
For aspiring dance initiatives in East Africa wishing to learn from Muda Africa, other key inspiring points may include focusing on securing a safe rehearsal space with soft wood or compacted earth, engaging good quality and ethical teachers, building a strong audience for contemporary dance and finding ways to support students who cannot afford fees through scholarships.
One example that has positively affected attendance of especially female students at Muda Africa, has been regular invitations of parents to see their children performing and meeting with the team. At the organizational level, Rachel and Ian recommend a flat organizational structure which makes every team member feel equally valuable, motivated, and therefore more productive.
While Muda Africa has achieved significant progress, they still have the greater vision of further contributing to the growth of creative arts in Tanzania. To become successful at that, Muda Africa believes in establishing partnerships and engaging third parties to maximize its visibility, develop a comprehensive sustainability plan, further enhance the quality of their dance productions, get connections for international performing tours, international exchange opportunities, and more teachers training programs to empower alumni, as well as to complete the construction of Muda Kona.