Scott Fifer describes himself as a 'writer,' which only partially makes sense.
In November 2006, Fifer received a call on his cell phone: It was his agent telling Fifer he finally sold a TV pilot. Such great news was surprising but he admits, "tough to enjoy." Fifer was juggling several roles during that phone call; likely squeezing the phone to his ear with his shoulder, he was simultaneously assembling an acrobatic hoop with one hand while his other hand was being toyed with by Colman, the youngest of the 10 children Scott was chaperoning while they visited Los Angeles from a Tanzanian orphanage.
For Fifer, there was no room for celebration. The orphans under his supervision were about to travel to Las Vegas for training with Cirque du Soleil. In contrast, the previous year Scott didn't sell any TV pilots. As a result, he had time for a vacation.
At the same time the orphans were in Los Angeles, a description for a Volunteer Opportunity popped up in Novemberï¿½s Architecture for Humanity (AFH) newsletter. It read:
"TunaHAKI Orphanage in Moshi, Tanzania, is looking for a green architect:
Since 1998, the TunaHAKI Center in Moshi, Tanzania, has used acrobatics and dance as a vehicle for change for street orphans. In addition to arts training, the children receive food, shelter, medical care, and are sent to school for a full education. After being forced to move last year from their home they found themselves living in unsafe conditions. They have recently purchased three acres of land, which is the future home of a permanent shelter for the children, and are looking to build dorms, a training facility/theater, a vocational center and a dining hall large enough to accommodate 100 children. Nine orphans from the TunaHAKI center recently visited the U.S. to take part in training with Cirque du Soleil. As a result of the tour, the orphanage raised substantial funds to go toward the building of a permanent center in Moshi.
─ Scott Fifer and David Ryatula."
TunaHAKI, photo by Evin Grant, 2006
AFH writes of Tanzania: "[It] is home to 36 million people with close to 85% living in rural areas. The country has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world (109 in 1,000 births) and life expectancy stands at 44 years."
While the TunaHAKI project aspires to house up to 100 children, currently the orphanage is home to 20, which is a small fraction of the estimated two million orphans in Tanzania, equal to 12% of the population under 18. Further complicating childbirth, often the nearest hospitals and clinics are located far from rural populations. AFH continues, "Most residents travel on foot through rough terrain to get there. Many, especially women with complicated pregnancies, die on route."
Through the efforts of Architecture for Humanity, founded in 1999 by Archinect regular contributor Cameron Sinclair, nonprofit clients with unique specifications and locations have been creating a wellspring of dynamic design opportunities for architects willing to volunteer their time. Using the TunaHAKI center as an example, the project description contains remarkable details: orphanage looking for a green architect, acrobatics and dance instruction, a recent move from rent to ownership, a visit to the U.S. to train with Cirque du Soleil as a fundraising opportunity for a permanent shelter.
A nonprofit looking to build a performing arts orphanage near the base of Kilimanjaro: Could this be a new breed of architecture client? At first, it's easy to dismiss Fifer and his investors as the usual first-world, bleeding heart liberals offering "new opportunities" for architects. However, this is not simply a four-post shelter that falls short of offering any employment for community members, but instead a call for a building typology that can provide a sustainable micro-economy and help the growing orphanage crisis in Tanzania.
Fifer, executive director of TunaHAKI.org and part of a client team that includes TunaHAKI Center's director in Tanzania, David Ryatula, greets me at the door of his ground-floor apartment in Santa Monica, California. As we sit down to talk in his modest living room, I discover that the story behind Fifer's involvement in TunaHAKI has been a whirlwind materialization of simultaneous events all happening over the span of one year. I wasn't short on questions for Fifer, but it quickly became clear I didn't need them. Like the building proposal, his and David's efforts and their results are hardly typical.
Colman, photo by Mason Bendewald, 2006
"When Colman was six, his mother brought him to a bus stop in Moshi and asked him to wait there for her to return. He waited a week and she never showed up."
Last year, I decided I wanted to do some volunteer work in Africa, because I had been kicking the idea around in my head for a number of years. I discovered this group, Cross-Cultural Solutions, and they assigned me to the TunaHAKI shelter, an orphanage near Killamajaro in the village of Moshi, Tanzania. It's a very modest home with about 20 children who had all been found on the streets. Their parents had either died from AIDS or any other of a number of various diseases, or abandoned their kids because of extreme poverty. It was founded by David Ryatula and his wife, Mary, and has since rescued over 100 kids.
TunaHAKI is an art space. David teaches the kids acrobatics. The children have formed a small acrobatic group, and they perform around town or for tourists heading to Kilimanjaro. The children aren't up for adoption; this is their home until they're old enough to take care of themselves. It's an amazing program, but very poor, obviously.
TunaHAKI is Kiswahili for "we have a right." The kids came up with it for themselves as a greeting for each other. The kids speak Kiswahili, and some speak English. There are countless orphanages in Tanzania, but there are none that use performance arts as a means to develop a skill to help them sustain themselves day to day. Performing pays for them to go to school and provides them with food. The kids absolutely love to perform.
During my first visit, the original facility was a very small three-room house. The main room was a bedroom/living room/dining room/training area. There were two bedrooms and an outdoor area for gardening next to a river they used for bathing and for drinking water.
Abdul, photo by Mason Bendewald, 2006
"Abdul stands out with his charisma, and three of his siblings live at the orphanage. Previously, they all slept under a bus bench at night, and in the day they would try to offer to help women with their groceries in order to earn money for tea, because tea is cheaper than food and is a natural hunger suppressant."
David Ryatula went to college at the Bagamoyo National College of Arts in Tanzania for dance and acrobatics. He was part of a traveling dance troupe for a while before coming to work in Moshi as a cultural affairs officer. But in 1998, looking at all the orphans in the street, he thought to himself, "What am I doing?" So he quit his job, his wife agreed to do the same, and they started taking in kids.
He started teaching a couple kids acrobatics, and soon, as more kids started to hear about it, more kids began showing up. Kids are so hungry to learn anything over there, because if they can't afford it, they canï¿½t go to school. Pretty soon he had a house full of kids and realized, "Well, you know I can't teach you tricks all day, so you have to go to school," and he began paying for that out of his own pocket. Times were rough at the beginning.
In 1998, his wife, Mary, had gotten pregnant, and they had to make a choice: Either my wife goes to the hospital, or we feed the kids for the month. He asked his neighbors for money, but none of them offered help. They thought he was foolish for quitting his job in order to take in kids, and they figured he'd never be able to pay them back. They ended up spending the money they had to feed the kids, so Mary couldnï¿½t go to the hospital and they lost the baby. You hear that expression, "I'd give my first-born child to do such and such." Well, David really did give his first-born child to save the orphans he was taking care of.
The kids at TunaHAKI, photo by Evin Grant, 2006
"Anna does contortion. David doesnï¿½t know contortion, so he simply described it to her and she learned it by figuring it out. Sheï¿½s the only one in the group that does contortion, so the trainers at Cirque du Soleil spent extra time with her to help her do more stretches and help her with her poses."
I used to be a corporate tax lawyer in New York. As a TV and film writer now, I thought, "I have these skills. If they had a way to perform more often, more opportunities to make more income, this place could become self-sustaining." While I was in Africa, I thought perhaps I could get the kids to train with Cirque du Soleil. But at the same time, there were more important things they needed: They don't have a car, adequate acrobatic equipment or running water.
At some point, David mentioned he had dreamed of owning a permanent shelter. So I asked him to put together a budget of what a place would cost; just simply look into it. I knew that if they were coming to America to train with Cirque du Soleil then we can use it as a fundraising tool to build the new facility.
I approached David and asked, "Would it be a good thing to bring these kids to America, or would that be a bad thing? Would that upset the culture?" And he was like, "No! That would be a great thing!"
While I was there, I knew I was having a very unusual experience: I hadn't felt a level of passion for something like this before. I think it happens to a lot of people when they travel to Africa, because of the people, because of the land, because of a lot of things. I was very happy in Africa, something about it felt very right.
Suzan, photo by Mason Bendewald, 2006
"Suzan, a 15 year-old girl, is the strongest one in the group and serves as the spotter in their poses. She lifts everyone up and holds them all on her shoulders. Thereï¿½s not always gender equity in Africa, but she serves as a great role model for it. TunaHAKI treats the men and women equally."
When I returned to the U.S., I was trying to get in touch with Cirque du Soleil, running around spreading the word and from there it quickly snowballed. I didn't want to ask private donors to give money for the kids' trip over here, so I managed to get a corporate sponsorship to pay for the airfare and visas. I finally got a hold of Cirque du Soleil and they agreed to train the kids. This is the point that everything started to come together, but also the point at which it became a full-time job. When I later learned that I sold the pilot, it came as a surprise, but it also meant that one career could pay for another.
I got a sense very quickly that getting the kids visas would be tricky, so I decided to write a letter in advance to the Tanzanian Embassy in the U.S. basically letting them know how this would benefit Tanzania and the kids, and bring awareness to the orphan crisis. It turns out when they went for their visa interviews, the kids were treated like dignitaries, and were approved immediately.
I had someone talk to the kids about culture shock but none of the issues came up. When I picked up the kids from the airport, the kids kept asking, "Where are all the people?" We'd be driving along and they would still ask, "Where are all the people?" In Los Angeles, thereï¿½s nothing but buildings and cars; you can't see anyone. In Africa, even on the main highways, there are always people walking.
Daily training, photo by Mason Bendewald, 2006
"Sadiki, who forms the top of the pyramid, the people here helped him with his posture and form, but most of all, the people were so impressed with what they were capable of doing so young. Some poses and formations the kids were doing Cirque du Soleil had never seen before. Cirque du Soleil was discovering something new from the kids."
I was with them every second they were here. These kids aren't phased by anything. In the case of the Staples Center, where I had arranged for them to perform during halftime at a Lakers game, I tried to warn them that it was going to be really loud, that there would be 20,000 people screaming, etc. They walked in there and owned the place. Same with the Las Vegas strip; they enjoyed looking around but they were completely unphased. (In addition, the kids performed shows at high schools up and down the West Coast.)
They had their opinions on different places, like they thought San Francisco was gorgeous, they liked the beach in LA, and they understood that Las Vegas was a fun place, but they also understood that it wasn't real.
Training with Cirque du Soleil, they learned a lot of new poses. They did a lot of bungee work, trampoline work and some juggling work. David was snapping pictures of every little pulley and lever, thinking, "How can I make a bungee? How can I replicate all the stuff I see?" Any elements they saw here, they wanted to work into the new facility. With their own theater, they can make fixed equipment, because currently, the kids walk miles to hotels carrying their own poles and equipment. Despite their limitations, it's amazing what they do with what little they have.
Performance in Moshi, photo by David Ryatula, 2006
"Nkindia, 12, came on the trip ─ she started out shy, but she really blossomed. And when she returned, she started training in acrobatics and started speaking English. Now she runs around, always laughing."
The building project I'm sure will take a couple of years, and I'd like to make the building as green as possible, particularly because Kilimanjaro is fast becoming a symbol of the global warming crisis and Tanzania is quickly waking up to the environmental crisis of the planet. I'd like it to become a prototype for future orphanages: However many years it takes to make this building environmentally friendly and make TunaHAKI self-sustaining so that the building can be replicated anywhere.
When I had David come up with the proposal for the new building, we discussed what he would need, and he decided that it should house 100 children: two dorms, one for boys, one for girls, a dining hall, a vocational training area for sewing and carpentry, a poultry farm so they could sell the goods in the market. Thereï¿½s no shortage of tour groups heading through town to Kilimanjaro, so it would need a theater in order to have tour groups come visit them. Currently the kids train in a small dirt area, maybe the size of a bedroom, which is why a theater is so important. The future theater at the orphanage, incidentally, would become Moshi's first theater.
It's clear to me now that this is all doable. David has proved that he can do amazing things and handle it, and he has the infrastructure, but it's about the next step. With the money, David figures perhaps it's best to build the facilities in phases, like start with the theater, and then build the dorms, then the dining hall and so on, but we're really hoping that materials can be donated. We would like the design to be something that can hopefully be repeatable, so more orphanages can be built based off its design and run by some of the kids who live there now. In my perfect world, I see Abdul as someone capable of running the next TunaHAKI center.
Right before the kids came, we managed to buy three acres of land in Moshi for $19,000. That was the first big step. David called me the moment he signed the deed, which was 3 A.M. my time. He was very, very emotional and so was I, because now, all the money on top of the $19,000 can go toward the building fund. Things really fell into place. Itï¿½s magical. Theoretically, I'd do this for any kids in need, and it's so much nicer to be doing it for kids who really earned it. It turns out the trip brought in over $100,000 for the building fund.
David Ryatula, photo by Mason Bendewald, 2006
Since our interview, Scott Fifer has been working with Architecture for Humanity to put together a short list of firms for the project, and while the fundraising to complete the building has made monumental strides, it is still ongoing. The TV pilot he sold, a show about lawyers, is also currently in production.
Scott Fifer, photo by Evin Grant, 2006
Interview by Marlin Watson.
Non Sequitur is an ongoing series of features that chase down ideas and practices from points inside and outside the discipline of architecture and highlights their relationship to an elusive center.
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