CNN Photos

Disabilities don’t stop Kenyan dancers

Sylvester Barasa was diagnosed with polio as a child and lost the use of his legs. At 14, he was abandoned by his father and left to live on the streets of Kenya.

He is now a leading member of the Pamoja Dance Group, taking the stage at night alongside other dancers with disabilities. Photographer Mia Collis first saw them perform in Nairobi two years ago.

"I was drawn to the story by the contradictions that embody the lives of the dancers," she says. "Hidden from daily life and revealed on stage. Shunned by society and loved by the audience."

By some estimates, 15% of Kenya’s people may have a physical or mental disability. Yet accessibility issues are rarely addressed in the developing nation.

Social stigma, insufficient services and limited job opportunities add to the obstacles. “Disability in Africa is generally regarded as taboo,” Collis says.

Pamoja, which means “together” in Swahili, provides a creative outlet while advocating for changes in public policy and perception.

Since she started documenting the organization in 2010, Collis says she has watched the dancers gain confidence and become role models in their communities.

“Opening themselves up on stage in front of hundreds is enormously courageous, and yet I’m sure an extremely cathartic and therapeutic process,” she says.

It has also allowed them to earn a living. Almost half of the population in Kenya lives below the poverty line, making less than $1.25 a day.

Although productions have temporarily halted because of a lack of funding, Collis says Pamoja’s dancers are paid for rehearsals and performances.

They still face hardships and may work other jobs, but most of them are now able to support their families. They can no longer be seen as a financial burden.

"Each dancer has a tragic and yet triumphant story that has brought them together as a 'body' to disperse some of the preconceived ideas about disability in Africa," Collis says.

- Brett Roegiers, CNN