Built in the 19th century, the Meikles Mega Market on Robert Mugabe Road is one of the landmark buildings of downtown Harare. Primarily used as a department store in recent years, some of the unused floors have accrued dirt and vermin. Where others saw emptiness, Marie-Laure Edom saw a new home for her dance institution: AfriKera Arts Trust.
Fast forward four months later, students are put through their paces in a practical exam, the sound of bare feet and drums reverberates through the studio walls. An ordinary day at the brand new AfriKera Dance Theatre Hub. Edom aka Soukaina the founder/director of the Trust, thought of starting her own institution after operating in the local dance scene for 20 years.
“End of 2014, it was born through a brainstorming session with friends to assess the appeal of the concept,” says Edom. “After more reflection AfriKera Arts Trust was registered in October of that year.” Currently, the company has three arms: AfriKera Professional Dance Training (APDT), AfriKera Dance Theatre (ADT) and Essence of Woman Dance Ensemble.
The APDT is a three-year dance-training program that prepares students for a professional career. “To date, students are coming from the high densities but we are trying to get some from other walks of life, like in the northern suburbs,” says Edom.
The ADT is the professional arm that gives former graduates and guest dancers a chance to be active in their field as a company on a project basis, which Edom explains is not easy. “It’s difficult to have a fulltime dance company in terms of funding and sustainability, so right now it’s by-project,”
Unlike the other two, the Essence of Woman Dance Ensemble predates AfriKera but was brought under the Trust by Edom “and caters for Black female professional dancers.”
Born in Paris to Guadeloupean parents, Edom took inspiration from her heritage when deciding on the Trust’s name. “Guadeloupe was originally called Karukera, by the first inhabitants of the island before they were decimated,” she says. “Since I am in Africa, I decided on marrying the two, hence AfriKera!”
One of the major supporters of AfriKera is Africalia, a non-profit Belgian organisation that supports African culture and contemporary art. They have been with Edom since the days she rented a studio at Old Georgians Sports Club. “When I found the venue, they supported us financially with renovations, because there was no way we could operate in the state it was before”, she says.
“The physical building is thanks to Meikles Foundation through Meikles properties and the financial means through Africalia.”
As an income-generating venture, AfriKera offers open classes to the public in disciplines such as Yoga, Zumba, Takalani African Fitness etc. A move that Edom believes will contribute to “cover costs and build sustainability.”
Another way of generating interest from potential donors and the public is regular showcases. The 2017 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) will be that opportunity. AfriKera will perform at the opening ceremony with other dance studios of Zimbabwe as well as their own production titled “A journey”.
Eunice Kwenje, a second-year student had no previous dance education before joining the program, but is looking forward to the opportunity of performing on such a big stage.
“I started dancing here at AfriKera last year and I can feel that there is a change from what I was before to what I am today,” she says. “It’s something I never thought about. I will be fulfilling a dream of mine.”
Tawanda Mandara may be forgiven for feeling the jitters more than his classmate since he’s preparing a solo for the first time, but Mandara is just as calm as he explains the challenges during preparation. “So many people are trying to give you ideas and you have to connect all of this feedback, to be content and give the final perfect product to the people.”
Edom’s vision is for AfriKera to be a centre of excellence for training and artistic endeavours, a reference point in Zimbabwe and the SADC region. “I want it to be cosmopolitan while serving Zimbabwean dancers and African dancers,” she says. “Where we retain the dancers locally, they travel abroad, are enriched by their experience and give back to their community. That is what I see.”