A St. Louis-area African nonprofit uses dance to boost African girls' mental health
There are about 20 African girls gathered in the gym at Christ Covenant Church in Florissant. They are preparing for dance practice with their Jahfi Studio’s choreographer.
The booming sounds of the wooden djembe drum and three dunun drums (also spelled dundun) signal that it is time for the girls to prepare to practice econcon, a polyrhythmic dance from West Africa.
The girls sway from side to side, twisting their waists, moving their arms in circular motions, chanting and stomping their feet as the drummers keep the tempo with explosive strikes across the top of their instruments.
“Moving around helps with my anger, because I do get really irritated sometimes, and just moving around a lot helps calm me down,” said Ivanna Nderitu, who has been dancing with the group for about a year.
Reassurance and courage is what Jahfi Studio artistic director Chinaza Uwizeye wants to instill in the young dancers she has been working with over the past few years. She said she has seen a difference in their mental health now that they are creatively expressing their emotions.
“[We] try to give them this platform to be able to grow not just in African dance and drum, but to be able to take this bilateral thinking into the classroom,” Uwizeye said. “It helps with concentration and focus, and it helps with being able to utilize your memory.”
Nderitu, 13, is one of several children born to Black immigrants who struggle with anxiety and depression in the country. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that U.S.-born Black children of immigrants have the highest rates of depression compared to Black children not born to immigrants or Black children born outside the U.S.
The research found their distress stems from juggling being Black in America with stigmas associated with being an immigrant. These children also struggle with stigmas around going to therapy. In St. Louis, the issue of mental health among immigrant youth or the children of immigrants is of interest to local experts especially as more African immigrants move to the region.
Kelly Glenn, the behavioral health program manager at the International Institute of St. Louis, said children of immigrants and foreign-born children who struggle with trauma and grief can find relief through the arts.
“Having different ways of communicating like dance or art, or anything else that is nonverbal communication — for some kids that is sports, too — is really important to be able to express yourself fully and be your authentic self,” Glenn said.
Nderitu was born in St. Louis, but her parents migrated to the area from Kenya more than a decade ago. She said she had a hard time talking with her peers at school. She also grappled with adjusting to a new school culture.
African dancing has significantly lifted Nderitu’s spirits. Now, she talks with confidence to students at school or people in her community.
“It's easier to communicate now because generally I am a quiet person, but now I talk a lot more,” Nderitu said.
Dance as therapy
Vitendo4Africa is an African nonprofit in the St. Louis region that started an art therapy program in 2021 to help reduce stress and anxiety heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. Its art therapy program offers visual and performing arts classes.
“So many kids have experienced bullying, especially when you move from one school to the other,” Vitendo4Africa program director Faiza Muhambi said. “When they dance, they express themselves.”
After the girls complete art projects, they spend a couple of hours a week practicing African dance with Jahfi Studio, a St. Louis-based dance company founded in 2012. And occasionally, the girls participate in group therapy sessions from program directors, dance class leaders and therapists.
The group of dancers is mostly made up of children of Kenyan descent whose parents are immigrants or refugees who moved to the region for school or better employment. Kenyans are one of the growing African immigrant communities resettling in the St. Louis region. According to the 2021 U.S. census data, there are roughly 2,959 Kenyans in the area, compared to 1,146 in 2015.
“Anytime somebody has been transplanted from their native land or from their home country, and they move to a new place that's always a very challenging process,” said Nhial Tutlam, a research professor at the International Center for Child Health and Development at Washington University in St. Louis.
He said many Kenyan children do not have a problem speaking English because the language is taught in Kenya, but they have trouble making new friends and feeling accepted in a new country.
Finding pride in their heritage
Ramla Juma, 13, moved to St. Louis from Kenya with her family seven years ago. She hoped her new school would help her find a sense of belonging. However, Juma said it has been hard to make friends because students tease her for having an accent. She said African dance helps her cope with that stress.
“It makes me feel happy,” Juma said. “It makes me feel more confident when I’m dancing.”
At first, Abigail Sankale,12, was not proud of being Kenyan because of the teasing she faced at school when she wore traditional African clothes or displayed artifacts from her culture.
“I was always scared that they would end up judging me or thinking that it was disgusting or weird,” Sankale said. “I did not want to be excluded.”
Isolation during the pandemic created new mental health hurdles for Sankale. She credits joining the African dance class for saving her life and helping her to embrace her Kenyan identity in St. Louis.
“It helped me figure out my passion,” Sankale said. “It's given me more reasons to live happier.”