We are back on the tour of Afrika! This will be the first episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.
In this episode, Sharon Zarita takes us through her journey of becoming an Arts & Culture consultant. We talk about the exchange of cultural knowledge and ideas. Sharon elaborates about how her company, Sekoya East Africa, is an arts organization that serves emerging craft makers and creative professionals through creative skills development, promotion of their work and provision of peer mentorship.
We also unpack the benefits of mental health support and how Sekoya can bridge the gap between education and the workplace. In her words ‘be the canopy for emerging artists.’
*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.
Music by: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)
[00:00:00] Adrian: Zarita, thank you so much for coming onto the show and welcome. And as an opening question, I'd really love to know, is there a meaning, is there a reason behind your name?
[00:00:13] Sharon Zarita: Yeah, so my formal name is Sharon Adhiambo, but then I wanted an African name that enables me to connect with people, not based on tribes because you know, we have such a, um, a huge connection in Kenya to our tribal backgrounds. So, then I was in college, I went on Google with my friends and we searched African names and we saw one which is from Sara and it is Sarita.
[00:00:39] But then you could change it to be Zarita. So then I was like, oh, wow, this is perfect. So, Zarita actually comes from the root name, Sarah, which means princess. And so I, I like to think of myself as that African royalty. I bring the African
royalty with me wherever I go.
[00:00:59] Adrian: Wow, that's really cool. So, you are... you are self-christened then, you...
[00:01:02] Sharon Zarita: yes, exactly, exactly. I did. I did. And now it stuck. Um, but my other Kenyan name Adhiambo, it means born at night and it is a name from my grandmother, which I really appreciate because I think from her I get all the genes of a creative and an industrious person.
[00:01:21] Adrian: That's true. Luo's are known for being very creative, right?
[00:01:25] Sharon Zarita: Yes. . Yeah.
[00:01:28] Adrian: Awesome. Nice. Wow, that's cool. And your other friends, the names they picked, have they stuck with them as well?
[00:01:36] Sharon Zarita: no, no one was speaking a name because they had like three names. I only have two names. I only have Sharon Adhiambo, so then it was perfect for me to get a third name, but them, they did not have to get another name.
[00:01:48] Adrian: Got you. Yeah. Thank you. Really interesting. You described yourself as an independent art and culture consultant, and would really love to know how you got there. What has the journey been like for you? And then how did you get into the creative industries?
[00:02:08] Sharon Zarita: Yeah, so I graduated with a bachelor's in media studies in 2015. But then, uh, for you to work in the newsroom, you have to look for a lot of bad news, but I don't like to look for bad news. So, then I was making handmade cards then, and then I thought, so, after school you're just supposed to be economically sustainable.
[00:02:29] So, let me have a business. So, then I started a small craft business here in Nairobi downtown, and I did it until 2018. But then I didn't have a business management background, so then I was like, there was a gap. And when there was that gap I wanted to go and study arts management, um, anywhere. Wherever.
[00:02:49] And then there was an international, universities, sort of like a show in Nairobi. I went there, I saw Humber College. It's a college in Canada, Toronto. And they were offering a course called Arts Management and Cultural Administration. I looked at the coursework and I was like, yeah, this looks like everything I want to study.
[00:03:11] So then, I started the journey. It wasn't easy cause I couldn't go the first year cause the school fees were a bit high. So, I had to apply, defer, and then get there the next year. And then once I went to Humber, I enjoyed, I think I've never enjoyed school
as much as I enjoyed Humber, because you are an artist and you are sitting in a class of people from different parts of the world and even the country in Canada.
[00:03:38] And all of you are talking about the things that you liked to talk about. So, sometimes it felt like we were in workshops, like we were in retreats, and when all of us are advocating about governments not giving enough budget to the art industry, we
are all there, you know. Talking about the same things.
[00:03:56] And then I went ahead to work in Canada in different industries. I work in the community arts sector, which is the social part of the arts industry. So, that just enables everybody to tap into their creative beings, and make it very accessible, affordable, and reachable. But in 2020 because of the pandemic, I really wanted to reconnect with my community back home.
[00:04:21] So, then I called a few of my friends. I was like, oh, let's do a passion project. So, then we decided to do a creative magazine. That was also the year when the Black Lives Matter movement was really up. And I just, I felt a need cause I was in Canada. I felt a need to, um, showcase a better narrative of the communities at home, whenever I say at home, I mean Kenya. I needed a richer narrative because when you go to the museum, sometimes in Canada, you find everything there is charitable. Like buy this Maasai bracelets and then help a woman in Kenya, you know? And I was just like, no.
[00:04:57] Our people at home also just create, because they want to create, they're also just expressive. It's not always have to be on a charity lens. So, we created this fantastic magazine in 2020 and we created it, I was creating it remotely in Canada and it was produced by everyone in Kenya. Like it was printed here. The photo shoot was done here, everything was done here. And then the artists were like after the magazines so what next? So, then that is when we decided to form an organization and I founded a nonprofit called Sekoya. I continued working in Canada and then last year I felt, it's time to give, cause I have never been at home to really dig the roots deep for Sekoya.
[00:05:39] So, I felt like it is time for me to come and be with Sekoya and form connections in the creative industry. And then I had also realized that there is a lot of people in Canada who want to come and experience culture in Africa, but they don't have somebody in the middle to be able to facilitate that. And so then I said, oh yeah, I
could consult for you.
[00:05:58] I could help you connect with the communities here. I could help you form roots here and provide that international exchange. And even because getting a career in the art is not an easy thing. So in Canada, I also started with emerging artists, talking
to them, how do you build a career in the arts where, especially for newcomers, by newcomers that is immigrants, new people who are coming into the country.
[00:06:20] I was like, I was able to do this because I went to Humber. Not everybody has that privilege. So, because I'm in a position of knowledge, I'd be able to show you how to go about it. So, I started the consulting in Canada. And then now I'm going to look into how I can make it international, an international arts consultant.
[00:06:39] So, that is a snapshot of everything.
[00:06:42] Adrian: Brilliant. What was the kind of process you followed for Sekoya to bring about the magazine and everything else that it, it does?
[00:06:51] Sharon Zarita: Okay. So in school, like my bachelor's, I did a major in print journalism. So, I knew the ins and out of producing a publication. And I wanted the stories to be from emerging artists. Like in Kenya, there is a big gap between established artists and emerging artists. The opportunities are always floating among the professional or, or the established artists rather.
[00:07:15] And the emerging artist, it's only because they don't have enough resources. They can't get to a photo shoot cause it's expensive, but it doesn't mean their work is not good. So, what we did, we made an open call for articles, for products, and then we
asked everybody, you don't have to have it perfect. We just need to see your work.
[00:07:35] So, we took all of the stories and then we did a professional shoot for them. Like we curated the magazine for them. And then now I worked with, I had already known people from my previous business, the, like the craft business. So, I worked with some artists to do the design work and it was really like, that was a lot of energy
consuming work because we were working in different time zones and I was really trying to implement everything that I had seen in Canada into this magazine. So, in the process I had to like teach some things as well, while at the same time we are producing. And then eventually we had, we had some of our friends in the industry go through it as guest editors.
[00:08:17] And then we went ahead, printed it, and then we did a, uh, like an online launch on Zoom. And we had the magazine, and we also did an online version which is available on ESU so that this way it is available globally.
[00:08:31] Adrian: Brilliant. So, we'll be able to share that link then.
[00:08:34] Sharon Zarita: Yeah. We'd really appreciate it.
[00:08:36] Adrian: Great. We will for sure. You also worked at Lakeshore, right? What did that entail?
[00:08:43] Sharon Zarita: At Lakeshore Arts, I was the operations manager. And Lakeshore Arts was rather, is one of the local arts service organization. That means it is mandated by the government to provide community art projects within a specific region. So, being an operations manager means I was doing a lot of admin work, and that is all the behind the scenes that enables processes to, to be efficient for art projects to be produced.
[00:09:11] So, that includes bookkeeping, it includes like leasing out the gallery space, connecting with different community organizations, partnerships. I was also in charge of fundraising and coming up with fundraising models or supporting the existing fundraisers to be able to generate for us revenue, and then as well, just as a manager to be able to give organizational leadership.
[00:09:34] So, it was very interesting because now remember when I said I had a desire to learn how to run a business, but in the arts. So, at Lakeshore arts I was able to actually do that work behind the scenes, you know, and, um, I did not know I would enjoy Excel sheets and looking at donor management softwares, you know, as an artist
you're like, oh no, I don't wanna look at Excel sheets.
[00:10:00] But then now in operations, you get to see that all of this work enables it to be very efficient when people are doing programs. It enables there to be documentation and it enables there to be like an institutional memory. So, that was all my work. And it was during the pandemic. So, then we also had to imagine how all of these processes could happen remotely.
[00:10:23] And at the same time, I also worked on emerging project needs. For example, there's a lot of grief and loss during covid. So we thought, what should we do now that a lot of people lost their loved ones and they couldn't meet to say goodbye. I was part of leading a project where we, we were able to do like a community remembrance event.
[00:10:41] So, that was just part of being a manager and saying, what does the community need and how can the arts solve the problem that exists within us right now? It was a wonderful experience.
[00:10:52] Adrian: Oh, great. Yeah, it sounds very fulfilling. And how, how have some of your unique cultural experiences impacted the work that you're doing? What are some of the insights you've gathered that you've implemented?
[00:11:07] Sharon Zarita: Mm-hmm. . So having studied and lived abroad, I have realized that people have no knowledge or very limited knowledge about us. Everything is based on what is shown on the media, which most of the time is not good. And I have been in a place where I've had to answer a lot of questions.
[00:11:26] And Canada is very interesting because it is very multicultural, so you'll find people coming from different places and my biggest conversation starter has been jewelry because they carry a lot of Maasai jewelry, there. And the indigenous communities in Canada also usually express really well with bead work. So, there's a some sort of similarity. So, when people would see me with jewelry, they'd be like, mm,
did you get it here? No, I got it from Kenya. It's a chance to talk about your culture, but in an exalted kind of way. I have done that. And also hair. Hair is an amazing cultural conversation starter into black culture, black hair, black traditions, you know. But one of the most interesting experience I've had was a project I did with a nonprofit called Afghan Women Organization.
[00:12:16] And we were doing, uh, storytelling projects. And in this storytelling project because most people who are coming in into Canada are coming from other nations, but we are very similar. Our cultures and traditions sometimes have similarities that we don't know because we look different, right? So, then we use the arts to enable
everybody who looks different to come into a room, but then to find where does your culture merge?
[00:12:41] So, then this project we did with Afghan women organization, we were narrating stories from back home. And then in these stories there could be like bedtime stories, stories with like the stories that used to be taught to children. And then now, uh, they're passed on by their parents and grandparents and things like that. So,
we paired seniors. Seniors means elders, like older people and young people because as a newcomer or as an immigrant then, and you are maybe say 10 years old. It's very easy for you to forget some of the stories from back home, especially cultural stories. So then the, the older people could then be paired with the younger people and then come up with stories to be able to sustain that tradition or that culture.
[00:13:27] So, I worked on this project as a consultant and then I was able to connect a Kenyan storyteller to be able to come, through Zoom, to be able to come into some of these sessions and also, and also share the Kenyan cultural stories. And it was very interesting to see that people who are from all over the world would now be able to connect and experience culture together and see, oh wow, we are not that different from each other.
[00:13:56] Adrian: Hmm. Beautiful. Yeah, that's really important to pass on knowledge and it's taking from a lot of cultures. Are there any particular traditions that you like sharing? You mentioned you like telling people about some traditions. Are there any particular ones that, that you really like sharing?
[00:14:16] Sharon Zarita: So, I'm not Kikuyu but a lot of my friends are Kikuyu and I love the, it's called the Ruracio. Ruracio is the... when the, the groom is coming to get the bride and females will be presented and all of them will be covered. Their heads will be covered and the groom has to guess who the bride is from like five ladies, and if he guesses wrong, then there is a penalty for that.
[00:14:42] I think that is usually my favorite cultural story to share. I share it all the time, and even in this workshop with Afghan women organization, I showed them YouTube videos of how that goes, and you'd find that in other cultures you realize they also cover, like brides also cover. And it may not be that the groom has to guess, but there is a lot of that notion of covering and then reveal.
[00:15:04] Yeah. So, that is usually one of my favorite ones.
[00:15:07] Adrian: Great. Nice. And when it comes to the projects you've worked on you mentioned Sekoya, I believe that mental health is also a part of Sekoya, key part.
[00:15:19] Sharon Zarita: Yeah.
[00:15:20] Okay, so I'll just do a short introduction about Sekoya. Sekoya, because I realize the gap mostly is about professional development resources to emerging artists, because there is not a lot of formal art education in Kenya, right? So then, I wanted most of the knowledge that I got from Humber or experiences in Canada to be brought back home to these artists.
[00:15:43] And so we started with empowering them professionally. And this would be through general courses or master classes like marketing, financial management, social media and things like that. But then we also wanted to now focus on the self, because as an emerging artist, there is a lot of... you work alone a lot. Constantly you are working alone. And if you are not in a good place, especially if your wellbeing is not in a good place, then if there is not enough to be able to pour into your work. So last year also because of Covid, there was a lot of strain in the art industry. And a lot of people need mental health support.
[00:16:23] So, we did a collection, it's called Uhai Collection. And all of these were hand-made pieces, which were curated with uplifting quotes and messages to be able... for people to be able to be surrounded with that. Some of these items were like
buttons and handmade cards, key chains, things that you could hold.
[00:16:43] You know, like things that could be very close to you and you could remember when you see them. You remember that. Okay, I could just breathe and I could get through this, you know? And so we did that project and now we are hoping to be able to connect with mental health organizations or any other organizations that focus on the nourishment of the soul and then, make Sekoya be able to inform people how the arts could be an answer to some of these needs.
[00:17:10] Adrian: Wonderful.
[00:17:11] Sharon Zarita: Oh, and then I, I forgot to add, we before that, like this was, um, I like Sekoya because it is very... one thing follows the other. So before this project, we were just doing wellbeing workshops, and in those workshops we were teaching the artists how to make mental health support materials.
[00:17:28] So probably like a jar, maybe a reflection jar, and uh, like a journal, how to make a journal, how to make a frame. You know, things like that. So these workshops, we're also hoping to be able to partner or work with other organizations and then teach
people how you could be able to just curate things that are artistic, not very artistic, like curate things that you could see and they could be able to help you nurture your wellbeing.
[00:17:54] Adrian: Hmm.
[00:17:55] Sharon Zarita: Yeah.
[00:17:56] Adrian: Brilliant. What's the plan for Sekoya for future?
[00:18:00] Sharon Zarita: Mm-hmm. . Wow. The plan for Sekoya... Um, it, my brain goes a million different ways.
[00:18:11] Adrian: Okay. Okay.
[00:18:12] Sharon Zarita: The biggest plan for Sekoya, like the grand, the biggest plan for Sekoya is that we want to have a cultural center for these artists because I'll keep saying 1,000,001 times, emerging artists are very talented. They just need resources. They just need a place to be able to curate their work. To be able to market their work, to sell their work, and at an affordable rate.
[00:18:35] So, that is what we want to have. Before we get there, before we get this physical space, we have started a virtual space on WhatsApp where some of this work is already happening and peer support is happening. But in the short while, we want to be able to continue with our professional development workshops.
[00:18:53] But then make them in in such a way that they could be certification. Like you could come to Sekoya, do the master classes, maybe if it is marketing and not just do one, two hours marketing class. And you go. It is the entire thing. And you also get to like, do pitches, be able to work with marketers in the industry.
[00:19:12] And then after that, get a certification, which could be now transferrable in the arts industry. Like for example, if you want to apply for a job, you could be able to do that. And then we also, we have started last year, we started, uh, an art club at
Langata Barrack School, which is a local school here.
[00:19:30] So, we are hoping we'd be able to do a chain where the artists, the emerging artists now are able to pass this knowledge they know to future generations. Cause like, you know, the Kenya system is now CBC and these children, when they graduate, they, they shouldn't get the gap like some of us got a, a huge gap, you know, so we want to bridge that gap. And then we also work with a deaf institution to be able to
upcycle materials, craft materials, and then package them as toolkit. And so all of this work is things we just want to now make them consistent and very formal, and identify institutions that we could work with and collaborate to be able to make it all happen.
[00:20:10] Adrian: Great. So first of all, let's take it back to CBC. For those listening who, who don't know what the CBC is, maybe you can give a quick overview.
[00:20:21] Sharon Zarita: Okay. Oh, so the CBC is the new Kenyan curriculum, which has a lot of creative or hands-on educational practices, which I really like. All of these school going children have to be able to be very artistic in some way or incorporate creative ways of, uh, learning.
[00:20:41] And so then if the CBC curriculum continues, which I hope it'll be, it'll continue. If this continues, then the children, when they're out of school, when they go to high school, then they're already artists in some sort of way because that has been ignited. And so they deserve to find a place after that to be able to turn their creative skills into professions.
[00:21:02] Adrian: Mm-hmm. I've heard that for some it may be difficult, first of all for parents to find the time, but also the resources to implement some of the activities as part of the CBC. Um, so are there ways that we can be more resourceful that people can be given resources, even reuse things?
[00:21:22] Sharon Zarita: Yeah, most definitely. From what I have seen before, like maybe say Canada from some of the experiences I've seen before is we need to adopt a model that is community centered. So if it is community centered, it means that maybe for example, the school has a list of materials that they will be needing and us as communities or even artists.
[00:21:43] Especially artists, because we usually have a lot of waste. We could make art libraries. So then, if this child knows that when they go home and they're being asked to come with fabric and they won't have fabric, then it's just there in the library, you
[00:21:56] And so in Canada you'll find that there are some community resources or even some art organizations which have created these libraries where you could just drop in, get art supplies or materials and then use it as you please. So if we could, it's honestly not that hard because in Sekoya we... most of our programs, we request for donation of materials and we usually find, because there's always surplus of materials within the arts community. So if schools could adopt this, I think we'd be able to bridge that gap.
[00:22:27] Adrian: Brilliant. The second part of what you mentioned then in terms of finding materials and and connecting those to people who need them. You mentioned you are working with the deaf community as well, so I'd love to know more about that project.
[00:22:42] Sharon Zarita: Yeah. So this project is called Tengeza. Tengeza in Swahili means to make. I'll talk about the most recent one. It's called Deaf School Isinya. It's in Isinya, like if people know Kenya, it'll be in Isinya. And so what happens is we make a call for donation of art supplies, especially craft, we usually focus on craft because I feel like craft is not as elevated in the art industry as other forms.
[00:23:09] So, we get donations of these materials and we allow anything to be donated. So, if it is fabric, it doesn't have to be well cut. If it is paper, you could have used part of it, but that's okay. And then now us as Sekoya, we upcycle it or we make it to in to be in a form where it can now be used to make something else.
[00:23:29] So then we, we donate these things to the school and we do a workshop to show the teachers how they could use this materials to be able to come up with different projects. And in the long term, we are hoping we could do a curriculum. So then we, we just don't do a one off workshop and we assume that the teachers will have learned, but then now we give them a curriculum which they could just be able to follow it and continue to make it sustainable. Like to continue do those projects.
[00:23:57] The biggest challenge has been just to find a place to hold because you'll find an artist. They were probably using mason jars and or wine bottles, for example, maybe it was Christmas, they had a lot of wine bottles and they want to drop like maybe say 50 wine bottles and you don't have a place to hold these wine bottles. You
[00:24:14] So then, there's usually just that challenge of, oh, there is a, like, I want it to be so convenient, you know, I want it to just have a drop off in town and then I'm done and forget about it. So, once we figure that out, it'll be easier to collect a lot of things and then be able to upcycle it. Yeah. I think this is one of my favorite projects in Sekoya because the deaf community or the deaf children that we've worked with, their attention span is very high on projects that involve their hands because they don't have any distractions.
[00:24:43] And it just marvels you to see them realize that, oh, a tissue roll could become a flower pattern, you know. Like, oh, this is how you do it. It's, it's magical. I love this project.
[00:24:56] Adrian: Awesome, awesome. What sorts of things have you, have you made then, or what sort of materials have you recycled and reused to turn into other things?
[00:25:05] Sharon Zarita: We have made tissue rolls, you know, the inside part of a tissue that could become a flower garland. So, we've done that. We've also done pompoms. Pompoms is my favorite from yarn artists because for pompoms you just need like scrap yarn, you know. We've also done sanitary towel porches, because that could be made from fabric.
[00:25:26] So, we've taught them how to make like pockets from fabrics. And then we also, we like to make cards a lot, like handmade cards. And I like that one because the children could learn to sell them for like, success cards, birthdays, and things like that.
And that comes from artists who use paper and you can use paper any day, any time for that. We try to use materials that even if, for example, paper, even if we don't bring them embossed paper or construction paper, they could find something else that's similar and they could just continue, like the tissue rolls. It's easy for them to identify that. The yarn, it's easy for them to identify that. So, we try to make it very reachable and accessible as well.
[00:26:04] Adrian: Oh, good. You saw the workshop we had this weekend. We also use tissue rolls where we can.
[00:26:10] Sharon Zarita: Nice, nice
[00:26:11] Adrian: Yeah, .
[00:26:12] Sharon Zarita: Nice
[00:26:13] Adrian: Yeah.
[00:26:14] Sharon Zarita: Tissue rolls are fantastic.
[00:26:17] Adrian: For sure. Absolutely.
[00:26:19] And are there any other cultural experiences you've had or any other parts of your cultural or cultures you've experienced that you might like to, to share? Again, perhaps it's an insight that, that you got from something or, you know, something that
sparked a thought or something maybe that even surprised you where people across cultures differed or had similarities.
[00:26:43] Sharon Zarita: Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. um, oh. The one that has been a learning experience for me is the indigenous cultures in Canada and, well, it's not just one, it is mainly, there are different indigenous peoples in Canada. And it has been an eye-opener to be able to experience those gatherings because, um, the indigenous communities faced or keep facing a lot of injustice.
[00:27:10] And because of that, to be able to heal, to be able to be okay, to be able to continue to cope. They use a lot of nature or natural resources to be still, to communicate, and to heal or to forgive. In some of these gatherings, there have been experiences where maybe like incense is burnt and things like that.
[00:27:34] And for me that felt a bit similar because in like in the olden days in Kenya, there used to be also burning of incense and even in some other cultures, they still continue to do that. And also there is a lot of um, storytelling and vulnerable storytelling. That has really changed the way I I express as an artist because we are taught as adults to be able to just hold it in.
[00:28:01] But then from these communities, I have learned that it is okay to talk about the painful things in your culture because it does not diminish the good things in your culture. It doesn't diminish the good things that have happened. This interaction has also made me feel very honored as an immigrant wherever I go to places, because then
I realize that they're original keepers of different places or different lands.
[00:28:27] And to be able to respect the work that went into preserving the lands that allow us to create and to be as human beings. Yeah. So, that is one that keeps making me be grounded and it really opens up my eyes.
[00:28:43] Adrian: That's really fascinating. Were there any similarities that you found across the two cultures or the multiple cultures across Canadian indigenous cultures and African indigenous cultures?
[00:28:55] Sharon Zarita: I think we respect or we honor the lands where we are differently. And the Canadian indigenous cultures, they're also different among different regions, you know. Cause, you know, culture is not only what we say it is also how we wear or how we look.
[00:29:10] So, the one that is parallel mostly is the bead work. It's very, very similar and that's why I'm interested to do jewelry curation and to see how I could be able to even
collaborate with some indigenous artists in Canada for us to see how is it that we are from different continents and we are sort of expressing how we look through the same jewelry, you know?
[00:29:30] Adrian: Mm-hmm. . Brilliant. Great. Thank you. Where can people find you and your work, and how should they contact you?
[00:29:38] Sharon Zarita: Uh, you can find me on all social media platforms, Sharon Zarita. For Sekoya's work, you can find us on Instagram and Facebook, Sekoya East Africa. Sekoya is with a k. And that is actually from the tree because I, I heard you like stories behind names. Sekoya is from the sequoia tree.
[00:29:58] And that tree usually provides a lot of coverage for smaller vegetation. So, then that is what we hope to do. We hope to be able to be the canopy for emerging artists.
[00:30:08] Adrian: That's a perfect way to end, to be the canopy for emerging artists.
[00:30:13] Sharon Zarita: Yes.
[00:30:14] Adrian: Amazing, amazing.