2010 YouthActionNet® Fellow George Gachara recently co-founded the NEST Arts Company in Nairobi, Kenya, as a forum for artists, writers, youth workers, actors, and citizens to express themselves and nurture the creative spirit. In advance of Kenya’s national elections on March 4, George shares his reflections on the vital connection between the arts and democracy building.  

Young people all over the world, and especially in Africa, yearn for avenues and opportunities through which they can tell their stories, transform their narratives, and dignify their lives. This is, in part, a response to historic subjugation in some areas and systemic neglect in others.

Rooted in the aspiration of a good life, this yearning is shifting young people’s ideas of where they will work, what kind of work they will do, where they will live, whether to join a political party, what to read, and so on. While these are seen as personal decisions, cumulatively they are the most critical political decisions that any individual can make in a democracy.

On one hand, the March 2013 elections in Kenya provide an opportunity for crossing over to a better democratic system as defined in the new constitution. In this new constitution, the citizen and the state have been set on a course to enjoy a mutually-accountable and engaging relationship. On the other hand, we have to nurture and sustain an active civic culture among the young in order to transform these democratic aspirations into meaningful experiences for all citizens.

The arts play a central role in allowing and helping to construct these critical personal decisions. It is through art that we access ongoing reflections on our society. The arts suggest solutions. They grieve and roar in pain and anger. They know when things aren’t fair, and they speak out. And they encourage us to think and feel along with them.

Art persuades us that things can be made right and whole, if even just for a few fleeting moments. We are reminded that the individual can do great things, and much more if individuals act together. The arts can also help unravel the tensions between our need for autonomy as individuals and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group – including tribes, social classes, generations, counties, or nations.

It is true that democracy and art can only thrive in a condition of freedom – freedom for citizens to create, to self-define, to experiment, and to explore the world of the human mind and spirit, while taking responsibility for their own lives.

For these reasons, together with friends, I co-founded the Nest Arts Company, a cultural organization that serves as a useful playground in which artists and curious minds test new ideas unconditionally within a context of vigorous debate.

We hope that we can stir into action a generation of thinkers, creators, activists, and modern day prophets who can envision ideas and create that which is not yet created. By doing this, we shall help stimulate a shared civic culture, a shared language, and ultimately, shared values.

We believe that we can become a better democracy because the arts nourish us. We can have a vigorous economy because the arts inspire our creative responses.  We can be healthy individuals because of the insights and space for insight that the arts continue to provide. Deep down, we are convinced that the arts are central to the sustenance, renovation, celebration, and re-creation of our life together in Kenya.

To see examples of programs offered through The NEST Arts company, visit: www.becauseartislife.org. To learn more about IYF’s YouthActionNet program, visit youthactionnet.org.