March 21, 2014 6:35 pm

The British actor who quit film and TV career to run NGO in Kenya

Chance meeting prompted Nick Reding to focus on educating people about HIV via the medium of theatre
Nick Reding in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, where he established the NGO SAFE (Sponsored Arts for Education)©Georgina Goodwin

Nick Reding in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, where he established the NGO SAFE (Sponsored Arts for Education)

In 2000, British actor Nick Reding was in Los Angeles when he was introduced to Kenyan paediatrician Shaffiq Essajee. At the time, he could not have known how much this meeting would change the course of his life.

At that point, Reding already had an established acting career spanning two decades, including roles in two UK detective series, The Bill and Silent Witness. Mike Hodges’ film Croupier, in which Reding had a cameo part, had just been released in the US and his agents were upbeat about his future. “Despite the hype, I realised that I was curiously underwhelmed,” says Reding. “After all those years of acting, I didn’t have much sense of fulfilment.”

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When Reding met Essajee, the paediatrician had been working as an assistant professor at NYU Medical Center in New York, but was about to return to his home town of Mombasa to set up a children’s HIV unit in the public hospital there. Reding began helping Essajee with sourcing and acquiring medical equipment needed for the new laboratory, but they got on so well in the weeks that followed that Reding decided not to go home to London but instead accompany Essajee to Mombasa, where he lived with the doctor’s Indian-Kenyan family while the unit was being set up.

“What astounded me most when I got to Kenya was the failure of public health education,” says Reding, who adds that many people’s ignorance about HIV was not helped by the widespread belief in witchcraft and curses. He then realised that the use of theatre might be a good way to tackle much of the misinformation surrounding the disease.

“We needed to get people on side by entertaining them and making them laugh while delivering the critical information they required,” he says. “The tradition of oral storytelling is an integral part of Kenyan culture and watching theatre is a natural progression from this.” Theatre has been used in development by many other NGOs to date, often inspired by the Brazilian, Augusto Boal who was one of the first to develop the tool.

After the HIV unit was finished, Reding decided to stay on in Mombasa where he concentrated on finding a team of young actors. “I soon found a talented group called the Kizingo Art Troupe drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds,” he says. Essajee and the other doctors from the hospital came to work with them, teaching them about HIV and how it is spread.

Slowly, Reding built up the NGO SAFE (Sponsored Arts for Education), of which he is both founder and executive director. He chose to focus on educating people about HIV, as well as many other crucial issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), rape and malnutrition, via the medium of theatre. The organisation now has three branches: in Mombasa, Nairobi and in the Loita Hills, which is Masai country. The actors travel in brightly coloured buses to the slums and rural villages in these areas, where they put on free performances. HIV testing units accompany the SAFE teams and also provide post-test counselling.

“After I came to Kenya I was soon made aware that the Nairobi slums were some of the worst in Africa and so we set up SAFE Ghetto to work there,” says Reding. Having rented rooms in various parts of the city, he now rents an old colonial style house, which he also uses as a base for the NGO, in the Karen area, a suburb popular with expats. Karen Blixen, the Danish author of Out of Africa, also lived in this area.

Reding’s house has a large garden full of mature trees teeming with bird life. “Most of my colleagues were brought up in the slums but they don’t find it incongruous coming to work [in such a grand house],” says Reding. “I find that generally Kenyans don’t resent success and affluence, they aspire to it.” His office is there, all the vehicles can be left in the grounds and his team can rehearse and make films in the garden.

Money is pouring into Nairobi and the country is experiencing huge growth and building development. It could be one of Africa’s leading cities, says Reding, but it needs inspirational leadership to negotiate its way through this transitional period.

“For the first few years in Nairobi, I tried to avoid any kind of wealth,” says Reding, “which was my way of dealing with the tremendous disparity between poverty and privilege there.” He soon realised that, because his job gave him access to all levels of Kenyan society, this mindset was too blinkered and tantamount to reverse prejudice.

Many of my friends in the UK think my life here sounds quite grim but the reality is that I’ve spent the last 12 years meeting incredible people and roaring with laughter

- Nick Reding

Instead, Reding chose to embrace the opportunity to meet people close to the centre of power, which has helped facilitate his work, from tackling bureaucratic challenges to providing funding support. “Nairobi has a large UN presence and is a centre for aid agencies in the region. Reuters has an office here, as does Associated Press and there is a big investment banking and property sector.”

Reding is also learning Swahili to help him get his message across. “You are accepted on a different level if you can communicate with people in their first language,” he says.

Reding admires the locals’ positive outlook and their tenacity in the face of often dire circumstances. He is also captivated by the country’s dramatic, wild landscape. SAFE’s third centre of operations in Kenya is in the Loita Hills, a remote mountainous region to the south of Nairobi where he works with the Masai. “It’s exhilarating . . . to be somewhere where nature is so intact,” he says.

The Masai are protective of their culture so Reding has opted to take a back seat on this project, allowing his Masai team to decide on the issues and the way to put messages across. “We’re doing this by trying to avoid the main failing of many NGOs who come in and to tell people what to do rather than working within the local culture.” As FGM is a prevalent issue among Masai, his team have devoted a lot of energy to confronting the practice and hope to eradicate it completely in the next few years.

There are drawbacks though, he adds, citing the poor infrastructure, and the rising violent crime rate. “If I wasn’t so passionate about my work and sure that it was making a difference, I would find many things here unacceptable to live with,” he says. “Many of my friends back in the UK think that my life here sounds quite grim and depressing but the reality is that I have spent the last 12 years in Kenya meeting incredible people and roaring with laughter,” says Reding.

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Buying guide

Pros

● The wild, unspoilt landscape

● The friendliness of the local people

● Nairobi National Park is just half an hour from the urban centre

Cons

● Kenyan roads are in a terrible condition and figures for fatal road traffic accidents are high

● Rising crime and a recent spate of kidnappings due to the widening gap between rich and poor

● Frequent power cuts

What you can buy for . . .

£100,000 A 1,500 sq ft two- or three-bedroom apartment in a new complex in Kileleshwa

£1m A 5,000 sq ft five-bedroom house with a pool and an acre of land in Lower Kabete or Karen

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