Decades ago, the simple act of being adopted by an Australian couple at the age of three months changed the life of Kumari Middleton, a Sri Lankan orphan. She tells Alys Francis she hopes to pay it forward with Mayibuye – her dance school for disadvantaged young children
When most kids were learning to colour inside the lines, Kumari Middleton was getting her head around the concept of inequality.
At three months of age she was found in a Sri Lankan orphanage by Melbourne couple Lyn and Roger Middleton and adopted. Her own teenage mother was too young to support her.
The experience of growing up as an adopted child in Australia introduced Kumari to big concepts at a young age. But in her words, and with a nod of thanks to her adopted parents, it also taught her “that there are things we can do big and small to help other people”.
It’s a belief that went on to define much of Kumari’s life – leading her to volunteer at the Sri Lankan Children’s Welfare Trust, to raise money for the orphanage she was adopted from, and work for youth welfare and international development organisations around the world.
It was after contracting legionnaires disease (a form of atypical pneumonia) in 2007 that Kumari founded the youth organisation Mayibuye. Having studied fulltime as a dancer in Melbourne and New York herself, Kumari saw the possibility for performing arts to be used as a tool to engage young people.
“Dance builds so many skills including self expression, problem solving and cooperation,” she explained. “It creates a common ground among people from different genders, cultures and backgrounds. It also gives people a voice to share their message through a medium, which overcomes barriers such as age or language. In the communities we work in, people aren’t interested in an educational lecture but they will come to dance performances,” she says.
Mayibuye was launched first in South Africa, after a young local man asked Kumari to teach dance to disadvantaged youth in his village.
“I went to visit about three months after our programs began, on my second day I got to see the real impact we were having and just how important the work was,” Kumari says. “We were providing soup to AIDS orphans, and our participants came to perform. We were out in a dirt paddock and I was blown away by the incredible talent of these youngsters, they really are brilliant,” she says.
“After they finished performing they got into groups and taught the kids some movement. There was such a community vibe and it was that moment that I realised that ‘Mayibuye’ would work,” she says.
In about six years, Mayibuye has established programs, based around dance and life-skills workshops, across Australia, India, South Africa, Cambodia, Egypt, Brazil and Indonesia.
This year it merged with a larger NGO, Cultural Infusion, which has been running a weekend dance troupe for children who live in brothels on GB Road, Delhi’s red light district. “We are looking to expand this program into more communities in New Delhi,” Kumari says.
“We also aim to launch at a school in Thoothukudi [in Tamil Nadu], and deliver physical education, visual art and performing arts curriculum for their 650 students as they have no facilities, equipment or teachers currently,” she says.
Having now spent much of her life looking for “big and small” ways to help people in need around the world, Kumari has some poignant wishes for change in her own backyard: “That our society was more accepting and embraced each other’s diversity,” she says. “Everyone has so much to offer, but until there is less bullying, judgment and discrimination not everyone can thrive.”