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Reach for the stars

by Marc la Chance and Sigfrid Soler

In Ethiopia, the streets of large cities like Addis Ababa are classrooms for many children who, forced from home and family, are being taught by precocious peers and unscrupulous adults alike. Circus Ethiopia, a non-profit organisation whose performers are street children or children from poor families, provides entertainment, education and a creative alternative to life on the streets. It’s one circus the Red Cross has decided to join.

As you make your way through Addis Ababa, you can’t help but notice the street children. Busy trying to eke out their living on each and every corner, they are shining shoes, selling whatever they can find to whoever will buy it or simply begging. Dressed in rags, these children — some as young as five or six — are a reality that cannot be ignored. They form a central part of daily life and pose an unsettling dilemma for anyone who sees them. Here is the next generation. What can the future possibly have in store for them? Can anything be done?

Marc la Chance, a Canadian teacher at the International Community School of Addis Ababa, asked himself those questions and came up with an answer. He began one day after school by teaching some children in his neighbourhood how to juggle. Their interest and ability were so encouraging that he established “classes” on a daily basis.

Juggling led to tightrope walking when a winch and a steel cable were purchased. Then, why not juggling on a tightrope? Somehow it was even better to juggle high above everyone’s heads as the children naturally found ways to do what they so love to do: go beyond themselves. Gymnastics and human pyramids came next. “Three months later,” Marc la Chance says, “the group did its first performance for 700 people in a park near the airport. Circus Ethiopia was born.”

 

 

The advocacy circus

Five years later, the original group has expanded and developed a unique concept, the advocacy circus. In a country like Ethiopia, where needs are so basic, the circus has found a surprising place. The circus children are the voices of the community and they are being received with overwhelming enthusiasm.

The free performances are usually set in football fields, include a wide variety of circus arts and attract thousands of people. What is unique, though, are the messages woven through each performance as the acts are worked into stories about the lives of street children. Through comedy, drama, mime, acrobatics, live music and circus acts, powerful ideas are making their way to the general public.

The messages that have been developed so far are as diverse as they are relevant. They include: first aid, the prevention of AIDS and malaria, the treatment of tuberculosis and diarrhoea, the effects of deforestation, and the causes of children taking to the streets.

In Addis Ababa the group has become a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) promoting the circus in general as well as basic health issues. With more than 200 shows under their belts, the children have raised their skills to a level of renown in the city and beyond. A circus school was created in response to requests from the community, and other NGOs working with street children joined Circus Ethiopia and helped establish a special training schedule.

After television appearances, the original group sparked interest in other regions of Ethiopia and now Circus Jimma, Circus Nazareth, Circus Tigray and Circus Jari all have a performing group, training centre, circus school and performing schedule in their respective communities.

The model has also attracted the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students. It formed its own Circus Eritrea and a circus school in Asmara with the cooperation of the Red Cross Society of Eritrea, a National Society in formation. For the first time since the country’s independence, the Red Cross will be able to disseminate its current activities to the population. Each group creates shows with advo-cacy messages adapted to its own
community.

The idea of advocacy in the circus shows has attracted much interest and support. Individuals in seven different countries are now involved in promoting the circus groups. Notable among these are the many people who organised a very successful two week tour by Circus Ethiopia in the Netherlands with the cooperation of the Netherlands Red Cross last June. In Washington DC, friends of Circus Ethiopia are working with Cirque du Soleil to organise a benefit performance in November.

A part to play

“The ICRC recognised the circus as
an alternative dissemination activity and is attracted by its ability to raise awareness among its audiences
through interactive entertainment,” says René Baeriswyl, Head of the ICRC’s Cooperation and Dissemina-tion Division.

The ICRC first became involved at the beginning of 1995 when it asked Circus Ethiopia to create a piece on the meaning of the red cross emblem.

The children came up with a skit that featured a butcher’s shop proudly displaying a red cross as a symbol of the freshness of its products. A faithful customer energetically tells the audience why he always comes back to this particular shop and what the red cross means to him. Then a street boy approaches to collect the scraps the butcher always leaves for him. The boy comments that the red cross in fact means something totally different and that it should not be used as a butcher’s symbol. He goes on to describe the Red Cross relief work he has witnessed himself and how the Red Cross has been helpful to countless people in conflict situations. An argument ensues, but eventually the customer and patron agree with the boy and the sign is taken down.

Circus Ethiopia has also developed advocacy pieces on tuberculosis and on the effect of landmines. The landmines sketch, a simple but emotionally charged presentation, was presented on its own at a Pan African Symposium in Addis Ababa where it brought many diplomats to tears. It is also scheduled to be run in the Netherlands where Circus Ethiopia will perform in television studios for the programme “World Wishes” in September.

Cooperation between Circus Ethiopia and the Red Cross is expanding to include the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. In Jimma, Nazareth and Mekele, Ethiopian Red Cross branches are establishing contacts at various levels to use the circuses as a dissemination tool. The Federation and the Canadian Red Cross have also shown an interest in supporting the project.

In September, the group plans to tour the country with its new production, “The Shoe Shine Opera”. The opera includes forty-five performing children, trainers and equipment and will be moved from city to city using Red Cross transportation. The show is expected to reach 50,000 people in eight cities.

“Our work is reaching out to thousands and creating a profound impact,” Marc la Chance says. “Lifesaving messages are disseminated. It is a fantastic educational tool. But by far the greatest success can be seen in the lives of the children. They have enormous talent and have reached surprising levels of expertise. Every day they are setting new and higher standards for their peers, the next generation.”

 

Marc la Chance and Sigfrid Soler
Marc la Chance is Director and founder of Circus Ethiopia.
Sigfrid Soler is an ICRC delegate based in Addis Ababa.



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