In 1996 I spent over two months travelling with a circus that was meant to curb the trauma of children who found themselves on the streets of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a long history of political strife and starvation., as is witnessed by the current situation, 2021.
A shiver runs down my back when a boy no more than 15 years old juggles bowling-size pins while walking barefoot along a slack rope elevated 2 meters from the ground. He stops, springs his body into a backflip, and lands, flawlessly, on one foot back on the rope. The crowd gasps admiration as the boy takes several more steps before jumping, turning in the air, and landing again with great confidence.
It is Sunday, and the circus has come to town. By the time I arrive in the small village just outside Nazareth, a one‑day drive from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the sun is casting long shadows over an open space at the end of two huge tin warehouses. A few hundred spectators sit on the sidelines of a makeshift arena with all eyes fixed on the performance.
Soon, it is the turn of other members of the troupe. A group of performers takes positions for a skit. One actor plays a boy who sells peanuts on the street. The character goes to the bathroom to relieve himself, only he doesn’t wash his hands before returning to his vending box. In the next scene, the boy along with his customers fall ill with gut wrenching drama. It is obvious that this is circus with a twist. There is no dancing bear, no laser light show.
Far from a two‑hour diversion performed by a peripatetic troupe, Circus in Ethiopia, as the movement is called, delivers social punch to rapt audiences and self-esteem injections to the young performers. “This circus has extraordinary powers to heal and educate, all with imagination,” says Marc La Chance. The Canadian founder and director of Circus in Ethiopia, La Chance looks around at all the happy young faces on the performers and marvels at what they have accomplished in a short period. The Circus’s skilled members, between 8 and 18 years old, arrive at THEIR shows around Ethiopia with homemade posters and banners, wearing elegant costumes donated by Quebec’s world‑famous Cirque du Soleil. They have their own band featuring traditional instruments, and the best sound system in Ethiopia. All this in a country that, only six years ago, knew nothing of a circus.
“The very concept of circus is foreign here,” says La Chance. “Even the remote microphones we have (again, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil) creates a performer/audience relationship that is new to everyone in Ethiopia. Our messages, about AIDS, landmines, malaria, diarrhea, immunization, good hygiene, human rights, violence, poverty, are easily consumed because they are relevant to everyone’s life here.” A gentle, articulate, and humble man in his mid‑thirties, La Chance ALWAYS prefers to push the child performers into the limelight. He is still surprised by the simplicity of the circus movement and the ease with which it grew roots HERE, from what he thought at the time was a small gesture.
After spending his early years on a house boat in Paris, where his journalist father was based for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, La Chance went to school in Montreal and taught there for a number of years before settling in Sri Lanka as a teacher. A year later he found himself in another teaching job in Addis Ababa, at the prestigious and expensive “International Community School” for foreigners and the wealthy. For more than a year he rode his bicycle to work through the streets of Addis Ababa, GLEANING a sobering INSIGHT in the city’s brutalizing street life. “There was no escaping the poverty here, especially since I had no car window to roll up,” he says, as we drive in a well‑used truck over a bumpy road to Awassa, to see another circus troupe perform. “The disparity between the school and the streets of Addis Ababa was tearing me apart. For my own peace of mind I had no choice but to do something more meaningful with my life.” Being a competent juggler himself, La Chance BEGAN TO teach street children how to juggle balls, feeling such a skill would give them a degree of self‑esteem. The idea went from a simple home‑grown project to a full‑blown circus performance three months later that attracted 700 people.
Today, Circus in Ethiopia has troupes in four areas of the country: Jimma, Circus Nazreth, Circus Ethiopia (based in Addis Ababa), Circus Tigray (based in Mekele), and Circus Dire Dawa. Each supports a main performing group, a circus school, and a program for street children.
Last summer, 35 children from the Addis Ababa troupe toured 17 cities in Europe and Scandinavia where they gave 60 performances to more than 45,000 people, including Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Funding comes from UNICEF, Save the Children, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many other donors, including canada’s cirque du soleil. Everyone in the circus is both student and teacher, learning and helping each other. The performers, trainers, choreographers, and musicians, are all Ethiopian, and mostly self‑taught. “The circus works because it’s practical,” says La Chance. “Ethiopia keeps you practical.”
At the end of a rough road up a hill on the edge of Addis Ababa, surrounded by a fence made of corrugated metal sheets, are the administrative offices of Circus in Ethiopia, recently relocated from La Chance’s house. I let myself in through the sheet metal gate by slipping a looped string off a nail. Behind a small grass hut is a one‑room cook house with a long washing stand and water taps in front. I meet Sister, a friendly middle‑aged woman who is in charge of the kitchen, supplies, and buying food for hundreds of meals each week. She is also the one the children go to with any minor medical problems. Next to the cook ‑ house is a small four‑room office, made of straw, mud, and concrete and barely covered by faded yellow paint. It is afternoon and more than a dozen children are inside, in the largest room, sitting at three tables and doing homework, guided by a tutor hired by the circus. In the next room are boxes and suitcases, with racks of costumes, many donated by Cirque du Soleil. In two other smaller rooms people are busy typing information into three computers.
One of the typists is Socina Tewabe, 18, a three‑year veteran of the circus. she has fiery eyes and feline features. “The circus is my dream come true,” she says. “It’s my life and family. If I do not continue as a professional circus artist, then I would like to be a trainer, or help with the circus in some other way.” All members of the main troupe are unpaid, but they are fed at the compound, and receive money (less than one dollar) to cover their transportation costs to mandatory training sessions every afternoon, including Sundays when regular free performances are held. Students of the circus school pay $1 a month tuition.
Outside the gate and further up the hill, next to an open field with grazing cows and goats, is a gymnasium‑sized training hall the circus rents. Approaching the hall, I hear ethiopian music, a combination of sliding quarter notes of arabic music and loud African percussion. Inside, at one end, is the bandstand stacked with speakers, cords, and sound equipment. The band has a musical director, keyboard player, drummer, four singers, and two musicians who play traditional Ethiopian stringed instruments, including a Misinko, which has a single string and is played with a bow. A young musician shows me his makeshift instrument, made from a tin can, that he played on the street before coming to the circus. On one wall hangs half a dozen unicycles, and nearby are boxes of ropes, juggling pins and balls, and other circus gear. On another are pinned scores of photographs, newspaper stories, and magazine clippings documenting circus in ethiopia’s success.
To speak of Ethiopia and success in one breath may seem odd to Westerners, but the fact is that I can see only hope and pride in the eyes of the young circus performers. Ethiopia has long been equated with war, famine, and images of starving children, but most circus members resent the stereotype. I am told several times how government offices function, how politicians and police officers are generally honest, and how streets are safe. I find little difference between official and black market currency exchange rates, a healthy sign of an emerging democracy. While the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa thrives with all manner of development and construction, and repaired roads are plainly evident, it is also a place where very expensive cars pass labouring ditch‑diggers who are paid a dollar a day, and where too many children are living on the streets, uncared for. The country is also experiencing high population growth and high HIV/AIDS infection rates, largely due to scarce family planning services and contraceptives and cultural resistance to limiting the size of families.
This is where Circus in Ethiopia comes in. “We are creating our own style of circus that uses our own identity,” says Awaka Emiru, the 26‑year‑old director, choreographer, and trainer of the Addis Ababa group. “We combine our artistic skills with our traditional dance, movement, music, and costumes. The style of our gymnastics, for example, comes from southern Ethiopia. Even the juggling act is different than juggling acts from other countries. People outside Ethiopia see our land as a land of hungry people because they only see pictures of hungry, dying people. We want to show that Ethiopia has different people, different situations, and a lot of power. Here, people work together and help each other.”
One of the circus’s more publicized performances is called the Shoe Shine Opera. It is inspired by real images of crowded Addis Ababa street corners, where shoe‑shine boys, street children in ragged clothes, crouch over well‑worn boxes and shine shoes for pennies. The play, says its author, Ethiopian playwright Abate Makuria, cuts deep into street life by portraying homelessness, child prostitution, rape, abandonment, disease, hunger, and other abuses and violence associated with poverty. The performers sing and dance and accentuate the scenes with circus art.
In Nazareth I watch the young performers yank the audience between tears and laughter during a scene in which an abandoned baby is found by a band of street children. The audience loves them as much for their skill, dedication, and example they set for other children as for the voice they give to those seldom heard in ethiopia.
Their message is as powerful as their pride, and they are as tired of the cliche storyline that persists about poverty stricken ethiopia and street kids who join the circus, as marc la chance detests the story angle about the “wise and resourceful foreigner who saves poor children from their wretched condition.” While the canadian ambassador to ethiopia has introduced marc as “the most prominent Canadian in Ethiopia,” it is a tag that he is quick to deflect. “The performances are not only the delicate and powerful mix of western circus art and Ethiopian culture but at another level, the logistics, problem solving, and policy making is the result of an amazing compromise between western and Ethiopian culture and modes of thinking,” he says. “This is something rare and unique; a serious, constructive, and long term relationship between an outsider and an Ethiopian. It is a credit to both sides that they’ve found and sustained the tolerance of so many differences and to have this tolerance turned around to the creation of something. If the Canadian Ambassador described me as he did it is because so few outsiders have been able to do anything here that matters. Ethiopia is an island and its people are self sufficient in ways you cannot imagine. They tell me what they need, and I find a way to get it for them.”
In the parking lot of the Addis Ababa airport, a small knot of circus players break into cheer as their friend 17‑year‑old Tsegaye Zeleke, is lifted, in his wheel chair, into a waiting ambulance. A rising star in circus Jimma, the second troupe to form in Ethiopia, Tsegaye is returning from a two‑week stay in a Nairobi hospital. On September 27, 1996, while practicing floor exercises, he fell on his head, leaving him paralyzed in both his legs and partially paralyzed in both his arms. Concerned that he would develop infections if he were to stay in an Ethiopian hospital, the Circus arranged for him to be transferred to a Kenyan facility. The Circus also raised enough money to renovate and rent a house in jimma for tsegaye for two years, and establish a metal‑working shop for him, with the idea that his business would supply and maintain the Circus’s needs.
That night Tsegaye’s friends from Jimma come to visit him at “the compound” in Addis Ababa. It is emotionally difficult for everyone, it seems, but Tsegaye. It is the first time his circus friends, his father, and brother, have seen him in weeks, and they are shaken by the vision of the once athletic and vital Tsegaye strapped into a wheelchair and wearing a neckbrace. His devastated father can only stare at the floor. But any awkwardness is brief because Tsegaye meets everyone with uncanny bravery and resolve. When I finally meet him, he says pleasantly, “I heard you were coming. How do you like Ethiopia?” His eyes are deep, direct, and sparkling, and match his sunny smile. Over the next few days, I watch his friends feed him, move him, joke with him, and even massage his head, arms, legs, and fingers all at once, with great love and affection.
This afternoon I am with about 20 members of Circus Jimma, before one of their daily performances at a 10‑day‑long trade fair in Awassa, a town on the edge of the Rift Valley and a two‑day drive over a potholed highway from their home in Jimma. The children lay beside, around, and resting on each other, sleeping, or quietly talking, cuddled inside the tent, their dressing room, BESIDE the stage.
They appear as a tangled web of hands, feet, and bodies, protected and secure with what they all have in common, the circus. Gradually they begin to stir. They stretch and twist their pliant bodies and help each other with their costumes. Their concentration intensifies. Soon, the metamorphosis is complete and everyone is transformed into a vibrant family of circus artists.
At night, a bonfire is built in the driveway of the hotel and everyone circles around, happy about the performance. Eating is casual and from common dishes, and the children share food as easily as they greet each other with kisses and hugs, or say good night to each other after sipping ginger tea. The rooms are adobe and concrete, cell‑like, with metal beds, and in two rows on either side of the driveway. The room Marc and I share has just been washed with diesel fuel to repel malaria mosquitos.
In the morning there is tea and bread for breakfast before leaving in Marc’s old truck to visit another circus. The Circus is powerful medicine, and the idea is spreading. Members of Cirque du Soleil now give workshops in circus arts to street children in six major cities around the world. Meanwhile, Circus in Ethiopia has signed a precedent‑setting agreement with the Ethiopian Red Cross to disseminate public health information. The Circus also has more tours planned for Europe in 1997, and new ones are scheduled for the summer of 1998 in Canada, the United States, Japan, and South America. Recently La Chance returned from a consulting trip in Somaliland, where a circus is being organized. It seems circuses following the ethiopian model are ready to sprout all over africa, or anywhere, but especially where children have no opportunity to be children. The secret of Circus in Ethiopia, I learn, lies in children helping children. It is about empowerment, cooperation, accomplishment, hope, and inspiration. “It’s about skills,” says La Chance, “that require love, more than patience, to be good at.”