12 days 22 shows and 6,000 happy customers
We emerged from our hermitage at the monastery in Centocow were we are staying in to be greeted by Grace and Debbie from Sunflower Help who have organised the tour of the schools in the region. We load up the van that Europcar graciously donated to CWBSA.
Mud huts with straw roofs line the dusty route to the first school for the “premiere”. The people here have never seen anything of its kind in this very rural region of South Eastern South African and we are not completely sure how they will take it.
Yum Yum (Sussie from CWBSA) warms up the teaming crowd of primary students with some harmonising games and when they are ready she leads the clowns in a conga line waddling in unison through the giggling audience singing “Thumbs up! Bums Out!” Knees together! “A CHUG-A-CHA.” The Michael Jackson-esque group hat routine was one of the highlights of the show.
An hour after finishing that marathon spectacle and the clowns are back on stage again performing in another school that is still under construction. We play in the midday sun before 700 school children without a patch of shade for anyone.
Many of the students and teachers do the A CHUG-A-CHA dance as the clown mobile pulls out and down the rocky road back to the monastery were the clowns sprawl out completely exhausted.
Later Caroline (Blanket) exclaimed “Where did they all come from? There are no houses anywhere around!” The answer is that they walk for miles to get to school, today they walk for smiles. I know its cheesy but Camembert with us.
2 schools and 2 shows back to back.
The first show had that magic connection that sometimes happens between an audience and performers. Action and reaction; fooling around and shrieks of laughter. What a pleasure!
The school then served up a yummy feed of red beans and rice, a sample from the school food programme that is run in poor and rural schools in South Africa.
In the van on the way to the next show Grace, a counselor in the area and organiser of the tour from Sunflower Help, gave Gavin and Colm an education into the conditions in the area. Among many other social and drug problems, 40-50% of the local population have HIV and an estimated 70% have tuberculosis. She informed usnthat 15 children from the audience of the previous show had the virus.
Straight onto the next show. The hot wind blew the dust and the company around the stage as chasing the props became a farcical part of the spectacle. Gavin rides his unicycle skillfully over the very bumpy ground toward the audience and does a U turn at the last moment sending shockwaves throughout. Very impressive. The crowd bellow out with laughter as the 5 clowns swatted imaginary flies on one of their teachers.
After the show Lorraine the principal from the school said that she has never seen anything like it in her entire life. Grace later explained that many kids have never been to the closest one-horse town due to poverty never mind to the cinemaplex in Durban, so to be receiving these shows in their own schools was an extraordinary occurrence in their lives.
After the performance the girls and boys from the school took to the stage and performed traditional Zulu dances for the over heated clowns while the rest of the school sang Zulu songs in unison. Caroline (Blanket- Ngubo) wasn’t the only one moved by the display, but was the only one tough enough to openly admit it!
6.30am Mr. Fish is outside the monastery practicing his hat tricks as the sun starts to warm the surrounding mountains. He is hardcore, he gets up at 4.30am every morning and does calisthenics. So he gets a room to himself.
7.30am While the Irish literally warm up, the sun is stronger than the hottest Irish summers day (without the occasional rainstorm). It might sound great but it’s rather unnerving when one knows one is due to do acrobatics in all its blazing glory.
Clowns are everywhere to be seen around the old monastery. They’re not praying or doing penance for their sins but working on their routines. Yum Yum is by the stairs running through her hat solo, Gavin is on his unicycle drilling a juggling number with Mr.Fish.
8.30am Last minute preps and the team run through their juggling finale together.
10am the first show is in a creche for the cutest kids ever. Yum Yum (Sussie) does a pre-show repertoire of songs with the children to ease them in.
At the end of the show they present a cake with a big happy clown face. The natural instinct is to have a pie fight but I dont think the kids would appreciate it. Instead it is cut up and shared out to everyone. Even the gardeners from the locality dropped tools so as not to disturb the show and watch instead.
12pm Simon burns his scalp in the 2nd show, that serves him right for shaving his head and beard for charity.
1pm Love is in abundance as the kids pour over the performers. They drag Caroline laughing to the ground for autographs. Ahh, the price of fame.
2.30pm Eat, sleep and rehydrate.
5pm Go to the river and have a boat race by throwing sticks off the bridge which is the highlight of the evening. Living the life of monks is wild.
6pm-Bedtime The night falls early and there is not a single light to be seen in the distance. Centocow is in the middle of the middle of nowhere, I suppose thats why the Trappists monks founded their mission here. A full nectarine moon rises over the mountain side.
Sussie cooks up an African feast for everybody, now we now why we call her ‘Yum Yum’.
A daily debrief included a reflecting on some of the feedback Debbie our host relayed. One lady who has just recently been diagnosed with the “dreadful disease” said that it lifted her heart to see the show and the effect it had on the kids, she said “its a kind of magic”.
We are all are in bed by 10.30pm.
A morning mist lies over the valley, the clowns are excited by the prospect of having some cloud cover from the sun, but by the time they practice the juggling and hat routines it is high in the sky again. Wishful thinking.
The conditions in the schools are good compared to some of the places that we have witnessed in other countries. The government seem to be doing something right in that regard. The food programme ensures that the kids have at least one good meal a day. Saying that, Simon was affected by a talk with a teacher in a library with empty bookcases, he said they needed books.
Both kids and adults here believe that magic is real, so the magic during and after the show inspires awe even in the teachers. Witch Doctoring (‘Sangoma’- traditional healer) is still alive and well in this area, apparently those who have the gift can even travel by cabbage. That would leave a very low carbon footprint!
Our prayers have been answered. Yesterdays trip to the church to visit the Polish missionary priests who are positioned here has paid off as today it is cloudy! YES!!!
The first performance is somewhat relaxed and intimate, the whole audience taking every moment in and laughing in rhythm as if in orchestration with the show.
Later we arrived for the second show. This time it was the kids who performed the finale. They sang Happy Birthday to Colm in Zulu.
Now we have a 3 hour drive back to Durban were we will spend our Saturday washing costumes (dirty socks) and getting stocks and supplies for the week ahead and generally in recovery til Sunday when we return for another week of fun and fun.
Today on the way back to Creighton to continue the second hairy leg of the tour. We went to the home of Mr.Fish in Hammersdale and did a short version of the show outside the local shop for members of his family and friends. It started off as a small audience and as the word spread it got quickly bigger.
Fish, a local hero, was electric. We were all really proud to be there with him, it was great. It will definitely be one of the moments that we will recall above the many other beautiful things that we are privileged to experience with this work.
The first show was great fun, we tightened up some of the material this morning and it flowed much better. Straight after the show kids came up and danced with us, it was a full on party by 11am.
The second show, or rather the 14th show in just over a week, was in a kind of dusty wind tunnel, everything was in chaos as hats and props blew around like tumble weed. The juggling was made extremely difficult but with the support of the crowd the artists managed to get through it.
The after show spectacle was astounding. The students had prepared renditions of traditional tribal dances. Dressed in costumes, the young men and the young women danced in bare feet on very stoney ground, which they stamped upon really hard, with a high kick repeating with force throughout the piece.
It’s great to work so closely with artists that come from the country we are performing in. They speak the language, understand the formalities and culture and they’re positive role models for the children. We feel fortunate and we are learning a lot. Thank you, Culture Ireland, for helping to make this exchange possible.
Two schools, both within eyeshot of one another, but both extremely different in terms of wealth, though equally fabulous audiences. One was a poor school and the other was extremely poor. Among other things there were several windows broken, as was their water pump roundabout were kids play and pump water at the same time. Its very ergonomic when it works.
At the end of the second show we were treated to more traditional dancing and a great body percussion group. Respect!
On the way home today the clown car got caught momentarily in a sandstorm after the windiest and shortest show yet, as we had to cut some numbers. The audience were teenagers, the oldest we’ve had to date, so everyone was a little nervous before it. But they loved every moment and every gag that didn’t blow away ended in uproarious laughter. An older teenager told Sussie how he was in a comedy troupe but it broke up. After seeing the show he was inspired to form another.
Everyday we go deeper and higher into the mountains. The two shows today ended with the students dancing and singing for us. One song ‘Freedom is Coming Tomorrow’ really touched our hearts.
A student called Nobuhle wrote this comment afterwards “It was good to laugh and to see that there are people from another world. All we know here is things that we see on the world map that our teacher draws on the chalk board.”
The school today has the shyest, poorest and emotionally unhealthiest children we have come across so far. It seems that they have big troubles for very little people.
The clowns gently win their confidence and ripples of giggles develop into chortles and then waves of laughter until finally during Simons football routine Simon drops a ball (on purpose) and Gavin, the referee, reveals his purple undies instead of a red card, it creates a tidal wave of hysterics among children and adults alike.
All the performers have a very positive outlook of our collective experience. It was very special for everybody. The highlights definitely were the tribal dance performances from the children. They were truly beautiful.
12 days 22 shows and 6,000 happy customers.
A big THANKS to :
• the team from South Aftrica, it was a pleasure to work alongside you guys and to the behind the scenes crew from CWBSA, Jamie, Lulu and Bongiwe.
• The ladies and gent from Sunflower Help and the schools that we visited and played.
• The CWB Ireland team, Margot, Peter and Elena and to our counterparts in the global clown community.
• Cork Circus for the fundraiser on the streets of Cork and Belfast Community Circus for their support and of course Simons Hair and Beard. They have gone to a good home.
• Culture Ireland, especially, without their continued support this project would not have been possible to realise.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.