Rwanda ’12

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Colm O’Grady, Jonathan Gunning, Arran Towers and Brian Fleming arrived safely in Kigali, capital of Rwanda on November 2nd 2012 for two weeks on tour with Clowns Without Borders Ireland. They are to perform circus/clown shows in refugee camps along the border with Congo.

Monday 5th November – Kigeme Refugee Camp

An unforgettable day, a road trip, through terraced valleys and paddy fields fringed with banana trees, in a bus with six Rwandan acrobats. We drive through heavy rain and around an overturned lorry to reach a refugee camp perched on muddy slopes. Our bus is instantly surrounded by hundreds of children, and so the fun and games begin!

We perform on a packed earth ‘playing field’ which literally crumbles over a sheer 10m drop at our backs, so seriously no escape! We play to a vocal crowd of easily 800, and for a first run it goes well. They love the magic and the crowd interaction. The Gisenyi Acrobats go on after us and rock the place, seriously skilled guys. All in all a job well done.

Tuesday 6th November – Kigeme Refugee Camp
Unbelievable things happened today. To set the stage, so to speak, we returned to the location of our first performance and in the morning ran acrobatic, theatre and circus workshops. We were met warmly and gently, most especially by the very young children who were not at school. We returned after lunch to do the show again, a huge crowd awaited us; children ran after the bus as we passed, a huge roar went up as we pulled up. We played to easily 1,500 people, some high up in trees. Some comments:

‘For the first time I have walked through the camp and people have not greeted me with their problems.’ (UNHCR)

‘Usually we have to inform people one hour before an event or visit to get people to gather, today over five hundred were waiting for the performance two hours early.’ (UNHCR)

‘The teenagers never get involved, but they came to these workshops and stayed.’ (UNHCR)

7th and 8th November – Kiziba camp, near the border with the Congo.
The schedule of the first week of this tour has allowed us an opportunity to directly experience the impact of our performances on the residents and UN staff of a camp. We have visited two camps so far and each time have returned to the same camp the following day to offer workshops and to perform the same show again. The reception we have received on the second visit is very revealing and inspiring and goes some way to answer some of the concerns we would wrestle with and others level at CWB:

Why send clowns to Africa?

Is it worth the expense?
Is it deserving of state funding?
Is it a worth-while demand on UN staff?
Traumatised and hungry children’s needs are greater than a visit from clowns.

The evident differences we have experienced on our second visit to each camp go a long way to addressing these concerns.

First visit:
Children demand money and pens from us.
Many children are nervous, even running away from us.
There is cool indifference and general confusion from UN staff about what it is we are proposing.

Second visit:

Smiles and waves of recognition, children chasing after our bus. They repeat songs and act out parts from the show. Eventhough they have already seen the show they gather hours before it is due to start and our audience doubles even triples in size. The level of excitement is electric!
There are very few requests for money; there are many, many demands from the very young children to simply hold hands.
The UN staff are warm, relaxed, joking and requesting further visits.
Traumatised and hungry children say thank you, laugh and joke with us and ask when will we come back. They chase the bus for as long as they can when we leave.

9th November – Kiiziba Camp

We drove out early morning to the camp along a gorgeous winding route of green lush hills and deep swooping valleys. Teo, our driver, astounded us again as he negotiated near impossible bends with his bus.

One of the loveliest experiences of this trip has been how often our hands are held, sometimes by 7 or 8 children on each side.  Here was no different. After a few short minutes we had become surrounded by so many children that four separate guerilla performances sparked simultaneously into life. With Arran, Brian, Jonathan and Colm dotted across the stretch of camp, the rough track was lit up by little islands of call and response, mime, body percussion, silly faces, animal impressions, and gentle chatter. Flocks of adults began to gather in outer rings, observing the oddness of our visit with smiling faces. After several improvisational marathons we were signaled to go on to the hall to start our official workshops.

While the acrobats led over 50 teenagers (soon to rise to 100) in an acrobatics workshop in the large gym that had been donated by Barcelona football club, Colm and Jonathan were given a long dimly lit classroom in which to teach 20 young adults.

Colm and Jonathan took turns each in leading a range of activities that focused on listening exercises, trust games, focus, team bonding and keepie uppie. After a fun hour Brian and Arran took over with a dynamic class of rhythm, song, and circus skills. Luckily the students had a good command of either French or English and so with no break for translation they took easily to singing “Whack for the Daddio”, spinning plates and mastering scarf juggling.

Just as a very successful workshop was coming to a close all plans were changed by a heavy persistent rain that kept us indoors for another 90 minutes. For those students who hadn’t fled out onto the mud soaked ground, we pulled out a mixed bag of tricks that included handstand coaching and a lengthy game of hackie sack.   It was during this bonus time with the children that we were treated to the sight of a young boy learning 4 ball juggling in 10 mins. Astounding.

The show was a riot of fun from the off. There were hoots and hollers throughout Jonathan’s magic and Arran’s Indian paper routine, each scene raised to new heights by superb audience participation with invited children repeatedly outdoing themselves with the unexpected.

This show was a powerful exchange between us clowns and acrobats and a very excited audience. It was the second time in two days that we’d performed in the camp, proving indeed that repeated visits create a bond. Our first visit expressed to a curious uninitiated audience what we were all about, the second visit gave them an opportunity to engage further and explore a playfulness that had been submerged for too long.

Sunday 11th November ’12 Day Off Kigali

We managed to organise and fit in an extra show on our day off with the help of Charles Muirhe a volunteer from a centre for street children on the outskirts of Kigali (he incidentally drinks the Rwandan favourite of Guinness with Coca Cola. It’s a sin I know).
We took a taxi with our all gear piled on top of us and when we arrived in a super rich part of Kigali we knew that we were lost, this style of estate was not built for housing street kids. Bosco our driver (not the famous hand puppet) asked a kid for directions and just by turning a corner or two we rolled onto the dirt roads that we’re accustomed to. The education centre was a brick building surrounded by a shanty town overlooking Kigali’s industrial hub.
The kids who were playing on the broken and beaten up playground were delighted to receive us and Arran immediately connected with them, creating a useful distraction while the others set up. Brian was surrounded by a group of fascinated men with his improvised percussion set up and wondrous loop station sound check. Thumbs up from him and we were ready to romp.
We had a lovely intimate audience of kids and adults with two over enthusiastic youth leaders joining in and getting up to dance even during Arran’s magic routine, though he didn’t seem to mind.
After the show the teenage girls performed a traditional dance they had prepared for us. The enthusiastic teachers finished the proceedings with a spirited duet.
It was as if the sky were a timed sprinkler system, the dancing stopped and the rain fell like the beating drums that were simultaneously resounding from a nearby classroom. Maybe it was a rain dance?
The audience and clowns huddled together under what little shelter there was. Many tiny hands took the opportunity of feeling the contrast between Colm’s hair and Jonathan’s smooth head.
Just by carrying our gear to the taxi we got water logged, our spongy shoes stayed wet for days. Afterwards we felt sorry for the excited street kids who got drenched from playing in the downpour. The question that dogged us was: In rainy season how do the children get their ragged clothes dry?

12th November –  Nyabiheke Camp

We left Kigali in the early morning with our bus piled up with the requisite supply of clowns, acrobats, bags, and bananas.

Once our bus was seen it was swallowed whole. Colm, managing to pry open the door, released his giddiness by shouting “Banana!” at the wide eyed kiddies buzzing below him. “Banana Banana” they roared back. Each of us were wrenched out of the bus by grabbing hands, inspected by a thousand fingertips, swilled around a sea of children and washed back up onto our seats. And we all came back with the same story, each of us jabbering about receiving the mother of all hugs from a disabled boy.

By the time we were ready to begin, over 1,200 children had surrounded us in a ring. With the sun beating down on us, Arran, Colm, and Jonathan warmed up the crowd with gentle improvisation and simple slapstick. Brian gave us the signal that the sound set up was done and off we went rolling through our numbers, teasing playful interaction out of the audience.

A little boy in jeans worn to the bone was beckoned on stage to blow Colm’s newspaper into his face. He enjoyed himself so much that he didn’t want to leave, and why would he with the whole refugee camp cheering him on.

When Brian interrupted Colm’s juggling with an exhibition of his finest African dance moves we had an extra, unplanned treat. An excited little boy ran up on stage to dance beside him, mirroring each of Brian’s moves and throwing great power into every arm-swing and hip gyration.

Over the course of our tour we have been looking at ways of performing numbers that put the Rwandan acrobats and us Irish clowns together. After our first show we saw that both groups knew the human caterpillar trick and so, from show 2, each of our performances have ended with all 10 performers sitting tight one behind the other and then flipping over onto our hands and crawling across the stage.

13th November – Gihembe camp

Hands were busy today: clapping, shaking, pointing, waving. Small hands held Colm’s hat, tiny hands picked Arran’s invisible popcorn. A forest of hands slapped Jonathan’s bald head while large hands stopped small boys from rushing the stage.  Many hands made little work of unpacking the van one last time.

Clowns Without Borders (CWB) initiatives act as a catalyst to reignite play and creativity in children and adults who have been traumatised by disease, conflict, or natural disaster.  Alongside this primary mission is the equally important aim that we celebrate people. That can be achieved when one child succeeds with a trick for the first time or when an entire audience cheer as a local outwits a clown.

There is also very importantly, the added note that we, as visitors from Ireland have the role of witnesses. We are here to witness this Peoples’ story, to hear them and see them and carry their story with us.  Today the residents of Gihembe would like us to witness them being dynamic, creative and resurgent. They succeed with honours.

Capitalising on our visit, the residents had organised a presentation by the camp Karate club. We arrived to the sight of a large crowd cheering on their own as children, teenagers, and adults stepped through their practiced katas. Tiny warriors and full grown ninjas sliced and punched the air to an appreciative audience.

The four clowns, huddling together for encouragement and last minute words of wisdom, turned around to begin and were met with flashbacks of the community games in Mosney, circa 1988. There on our stage was the final of the Gihembe camp sack race. 6 children hopping for their lives on an 80 metre concrete course. If ever there was an omen for a great show that was it.

There was a ready excitement all about the stage when we hoisted our great big tatti bags onto Jonathan’s scrawny shoulders and launched into our call and response song. “Thumbs up… Elbows out.. Knees together.. Bums out.. A Chuga Cha…!!”

Fun was had during the set up for our cantilever move (where Jonathan sits up on Colm’s shoulders, sticks his two feet under a child’s armpits, lies back and hoists the child off the floor before Colm spins them both). Arran was busy searching the audience for a volunteer while having to contend with the two clowns shouting at him from centre stage “Not him! Too light. WOAH!!!  Not that fella, way too heavy!!”Finally, Arran returned with a bantam-weight girl about 11 years old who was spun on the spot with such velocity that she might have ended up in neighboring Burundi.

A lovely new addition to the show was when Brian had his dancing number cut short by one of the acrobats.  Augustine snook up behind him, wrapped his jaws around the back of Brian’s belt and hoisted him up in the air.

Our show was followed by the acrobats who got a huge roar when they took to the stage. The children particularly enjoyed the fight scene, screaming their approval at the jet healed antics of the boys from Gisenyi.

Our lunch break back in Byumba was followed by an impromptu street show to dazzled onlookers. Colm and Arran juggled while Brian soundtracked the excitement on his djembe. Jonathan was then called on to coach a wildly enthusiastic audience volunteer to “just stand still” as clubs whizzed past his nose.

Back in the camp we all broke off into a series of guerilla workshops and performances. Little islands of clowns surrounded by residents could be seen in every direction, each one erupting with movement and laughter. Over by the freshly dug flowerbeds, a league of Ireland sized crowd gathered to watch Brian, Jonathan and a group of children play football. A cup final roar went up every time Brian was nutmegged (which was quite often).

Over on the basketball court, the acrobats led a class to approximately 100 students who were twisting into back flips and handsprings within the hour. Extraordinary!

Near the end of our visit, crowds of children and adults engulfed the bus to catch a glimpse of the puppets that were popping up inside. Jonathan no. 1 (the acrobat from Rwanda) and Jonathan no. 2 (the clown from Ireland) were drawing gasps from outside the bus with the antics of an odd little bird and a daft little man, 2 puppets that caused the children to get so excited that the bus rocked ever so slightly from side to side.

During this tour we reached 10,000 children, who, as can be seen by the photos enjoyed every moment.

This trip has been an enormous success with huge crowds amassing everywhere we played and anywhere we parked. We are indebted to Culture Ireland for funding this mission. We send out a big thank you to the Gisenyi acrobats, UNHCR Rwanda, Your Man’s Puppets, Cork Circus, Margot and Peter, and our patient families back home.

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Rwanda ’12