Rwanda 2015

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6th – 22nd January 2015

10 shows, 15 workshops reaching 6,300 mostly children through the performances

and 600 children and youths through the workshops.



The team of Jonathan Gunning, leader, Sandra Gonzalez Bandera, Donal McConnon and Alex Allison, rehearsed in Ireland for 10 days before departing on 6th January 2015 on the long flight to Kigali. After a long 25 hours of travel made up of one bus, three trains and three and a half flights they finally got stuck into a short but sweet nights sleep in Kigali.

Kachyro  9th January

The Mother Superior Margarita told us that Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, opened an Orphanage in the 70’s is in one of the poorest areas of Kigali, Kachyro.

60 smiling children, young adults and elderly special needs people were our audience for the day, sheltered by a roofed patio they were entertained by the smooth sounds of Donal’s soothing melodies as we prepared ourselves “back stage” under a portrait of the Pope. The show began and the audience laughed and smiled, cheered and clapped, and enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed being there with them. We struggled as the children attempted to teach us to count to 5 in Kinyarwanda, our pronunciation slipping with each attempt.

We were in effect performing to 3 audiences in one, the children who laughed heartily at our silliness, the elderly who appreciated our efforts but didn’t quite get us, and the Nuns, specifically Sister Wilma who had the look of a leaving cert invigilator.

10th January

We returned for our second show at Maison du Quartier. What a welcome! Streams of waist high hugs. The house/Maison is a safe place where children and mothers can gather, play, up skill, and learn to sing or dance. The children, 50 of the most gentle kind, were full of smiles and hugs.

Kimironko  11th January

At Kimironko forty or so children sat themselves on small wooden seats. The children waited politely and excited as Sandra and Alex attempted to outwit a crowded bench of boys for a place to rest their legs and Jonathan, a little frustrated, struggled to pick up a hat with fumbling hands and feet.

The children laughed as one, shared confused looks when one of the clowns did something extra silly, and entered the stage with extreme politeness when called upon.

The highlight was probably our chair routine, for which one of the children was happy to give up their seat. Mimi (Sandra) and Bobo (Jon), pushed and pulled the chair, whipping it from underneath each other and with the soundtrack of delighted yelps and screams from the children, gave the audience what they wanted: 20 pratfalls in under a minute.


Kiziba Camp  12th January

The Gisenyi Acrobats joined the Irish team. Gisenyi Acrobats are now a formidable group of 50 with their own training centre in the north.

Upon exiting the jeeps, we immediately hear groups of kids shout, “a-chooga-cha, a-chooga-cha”. Jonathan, with the command of a drill-sergeant, shouted “thumbs out, hands together, knees together…”. The group of children jump to attention, repeating his commands and following suit- “a-chooga-cha, a-chooga-cha…” Jonathan notes excitedly that they still remember the song from the last project over two years before.

The workshops start on a note of high-energy and enthusiasm. Donal and Alex take a group of boisterous Congolese teenagers. They accept the games eagerly with an added couple of gallons of testosterone.

A crowd of teenagers timidly sat at the edge of the hall and had to be coaxed to stand up and join the clowns. They didn’t stay quiet for long, as they were soon completely focused on a movement exercise based on numbers. Learning how to say “1,2,3” is one of the best decisions we’ve made. “Imne, Kabiri, Gatatu”. We split the group into pairs and had them all present their final movements. It was a joy to behold. The laughter was so loud that it attracted a huge crowd. The original class of 20 had morphed into a crowd of 100plus, all of them jostling for space in order to follow the clowns’ instructions.

The venue for the show is a full-sized outdoor basketball court. We decide to split the show between the Irish and Rwandese interweaving our acts together. The space is wonderful and large to work in. Mimi(Sandra) chases Bobo(Jonathan) through a sea of kids lining the stands. Crowds part in the panic while Dodo(Donal) picks away frantically at the guitar. Mimi’s attention is stolen when she runs into the arms of her beloved Lolo(Alex).

Next up are the acrobats whose acts are pumping with energy. A choreographed fight scene shows extraordinary skill and connectedness. These are artists who clearly love what they do, but also take it very seriously.

The 1000plus crowd whooped and roared with laughter. We enjoyed ourselves too.

Kigeme Refugee Camp  13th January

We split ourselves into 2 groups for our workshops. Alex and Donal had the karate students, all boys. Sandra and Jonathan had the pleasure to lead a group of 15 lovely young girls between the ages of 6 and 14 years old. The girls were part of the traditional dancer group in Kigeme Camp.

While setting up it became apparent that things would not run smoothly. After some time, we found it impossible to continue with the show and deemed it best to abandon it since most of the kids were more concerned with watching out for the flailing twigs. The children very rarely get to see shows of any kind so when Clowns Without Borders or Gisenyi acrobats do perform, the camp volunteers struggle to cope with the excitement of the children.

As Donal and Jonathan packed up the jeeps with Augustine and Theo, Sandra and Alex attempted a 100 child version of the spanish game “El corro de la patata”

Clowning around in Rwanda

Mugombwa Camp 14th January

We crammed a group of 30 teenagers into the medium sized room and took turns to lead them in an increasingly energetic series of games and exercises. When called upon to present, the boys strutted confidently while the girls giggled behind their sleeves and spun away in embarrassment.

The workshop reached a mighty crescendo as the acrobats led a rendition of the wonderful call and response game “Sankalewa” where a participant had to find a hidden object through song.

Down the hill we set up our show between what resembled two long narrow stables. The 600 plus audience gathered in a u-shape gently sloping downwards to allow all a good view.

The place was tight with excitement and we delivered each number pivoting from side to side to allow all to see. The acrobats wowed the crowd and us clowns had a fast acrobatic chair number and we teased out ooohs and aaahs with Alex’s juggling routine. Every number seemed to top the last and as we walked through the crowd at the show’s end, people were eager to come and thank us.

Gihembe  15th January

Gihembe is a well established refugee camp with a village feel, situated 45mins from Byumba, the nearest town. The refugees have been based here 22 years having fled conflict in their native Congo. Refugee children born here can work and study in Rwanda, but their parents must remain tied to the camp.

40 teenagers cram into a large hall for our workshop. 60 smaller children gather outside high up on a hill waving and chatting to us anytime one of us emerges from the hal

Us clowns and acrobats take turns leading the children in exercises, our Kinyarwanda improving so much that we only have to call for occasional translation.

We set up on the large basketball court which is by the main meeting point of the camp. It is ideal because the rest of the camp stretches up high around it, making a natural amphitheatre. 1000 people look down upon us, with at least 700 of them children perched like a wall in front of us. To ensure a good view, some brave children have scrambled up high on a basketball ring, which is some sight to see.

Our team of 11 performers run on to start our show, posing and posturing as we sing out our responses to Donal’s opening song, “Rig a dig dig”

Act after act is received with huge bursts of laughter and gasps of disbelief. Did that fella just whip his underwear from under his costume in one fell swoop? Could that girl clown be THAT strong? How high was that pyramid of acrobats? Did they even touch the ground as they flew through the air? Is that juggling or magic?

After our show the crowd swooped down on us to slap our backs and check our muscles. Our truck was reloaded and we played with the children.

Umbrellas crowd2.JPG

Don Bosco, Muhazi  17th  January

After a one hour drive from Kigali, we arrived in the afternoon, we divided ourselves into groups and gave a plethora of different workshops. Alex took a group of about 30 kids through a large repertoire of games, some that Alex taught, others that the kids taught him.

Sandra worked with 3 teenagers, with the mission of reconstructing a puppet mannequin that they had made previously. They built new arms and legs while Sandra taught them the technique of how to build and articulate a puppet.

Down below her, the acrobats, with mats strung across the middle of the basketball court coached a group of enthusiastic boys how to tumble, roll, flip and land safely.

Meanwhile, Donal was jamming with the dancing flute men, trying to find a place for the clarinet in amongst the contra-punctal rhythms of their two note bamboo flute ensemble.

In another grassy corner of the centre, Alex and Jonathan were being made welcome fools by a bunch of giddy children with the help of a large rubber tyre and 60 tickling fingers.

The day finished with a tumultuous rendition of the African game Zaminamina Sankalewa involving us 4 clowns, 40 children, and was led by the Gisenyi acrobats.

Gikomero  Don Bosco 18th January

Shortly after breakfast the Don Bosco centre slowly began to fill with familiar faces from the workshop the day before.

Alex, Donal and Sandra continued work on reconstructing the puppet that Sandra had begun with the local children on Saturday. They sewed and sawed, in an effort to have him ready for his debut at our community festival later in the afternoon.

After lunch, the centre once again began to fill with life. The powerful thump of the tabulas drums echoed through the valley and singing, chanting, and stomping of traditional dancers were heard as they squeezed in a final rehearsal.

The show was a celebration of culture and art, both traditional (the locals) and contemporary (our band of wiley brothers).

The line up included, traditional dancers, an orchestra of Tabulas drums, traditional bamboo flutes, a score of novice acrobats and the Giseny acrobats, a poetry recital, ourselves, and a puppet performance featuring our Sandra and three local children whom she had coached.

The atmosphere was incredible, the excitement and anticipation was apparent through the tapping of feet, clapping of hands and cheering. It was a special day for every single person present. A space where, they together could share what they have been learning, present their new skills to friends and family, be inspired and motivated by the incredible display by the Gisenyi Acrobats, laugh, shout and scream at the clowns pathetic attempts to impress.


Nyabiheke Refugee Camp 16h January

The week ended with our last visit of the tour to a refugee camp. As we went along we steadily gathered an ever growing flock of children running alongside so that by the time we reached the football pitch we already had a lively audience of several hundred.

As has become customary, we got out and mingled with the crowds before the show. Jonathan amused the children by showering himself in suncream while singing his rendition of the jazz standard, But Not For Me. Meanwhile Sandra and Alex directed a choir of about a 70 young children in a game of call and response in multiple languages.

This was probably our largest crowd yet, well over 1,100. The greatest joy was watching all the heads move and react in perfect unison to the rising and falling of Abuba’a diablo and the consequent mass expression of delight followed by a thunderous applause. Roars of laughter were heard as Jonathan and Sandra knocked a chair out from under each other and Alex’s break into a five-ball juggle was met with awe.

Capacitar, Mbazi  20th January

Hardly had we pulled up outside the gate and the singing had already started. We were introduced to some people, passed through the gate and arrived at a small marquee in the garden where the singing and dancing intensified and grew more joyous, “Murakaza neza” they chanted, “You are all very welcome”. Warming us heartily with this uplifting greeting were about 50 women of all ages, singing and dancing and clapping their hands, inviting us to spread our arms out wide and join them in the dance. On a bamboo rug some toddlers played about without a care in the world.

Capacitar, in partnership with Trocaire, focuses on alleviating some of the difficulties which single mothers face in Rwanda. The centre in Mbazi works with 105 or so local women who would otherwise suffer absolute social exclusion for the sin of having a child out of wedlock. They provide a safe space for them where they can rebuild a sense of dignity. They do this by giving courses and workshops which boost empowerment within the group and also by hiring local people to work in the centre encouraging acceptance and reintegration back into the community.

The first day we did a total of three workshops, the first one with all the women, in which we worked through games of trust and confidence. After a refreshment break, the group was divided in two; Sandra took the group of mothers and their babies and had a nice time with them, teaching them games that they could share with their babies. All of this soundtracked by the sweet laughter of the babies.

The rest of the team took a large part of the group aside and loosened everybody up with theatrical games while Donal complimented them with music.

Capacitar  21st January.

On the second day at Capacitar, having already built a rapport with the women, we kept going with different workshops. Donal and Sandra took one group and Alex and Jonathan the other. We were separated by the marquee in the garden but we could hear the joy and the laughter coming from the two groups.

Alex separated the women into 2 long conga lines, tucking a red cloth tail at the end of each line. The two groups then tried to outwit each other and retrieve the other teams red cloth. The tent soon exploded into hysterics as chairs were knocked flying with the intensity of wanting to succeed.

At noon we started our show for the young mums in the garden, while half of the village piled up on the side of the road peering in from the other side of the fence.

Our clown show struck a powerful chord with the women in ways which we had never expected. In other performances, when Alex magically conjures flowers for Sandra out of the air, the audience reacts with awes and ooohs. Here, the women saw a different subtext; Sandra, a woman, was being treated well, given gifts by a man. Here, the women whooped and hollered their approval. They danced with joy when Sandra won out in a battle of wits but showed disappointment when Jonathan pulled the chair from under her.

Afterwards when we asked the ladies for feedback on the two days we spent together we heard clearly through their perspective. Claudine told us “It was wonderful to see Mimi perform in the show. She was surrounded by 3 men and yet was still comfortable and strong” Ourua agreed, “When she lifted the heavy weight, it was hard for her but she persevered and succeeded in the end. We can learn from Mimi”. On saying our goodbyes, the ladies burst into song again, chanting “Thank you, please come again”.

The team undertook 10 shows and 15 workshops reaching 6,300 mostly children through the performance and 600 children and youths through the workshops. They were really happy with their work, both performances and workshops.


We are very grateful to all our partners mentioned above in Rwanda who made this project possible.

A big thank you to Culture Ireland for funding some of the cost of the flights to Rwanda.

Enormous thanks are due to Jonathan Gunning, Sandra Gonzalez Bandera, Donal McConnon and Alex Allison for giving of their professional time so willingly and humourously in a very challenging environment.

It would not have look so pretty without costumes from Galway Community Circus, Triona Lillis and Macnas. Some props were very kindly lent by Tommy Baker. Rehearsal space was provided free of charge by Galway Community Circus and Bronar Theatre Company for which we are very grateful

A huge thank you to Deborah Wright for directing the show

We were delighted that Ambassador Michael Ryan, Head of Delegation of the European Union to Rwanda hosted a reception for the team in the Residency in Kigali

Without Colm O’Grady’s months of continues phone calls and emails to very many people this project would not have happened.

A big thank you to Peter for his psychological support to the team and to Margot for the endless administration.

Read Donal’s article about the project in The Journal here

See photos of the project here


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Rwanda 2015