December 1st 2007
Clowns without Borders Ireland are once again in the field bringing laughter to vulnerable children and adults.
On Thursday November 22nd we left for Uganda to work alongside UNHCR and War Child in bringing shows and workshops to Sudanese and Congolese refugees, and Internally Displaced People in northern Uganda.
Our team consists of Petra Hjortsberg (logistics), Colm O’Grady (project co-coordinator), Rachael Dever (clown), Timmy Hannington (clown), and Jonathan Gunning (clown).
We would like to thank everybody who has helped us in realizing this project. There are too many names to mention but you know who you are. Once again we are enormously grateful to Culture Ireland who has funded this project.
The dress rehearsal
After one and a half jet lagged days in the hectic scramble of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, we set off to the outskirts for our first show, our dress rehearsal.
We decided to leave early for our 3pm show to give time for our sound tech. but we were soon caught in a creeping traffic jam made worse by the combination of heat and exhaust fumes. Our taxis strained across 4 x 4 terrain as we left the motorway behind and slowly approached our destination. A to Z Children’s Charity.
The more rural landscape was a tonic to the over crowded hustle of the city. Little children peered at us from their country gardens as our rattled taxis stumbled through the gates of A to Z.
And then the world changed. Here there was colour and movement and music and play, dispersed with joyful energy by the hundreds of uniformed children.
Leaving the taxis we were immediately plunged into a world of children. A little hand took Jonathan’s hand and pulled him down to its owner’s level where Jonathan sat crouched for a moment gazing into the innocent joyous face of a small boy who curiously poked and prodded his white forearm. We clowns were each of us gently presented with little eyes and hands all beaming soft hellos.
Two of the main organizers, George and Barbara greeted us and showed us to our changing room. After carting our baggage into an overcrowded office we began our preparations in earnest. Each of us took a job in hand and got down to it. Petra and Timmy figured out the sound desk while Rachael hung our backdrop, Colm put together his 7 foot unicycle and Jonathan pumped up the large blue gym balls for our juggling routine.
A large wooden stage had been erected for our use but it was covered by a hundred children pulsating to pounding reggae.
Our show was a great success, with everyone doing their job. The children loved Timmy’s puppet goalkeeper and Rachael’s reactions. A good dress rehearsal is a good sign for the future.
Post show we each played with the children, dancing and laughing, and little teaching. Today was a wonderful and gentle introduction to clowning in Uganda.
Sunday 25th November
Today we woke at 5.30am and took a flight on a 16 seater plane to the north western town of Arua where we will be based for the coming week. After settling in to our hotel we had a relaxed meeting with UNHCR staff, learning a lot about the settlements here. The refugees here are not kept in traditional camps but are in spread out villages similar to the local ones in this region. On arrival, refugees are given land and tools and by using local materials they build their own houses. Plots of land for subsistence farming are also allocated to the refugees. Until they are able to sustain themselves they receive food rations, which are gradually reduced. This self-reliance strategy aims at reducing the dependency of refugees on handouts, thus preserving their dignity.
Monday 26th November
This morning we met with Abdullai, head of the Arua sub office of UNHCR and representatives of the 4 settlements we’ll be visiting this week. We had a very helpful meeting with Isaac from the Ikafe settlement, Doca from Rhino camp, Mama Salome from Imvepi, and Olga from Madi-Okollo.
After lunch we drove to Ikafe to meet the camp commandant and view the possible settings for tomorrows show. We tried to reach Imvepi as well but after our UN vehicle hit a goat we discovered our brakes were damaged and so carefully, we drove back to our hotel. (This event is not connected to the grilled goat we ate in the evening.)
Tuesday 27th November
Today we had our first show for the Sudanese refugees.
Our two drivers, Ali and Saidi drove us to Ikafe along an uneven sandy road pinched between stretches of thick African bush. We gazed out the windows past the proud women carrying the days water or the men herding cows past the little bamboo enclosures.
It didn’t take long to discover one of the most important routines here, signing the visitor’s book. On average we each sign 3 a day. Today, like everyday we had to take a detour to the base camp, sign the book, and then drive to the site of our show.
We had a long thatch roofed building to change in which was frequently visited by curious locals anxious to see what strange behaviour we were up to now.
A mound of earth was chosen as a stage and was therefore swarming with locals checking out the backstage activity. Petra and Rachael were scratching their heads trying to attach our backdrop to two trees. They had a group of 8 men trying everything from rope to tape. Finally somebody produced nails and up went the bright blue backdrop. From our changing area we could hear huge roars of laughter as Timmy warmed up the crowd with what he said was simply doing nothing.
All four clowns then wandered around the stage doing a sound check while the audience looked on bemused. In the end we decided against using our microphones.
Our show was well received, from our opening parade on stage when they cheered at our large map of Africa to our acrobatic twists and turns. We had a bit of a battle though with the unicycle. (We could call it the UN-icycle) We had to wheel it out behind the audience to find some flat ground. It then took an age to coax the audience out from under the shade. All the effort made sense though, when Colm mounted the Unicycle to a great gasp from the audience.
We then made our way to a community hall to give a drama workshop to a local theatre group. Rachael and Jonathan taught the class together while Timmy and Colm casually entertained a crowd under a tree. The workshop was a huge success. The 20 young men responded enthusiastically to each exercise, laughing uproariously at odd moments. During one exercise Rachael split the group into three teams and asked each team to choose a name. She was immediately met with responses of Born to fight, Dragons.
On the way home we were invited to eat at Ikafe base camp under the slowly setting sun.
Wednesday 28th November
Today we visited Rhino camp which is a beautiful lush settlement with a population of 14,000.
Just after stopping to sign our first visitor’s book of the day at the base camp, we met the camp commander Seiko like the watch. He is such a commanding figure that he easily fits his title of Prime Minister.
We had a short meeting with Harriet, the head of DED operations. (A German NGO (Non Government Organisation) that allocates land and distributes non food items.)
A funny thing happened when Jonathan took out his cow puppet. He was strolling around the office making the cow move and talk when suddenly the man in front of Jonathan said I am afraid. Jonathan had to explain to him that the cow was a puppet and that his hand operated him. The man said, What about the sound? I do it, replied Jonathan, Oh!, said the man, greatly relieved.
Our show and workshops were today at a primary school. We started with workshops that were great fun. Colm and Timmy in one room teaching acrobatics while Rachael and Jonathan were in an adjacent room teaching drama. Petra seemed to be everywhere. When she wasn’t taking photos in either room, she was running around in the soaring heat chasing the giggling children.
The show was lovely though a lot of the children had gone home when school time had finished. Our audience was very enthusiastic, the unicycle getting a huge roar at the end.
Thursday 29th Novembe
Today was a very special day. We arrived early at a large secondary school in Imvepi where the children were immediately relaxed and playful around us. Colm and Jonathan responded by introducing them to the joys of Gaelic football.
We prepared quickly for the show and soon got going. We had a large crowd that Petra had to herd from behind the stage to the front. We had lots of fun with interaction. The child called up for magic was playing up to the crowd any chance he got, and the principle was only delighted to join our finale song. We had a nice surprise when, standing on Colm’s shoulders, Tim suddenly called out dive roll. Within seconds they had pulled off a trick that they only ever talked about. Every moment was like that, a surprise for both the performers and the audience.
After a nice rest, we split into our two teaching groups and began our workshops. Colm and Timmy were outside under the shade of trees. Their group of 12 students was surrounded by another 60 onlookers enjoying the spectacle.
Afterwards they were very proud of one particular student when they recounted how they asked this boy to stand on another’s shoulders. He trembled at his first attempt, barely being able to crouch, but triumphed heroically on his second try, standing proud and tall with his arms wide open.
The drama workshop was equally successful. A group of almost 30 middle aged women had travelled from the other side of the settlement to reach the workshop. It was a joy from beginning to end as their strong characters emerged at every turn. We even uncovered a star. A woman by the name of Rosa astounded us with every improvisation, often refusing to stop when we asked her.
That was a greatly satisfying day that was finely topped off by the company of Mama Salome, who by telling us her life story, made three clowns cry.
Friday 30th November
Today was a huge contrast to yesterday.
Before we had even started we learned that one of our drivers, Saidi, had lost his sister the night before. Our thoughts are with him and his family.
Today was hard. Here are a few reasons why.
• After only 20mins on the road we had to stop to fix a puncture.
• A minute before we started our show a wasp stung Rachael.
• It was so hot that the audience stayed far from us under tents.
• A minute after we finished our show a wasp stung Rachael.
Luckily we are resilient clowns. Colm took care of Rachael and despite the temperature and the distance from the audience, we did a good show. Rachael sang Dilin O Damhsha while Colm and Jonathan canter-levered her off the ground. This worked a treat and brought the audience a little closer. Jonathan and Rachael sang The Leaving of Liverpool while Colm and Timmy juggled clubs past their heads. The audience laughed and leaned in a little closer.
The older students enjoyed the drama workshop so much that we are already planning ways of coming back to teach them for a whole month. Apart from various exercises we laughed a lot which is a great way to relax everybody.
The acrobatics workshop wasn’t easy, as a disruptive crowd gathered to see the spectacle, crowding around the teachers and students. Luckily Colm and Timmy found a few focused students who made it worth the effort.
Our day was not finished as we still had to celebrate Timmy’s 30th birthday. The tired clowns partied into the night.
Here ended week one of our Project in Uganda.
Sunday 2nd December
Our day off/travel day – What a mini adventure and fabulous fun thanks to Petra’s super organization, we were able to spend a couple of hours at Murchison Falls and spot some elephants, warthogs, hippos, deer and antelope, Oh My. Oh, and the falls themselves a spectacular sight.
Before we reached the stunning safari park however, we stopped at the roadside to change vehicles and drivers. Suddenly a huge crowd of people gathered around us – craft and food sellers, children and curious elders. Jonathan took out his little man puppet and began interacting with the people gathered. One man in particular was hilarious; he strummed along on his instrument whiles Jonathan made the puppet dance and then climb up a mountain which was the man’s head. Colm played with a contact ball to an enthralled crowd.
Meanwhile Petra and Rachael escaped to the loo and upon returning saw Jonathan dealing with a young man who wanted To call the ladies! “Can I call her?”….. “No”…..”Is she married?”…. “Yes”….”Is her husband here?”……”No”….Hhmmm, time to jump aboard the jeep to escape the admiring looks and marriage proposals.
Before entering Murchison Falls we had to pay an entry fee inside a tiny hut on the outskirts of the park. We joked that Rachael was small, a child in fact and the lady asked how old. “Well how old does she need to be?’… “12”…. “She’s 11!”… “Okay”…. “Ah and we’re residents of Uganda” (This would make it cheaper again, cunning clowns that we are) “Okay”… “And we’ll sing for you if you too”. Nah, last bit didn’t work BUT the clowns did pass for 4 adults 1 child and residents of the country..not a bad bit of scheming for one day.
Monday 3rd December
This has easily been the most difficult and traumatic day for the clowns so far…our first day in Gulu. We headed for a brief and informal meeting at the Gulu UN district office in the morning, the UNHCR staff are very interested to see what kind of reaction we will get at the IDP Camps (Internally Displace People ). These camps are very different from the refugee camps we visited last week.
The clown team split – Jonathan and Rachael making the courtesy calls, Petra, Colm and Timmy driving on ahead to start setting up for the show. Moses our UNHCR contact walked Jonathan and Rachael to the local police station, they waited a little bemused outside the police chief’s office. Then emerged the most intimidating man in Uganda, a huge bull like character with bellowing nostrils and a heaving chest. He was trying to organize security to the camp because he bellowed at Rachael, “We do not want you to be killed now do we Madam!”, “no” she squeaked. This was going to be a big operation – Clowns without Borders – Hardcore in Uganda.
We traveled to Awach IDP camp, 22km from Gulu with an entourage of UNHCR representatives, radio reporters, journalists and a 10 strong armed police unit. It was a huge operation to make people laugh! Driving in to the camp it was easy to see how different it was to anywhere we had been before. The setlement itself was an eyesore – extremely poor, baron, dusty and so dried up. The poverty is shocking – children so thin and ill, shy and wary of the clowns their little faces worn and etched with fear. It’s quite surreal. Horrific posters on the walls drawn by children remind us of Abuse, Abduction, Rape.
Then a truck with a huge sound system on the back drives past with scores of screaming kids running behind, gathering the community to come to our performance. We clowns step into gear and ready ourselves with warm ups (In this heat!?), blowing up big blue balls and assembling the unicycle. There was a nervous tension in the room. Deep Breath.
The show was difficult – the shade we had first found had moved so our performance area was in the blistering noon heat. It was the biggest audience so far, some 2000 people but we clowns are suffering. The Gulu district, where we have been since Sunday night, is harsh. We are working with internally displaced people who are scarred from both their past and daily lives. On arriving at this settlement we were confronted with hard truths. The children have very little light in their eyes. Clowns need little lights that they can inflame and largen. We felt guilty at having water only for ourselves. I think that before we started we were already broken. It is poor here, smiles are like rain.
We also met a war reporter who told us shocking stories that brought us fast to understanding the lack of light.
Tuesday 4th December
What a difference a day makes! After a short wait for security clearance at UN base camp this morning we set off in two vehicles for Anacha IDP camp, 45km from Gulu. No armed police, no dignitaries or reporters, just the clowns and their drivers.
Despite being so quiet and muted from yesterday we gave the show of our lives. 1,400 people rocking to their neighbour’s smiles. Phew! We needed the tonic of their laughter. We performed under the shade of a massive old tree, so huge it easily covered us and the audience. Finding good shade for the show is a must if we are to last the pace and keep our energy up.
After a quick bite, we gave two brilliant workshops for great young people, before driving back on the dust roads.
Everybody has been struggling since last Friday. Luckily we all have a bit of extra time to settle in this evening. We need it.
Wednesday 5th December
This trip is a delight and a revelation; each day is so unpredictable and today really showed us that. It started off like a normal Clowns Without Borders Day in Uganda, a 1 and a half hour four-wheel drive trip on dusty red clay roads watching folk living their lives in villages of grass roofs and waving at armies of giggling children on roadside paths. We arrived at Acet IDP camp and found a suitable location, the crowds were starting to gather, better get this show on the road, which we did, all looked well. But slowly more and more people started to arrive and the mob mentality grew –children were getting crushed at the front as more and more adults pushed in from behind to see the show. Things turned nasty – crazy men and women beating the crying children with sticks, everyone scrambling in the dirt. It was scary chaos and we were powerless. The clowns had to stop the show.
We tried in vain to coax people back, leaders of the camp shouted down microphones to move back, Colm even took a mic to speak on behalf of the clowns and urge people to co-operate. Timmy witnessed an old lady knocked to the ground and a youth looking at her and shrugging.
After 30 minutes or so things calmed and we reentered the dusty arena like brave warriors to finish the spectacle. Thanks to the clown’s amazing spirit and great sense of humor we finished the show with a bang. Packing up and leaving was wonderful – Petra played chase with joyful laughing kids and Jonathan amused others with his cow puppet which was mistaken for a goat as it was too small to be a cow.
Thursday 6th December
These IDP and refugee camps we are visiting each day are full of so many untold stories. We sometimes go into them expecting misery, braced for the appalling; these places where happiness seems unthinkable yet the camps are full of hope, comedy and sweetness. We clowns each have our special moments with people in the camps; we connect, interact, play and just be with these amazing warm children who melt you with their eyes and big smiles.
There were three mothers with infants strapped to their backs taking part in the drama workshop today. The women joined in every activity, doing all the stretches, movement and activities and the babies slept soundly throughout. Colm and Timmy had to rope off an area for their acrobatic workshop. The Acro workshop is such a big hit – I’m sure there will be little acrobatic troupes all over northern Uganda in the near future.
A lovely uncomplicated day…We clowns need days like this.
Friday 7th December
The clowns awoke in jovial spirits – don’t know if it’s because it’s Friday or because we all had a good sleep under the protection of our mosquito nets. Colm managed to find avocado, pineapple, tomatoes and passion fruits for lunch – Big Gold Star!. We’ve been lunching on bananas and sardines all week.
We set off like sardines ourselves, all 5 of us squashed into the UN vehicle and reached Loyo Ajonga resettlement camp. This settlement is a transit camp for IDP’s who are waiting to go back to their homes. The area is so decrepit and worn yet it’s wonderful to walk through the dust and take in the smells and smoke, the dogs barking, the children shrieking with delight and the amazing graceful smiles of the proud women carrying heavy loads on their heads and small infants on their backs.
A crowd of children gather around us, staring curiously when one tiny girl bursts into tears and covers her little eyes – we are just too white and scary. Our sound system arrives before us so the show is set up quickly and before we know it, we clowns are let loose on the dry grounds of Loyo Ajonga. The show is a delight to play. Our audience, a community of 500 or so, responds enthusiastically to everything we do. Note – the football scene we’ve been struggling with since rehearsals is NOT working so after today it’s been cut, in the trash, deleted, had it’s day so to say…..Phew! We all secretly hated it…
On route home we stopped in the middle of the African bush for a roadside picnic in the afternoon sun. We got back to Gulu quite early..time for a spot of Christmas shopping in the market. Gulu market, back alleys stinking with rubbish and litter and smoke from fires. Basins of dirty water, dust piles and mud yet the evening light illuminates the colours of all the beautiful African fabrics that hang everywhere.
The clowns spend the evening as guests of honor at a social gathering in UNHCR’s private club ‘The Cock and Bull’, a wooden watch like tower structure were they meet Walter, a political leader and easily the fattest man in Uganda. The people didn’t vote him back into office because they believed he was eating all the food!
This morning we get up too early for a Sunday and travel to Lira. “Lira used to be a very pleasant, spacious town, though that may no longer be the case…. There is not a great deal to do in Lira.” – Bradts travel guide. Because of the instabilities in Northern Uganda the population of Lira has tripled in just 15 years due to an influx of IDPs (Internally Displaced People). We arrive and find the cheapest hotel we can, lug our suitcases of props and sound equipment and then our and meet with Rinske and William from ‘Warchild’ our partners with the UNHCR for this coming week. They brief us about our programme and about the areas which we are going to perform in, it seems very well organised and thought out and we depart feeling positive that it’s going to be a great week.
Monday 10th December
With our clown batteries recharged we jump into the UN jeep on our way to the venue. Just then the phone rings. The amphitheatre that was booked has just been cancelled last minute.
Chaos ensues for the next couple of hours as we go to the government buildings to we meet among many others the Presidential Representative of the district, a stern woman who makes Margaret Thatcher look like Mary Poppins. We collectively gulp as she screams from her desk “Anna where is my pen?” She then turns her stare at us. At this point Colm steps up to her desk and hands her a flower, the world stops rotating for a second- she cracks a smile and within minutes she’s laughing out loud with us.
The new improvised venue for the workshops is in the grounds of USAID when the participants eventually find their way after getting lost several times. Jonathan and Rachael teach a workshop to a mixed group with hearing impairments, finding a great depth to the movement work. Timmy and Colm were enthused to be teaching their workshop to ‘Acroboyos’, an acrobatic troupe hungry to learn. Later on they are to do pre show and post show performances with CWB.
Red beans and rice for lunch and then we prepared for the show in the new venue ‘Akia-Bua’ football stadium- we feel like the Spice Girls. As we change into our costumes Petra erects the makeshift set upon the back of the ‘Warchild’ truck we are performing on. From the moment we step on stage and Rachael starts to go bananas we know it’s going to be a good show. Timmy premiered his new contact routine to an audience of over 1500 people with a great success.
Tuesday 11th December
It’s the second day of the third week and exhaustion is at our heels as we make our way to Barr a bumpy 10km drive outside Lira, it’s a former IDP camp. Since the peace talks in between the government and the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) since 2006 many people feel secure enough to go back to their original homes. The fields that were once covered with refugee huts are now thriving with crops, which is a huge contrast with some of the camps in Gulu last week.
We go to the child friendly space that has been set up by Warchild and enter the class rooms for our workshops only to find that they are twice their usual capacity for acrobatics and the drama class’s is confronted with an ever expanding class that range from 6 years old to 26, the room is fit to burst.
After the class the clowns find their way to the crèche (also set up by Warchild). Surrounded by scores of beautiful children we have a good ol’ sing-along, it was such fun.
We set the show up in the playground in the blistering sun without any shade- you could fry an egg on the top of the stage truck- eggs for lunch! Timmy does his magic getting the mics up and running and we play to a community of over 500 people that have gathered beneath the nearest tree. The big hit of the show is when Jonathan chases his volunteer for his magic number through the crowd, they love it!
After we finish our performance it is the turn of the Lango Tribe, they are native to the Lira district, they perform a potent traditional dance for the gathering and Colm and Rachael find themselves part of the after party dance celebrations.
As we leave, Jonathan does a simple routine with a balloon and the kids are magnetized by it. As the jeep pulls away the kids run around keeping the balloon afloat until finally- POP!
Later at our nightly CWB meeting the concerns of the police chief arise. There has been an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Uganda and if it comes to the Lira district there will be no public gatherings. Rachael’s response to this news is (in a Donegal accent) “Seriously, I wouldn’t like to get it…. at all!” We peel into laughter.
Wednesday 12th December
We arrive in Apala to the sound of our MC announcing our show from the sound truck, drumming up business around the village. Fatuma from UNHCR translates it as “Come and see the white people. You have seen them on TV, now see them play live!”. What an introduction.
We go to the school and we talk to the deputy head master before we set about teaching our workshops with a whole new understanding of overcrowding. The same class rooms that we are using have up to 140 children in one class. How they fit in these is beyond imagination. Again we split into teams of 2 and facilitate two wonderful workshops. The drama students who greet Jonathan and Rachael on their arrival with a wonderful song also perform for the crowd after our show as Lango Warriors with shields and spears dressed with tribal feather head pieces.
As we relax after class Jonathan performs his puppet for a group of curious children dressed in rags and Colm entertains them with a series animal impressions, the kids all join in laughing.
We find a glorious tree to shade both audience and performers. Rachael’s Irish Ballad canter lever act sends the crowd into hysterics as Jonathan’s hat flies off as the trio spin showing off his bald head, reports later say that the audience thinks he is a very nimble old man. We have really found the dynamic of the show improvising new scenes all the time like for instance Timmy’s handstand routine, which went down a real treat.
After the show the clowns retired to the luxury of their straw hut changing room. A good show all round.
Thursday 13th December
The road to Aloi is lined with sunflowers stretching in the early morning sun. There is a real sense of hope and a new found prosperity here. We pull up in another Warchild ‘Child Friendly Space’ and the festivities have already begun. Scores of middle aged dancers in gum boots stamp out a rhythm in the dust to “reorganise their bodies” we are told.
We are lead up a winding pathway through a small settlement of straw houses, children playing and chickens to where our workshop volunteers are awaiting our arrival. The acrobatic group is full of young adults proud to be learning what they can teach to the younger generation. The drama class ends with a magnificent energetic dance in our honour. It feels like a full day already and we are only at lunch. We eat with the drama group, although they won’t touch what has become our staple diet- white bread, sardines and avocado. We don’t blame them, their chicken and ugali (maize) looks far more appetizing. A few of them try avocado for the first time with hilarious consequences- We gesture “it’s like eating soap”, they agree laughing.
The whole day is one big festival, we witness amazing tribal dance pieces from various groups of the Lango tribe. CWB take to the stage to finish an amazing day with gusto. The audience is now well over 2000 people gathered in a circle around us. Petra is frying whilst multitasking in the sun- sound, photography, crowd control, stage management among many other things. From the moment we step onto the stage the atmosphere is electric, everything that we do works, every opportunity that presents itself for play is done so to great applause and laughter. We throw the big blue balls into the audience and they go wild with delight until one ball comes back burst and Colm turns the catastrophe into a hilarious tantrum.
As we sit soaked in sweat, unable to move off the floor of our changing room a man from the village by the name of Roberts comes in to thank us and says “the villagers will talk about this for years.” We feel blessed.
Thanks to the organisational skills of Warchild the day was a complete success- They ROCK
Friday 14th December
The UN clown jeep pulled into the school grounds in Oyam to what seemed like a ghost town. This was a huge surprise as all week we’ve had up to a thousand people in place on arrival. We found one student waiting- Olana Kenneth, he had cycled a round trip of 60km from his village without any gears or breaks on a rickety bike to participate in the acrobatic workshop he had heard advertised on the radio. It would have been worth it to come to teach him alone. The lack of people doesn’t reflect well on us as today we have a special guest reviewing our work. Yumiko- a Japanese journalist, has traveled thousands of miles just to be with us for this one day to write an article about CWB-Ireland and the therapeutic effects of laughter.
Not to be disheartened by the lack of people Jonathan takes out his puppet with the crazy hair and he begins to perform for the passers by along the dust road that is the main street. Colm joins him with the cow puppet and children literally emerge from the bush to see what is happening. The cow puppet miraculously attracted real cows too. We have a beautiful time. Though the puppets had been taken out occasionally during the trip it was great to see both puppets working in tandem, bringing amazement to the faces of the men, women, children and cows.
In our drama workshop we unearthed a star, little four year old called Dave. It was a surprise to everybody as he wasn’t even in our class, but during our exercises his little frame was slowly edging its way into the class room. He started joining in by the grass, then under the door frame, and soon he was standing in the middle of the room soaking in every direction we gave. Even though he was half the size of everybody else we couldn’t keep our eyes off him. When we finally asked him to present on his own, he stole the show. Like a focused little warrior he whizzed about the room, commanding his tiny body to do the most amazing timed movements, that he caused amazement, admiration, and hilarity, all at the same time.
While we take a quick bite and set up the show, Olana Kenneth performs summersaults for the awaiting crowd. A local artist performs one of his songs and then the clowns entered in their outsized pink football outfits singing. We perform a good show to an appreciative audience who have even have even mounted our disused truck to see the performance. Little Dave was also the star of our show. Rachael saw him sitting center stage and had to invite him up. The little dynamo had the 1000 strong audience doubled over. Their cheers actually scared him so much that he nearly sat down mid way through. Little Dave is a star!
After we are packed up and ready to go we are treated to post show entertainment from Petra, our logistics co coordinator- she has developed a routine of her own chasing hundreds of kids around the playing fields to the delight of the children and onlookers.
Our week has been brilliant with lots of full days in communities where CWB are the main act in a day of performances and festivities.
Monday 17th December
All throughout this trip any time we’ve mentioned going to Pader district, we were met by a gasp “Oh no, not Pader District….!!!!” This response naturally had us curious. What we’d learned prior to arriving is that up until six months ago Pader, in the hottest, driest part of the country, had nothing. No electricity, no running water, no food, and certainly by the sounds of it, no laughter.
What we’ve learned after only a few minutes here is that, yes, life is harsher then elsewhere in Northern Uganda, but more importantly, for that reason everybody has been looking forward to the clowns. Everywhere we turn, we are greeted with smiles and giggles, and that’s even before we open our mouths, put on a red nose, or even present ourselves.
Pader is actually quite nice. It has no electricity and so at every stop we hear the constant hum of generators. Things are very basic, but we clowns are treated very well. Not only do we have the only working showers in the district, but we are being taken extra care of by Catherine, our wonderful bubbly host who, when she sees one of our tricks, always says, “I could do that!” (On stage in our last show in Pader, Colm playfully tested her theory. Granted, it was a 7 foot unicycle, but… she couldn’t.)
Our first show was 20mins away in a small IDP camp called Pajule. Our work there was co-ordinated by UNHCR and an Italian NGO called AVSI who work on the ground in the settlements and so have a great involvement with the community.
While setting up for the show we discovered that Colm’s unicycle would have to run on one chain as apposed to two. We had a quick one-chained practice run in a back garden, where Colm gulped, gasped, nodded his head, and said “It should be all right!”
The large crowd gathered under a tree, were soon treated to the extraordinary sight of a one-chained 7 foot unicycle being cycled backwards while the other clowns crouched low and ready to spring up and catch him, should he fall. He didn’t and the crowd loved it.
After the show Rachael and Jonathan stood astounded by a young boy, who in 36degree heat had no choice but to wear his black, well-knit, woolly Aran jumper.
After another show of local tribal songs and dances, each of the clowns spread out and sat under a different tree. The huge throngs of children didn’t know where to go. They ran back and forth to the different trees depending on where the latest burst of laughter erupted from. Colm played his saw in a session with local musicians under one tree, while Timmy played his fiddle under another, elsewhere there were puppets, balloons, and mimicry, while Petra rounded up the entire village and played a game of chase.
Tuesday 18th December
Today was a special ending to the trip. We were hosted by CCF (Christian Counselling Fellowship) which is a local NGO founded by acting program director, Alice Achan. CCF acts as a home and refuge for young women who were abducted by rebel soldiers from the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and forced to marry and have their children. CCF hosts seventy young women between the ages of 15 and 20 and their 35 children. The girls are indebted to CCF as they are not welcome back in their villages. Being the wives of LRA commanders, they are seen as a source of insecurity as well as outcasts for being mothers out of marriage. I was reminded of the Magdalene Laundries, though thankfully the girls of CCF are treated with love and respect.
Our show was held in a field in the town centre of Pader. It was exciting to hold a public show for our last performance with local children, adults, and dignitaries all present alongside the girls from CCF.
Timmy must have found the only box of Ready Brek in Pader because he pulled off incredible acrobatics under the direct rays of the sun. Despite it being the end of the trip he still threw in a few first time flings.
Rachael must have found the only box of Frosties Lucky Charms, she was hilariously wired. The little girl she brought up to play with had a look on her face that said “Oh, this’ll be fun!”
It was a fun show with lots of little streams of improvisation and a nice mix of interaction between all the various strands of audience, from well dressed NGO employees to local kids and pregnant teenagers. And despite her confident boasting, Catherine failed with flying colours, to mount the unicycle. “I could do that!”
CCF hosted dinner for what looked like the entire audience. The food was prepared by the local Mego Ber (Mothers are good) café.
After dinner we launched into our workshops. Colm and Timmy taught a wild bunch of local ragamuffin kids while Rachael and Jonathan had a giggly workshop with the CCF girls (and their babies) in an oven hot tent.
Our CWB duties were not quite finished though as we later met with some of the children from our show and acrobatics workshop who teased one last class out of us….and our 2 plates of chips. It was…class!
And there ends our trip to Northern Uganda.
Hopefully our reports have given a good flavour of our work and play.
We couldn’t always add in everything that we wanted to when writing the reports so here are a few extra memories. (Cue the music)
Driving back from Ayom and our last show in Lira district we noticed some people limping away up through the fields. Our driver informed us that they were the patients from the hospital who were well enough to walk to our show.
Every morning in Gulu we would sit in the garden of the UNHCR sub office and play Irish music sessions on fiddle, banjo, and the saw, while we waited for security clearance to come through. It was always the nice bit of calm before the storm.
On our last day in Pader, Colm and Jonathan sat high on a wall singing and playing Irish tunes while local kids danced a ceili down below.
It’s hard to choose but after much deliberation we have decided that the Concern office in Pader hosted the most kicking Christmas party this year…..not.
When asked about the name of the CCF café in Pader, Alice Achan, the founder and director replied. “’Mego Ber’ means ‘Mothers are good’, because a mother is a mother and all mothers are good.”
Despite being always surrounded by at least 100 people, Petra always was available to the clowns and stayed calm even when kids were being crushed by falling speakers. In the midst of chaos Petra was our Rock!
We at Clowns Without Borders Ireland would like to thank everybody who made this latest trip possible. Thanks to Culture Ireland and to all our partners in UNHCR, Warchild, AVSI, and all our partners and friends in Uganda.
Further thanks go to Layla and Nick at Zoetrope, our webmaster Terry Fannon, Sinead and Declan at Druid Theatre, and Brenda O’Neil for her hard work and support.
We have had a plethora of fundraisers throughout the country and so we send big clown kudos to Belfast Community Circus, the Black Box in Belfast and call a girl called Suzie, Roisin Dubh in Galway, and the Gombeen Ceili Band.
One last thanks in our list of credits go to the family and friends of the clowns.
Be well and happy
Thanks to :