Saturday, September 02, 2006


So I'm now traveling throughout South Africa with Clowns Without Borders...
there are four of us clowns - Tim, Esther, Jamie, and me.
We spent one week in Johannesburg preparing our show and now we've been traveling for four weeks. We've done over 40 shows for a total of around 11,000 kids.
We've had three days off.

I don't want to take the time to describe our entire show but it includes a newspaper routine, bubbles (I eat the bubbles and then get hiccups...), chasses through the crowd, a balloon funeral, a little magic, some dance, imaginary balls - I play clown #4 which is the outsider clown.

it's been amazing performing so much - for crowds of hundreds of kids and the crowds just roaring with laughing. Just exploding. It's the kind of audience that I know it feels amazing to be in - when you totally lose control of your laughter.

These kids have never seen anything like us. Our audiences have been almost entirely black kids in poor rural areas and for them to see white people acting so silly is huge. To see adults crying hysterically over a ripped newspaper or popped balloon is also huge. To have us give them so much attention and play with them is too in itself huge.

The more time we spend traveling around the more I realize how much suffering these kids are going through - so many parents dying of AIDS. In Swaziland 42% of people who get tested have HIV and probably in actuality it's even higher. In South Africa fewer people get tested, the statistic is about 25%. So much poverty. The schools are poor - no electricity, dirty outdoor toilets, broken windows. Some kids can't afford a school uniform, that have to go to a community center to get a meal. we are working through a lot of organizations that help kid run households (like say a 15yr old taking care of three younger siblings) with housing, school fees, food, and so on. Some of the organizations have family-like foster care for orphans (say ten kids with one house mother) but the trend is more towards helping them stay in their own community.

So the kids really have a lot of sadness at home. And our impression of them during and after the shows- laughing, running, jumping, smiling, just totally bubbling - is very one-sided. We don't see what it's like before we get there and after we leave.

Right now we're staying at a Buddhist Retreat Center near a town called Ixopo (beautiful hiking trails on sloping hills and valleys lightly scattered with rondavel houses and cows and goats, amazing vegetarian food with is a treal after all the meat people have cooked for us, and single rooms to ourselves!) - the center has an outreach program called Woza Moya (Come Spirit) which is one of the nicest programs we've worked with. It's co-run by a white woman named Sue who speaks fluent Zulu and Tisi who is from the area. Of all the programs we've worked with it feels integrated into the local community, accepted and appreciated in a way some of the others aren't. Though of course there is some awkwardness with the center because it's easy to see it as mostly white people coming there and sitting, doing nothing for days at a time, while black people do the cooking and maintenance and cleaning.

We've stayed here for a week teaching workshops at one of the local primary schools - taking two grades a day so that we work wit hall the kids. Playing movement and comedy games - being silly and getting them to be loud and let everything out. Just an hour or so with each group. The kids are so great. so much better behaved than kids in the States. I mean I can think of only two "trouble-makers" our entire trip. They focus so well, and since they speak hardly any English and we speak hardly any Zulu, it's great how quickly they pick up the games. I spoke with one of the teachers the other day about how our workshops are going and she said they are so thankful we're doing it. That the kids are so happy this week. and indeed you could hear the whole school full of giggles and chatter. She said everything we are doing is good and they really hope we come back.

so many of the kids ask when we are coming back and it is heart-wrenching to leave each place so quickly, often without any kind of proper goodbye. not knowing if I will ever come back.

The three shows we've done that were the most special for me were our smallest ones - at a drop-in center for street kids, at another kind of drop-in center for families, (those two the poorest groups we've performed for) and here at the retreat center to thank the staff. But beautiful to share an intimate show like that and really see each individual that you're touching. Really feeling like a close group.

Most of our shows are so big - at schools - for hundreds of kids. After the show all the kids linger, pushing in around us, wanting to get a wave, a hand shake, touch our clothes, a hug, even occasionally an autograph. we are totally stars here. The four of us split up and we entertain the kids crowded around us by playing call and response games, singing, dancing, doing magic, or just being silly.

At one of our shows we got mobbed by the crowds of kids. It was at the end of the school day. 500 kids. The principal and all the teachers left as soon as we started. So it was just us, our two escorts from the NGO we were staying with, and the kids.
We played in the round and all of them pushed closer and closer during the show until our playing area was tiny - maybe 12' diameter.
So we ended the show early, tried to get away, it was scary the mob mentality. these kids meant us no harm. But they all wanted to get a piece of us so badly, they were craving the kid of energy and attention we were giving them. They started running and pushing and crowding. 500 kids rumbling over each other. Jamie and Esther tried to run ahead. Tim and I tried to stay calm and hold some of them back. It was very scary.
We split them up into smaller groups doing call and response stuff to calm them down. We tried to get in the car but they surrounded it and there was so way for us to drive away. They were so small. But so many. The man who escorted us there finally whipped his belt from his pants, raised it over his head, and immediately the crowd scattered. It was sad that it got to that. But still even at a show like that, the kids love it. They had a wonderful time.

We've had lots of other adventures - a lot of car trouble which has been very frustrating (an old Beamer - broken timing belt, standing on the side of the road in the dark waiting for a tow, constant oil leak, and we put the wrong fuel in twice, pushed it up a hill) but hopefully we have a vehicle donation for the next half of the trip from a Toyota dealership and we are hoping for a nice new double cab pickup. I got a bit of a cut on the back of my head while taking my bag out of the back of what they call here a Backiie (a pickup with cab and seats) - the back of the Backiie had nothing holding it up and a gust of wind sent it crashing down and one of the bolts sticking out of it went right into my head - a long car ride to the hospital with Esther holding my head together, 6 stiches (my hair shaved in a little patch around it) - but my skull is fine and surprisingly none of it really hurt much. it's all healed now and hair is growing back.
and lots of great chance meetings and hospitality from people that we hardly know.

We have encountered so many amazing people along the way. Keep coming back to the question of what makes someone stand out...because every show, every place we go, there is one kid, or a few, who grab my heart.
And then we have to leave and move on. It is heart wrenching.

Spunky girl Lungile who I mistook for a boy and then sang the song "Amanzawe" to just her and we talked about how she could become a clown.
The three girls at our last show who wouldn't let go of me and dragged me around the playground telling me I was their friend.
An 18 year old boy named Professor, who lives in an orphanage, wants to study nature conservancy and told me how important our work is because it really brings happines to people who are feeling down. He said our show could even keep someone from committing suicide.
Dudu, an amazing woman who runs SOS children's villages in Swaziland and is just so warm and giving and open and strong.
Just so many wonderful people.

After a lot of our shows the kids do traditional song and dance for us in return for our performance. Often that's the nicest part of the show for us. The joint feeling of appreciation that they feel the need to perform something for us in return. Little tiny kids dancing with bigger kids. It's gorgeous.

I could go on and on...but will stop for now. I miss home a lot - it has been really nice to get emails from you folks that have written. We have two weeks vacation and then back on the road for another month and a half of Clowns Without Borders here in Southern Africa.

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