The Blossoming Circus
Addis Ababa has been enriched with a new space for culture and performing arts. Three weeks ago the Fekat Circus inaugurated their long awaited LAB-ART in a beautiful old compound located in the historical centre of the city, Piassa. With an opening-event that underlined the qualities, talents and potential of the circus to the audience in the packed venue, it became clear that this circus is truly magic. Magic in multiple senses, but in the all-important sense that Fekat Circus is more than just a circus; it is a circus for social change. A non-profit organization aimed at promoting arts as an agent for social change and development. A unique organization that spreads smiles as medicine and circus training as empowerment of children.
The Fekat Story
The Fekat Circus started in 2004 when six youngsters broke out from a traditional circus to do their own thing. The main force behind the team was the young passionate circus-artist Dereje Dagne, who grew up on the streets of Addis Ababa. Circus had changed Dereje’s life, and he now wanted circus to change the lives of other children as well. His dream was to offer circus-training to other youths living in disadvantaged areas of Addis Ababa, to stimulate them through the circus arts and to guide them through a tough life he himself knew all too well. He turned to the Italian children’s NGO CIAI (Italian Center for Children Aid) for help. CIAI saw a potential in the circus-group, and with support from this organization and the donation of free land from the government, the Fekat Circus had their own place for the first time. At the new space around 15 circus artists trained themselves and children from the local community, and had great success for two years.
But in 2006 the circus lost its space. Demotivated and disappointed Dereje and the other artists began to practice around town; in the CIAI compound, and around Hasko at a leather-factory that discarded leather on the ground, which made a soft base for acrobatics. For the next couple of years they only gave limited training and few performances mostly at friends’ houses or parties. But things changed as an Italian woman and man working with CIAI fell in love with the circus project. Giorgia Giunta and Cosimo Chiesa came to the country working on another project for CIAI, but quickly became regular hang-outs with the circus crew. They saw in them something very unique: “Most circus-artists in Ethiopia wish to go abroad. But the Fekat artists have a special social commitment towards each other and the community”. Giorgia and Cosimo helped the circus artists realize some of their dreams, but it was not until Giorgia joined the project full-time in 2008 that things really developed.
She convinced CIAI to invest in the project. And one of the first things she did was to arrange a visit for the whole Fekat crew to Nairobi where a similar group of circus artists, the Sarakasi Trust, worked with the development of youth and community trough circus-arts. Giorgia’s goal with the visit was to let the artists encounter a positive circus-project, and give them inspiration on how to further develop. The trip went above all expectations and the artists returned to Ethiopia full of ideas, inspiration and ready to engage in new work.
With Giorgia working in the circus, the artists had someone who could help them realize their visions, write proposals and get donors for the projects the wanted to initiate. And the Fekat artists had plenty of work for her. Inspired by the visit to Nairobi they decided to start working in Hospitals. Since 2009, with the Smile’s Medicine Project, a team of doctor-clowns and animators, the artists have visited the children hospitalized in Black Lion Hospital four days a week in order to promote their healing process.
Next on the plate for the ambitious circus artists were awareness-raising campaigns in collaborations with various organizations and institutions. In a unique mix of theatre and circus the campaigns address social and health issues, and uses humor and art to engage the crowd in more serious matters. The idea is to shift between circus and theatre, and end with an open dialogue engaging the audience in the debate – the so-called theatre-forum technique. In 2009 the Fekat Circus travelled two months to the countryside to raise awareness of issues on female education. And while public participation in debates can be a challenge within Ethiopian culture, the artists experienced a high level of engagement from the crowd. As Giorgia says: “Circus captures the crowd, especially in the countryside”.
The building of the LAB-ART
While expanding with new activities the Fekat Circus stayed committed to giving training to their local community-children and giving performances. In 2009 they found the place they reside in today, and raised funds to build their own theatre and circus laboratory. In 2010 they started constructing with their own hands a new environmentally friendly stage-and-training-structure based on clay and wood. But after ten months and too much rain the roof of the building collapsed, and the team was pushed back to scratch. But as Giorgia says, everything happens for a reason, and had the roof not collapsed then, it would have done so sooner or later, perhaps with even worse consequences. Luckily the Swiss Fondation Alta Maria came to a quick rescue and supported the reconstruction of the building that was finally finished three weeks ago.
How circus art changes lives
The permanent troop of the circus is around 20 artists. For the moment 75 children are training with the Fekat Circus on a regular basis, and among them a troop of 14 children who has been trained for one year. These 14 kids have two trainers dedicated to work only with them, two hours three times a week. But many of the kids come to the compound every day to just hang out. It is primarily poor kids from the neighborhood that trains with the circus, as many of them hang out on the streets and in the neighborhood anyway. For particular marginalized children the circus provides a platform for strengthening important aspects of a young persons development such as improving motor skills, self-confidence and creativity. Giorgia points at group-games as particularly strong as they awake energy with the kids and is an important positive social experience that builds on trust. Without trust how can you e.g. build a human pyramid?
The Fekat Circus is an example on how art can be an agent for social change and development. Giorgia explains: “Many of the children in the circus don’t like to go to school, they have problems matching the formal educational path, and to them the circus is an opportunity. The (circus) art changes their visions and behavior, it opens their minds and improve their creativity.” For many of the children the only other option than the circus would be the streets, and for them each performance equals success and magic. Only the way to success is not magic, but pure hard work. Giorgia continues: “Many of the children lack role-models, experiences of success, and have depressed attitudes when they come. Even the artists didn’t believe they could achieve anything in the beginning. But the performance is magic – the performance is success. What children learn at the circus is that with hard work you can achieve anything.” There is no hocus-pocus or short cuts to get to perform with the circus, or to be a great circus artist. What it really is about is hard work and talent of course, and not to forget a lot of fun. It might seem like a strangely unromantic and un-magic lesson in relation to a circus, but by all means a powerful lesson that can be used in many other aspects of the future lives of the children.
The story of Brahanu
Everyone at the circus has worked hard to get where they are today, and needless to say Dereje, the other trainers and professional artists are role models for the children. And they take pride in it. Dereje values the close relationship he has with the children and loves to see them learn and perform. Looking at Dereje it is hard to believe that he started this work eight years ago, since today he doesn’t look to be much older than in the beginning of his twenties. He seems a little shy and is not easy to get talking, but when he talks he is serious and you feel his energy and passion for the circus and in particular the social aspects of their work. When asked how he believes that circus can change the lives of children, he tells the model-story of his friend Brahanu, a scattered dwarf-child that within the circus grew up to became a role-model for children like himself.
Being a dwarf means being different, which can be particular difficult when you are a kid. When Brahanu came to the circus he was a shy and unconfident kid, who stammered and had major concentration-problems. He was first brought to Fekat by CIAI, but had to discontinue his circus-practice because the organization wanted him to focus more on his education. But after one year he came knocking on the door by himself; by this time he had failed the same class twice and was kicked out of school. His family didn’t want him in the house, and his future was on the street. So he had nowhere to go, but the circus. When he came to Fekat the artists welcomed him with open arms. They gave him extra attention and started to include him in the circus-practice. Little by little Brahanu started to enjoy the practice and pick up on circus tricks, and little by little his stammering and concentration-problems grew smaller. The previously closed child who preferred to stay isolated from the group became eager to learn, train and perform, and started to bring fun and joy to the circus, Dereje explains. With training Brahanu experienced success for the first time of his life, and his self-confidence started to grow. He found his right place with Fekat and has since 2011 been a part of the professional circus-group, and acted as a trainer for kids coming to the compound. He is now someone the kids look up to, someone who was able to change his life to the better with the help and engagement of the Fekat circus artists.
The future of Fekat
Brahanu is one out of six artists still living in the Fekat compound, the rest of them has been able to rent their own places long ago. Their salary is paid by “passing around the hat” fundraising during tours in Europe, and income from shows and performances. With donors to support and engage the team in individual projects, and regular income from performances the Fekat circus is today economically sustainable.
One of the most important jobs for a circus is to bring joy and smiles to both the audience and the artists. When asked what he wish for the future Dereje’s simple answer is; to bring joy, share experiences and give what they have to others, and learn from the experiences of others. Dereje is very proud of his project, proud of his fellow-artists, and proud to be a part of the first Ethiopian Association of professional circus artists (FCAA – Fekat Circus Artists Association). The ideas for new projects are many, and with the power, will and quality of the Fekat team they will without a doubt succeed in countless successful projects in the future. Watching the rehearsals for a new show the other day, there were many reasons to smile, laugh and applause a show and campaign that will for sure be well received in the country. In fact, the only thing that could really make you smile more than watching Dereje, Brahanu and the other artists perform in the brand new LAB-ART is knowing how important their presence and activities are in creating awareness on pressing issues in Ethiopian society, and shaping better futures for the kids involved in the circus.
As Giorgia continuously stated to the crowd on the opening two weeks ago, “We need Art! We need art to survive! To develop! To communicate! To create change!” With the social achievements, individual developments and community prospects of the Fekat Circus in mind, maybe the reasons why we need art is a now a little more clear. So let these words be the last, think about them, and let them linger: WE NEED ART!
For more info about the Fekat circus, please visit their website here, or simply stop by their compound a little south of Piassa.
Should you wish to support the Fekat circus they are currently looking for funds for several ideas and project that are yet to be developed. Here are a few:
- Circus trainings to children & youth living in disadvantaged area of Addis Ababa
- Circus trainings for children living in orphanages
- Circus trainings in the Rehabilitation Institute for Juvenile Offenders in Addis Ababa