IMG_2092_2.jpgIt is an early dreary gray morning in Addis Ababa in which Sibongile and I are sitting at the airport awaiting our flight back to Johannesburg. After 10-days of performing shows and teaching workshops with Worldwide Orphans (WWO) the weather is mirroring our emotions – damp yet hopeful. We have just said a sad goodbye to Selena who joined us from CWB-USA. Our time here has flown by – it feels like we were getting started with our work and now it is time to leave. In such a short time, we have performed 7 shows for almost 4,500 children and adults as well as taught 5 introductory workshops for children living with HIV, guardians, orphanage caregivers, and teachers. And it is only the beginning!

The project is a preliminary expedition to explore the potential to implement CWBSA’s arts intervention methodology with WWO, a nongovernmental organisation dedicate to providing a holistic development to children who are orphans or vulnerable. They have programmes in many different countries including Bulgaria, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. Our partnership was germinated over the past 2 years at the annual Unite for Sight Global Health Conference in which WWO founder, Dr. Jane Aronson, and I presented in the same sessions on innovative community interventions that build local capacity. A casual conversation about potential synergy gradually grew into our first collaboration here in Ethiopia.
WWO’s project in Ethiopia has 4 components: a family health clinic for children and adults with HIV, an academy (K-2) for affected children, an orphanage for abandoned children with HIV, and an outreach programmes through empowerment camps, a soccer league, and support groups for people living with HIV. In a city where the HIV prevalance is estimated to be 20% of the adult population, WWO provides antiretroviral treatment to about 1700 children and adults. Their school gives holistic education 144 children who are vulnerable or HIV positive and they have an orphanage for 39 children as well as provide support to many others. They have asked us to help develop both their outreach programmes for guardians as well as their psychosocial intervention practices with existing clients.
Each morning we make our way through the sprawling streets of Addis Ababa negotiating the ubiquitous blue and white mini-bus taxis, pedestrians, and the odd donkey or herd of goats. Addis is a vibrant African city where traditional culture mixes freely with contemporary life. You look one way to see chic cafes serving bunna (coffee) overflowing with the most fashionably dressed people. Suddenly, an itinerant priest walks by barefooted with his cloak and pilgrim’s cross. Beggars intermix with entrepreneurs. Open sewers lie next to newly built department stores. In comparison to most South African cities, there is much more freedom of movement and sense of security. We walk relaxed through the streets that alternate between tar, dirt, and rubble – even at night!
Almost everyone we meet is beautiful, kind, helpful, and compassionate. Our principal partners at WWO, Lemlem Tela and Yared Brahanu have been a joy to work with: Yared, WWO’s football league coach, has been indispensable in organising the logistics of our performances, guiding us through the city, and supplying us with ongoing Amharic lessons. Along with being a musician, computer programmer, lawyer, and journalist, he is a natural clown with his nonverbal eyebrow-raising communication skills that keep us hysterics. Lemlem, who is in charge of WWO’s psychosocial programme, co-facilitates our workshops amazing me with her capacity to connect with full commitment and compassion diving into the world of storytelling and play.
The show explores themes of poverty and loss through the world of humour and play. Many of the routines are old ones for us though Sibongile, Selena, and I have never performed together as a trio. After a hasty rehearsal mostly at our hotel room, our first performances are shaky and rely more on improvisation and poorly spoken Amharic. However, by the time we perform at the WWO Academy on last Monday, we are clicking together – the children shriek with laughter at Selena’s tantrums, Sibongile’s misunderstandings, and my anarchical antics that have the show teetering on the brink of chaos. Our final shows are for massive crowds of almost 2,000 each at primary schools that WWO works with. It is a learning experience for us to negotiate protocol at schools and develop routines that resonate with a new culture.
Our workshops are of a much different flavor. We facilitate 4 different “preview” sessions for WWO to have an idea of our intervention methods: a guardian psychosocial support group, caregivers from a number of orphanages, the WWO academy staff, and children living at the WWO orphanage. Participants explore the value of connecting through play and storytelling as well as simple stress reduction techniques to help them cope with their lives. You never know what to expect from the experiences we offer. On Sunday, during our workshop with guardians in which we create autobiographical stories of happy memories or challenges overcome, a woman stands in the middle the circle and tells the group about how she became HIV positive. Although we do not understand the Amharic, the emotional gravity of her story is palpable. One by one, all the participants begin to cry, tears rolling down their faces as she shares her experience as a maid who was raped by her employer even though he knew he was HIV+ and now is caring for her infected child. Afterwards, she tells the group that “I felt so happy to be able to come here and share my story. I feel like an important person and that my life has value.” Others emphasize with similar experiences. In the simple coming together and sharing, a sense of empowerment and community has been created.
The children’s sessions are much more joyful. Along with singing songs, teaching magic, and playing games, we have adapted our 5-day Life Dreams residency into a 2-day workshop in which the children identify and physically embody their life dream in dynamic stage pictures with the assistance of their peers. It is wonderful to see them actively working together to create these tableaus, fully invested in manifesting each child’s wish. At the end of the sessions, Lemlem and I tell traditional stories together. As they listen to “The Jackal’s Multi-coloured Hat” and “Zama and Her Magic Paintbrush,” their attention is captivated and the chaotic energy of the orphanage is transformed into a place where imagination and focus coexist.
It is very hard to leave. I continue to remind myself that this trip is only the beginning of more to come. There have been too many important connections, valuable insights, and sparks of greater emotional healing to think of our work as a once-off visit. In fact, it feels almost as if we have opened a Pandora’s Box of possibilities to work here in Ethiopia where there is so much need. It is also heartening to know that their are amazing people working at WWO like Lemlem and Yared who will continue some of the practices we have introduced. We are so grateful for their time and the opportunity that Worldwide Orphans has given us to work with them in Addia Ababa. Hopefully, our partnership with WWO will continue to blossom so that we will be able to create something sustainable and beneficial for families to cope with the affects of HIV, violence, and poverty on the long term.
As we reflect, I realize that in many ways, our work with Clowns Without Borders has become more than just bringing laughter to places of crisis. It is about connecting to the whole range of emotions – the joys and sorrows that make up our very human existence – and finding the means to celebrate life to its fullest. In many ways, through the practice of this work, we are discovering that happiness isn’t only about putting on a smile during the good times but rather finding a sense of ease and wellbeing when things are difficult as well.
Peace and laughter,