Swaziland – July 15, 2009
We have recently completed an epic 2-week project in Swaziland this past month. And I do not use the word “epic” lightly due to the scope and size of our work! In collaboration with the Yale University Drama School, People’s Educational Theatre (PET), and the Lutheran Development Service(LDS), Clowns Without Borders developed 2 shows, performed 9 times for over 5,000 beneficiaries while conducting 4 5-day follow-up residencies with children and guardians affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty, and drought. We had 23 artists, 4 faculty members, 4 vans, and 1 helpful hand from Pig Iron Theatre in the United States. Although it has been more than 2 weeks since I have returned, the experience still resonates deeply for all involved!
However, a little explanation is needed…
Last year in July, we were working in Swaziland with LDS on a local capacity building project funded through our Swedish sister chapter, Clowner Utan Granser. On our final day of a 10-day Njabulo HIV/AIDS Residency in the Dlakadla community, students from Yale University joined us to witness our culminating event that involved a performance by Sibongile Tsoanyane, Bongekile Mabuya, and myself followed by a performance by the 30 children of the “Children of Wax” for their guardians. The Yalies were visiting Swaziland as part of a summer course entitled “Arts and Public Health in Action: Study of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland and South Africa.” Needless to say, the students’ experience with CWBSA in Dlakadla was one of the highlights of their trip! Over the following months, we decided that in 2009 the programmes should collaborate together – Project Swaziland.
The Yalies Arrive
Taught by Yale Drama professor, Rebecca Rugg, MFA student, Gamal Palmer, and nurse practitioner, Elizabeth Magenheimer, this year’s course brought 9 undergraduates from Yale and a MPH student from the University of Connecticut to Southern Africa for a period of 5 weeks – 2 of which were to be in collaboration with CWBSA and 8 actors from the People’s Educational Theatre in Swaziland. The task seemed a Herculean effort – in 5 days I was going to teach the basics of clowning to mostly non-actors, create and direct 2 really funny clown shows, and prepare the team for artist residencies with children and guardians. When I first met the students in New Haven this April for a introductory workshop, I must admit I was dubious as to the success of this project. They all seemed so young and inexperienced compared to the artists we usually work with in CWB projects. How wrong was I!
The Journey and Meeting
With an elite corps of CWBSA facilitating artists (Sibongile, Bongekile, Sabee, and Sipho), we journeyed up to Mbabane in an timely sponsored Europcar 10-seater (thank you!) to begin the training. On the way, we picked up Thokozile Nkwayana from LDS who was to be a part of the project. To take our minds off the long road ahead we flipped through radio stations trying to catch the Confederations Cup game between South Africa and Spain that went into overtime. Receiving only patches of commentary in isiZulu all the way to Mbabane, we actually completely forgot about the project rushing into the bar at the Mountain Inn to catch the final few minutes as Bafana Bafana failed to overcome the Spanish maestros. Then, road weary and crestfallen, we joined the rest of our partners for a meet and greet session that brought us back to the world of play, dance, and song. The Swazis came with great voices teaching us a game (“Ajukuja”) and a song calling for rain (Seliyana Seli Matunzi) both of which found their way into one of our shows. Magically, in the somewhat formal conference room at the hotel (aptly named Njabulo Room), we transformed a space designed for powerpoint presentations into a place of movement, creativity, and lots of laughter. The stage was set for the hard work at hand…
During our first 2 days, I put the group through an intensive crash course on clown theatre exploring status, presence, play, and character. I was thrilled by how all the participants completely threw themselves into the work with such abandon and commitment (note the contradictions inherent in this sort of work!). The Swazis from PET were very quick to grasp the art of clown and the Yalies were very funny! Perhaps it was because they did not necessarily want to be clowns and thus didn’t try too hard (always a bad move when finding one’s funny bone). Or maybe we were just fortunate to have an amazing group. Or maybe a little bit of both. Whatever it the reason, the funny Gods were smiling down on us. Within 2 1/2 days of training and rehearsals, we actually had 2 shows! Some were a recycling of old CWBSA routines (The King’s Banana, Border Crossing, Balloon Funeral, Doctors) but some were also brand new as fresh air was breathed into the work. Collaborating closely with Nicholas Mamba from PET, we brought a whole new dimension to clown in Southern Africa by combining traditional song and dance as an integral part of the performance. It was wonderful to see Swazis and South Africans and Americans all working together to create some really funny routines. We were definitely breaking some borders!
The Clowns Go to Town (or at least to the hospital)
After 4 days rehearsing and planning curricula, it was time for the clowns to meet a real audience. And what better audience than entertaining patients at a hospital? Jumping into the deep end of clinic clowning, we donned our costumes and noses and piled into 4 vans like a circus flotilla in the middle of Swaziland early on Friday morning. After a brief visit at the Baylor Pediatric Clinic in Mbabane – a state-of-the-art US-style clinic for children with HIV/AIDS – in which Sibongile, Bongekile, and I performed for the kids while the rest of the team had a tour, we drove down the mountain to Manzini’s Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Swaziland. With a brief introduction spiced with slight-of-hand magic, we managed to charm the head administrator into allowing 24 clowns to invade his wards. One might imagine the surprise of the staff and patients who lined in the halls waiting for prescriptions or consultations as 1-by-1 groups of clowns entered the hospital! The children and nurses in the pediatric ward were the most appreciative of our visit – laughing and enjoying the antics of the team. At one point, I took off my director’s hat and clowned with one of the Yalies who was without a partner. Playing together, we had an extremely tender moment as we coaxed a smile, then giggle, then full laugh out of a bedridden child who was previously crying to his mother. Though very challenging for some of the artists, the experience was a great first step (or should I say giant leap?) into the world of awakening joy and laughter through the generous simplicity of play and presence.
That Sunday, after making sure all the supplies and costumes were ready, we left Mbabane and headed to the lowlands of southeastern Swaziland where we had worked with the Lutheran Development Service in the past year. Situated near the border of South Africa, the Big Bend/Lavumisa corridor has high frequency of cross border traffic and accompanying prostitution. In addition, there is an army barrack with many young military males looking for casual partners. Adding fuel to the fire, this is sugar country with many migrant laborers coming into the area during harvest time. As a result, this area has been hit with a “Perfect Storm” making it one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the country. The impact on the children’s lives is noticeable. Even in our own child/guardian support groups, we have lost more than a guardian to AIDS in the past year. Many go without eating for most or all of the day and their uniforms are the tattered remains of hand-me-downs from years past.
Our programme of action was an intense lightning follow-up visit for 5 days in the the Dlakadla, Sinyanmanthulwa, Ndzevane, and Lubuli villages where we had implemented Njabulo HIV/AIDS Residencies last year. We performed at 7 different primary schools in the area including at the 4 villages dividing the group into 2 shows: Hleka and Dlala (Laugh and Play). Each day the shows got better and better. Sibongile was an absolutely star driving Nicholas crazy with her antics and having even the cast in fits of laughter during her eulogy to the balloon. Children joined us on stage to dance and shouted out to the departing vans, “Ajukuja!” or “Xolile!” Lily and Sabee played around the theme of teacher-student relationships, Alyssa found herself caught up in high Swazi kicks with Hlengiwe and Enoch, Katie died in the arms of Musa and Sandile to cross the border, Rob and Stan did their best to patch up Cleo’s twisted ankle, and Camilla sat on the world. Even the “King” of Swaziland made an appearance toying with the ever present awareness that Swaziland is an absolute monarchy with little freedom of artistic expression.
In the Classroom
Each cast was further divided into 2 groups with teams of facilitators teaching 5-day residencies with between 15 and 25 children at the 4 villages. The students alternated taking responsibility for facilitating exercises and preparing the food for the children as they worked together to take the children through an identification, visualization, and physical embodiment of a happy memory in stage pictures that were then performed for their guardians on the final day. It was a mission to make sure the food supplies sufficient for each day and to prepare the equipment. However, when the workshops were actually taking place, we saw how important this sort of intervention can be. In some areas, after 5 days, children who were initially withdrawn and quiet were singing and dancing for their peers and guardians. Other places, the children created more and more sophisticated family machines and tableaus around their themes. Some still remembered how to juggle after a year and brought their balls to share with others. During the culminating activities, both children and guardians played, sang, and danced together in celebration. It was a delight to visit each location and see how the students were crossing language and cultural barriers with the children. In fact, the overall sentiment was that interventions like these must happen more and more frequently for greater numbers of beneficiaries.
The week was finally over! Tired and dusty, we drove back to the Mountain Inn on Friday to wash the sand from our hair and rest our bodies for a night. The next morning everyone went to Musa’s home in one of the locations surrounding Mbabane for a celebration and final performances. Musa had constructed an amazing amphitheatre outside his home overlooking the hills which is always packed for free shows. This day was no exception with the entire community turning up and feasting on a freshly slaughtered cow.
As the setting sun departed on our final day in Swaziland, the clowns gave their best shows for an extremely appreciated and raucous crowd of children and adults. I sat on the edge of the stage working sound cues and couldn’t help laughing along and cheering as the artists poured their generous spirit to the audience. It couldn’t have been a better end to an amazing trip of psychosocial support, cross-cultural collaboration, and inquiry. A huge thanks must go to Yale University and Europcar for making the project possible. Not only did so many children and their guardians benefit from our work, but I truly believe that each and every participant from the United States, Swaziland, and South Africa brought a little more joy and laughter into their own hearts as well.
Peace and laughter,