– Annabel Morgan (aka Banana Bell)
Our Halala eThekwini (Celebrate Durban) tour has truly been a celebration of the cultural and ethnic diversity of eThekwini. Each school that CWBSA has visited has embodied the diversity of this community within its children and teachers. It is no coincidence that the festival coincided with Heritage Day – a day for embracing customs and traditions. I have been deeply impressed by certain schools and their principals, particularly by the Indian schools whose warmth, appreciation and genuine care for the students needs were obvious. Strong values seemed to underpin everything without being overtly religious or dogmatic. Over 5 days, we performed at 9 schools and 2 youth centres, to approx 5800 children. Having recently had children’s rights training, this tour has highlighted many of the challenges faced by school children in South Africa today, such as violence, poverty and the death of one or two parents. The Celebrate Durban tour has taught me many interesting lessons, from clowning to working with children with disabilities. Here are a few lessons that stood out for me.
As Jamie often tells us, the clown does not exist without the audience. Therefore the concept of Seeing – Seeing, where the clown sees the audience and sees them seeing him, is essential. It is like being naked, completely open, honest yet vulnerable. It can be very challenging exposing yourself like that, but I find it is a huge relief and often where you find the most laughter! Before each show begins, a few clowns will do what we call a pre-show. This is just improvised silliness to warm the children up while the rest of the clowns set up. During this tour, I have found the pre-show to be an excellent way of setting up this Seeing – Seeing relationship, which enhanced my connection with the children for the rest of the show. Laughter is infectious and spreads like wildfire within groups of children because they are more open than adults. By making eye contact with one child and making them laugh and feel special, in no time you have the whole audience on your side. At Waterloo Primary on our first day, we performed for over 1000 children. During the pre-show I made a special connection with a little boy called Sibusiso. He was one of the smallest and youngest in the school, yet throughout the show and after I kept catching his eye and we would exchange smiles, each of us feeling somehow special. I believe sometimes quality is more important than quantity and the greatest journeys begin with the smallest step.
Clown shows make children very excited anyway, but especially so if we arrive just after ‘pie and juice’! This is what happened at Clareville Primary on Day Three. The energy and enthusiasm of the children was amazing but it was delicately balanced on the brink of complete chaos! As CWBSA we have certain strategies for dealing with very excited children, such as having a structured seating system. For example, at Dianthus Primary (Day One) only the youngest grades brought seating so we created a semi-circle with those seats acting as a barrier for the children standing at the back, so the youngest and smallest ones at the front don’t get crushed. Nevertheless, the excitement was so extreme that the children started pushing and edging forward. At which point some clowns took off their noses and asked them to move back. When this still didn’t work, we had to respond in the moment to the situation and cut to the end of the show. Being a clown means being flexible, ready for absolutely anything.
Spontaneous Play and Trust
For me, a really exciting clown show always contains an element of risk! As a clown you need to be able to be playful all the time because anything can happen and you have to say ‘yes’ to it. Often at the end of a tour like this, because the level of trust amongst the group is high, we play around more during routines. On Day Five, the final day of the tour, at Chatsworth Youth Centre we played a prank on Jamie who was filling in for Bongikile. Playfulness like this is really fun because it breaks down the borders of our set routines and opens the doors for new ways to evolve them. Just as children pick up tension among adults, they also love it when you’re having fun. So I have realised that one of the most important things about being a clown is to have fun! The openness and confidence of the children can really make a difference to this relationship.
At certain schools this week, we have encountered significantly more confident and expressive children than in some rural areas. As an audience, these children are great to perform for because they are so engaged and free to be animated. Addington Primary on Day Three really stood out to me as a happy school. It was a really mixed school, with a large refugee proportion, and children coming from a range of backgrounds, some even from the street. Sometimes I feel that in certain schools children are not free to fully and honestly respond to the clown routines for fear of their teachers. At Addington, although some of the teachers were shocked by the openness of the condom routine, where two clowns talk about STDs and HIV, the children felt free to respond. We believe this particular routine is important because it talks about HIV, and after the children’s rights training I have become aware of how young children are willingly and unwillingly involved in sexual activity. It also brings humour and light to difficult situations. I really believe that a happy school has a great deal to do with the principal. At Umdloti Primary on Day Four, the principal was impersonal and controlled and I felt this was reflected in the students who seemed like they could get out of control in his absence! I find children are incredible mirrors and sponges for our adult problems.
Working with Children with Disabilities
Golden Steps is a school for children with mental disabilities. It is run by a very animated, kind and motivated man called Mr Singh. We performed there on Day Two and it was one of the highlights of my week. First impressions were made when I got the longest and most loving hug from a child with Downs Syndrome. It was a very touching moment. We set up in their hall, equipped with colourful lights and a disco ball for special school events. The school was clean, and well maintained, mainly on money from fundraising. The principal and teachers spoke kindly and respectfully to the learners, who all seemed well stimulated and happy. I have been deeply disturbed by the stories I have heard during our children’s rights training about the treatment of children with disabilities in South Africa so it was inspiring to visit Golden Steps. The children were so uninhibited and when a few of them felt the impulse to join us in the dance at the end, the principal allowed that freedom and spontaneity. These small moments give me great hope for humanity.