On the first of May around midday I landed at Kigali airport, Rwanda, in the heart of Africa. There I for the first time met Karin, Elsa and Axel, three circus performers from Sweden. We jumped in a taxi and drove four hours through lush mountains to a town called Gisenyi. There we were to meet the partners we would be working with while in Rwanda, the amazing Gisenyi Acrobats. All of them were affected by the horrific genocide in 1994 where almost one million people were brutally killed. The founders of their group grew up on the streets and did acrobatics as a way to survive and deal with the trauma. Clowns without Borders Sweden has been working with them for almost eight years, supporting them in building a sustainable organization and funding programs where they train street children in Gisenyi and its neighboring city Goma in Democratic Republic of Congo.
We had two days with eight of the Gisenyi acrobats to create a show together that we would then perform on their annual tour in refugee camps around Rwanda. The camps are managed by UNHCR, our second partner in this project. Many were built after the genocide to host the many IDPS (internally displaced people), but throughout the years they have been filled with people from other countries as well, as a consequence of the war in DRC and Burundi. Many of the camps are huge, hosting 20-55,000 people.
Before sunrise on the third day all twelve performers together with our two drivers packed the show and ourselves into two four wheel drives and headed off. Over the next eight days we travelled 1850 kilometers on some of the best and the worst roads I've ever been on. Bumped and shaken as we arrived at each camp, the place would come alive. We would drive to where we were going to do the show surrounded by children running beside us smiling and waving.
Abuba, the head of the acrobats would check the crowd control was sufficient and then we would all get out of the cars, get our props and make our way through the sea of expectation to our stage. This could be an old cement basketball pitch, a dusty football field, or any area big and flat enough to perform where as many people could see as possible. After some pre-show antics when everyone was ready, the show would begin. The following 45 minutes was another world full of laughter, tumbling acrobats, juggling, music, magic, pyramids and a lot of playfulness and silliness. Sometimes we would have to temporarily stop to reclaim our stage which was shrinking but then when things were under control, the show would continue. The crowds especially loved the three person high with Karin standing on Elsa’s' shoulders and then Eric, one of the Rwandan acrobats, standing on Karin’s shoulders.
After the show, we would quickly pack our things and make our way back to the cars surrounded by smiling children all wanting to shake your hand, high five or just have eye contact and be acknowledged. Once back in the cars sweaty and exhausted we would be escorted by happy waving people all the way out. Leaving one camp I could see a young boy racing down the hill from where we did the show, towards our car. As we were leaving he jumped up onto a mound, grinning from ear to ear, waving something in the air with sheer delight. It was long, deflated, yellow balloon, which in the show I had put in my nostril and pulled out my mouth. His Trophy.
We visited seven camps and did 8 shows for around 9800 people, mainly children, all living in circumstances that most people couldn't even imagine. I like to think that laughter gives hope and that when they think of the day the clowns came to the camp, that it brings a smile and their hope is rekindled. I met a group of fellow acrobats and performers, we played, and I left a group of friends. Thanks Clowns Without Borders Sweden for organizing the tour and sponsors for making it possible.