"He grasped our hands laughing"

When I got in the Uber four days ago, my brand new red Converse were still untied. I was rushing as I often do. In the car, the radio played Toto's "Africa." You know, that  catchy tune from 1982 about a continent confused by many to be a country? (There are 54 countries in Africa). While Toto was busy blessing the rains down in Africa, my head was down as I tied my shoes and bit my tongue. Though that song sold millions of copies and its chorus gets stuck in your head for hours, its message is disturbing. It paints a general picture of suffering that highlights a common narrative about an immensely diverse continent. We are told that "Africans are poor, they are sick and they need to be saved." When epidemics strike, like the recent Ebola epidemic that occurred from December 2013-March 2016 in West Africa (primarily Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia), the media condemns the whole continent. Headlines like "Ebola in Africa", "Famine in Africa" and "Malaria in Africa" are not untrue, but they are misleading, generalizing and most unfortunately, they are othering.

Is that song still stuck in your head?

"Othering" causes distancing; it allows us to unrelate from people, communities and those with differing points of view.  By separating ourselves from the "others" we become much less tuned into the world around us. "Othering" is easy though, it feels safe, it is a very human reaction. It is also dangerous.

Taking my mind off of Toto's tune, I perserverated on what I had packed, afraid that I had forgotten something important. I thought about my clown gear, the people that had given me elements of it and those who had inspired me to take this trip. I had juggling clubs that Sam Lee gave me, rubber chickens from Sarah Foster, squeaker toys from B.B. Widdop, Jamie Lachman's antique horn, George Lennox's 1970's ruffled tuxedo shirt, David Lichtenstein's nose and a head full of clown routines I had learned from friends and mentors - Rudi, Moshe, Esther, Hilary, Pops and Peppe, to name a few. My clown character had become a compilation of gifts from extraordinary people. They all flashed through my head as that godforsaken song stopped. I was on my way to the airport, to fly to Sierra Leone, meet up with Eva and Malin, create a show and perform for street children and families affected by the Ebola epidemic.

This is my second time in Sierra Leone, the first was during that epidemic that took more than 11,000 lives and once again stigmatized a continent. Then, I was a nurse treating children with Ebola. Now I am a clown, treating no one, just playing. Then, the rule of law was ABC: Avoid Body Contact. Now, once again clinics, mosques, churches and markets are open, you are allowed to hold hands, hug, congregate and interact normally, like humans. Now the sounds of car horns overpower the then eerie drone of ambulances 24 hours a day. Now we can safely share a plate of "chop," communal meals of fish, groundnut sauce and rice. Music, once again, is everywhere.

Eva, a musician, and Malin, a clown and old friend of mine, both from Sweden, were invited with me to come and be 'based' at the Lotte Elf School in Portee. There we built our show and have been teaching music and clown workshops. It is from there that we travel to put on shows. Cars cannot drive to where we work without getting stuck or destroying their undercarriage because of the rocks, mud and holes. Our team carries our entire show with us in suitcases and backpacks. Usually we share the load, except for when we are in character and Malin's clown, "Apple," is tasked with schlepping all the gear while Eva and I warm up the audience with a song. Eva plays the quattro and I, my banjolele while Malin's clown struggles with chaotic finesse to set up our stage.

For our first show, the stage was in a ruddy intersection, its backdrop, an electric blue passenger van with dilapidated windows and a yellow racing stripe. More than 100 people waited for us in the Sunday morning sun. As the show ensued the crowd doubled in size. Children in bright colored formal clothes and men in white tunics cheered us on while we introduced each character with eccentric dance moves in our oversized outfits. An elderly woman in a maroon and purple dress, a complex lappa design resembling lightening bolts and cracked ice with a pristine matching hat, stood in the front of the crowd singing with us as if she knew the words to all of our songs. A man in nothing but shorts came out of his home, perhaps he had just woken from a long Saturday night, he scrutinized our magic tricks and tried to explain them to other audience members. The crowd clapped and cheered, mesmerized by the duet played by Eva and I on the flute and musical saw and always ready to cheer on Malin as her clown, the "number three" character (think Groucho Marx), stole the show.

Early on in the show we play a routine in which we fight over who gets to read a newspaper. The fight builds in ridiculousness, tempo and intensity to the point at which the newspaper rips and we turn the now halved paper into a pair of binoculars. We look into the audience, like children having completely forgotten about our argument and we are immediately distracted by who we see in the crowd. We see a child and we go to shake his hand. Each clown wants to give the best handshake and so the three of us end up running circles in front of the child taking our turn to give the funniest, most formal or most ridiculous shake. We invite him on our stage then and do a routine in which, while holding his hands, we try to figure out how we can all bow together.

The child we picked in our first show was thrilled to be the center of attention. He grasped our hands laughing while Malin and I tried to figure out to make us all three face forward (photo). I've done this routine hundreds of times in at least 10 different countries; it gets similar laughs for its simple absurdity. But this time on this day it was particularly powerful. I realized that there in my red nose and black tuxedo that I could hold a hand with no fear of contagion. There was no risk that this child or anyone that I shook hands with would infect me with anything more than a sense of friendship. I still carry the trauma of holding the hands of the dead and dying in this country not long ago. Covered in latex gloves and Tyvek suits, we sat with countless people, each sick, each with a unique story and name, cut short. But then, with that child, I realized all of that was over. With a tear in my eye, I wondered what it was like when the ABC rule was lifted in Sierra Leone and the fear of contact dissipated.

The show was a hit and much of the crowd followed us back to the school from where we started it all. At the entrance of the school three of us sweaty, dirty and happily exhausted said, "goodbye." We rested for about two hours and then climbed to the roof of the building to host a music and clown workshop for about 50 children.

Eva took the lead on the workshop after I opened with a short warm-up call and response song called "Flea." She taught a group of 55 fourth graders a song that she had written in Krio. It is a sweet tune that requires each child in the group to say their name. One at a time, a child speaks and then the whole group sings the chorus featuring that child's name. We stood in a circle and each child's name resonated through the group, survivors of Ebola, survivors of living in the streets, and survivors of the world's indifference, these children, each child, had a unique chance to shine.

The classroom where we ran our workshop at the top of the school

Our contribution is small, we would say "small small" in Krio. But what we can do and what we strive to do with Clowns Without Borders is to elevate the child, the individual child, to learn a part of her story and share it. As individuals we all desire, in one way or another, for our name to be sung in a song's chorus. And too, that we are all a compilation of individual gifts and inspirations, that when our name is celebrated, we are actually celebrating a much larger whole.

Our show ended as so many of our shows have, in which we invite a child to come on stage and dance with us. A young boy joined us and mimicked the pose of a circus side-show "strong man." He flexed his muscles over and over again.  He then climbed to my shoulders and stood there, flexed one more time and cheered. He was the tallest and strongest person in town.

/Tim Cunningham

Att tro är inte ett substantiv, det är ett verb.

Upplyft efter fyra dagars möte med 40 representanter från 15 Clowns Without Borders organisationer reser jag hem från Tyskland, trött men fylld av tilltro till att det finns så många möjligheter att skapa en bättre framtid för våra barn och unga.

Under 2016 har vi och våra systerorganisationer skrattat med över 300 000 barn i 48 länder! Detta är barn som lever under svåra omständigheter, på flykt från krig och förföljelse, i skuggan av människohandel och drabbade av naturkatastrofer. Det är barn som allt för tidigt tvingats bli vuxna. Genom våra möten ges de möjlighet att, om så bara för en stund, få vara barn igen, få känna hur härligt det är att få skratta och inte tänka på några bekymmer.

Jag har ofta skrivit om hur viktigt det är att ge barn och unga tron på att de har en framtid, en framtid som de kan vara med och påverka. Jag är övertygad om att det är den enda vägen ut ur krig, förföljelse och förtryck. Jag är övertygad om att det är den enda vägen bort från terror och dödande. Vi måste hjälpas åt att skapa denna tro på framtiden och det gör vi inte genom att exkludera och stänga ute. När en vågar tro på att en kan ta sig framåt och att en kan påverka sitt liv, skapas även känsla av att det är värt att kämpa. Om vi erbjuder en kärleksfull gemenskap kommer de allra flesta välja att vara en del av den framför något som är destruktivt, hotfullt och som inte ger en bild av en bättre framtid.

Detta gäller alla de barn som våra artister möter i alla de länder vi arbetar i. Men detta gäller även våra egna barn som växer upp i ett land långt bort ifrån krig och naturkatastrofer.

När jag möttes av nyheterna från Manchester och fick veta att en explosion skett på en konsert där de flesta i publiken var barn och tonåringar kände jag mitt mod sjunka. Men så påminde jag mig om alla de berättelser jag fått höra på mitt möte med Clowns Without Borders International. Berättelser om möten med barn vars liv har förändrats till det bättre för alltid. Om barn som väljer lek framför våld. Om barn som nu tror på en bättre framtid.

Jag anser att det viktigaste vi kan göra för att säkerställa trygghet för alla är att bjuda in, lyssna, lära och skapa så många gemenskaper med andra människor som vi bara kan. Det gäller överallt och inte bara i våra egna filterbubblor. De privata såväl som offentliga samtalen måste handla om hur vi kan inkludera och inkluderas i varandras kontexter. Inte om hur vi i Europa kan skydda oss. Vi måste våga tro på de som är främmande för oss och våga släppa in. Vi måste också våga bli insläppta själva.

Varje dag sker övergrepp, dödande och våld i världen. Ibland kryper det oss nära. Som i Manchester. Som på Drottninggatan. Som i Paris, Bryssel och London. Ibland är det en liten notis i en tidning. Men alla som drabbas av terror faller lika mycket offer. Oavsett om attacken sker i vår direkta närhet eller i Pakistan, Irak, Nigeria eller någon annanstans som är långt ifrån vår egen verklighet. Det är lika fruktansvärt vem som än drabbas.

Jag är så ledsen över att ännu fler barn har bragts om livet och jag tänker på alla de barn som skadades i dessa attacker och hur de nu riskera att inte våga tro på människor längre. Jag kan förstå det. Men vi vuxna måste ta ansvar för att ge tryggheten och framtidstron tillbaka till dem. Vi måste vägra låta rädslan ta över vilka vi är. Vi får aldrig sluta tro på att vi är starkast och tryggast tillsammans.

Vi har alla makten att välja hur vi vill se på framtiden. Att tro är inte ett substantiv, det är ett verb. En handling.

Jag har den stora förmånen att omges av briljanta människor som varje dag ger av sig och sig själva för att de är övertygade om att det skapar ett bättre liv och en bättre framtid för de barn de möter. Jag är så otroligt stolt över de 300 000 skrattfyllda möten som våra artister har haft med barn över hela världen det senaste året. Jag är så tacksam över att veta att dessa möten gör skillnad på riktigt. Dessa möten som utgör skillnaden mellan att överleva och att leva.

Även idag väljer jag att tro på framtiden.

/Jennifer Vidmo, generalsekreterare för Clowner utan Gränser

A deflated balloon can be someones trophy

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.

/Dave Braunsthal