One Love – Community, Circus, Change

“Community-led development” has become a bit of a buzzword in the NGO world, the Holy Grail, it would seem. More laudable, however, is “community-initiated,” especially when the people leading the change are children. In 1998, a group of children in the Ethiopian city of Awassa began to practice circus. They practiced with an untiring dedication and their hard work began to be recognized. First came the accolades in competitions, and then came the notice of Awassan Aster Dabels and a German friend Dr. Herman Hunzinger. The artists of Debub Nigat (Southern Dawn) may have drawn audiences in to spectacular, beautiful worlds as they performed, but the reality of their daily lives was sobering. Many were hungry and unable to afford an education. Some had lost family members to AIDS or Ethiopia’s turbulent history. Dabels and Dr Hunzinger raised the money that kept Debub Nigat’s performers in school with food in their stomachs.

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Three years passed. Muscles strengthen as stunts become increasing challenging, the stack of circus toys grow and fade with use. In 2002, the troupe collaborated with American director, David Schein, to create a performance promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. It was a topic close to the hearts of the performers and the audience, and performed with uncommon insight, creativity and skill. The Awassa AIDS Education Circus was born. Recognizing its contribution to HIV/AIDS awareness, the town of Awassa donated land to build the Debub Nigat Circus and Vocational Training Center. Then came tours of Ethiopia.

Touring as One Love, the group began to spread awareness all over the country. From remote towns to the capital, from markets to schools to theatres, the group brought a unique perspective to life-saving messages. They broadened their topics, developing works on topics as diverse and challenging as FGM, land-mine awareness and khat addiction. Their skills in awareness-raising were recognized by an ever-increasing number of NGOs and IGOs, including the UN and the American Embassy.

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Now One Love works under their own umbrella NGO, Action for Youth and Community Change (AYCC), which also provides a home for the Awassa Peace Dojo, an immensely popular aikido centre. As Ethiopian’s only centre for studying the peaceful martial art, the Awassa Peace Dojo is a haven of respect, hard work, and global citizenship. The AYCC Campus is alive with creativity, a meeting point for all of Awassa’s children to learn and grow. Classes in theatre, dance, music, visual arts and sports keep young minds and bodies active. Academic assistance, life skills and counseling keep them healthy. Dedication and perseverance come from the children and young people themselves.

Some rehearse for a music video, others turn endless handsprings, somewhere a child is singing, while others draw. There are cheers from the football court, the whistle from the basketball game. It’s a place of love, learning and inspiration.

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Nowadays, performers have found themselves capable of competing with circus performers the world over. Casting directors came calling, offering the performers positions in circuses all over the world. Fame came for some; others found work at One Love, mentoring a new generation of performers. A true rags to riches story – although the riches found are often kind heart, a willing mind, a strong body and a bright future.

Help One Love Theater continue to produce impeccable performances that are literally changing the lives of rural Ethiopians. Visit http://onelovetheater.org/ to donate. Be sure to put One Love Theater in the note line and receive your written confirmation. If you are interesting in volunteering with this wonderful organization or any questions please contact Sintayehu Mengistu at sintayehu2k5@yahoo.com or David Schein at dafschein@gmail.com.

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About Verity Danbold

Verity Danbold has written extensively for stage and page. After completing her BA Honours (English and Drama) and MA (Theatre and Development) at the University of East Anglia, Verity went on to write for a number of international NGOs, including the UN Maternal Health Project in Cambodia, dance4life Vietnam and Empowerment International in Nicaragua. Her creative writing credits include Scenes from an Everyday Affair and Soliloquies for My Lost Sisters, nominated for Best Emerging Writer and Green Room Awards in the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival. She is currently working on the film of Soliloquies and two new works.
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