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.

Moscow State Circus on Midsummer Common

The Moscow State Circus performance is an adaptation of the Russian novel, ‘Twelve Chairs’, first published in 1928 and written by IIf and Petrov. This satirical novel tells the tale of a family caught in a new soviet regime, which stripped the ruling classes of property and possessions. Like many who remained in Russia, they had to do what ever they could to protect what they owned. The main character, a desk clerk and former member of nobility, is told by his mother- in- law on her deathbed, that the family’s jewelry has been hidden in one of the twelve chairs from the dining room set. He then goes on a quest to find the chair containing the lost treasure, only to discover that the chairs have been split up and sold individually.

Circus Acrobats

When you think of the circus you may not necessarily think of a classic Russian novel, unfortunately in this case it was completely lost on the audience. The amount of confused looking young children was easy to spot in the half empty stalls, playing with aluminous swords and other distracting souvenirs.

It seemed the tale of the twelve chairs was an afterthought, an easy way to try and amuse the audience in between setting up the main acts, using clowns as the main characters from the novel. This was a little disappointing, until a few mystified members of the audience were summoned from the front row into the main ring, the look on their faces whilst trying to play ridiculous home made musical instruments had everyone laughing. This embarrassment was especially noticeable for one poor woman as she bounced her bottom up and down on a squeaking horn.

Audience Participation

Nevertheless after a confusing start, and putting the loosely followed story line aside, the main acts were truly amazing, displaying strength, agility and coordination that would have impressed the Russian Olympic gymnast team.

This two hour energetic evening included, a trio juggling clubs to pin point accuracy, whilst spinning around the ring at speed on a very cleverly built platform. The concentration the three wore on their faces was very noticeable, not only did they have to throw their clubs at a precise speed and distance, but also to an empty space where their partner will arrive a few seconds later. Also a young girl performing the splits from the heads of two male tight ropewalkers, over nine meters from the ground. An arial hula-hoop act that was also suspended high above the circus ring, and many more bewildering gymnastics.

Tightrope Performers

The show seemed to get better and better as the night went on, exploding into the final act, where eight jesters showed off their acrobatic skill, flipping and somersaulting over each other. The costumes were bright and inventive, adding to the creativity of the performance.

It wasn’t only the acts that were impressive, but also the way the show was put together. A large applause must go out to the staff behind the scenes. When the Moscow State Circus turns up on Midsummer Common its like watching a small village arrive. The hard work that goes into putting the shows together is undeniable. The last show ended at 7.00pm on Sunday 9th October, by Monday lunchtime it was as if the circus had never been there.