Part One - January, 2004
Here I am explaining abstruse formulas for determining
velocity ratios in acrobatics as an expression of set theory, quantum
mechanics and Lego construction.
|"Anyone who doubts the
efficacy of circus arts to impact positively on lives should have seen
the eagerness of these kids, and the professionalism of the former
street kids teaching them."
(Letter to a friend) I'm just back from 3 weeks in Burkina Faso, and
wanted to let you know how it went. It was certainly a revelation for me
to see how the Cirque du Monde program actually operates in another
country, how successful it is, and how many lives it influences.
off, it really works. I was one of two teachers, the other being Andre',
an acrobat from Quebec. We were to have been joined by Catherine, a
funambuliste (tightrope artist), who unfortunately sustained a minor
injury (not work related) which prevented her from making the trip.
André and I were responsible for developing and teaching the 3 week
long program, and we were worked with 15 trainers from 4 countries in
Africa. Most were from Burkina, but there were 3 from Cameroon, and 1
each from Ghana and the Cote d'Ivoire; all were in the process of
becoming teachers (and performers) themselves.
Overall, the trainers were very hard working and eager to learn. This is
the 4th year of the program in Burkina, and for this workshop and at
this level, discipline problems were virtually nonexistent.
workshop studio where I taught every day, basically an empty room, was
at an orphanage and school. There were hundreds of young boys there who
had, in many cases, lost their parents to disease. This was just one of
many such places in the city (and one of three I visited while there)
Certainly there were many, many kids who were not even that lucky; kids
who lived and slept on the street, who begged everyday for the small
amounts that would sustain them. The work I'll be doing for the next few
years will mean traveling to places where these problems are very
present, and working with people most affected by them.
there was also very little equipment; the basics of juggling tools,
mats, a few unicycles, and some other apparatus (rola bolas, diablos,
devil sticks). The program doesn't require elaborate equipment, and much
of the cost is salaries and administration.
and I were responsible for developing and teaching the three week
program. Monday to Wednesday we taught a very full day of acrobatics,
juggling and theatre/performance work. On Thursday, the trainers
themselves taught the younger kids at the orphanage, and at another
nearby school. This aspect, of teaching others, is an essential part of
the program. For the trainers, it's a way of becoming accredited to work
in the school system or with social agencies, and also to give back some
of what they have learned. It was incredible to see these young kids (up
to 80 at the orphanage, and a smaller group of 35 at the school) riding
unicycles, juggling 4 objects, and practicing acrobatics. Anyone who
doubts the efficacy of circus arts to impact positively on lives should
have seen the eagerness of these kids, and the professionalism of the
former street kids teaching them.
like watching the ripples from a stone thrown into a pond. The influence
of this program is impossible to measure, but to see the pleasure these
kids took in their abilities, to see their determination, and the way
their lives have been radically changed, was very exciting and moving.
was another workshop day, and Saturday was again a teaching day for the
trainers. All the trainers were keenly interested in learning new
skills, in taking their own training further, and learning games and
techniques to bring back to the regular classes they taught.
I should mention the extremely able and professional Jeunesse du Monde
staff who recorded what André and I did, and helped us interpret and
adjust to the different culture. They were responsible for developing
and maintaining (in conjunction with Cirque du Monde) this truly
community based program.
for the journey to Burkina Faso included taking twice-weekly French
lessons to brush up on the language. As a former colony of France,
French is the common language there among a myriad of dialects. I'll be
teaching in French all day, surrounded by a familiar language in an
unfamiliar country. I've also been talking with several people who had
lived in Burkina, and undergoing a barrage of vaccinations at the travel
- Yellow Fever (which
was obligatory; no one is allowed into the country without proof of
having received it)
- Diptheria, Tetanus
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
A singular birthday, arrived today in Africa for the first time.
Yesterday I arrived in Paris, where I had 8 hours between flights, so I
took the RER into the city and visited some of the places I used to see
everyday when I lived there. Place St. Michel, with it's wonderful cafes
and bookstores, the Seine River which runs right through the city, and I
also went to my old school, which was unfortunately closed because it
It was strange and moving to look at the door I used to pass through
every day for two years, to stand in that empty courtyard and, for a
moment, almost hear Patrique, Michelle, and the other students as they
noisily prepared for class. Then, another long flight. I left Halifax
airport at 4:00 in the afternoon on Friday, and arrived in Ouagadougou
at midnight on Saturday (whew!).
And here? It's very hot. All ... the ... time (quite a change from Nova
Scotia in mid-winter). Dust spirals into the air; this is partly because
it's the dry season, and partly because most of the roads here are dirt,
and vehicles raise choking clouds in their wake.
Dust is just about everywhere. Every day I have to change my clothes
more than once, and washing them is a daily activity. There's no rain,
and cloudless skies, so the dust from the dirt roads is spewed into the
air by the thousands of scooters, bikes, cars, trucks, donkey carts,
street vending vehicles - you name it. The kids at the school are
covered in dust, but water is scarce so they remain so. Poverty is
omnipresent. It takes almost an hour to reach the orphanage from city
center, and whenever the car stops at a street sign, there are kids with
cans tied on their necks begging for money, others selling phone cards,
Kleenex or gum (weirdly enough, just those 3 things). When I'm walking
people are constantly trying to sell me watches, jewelry, carved
elephants or incomprehensible services. Of course, with my bleached
white skin, I do tend to stand out a bit.
The city is unbelievably dirty. There are no garbage cans, no garbage
pick up. Things lie in the street, for, I'm sure, generations. It's not
a tourist spot; too different, too poor, without enough amenities or
concessions to the tourist's desire for the familiar, the comfortable
and the safe. And yet, there's a thriving community life. People here
seem more content than those in virtually all the other large cities
I've been to.
I keep trying to find ways to get across (in letters) what it's like
here, and failing. Andre' who has traveled extensively, and was in Japan
on tour with Cirque, said, "Japan is another world, but here is
really another world."
Communications are difficult; I leave for work before the Post Office is
open, and return after it's closed. For the same reason I haven't been
able to get to the internet café. Phone calls are insanely expensive,
which leaves me in a kind of communications limbo.
Contradictions abound. The ancient sits right beside the sort-of-modern.
Men lay their prayer rugs on the sidewalk at the call to prayer time,
just under a billboard advertising Sanyo. Goats wander the streets and
just avoid getting hit by a new 4 X 4 (called a "quatre-quatre."
I heard it several times before I figured out what a "cat cat"
Football (what we call soccer in Canada) is a sanctioned form of social
madness here. Until a few days ago, Burkina was in the World Cup, and
when the matches were televised, streets were empty, stores would close,
and it would be the main, if not the only topic of conversation the
following day (and the following, and…).
Virtually all the men have the same hairstyle - short. The women, on the
other hand have a wide variety of styles, many of which involve complex
braiding. The people are beautiful and elegant, languid and in shape,
and I haven't seen one (well, maybe one) remotely overweight person
here. Indescribably beautiful women walk past every day; this has become
my new standard - as beautiful as an African woman.
Every night I hear drumming reverberating from somewhere nearby, but
despite walking around trying to find the source, somehow it always
seems to be just one more block away.
The thing I forgot to bring? Insect repellant. Fortunately the insect
problem was overstated (it's worse in the rainy season), though every
night I do the Mosquito Hunt Tango through the hotel room and try to
find them before they find me at 2:00 in the morning.
The thing I didn't need to bring at all? Any shirt heavier than a
t-shirt, though some mornings it's slightly cool here, and I've seen
locals walking about in [really!] down-filled winter coats until the sun
goes to work. The thing I can't do without? I buy 3 one-litre bottles of
water every day, and drink like there's no tomorrow. I have to use
bottles water even to brush my teeth; I've heard many dire stories about
the effect the local water will have on my interior.
|... more in Part Two!
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