Mike Hirschbach




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."

Overview: (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.

First 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.

The 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.

Incidentally, 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.

Andre' 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.

It was 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.

Friday 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.

Finally, 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.

Preparations 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 clinic, including:

  • Yellow Fever (which was obligatory; no one is allowed into the country without proof of having received it)
  • Diptheria, Tetanus and Polio
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Typhoid
  • Meningitis

ARRIVING: 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 was Saturday.
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" was).

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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