Mike Hirschbach




Part Three - March, 2004

A typical scene outside of the main city of Ouagadougou. Dirt roads and low concrete and mud houses, with water needs met by trips to the communal well by donkey cart, bicycle, or foot.

TRAFFIC: Driving is insane. Hundreds of thousands of mobilettes (scooters) and bikes, and almost no one wears a helmet (in cars, no one wears seat belts). I see evidence of accidents every day. There are few street signs; the people who live here know where everything is, and describe how to get somewhere by describing landmarks and nearby residences. At night, many vehicles drive without headlights, so being a pedestrian calls for extra caution.

Then there are all the people walking by the side of the road, most wearing their traditional, brightly colored, and patterned, flowing clothing. Beautifully balanced on their heads, people carry their groceries, or wood for fires, or the wares they sell. This morning I saw three men on their way to work, each with a sewing machine on top, as comfortable and casual as if they were wearing hats.

There are donkeys pulling small carts filled with firewood, or stacks of melons, or the big barrels for water; most people go to a community well for their daily needs. Then there's all the trucks, and strange, seemingly home-made cars on the road, and somehow, Issa, our driver, weaves in and out of all this fast moving craziness in a complex weave of knowingness, daring and intuition, and gets us all to the school where we teach every day.

The dust is so pervasive that many people wear surgical masks when they drive. While driving on the dirt roads, there's a perpetual wash of yellow haze, and everything in it become shadowy and obscure. I have to wash my clothes every day, and shower more than once because of "la poussiere"; I can write my name on the dust covering my arm.

There are paved roads here, but only the few major ones, and by the side of the road are dozens of street vendors. Here's a woman cooking meat for sale over a fire on a grill placed over two cinder blocks. Every time we stop at a traffic sign, kids crowd around trying to sell us things.

All around us are cars and trucks of every description. There are no vehicle safety laws, so if it's possible to drive something, it will be driven. Ancient battered cars, trucks with the front missing so you can see the laboring, steaming motor. There are no pollution controls either, so all of these are spewing out smoke and exhaust, which add to the haze produced by the dust and dirt of the roads.

Suddenly a small group of goats (not quite a herd) ambles across the road. Meanwhile, two guys are slowly pushing a towering load of boxes mounted on a cart. Over here are several donkey carts in a row, carrying loads of wood, straw or vases bound for market. On both sides are stores, so small and crammed together that five would easily fit in a small living room.

Now, add sights like this, which I see every day:

-A car, piled precariously high with packages tied to the roof , and mixed in with them, a resigned goat peering through the ropes.

-A truck with dozens of bicycles tied on top, and, two young boys holding on to them as it careens down the road. If they lose their grip, if there's a sudden stop, or if a bike comes loose…

-Suddenly the road is filled with army personnel jogging around the block and all traffic stops. There is a car with a windshield so cracked the driver leans out the side window to see. On what would be the sidewalk (if there was a sidewalk), dozens of men are laying their prayer mats out so they can prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca.

Everywhere are women carrying loads perfectly balanced on their heads, dogs padding down the street, small children carrying tinier children waiting to cross this busy maelstrom, the bright, beautiful clothing of the pedestrians, and all the noise and sounds of a busy, hectic, living, frenetic street

The Classes: 6 mornings a week I get up very early and take a taxi at 7:10 to the office of the Jeunesse du Monde (World Youth), where I get in a van with the students. (Pick up from various locations around the city, so it can take over an hour before we get to the orphanage). All of us then drive to the "Center Specialisee et de Formation", the Centre for Specialized Education and Training, or C.E.S.F. for short. This is a series of long, one story buildings where orphaned and abandoned boys live (there is another facility for girls elsewhere. These boys live here for 4-5 years, where they are housed, fed, taught and learn a trade.

The kids I'm working with are learning to become circus teachers and performers. Every day Andre works with them on acrobatics, and I teach them theatre exercises and juggling. We work from 8:00-12:30, then take a break from 12:30-3:00 (everybody does; stores, banks, restaurants all close down because it's too hot to do anything!). Then we work again for another 2 hours.

Work is going very, very well. Andre and I are a good team, and we have similar backgrounds and approaches. The students are truly eager to learn, and work hard, and I can see their progress from one day to another…

The students are in their teens and early twenties, and all come from difficult life situations. But, the first week has gone incredibly well and they work very hard and want to learn all they can from us. Twice a week they teach a group of the young boys at the school. It's amazing to see some of these very small kids juggling 4 balls, or riding the unicycle while juggling rings, or doing back flips across the mat.

This program, Cirque du Monde, really works. It's amazing to see kids who have really had hard lives enjoying themselves, and creating, working with each other and beginning new lives with hope in them.

... more in Part Four!
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