History Urges Us to Do Better: Opportunities to Elevate Nurses in the Current Ebola Outbreak

Ebola, Uncategorized

This is a piece I wrote that was just published in the American Journal of Nursing. Take a look:

“Another Ebola Outbreak Provides an Occassion for Reflection”

As during the early days of HIV–AIDS, it was not just patients who were disrespected. Ebola nurses were mistreated, ridiculed, and stigmatized. U.S. quarantine policies were inconsistent from state to state and were determined, in some cases, by politicians and not scientists. Fear inspired aggression toward caregivers who volunteered to treat Ebola patients. We have not made substantial progress in the fight against infectious diseases when we let fear create stigma about caregivers doing their jobs. History urges us to do better, and we can.


100 for 100

Runfundraiser, Running

I’m going 100 for 100 on March 8th 

Will you help me?

Eight years ago I started a birthday tradition of running one mile for each year that I’ve been lucky enough to walk along this planet.  This year is a big one for me—40!  And though I’d like to live to be 100 years old, I’m neither certain I’ll make it that far, nor will I be capable of running 100 miles on my birthday.  So in the words of an old actor friend, I’ve decided to “Go big or go home.”

For this milestone birthday, I’m going for 100. 

These birthday runs have been a great chance to reflect on the generosity and kindness of others who have inspired and helped me along the way.  So this year, for each mile, I’m asking for donations: $1.00 per mile from 100 people. 100 people giving a mere $100 each to a great non-profit. My goal is to raise $10,000 in just over a month to give back to the organizations that have profoundly shaped my life.  I don’t want a dime of this money, in fact, I’m going to ask you to donate directly to one of my favorite orgs.

Here they are:

Clowns Without Borders

Partners in Health


Snowdrop Foundation

And to donate, just click here:

Clowns Without Borders-Donate

Partners in Health-Donate


Snowdrop Foundation

On this blog I’ll be track the donation and pledge progress.  Even before sending this message out 10 people have already pledged to give $100; I’m one tenth of the way there.  Want to jump on board to push me further?

Now for the course: Well, it’s ever evolving.  My hope is not to have to pull this off on a treadmill like I did for my 38th birthday while I was stuck in Ebola quarantine.  That was quite boring, the run and the quarantine.  So if the weather holds, I’ll start my run at noon on March 7th with a finish time by noon on March 8th.  That will leave space on my actual birthday for a celebratory beer (or three) and a nice nap.


The course will likely be multiple 10 mile or 20 mile loops around my current hometown,  Charlottesville, VA.  I’m considering a cross-mountain run from where I grew up in Waynesboro to Charlottesville—a nice 30-mile jog over Afton Mountain—to kick things off.  There will be updates on social media and e-mail as the plans progress.

Thinking of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, “The Lonliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” I will gladly welcome runners to join me for a mile or two or ten or twenty.  Also, for friends in distant places for whom $100 might be a squeeze: Just go for a run on the 8th, let me know when and where and we’ll pound pavement together!  Want to get some other people to raise money with you?  GREAT!  Want to donate more than $100?  FABULOUS!

Bottom line is that I don’t know if I’ll even be able to pull this off, but I’m confident that the money you give to these life saving organizations will bring thousands of miles worth of health and smiles.  If you want to learn more about why these organizations are so great, send me an e-mail at myfirst100miles@gmail.com and I’ll fill you in.

Pledge or donate now and follow this blog for more details!


Thanks for helping me try to pull this off!



Kites, like Bubbles

Clowns Without Borders

Driving into the world’s most rapidly growing refugee camp, we pass a massive, old tree on the precipice of a hill. Ensnarled in its branches are twenty kites.  Below the tree, there are more flying—ragged shreds of plastic held fast by wooden sticks and string—free and reckless in the wind. Below them, children laugh.  This is a camp estimated to hold almost 800,000 refugees who have fled Myanmar.

We pass vibrant markets that sell paan—green leaves wrapped around beetle nut and sprinkled with tobacco and a white paint-like paste, that gives you quite a buzz when you chew it— chickens, and stacks of blankets issued by UNHCR.  The road forks and we are behind a lorry holding a large emergency water bladder.  If you’ve never seen a water bladder before, it is quite impressive.  Holding thousands of gallons of water, this plastic vessel looks like the floor of a bounce house.  Water bladders are common here outside of the Médecins Sans Frontèires and Red Crescent/Red Cross hospitals.  They supply drinking water for entire communities.  This one on the back of the truck was alive.  With each turn, it’s entire being undulated as the waves of fresh water within it ricocheted against each other to the incessant pommeling of the rugged road. When the lorry stopped for traffic the bladder would calm down but it never stopped moving.  Its most subtle waves were like breath, a giant puppet alive and unpredictable.

When you are with clowns, you see things differently.

The bladder made us laugh as we followed it at snail’s pace deep into a “host community” called Burmapara.  Host communities might be comparable to Sanctuary Cities in the U.S., for all intents and purposes.  Host communities welcome refugees. They give them a place to build a tent for shelter; they provide markets in which refugees can shop; they bring in food and water to their foreign guests.  They are radically different than the Sanctuary Cities in the U.S. in one significant way: These host communities are completely impoverished.  Still, they share what they have.  They even give away their land, their productive rice fields, so that new arrivals can build a home.

The van stops when there is no more road. Out climb the clowns.

I was neither a clown today, nor had I been one when I arrived in Bangladesh three weeks prior.  And though I’ve worked in similar settings with the group Clowns Without Borders, I had come this time to work with a medical non-profit called MedGlobal. Nearby, we ran a small primary care clinic. We had seen traumatic injuries, sepsis, respiratory illness, malnourished children and countless other afflictions.  There, too, we heard stories of violations against women and children by the Burmese army that made us shudder.  We treated patients with profound psychological distress from what had been done to them and from what they had seen,trauma that they will carry for the rest of their lives. Children burned, mass rape, family members gunned down next to siblings who tried escape Myanmar.   This has been happening daily, since August, 2017.

Out of the clinic and now with the clowns, I saw something completely different. These were the same kids and community we treated in our clinic, but the narrative here was bereft of suffering.

The walk from the vans to the show is muddy and full of puddles.  Along the route we pass hundreds of tents, signs for other NGOs—BRAC, Save the Children, MSF—outhouses, and children.  The kids glom onto the four clowns in the front of the line, Mamba, Banana, Bim Bam and Annity. Children slip in the mud alongside the clowns, no punishment for falling here, just play.  We come upon a clearing where there are open fields with goats and terraced land too rough for rice. A bamboo fence demarcates a large patch of dirt and four bamboo-walled school rooms.  Everything in camp is bamboo and tarpaulin. Impermanent. The Bangladeshi government prevents the construction of any permanence.  This is the Child Friendly Space (CFS) where the clowns will perform. Already, hundreds of people await with anticipation.

Mamba distracts a group of children in a game of call and response.  He says a word and makes a ridiculous gesture, every child’s eye is on him.  The rest of the team sets up their show in a corner of the CFS yard.  The backdrop for the show will be a hill covered in shelters to the left, a Save the Children-sponsored CFS in front of a bamboo masjid on the right. Within minutes, 750 people are here.  The shortest children sit in the front of the audience.  Old men and women line the back holding umbrellas to block the noon sun.

Then the clowns disappear behind a red velvet curtain and the show begins.  The children sit quietly in the dirt.  Bim Bam pops his head out to the right of the curtain.  Annabel appears in the middle.  They both look puzzled and then they disappear again.  The audience chatters, but no one laughs.  Children look around at each other and then jump with surprise when Mamba enters.  The clowns are here! The kids have never seen anything like this before.

A man in the back of the crowd who stands next to me, says Mashallah. There is a smile on his worn face.  The clowns start a choreographed slapstick routine in which they each try to show off what they want to be when they grow up, a cleaner, a doctor, a ninja and a tomtom driver. Laughter erupts.

For an hour, the clowns create an imaginative journey that invites the audience to participate in magic, a violin concert, a tomtom ride, acrobatics and dance.  The children laugh at the clowns’ foibles and celebrate with their victories.  The show ends when Mamba brings two young boys on stage and teaches them a gumboot dance from Swaziland.  The children pick up on the moves immediately as the trio of dancers bring delight.  The rest of the clowns join in with dance and then they collectively bow, signaling the end of the show.  It is then that the most spectacular failure occurs—they cannot end the show.  The children refuse to let the clowns leave the stage.

The kids clap and they cheer, but they stay in place, seated, ready for more.  So the clowns do what is at the root of all clown performances: They improvise.  More songs, more dances.  Annity walks out into the crowd and blows bubbles from a small plastic cup.  Many children reach up to pop the exquisite pockets of soap and air.  On stage, the other clowns bring out a bucket full of bubble soap and some pole-like contraption with a rope tied to it.  Banana lays the rope in the bucket, then raises her arms. She releases a giant orb into the air. All eyes, then all arms move up towards this bubble. Bubbles, like kites lift the eyes and elevate the soul.

Behind the stage there is a black kite, high in the air.  It has flown for most of the show. The show is over now, this time for real. Children leave leave with a bounce in their step that betrays the truth that they’ve lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  Their joy belies the the absolute depravation they have faced for most of their lives.








No Coconuts in Camp

Rohingya Crisis

Mohammed* is 35 years old.  He looks like he is 70.  Well, until he smiles, that is. Then everything changes.  He has some malignancy growing in his liver that is destroying it and his entire body.  It is causing his muscles to waste away; nearly every bone in his arms and legs is visible.  His feet are hardened from walking to our clinic, sometimes daily, when the abdominal pain is too much or the swelling becomes unbearable.  In his condition, he should not be able to walk. But he has to.  There is no choice.  The flesh that hangs from his face lights up—wrinkle pleating upon wrinkle— and packs itself backwards into his gaunt cheekbones when Anam walks into the room. She hands him a green coconut.  Abdul Hamid brings him juice, Rache and Chris bring sweet crackers. All smiles. For two weeks we’ve brought in needles for injections of antibiotics and pain medication, and also a long cannula to insert and drain the pernicious fluid that accumulates in his belly.  From Mohammed, when I do this, I get frowns and glares—I see a young man who is dying. But when the needles come out and the fluid is drained, he also smiles at me.  He rests for a bit, then he takes his walking stick and carries himself home, barefoot, exhausted.

Mohammed is on palliative care now: there is nothing more we can do besides keeping him comfortable. This would be true in the U.S. too, but still, it smacks of shame.  Mohammed has come from a country where he has likely not received medical care for most of his life.  He crossed the river between Myanmar and Bangladesh in the middle of the night, fleeing a backdrop of burning villages and gunfire, rape, incomprehensible violations of human dignity, and profound fear.  He carried with him all that he had, including his cancer. And yet he has survived. He has survived the indignities forced upon him because he is Muslim, because his skin is darker than most Burmese citizens, because he, as Rohingya, has been declared “stateless” by a government and military regime desperately trying to maintain power.

The Bangladesh/Myanmar border.

You’ve likely seen Mohammed’s face if you’ve paid any attention to the news. His face is that of the thousands of faces burdened by suffering and fear.  But you’ve likely not seen his smile. The media follows the suffering, a one-sided story of sorrow. Mohammed’s smile, though is subversive. It is a parry against the genocide—denied by Nobel Laureate and current State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi—that lays waste the Rohingya.   Mohammed’s smile is a bold resistance against a cruel state. His smile resonates like the words of Holocaust survivor and philosopher, Viktor Frankl, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

For those of us treating him, we catch a sense of that meaning – incomprehensible but real and present every time he smiles.  It is a wordless, revolutionary act.

It is this revolution of resilience that brings light to Hakimpara Refugee Camp in the southern region of Bangladesh, home to 1.2 million people—mostly Rohingya, but also Christian and Hindu minorities who have also fled Myanmar. Here, it is mostly peaceful.  Here, communities support one another with the little that they have. I worry deeply, however, about what the future will bring. Stateless in Myanmar and stateless in Bangladesh, the citizens of this camp have very few rights.  They are not allowed to own a cell phone.  They are not allowed to work.  They are not allowed to travel outside the military checkpoints.  There are, of course, exceptions.  With countless phone calls and letters, we can sometimes move a sick patient across the boundary so that they can receive essential medical treatment in Cox’s Bazar. The movement of these patients, as exceptions go, is unpredictable.  Far more people get turned away at the checkpoints than those who are able to cross, even if their lives depend on it.

History throws opaque shadows. We can look closely at what happens when people are stripped of their rights while living in a place surrounded by others with so much more.  As we move into 2018, the word radicalization is heard frequently. Governments continue to turn a blind eye to the acute suffering of millions. People with nothing also have nothing left to lose. People with no granted rights may make a stand in order to achieve group actualization. They may do so with force. We see it time and time again.

Here, today in the Rohingya camps, there are endless opportunities to treat the sick and feed the hungry, while supporting the educational, creative, religious and community needs of millions.  Here, in this place, there is a peaceful, but poor setting that is primed for success. The opportunity for optimism remains strong.  And even as the rainy season threatens the infrastructure of the camps, there is much good work being done. World Bank President, Jim Kim says, “Optimism is a moral choice. Pessimism in the face of extreme poverty can be a self-fulfilling prophesy that is deadly for the poor.” Optimism is the only option here, but it must be shrewd and calculated.  It must be planned, well-coordinated and ethically sound. There is no other choice.

Each day on our way into camp, we pass busy markets full of tom-toms NGO vans, buses overcrowded with Bangladeshi citizens and lorries stacked with bamboo to make shelters for the camp’s newest arrivals.  In the markets, we see fresh fruit and meat: legs of cows and lambs hanging from roofs; men who stand around paan vendors to buy beetle-nut and leaf-wrapped treats; piles of daikon radishes; clothing; and other food staples.  And there are coconuts, tasty green coconuts, full of isotonic fluid. Delicious and nutritious. We stop in one of these markets before we cross the military checkpoint.  On the other side, there are markets (and they seem to expand each day). The goods sold there, though, are older and less fresh.  There is a limited selection. There are no coconuts.

The last time I saw Mohammed and we drained fluid from his abdomen, it had gone from clear to cloudy, which suggests infection.  When the draining was almost complete, the yellow tinged peritoneal fluid changed to a rich, burgundy-red. Blood in the peritoneal cavity indicates a sinister progression of his disease. He thanked us when he walked out of our clinic that day and smiled his radiant smile.  He asked us to find another green coconut for when he would return.

We know that we may never see him again.

* The patient’s name has been changed in this text to honor his privacy.




Christmas Eve: Hakimpara, Rohingya Refugee Camp

Rohingya Crisis

A woman rushed into our clinic holding a piece of cardboard. The scribbled, broken English read, Not come late…Help. Her brother for two days had neither walked nor eaten.  She said that he had been beaten. She was desperately afraid for his life.

Where they live, there are only footpaths, steps carved in dirt that traverse steep hills.  The smoothness of the steps, their ledges worn bare from feet hauling bamboo poles and tarpaulins, boxes of fruit, plastic barrels of water, firewood and human bodies into the heart of a camp too vast to count is population, tell us stories.  The more worn the steps, the older the camp.  The smoother the steps, the more we understand the density of the vast migration into the deforested hills of southern Bangladesh. On these steps we track the escape from the ongoing genocide in Myanmar.  These steps speak suffering but they also reveal a burly will to survive among the Rohingya people.

Chris, our clinic field coordinator carried a folded stretcher on his shoulder.  I followed with our translator, Mohammed, in a rushed cadence up the slopes.  “When the rainy season comes, this camp will wash away,” commented Mohammed as he slipped upwards on the loose dirt.  Up three slopes, down two and then along a final cliff-like ledge, we arrived at a small home. We removed our shoes and stepped into the shelter, wrapped in stifling plastic tarps.  There lay a 19-year old, sweating, with his eyes closed. His sister had found him unconscious with a piece of cloth tied around his neck. She heard that he had been choked before being hit by a wooden board.  Though Chris and I found minimal signs of trauma when we did a rapid initial assessment, we were very worried. This teenager was paralyzed.  He did not move; he didn’t speak; he didn’t respond to pain. His eyes shifted from side to side when different voices spoke; he wept when he heard his sister’s voice, that was all.

We moved him to the stretcher. The weight of the metal-poled retractable cot is frequently greater than the weight of the patients we’ve carried out of the camp and to our clinic.  The elderly and malnourished living here are beyond frail.  But this patient was different, he was fit, muscular, and he had been well-fed. According to his sister, he had graduated with honors from his secondary school right before fleeing his village in Myanmar.  We shifted him out of the tent and along the cliff. As we carried him out of the camp, a crowd of fifty or more people formed around us. For 30 minutes we navigated the slopes with our patient, his face covered to protect his eyes from the sunlight. The crowd asked if he was alive. Back at our clinic, we then loaded him onto an ambulance to take him to the International Red Crescent (ICRC) field hospital. I sat next to him in of the ambulance and held his arms to his chest so that he would not fall off of the stretcher while the vehicle trembled along the tired roads. The young man cried the entire trip, his tears carved rivers through the caked dirt on his cheeks. He did not fit the picture of a neurologically devastated patient, nor did he have signs on his neck from strangulation.

At the field hospital, he became slightly more responsive, but he was still far from normal.  We considered catatonia. People who have experienced profound traumatic events, when reintroduced to some other trauma, have been observed to fall into a catatonic state, in which they seem to be physically paralyzed. Our ambulance team left the patient and his sister at the field hospital to return to our clinic, now saturated with patients waiting to be seen.

The road from the ICRC to our clinic is chaotic to say the least.  Traffic, goats, people and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) line its borders in an incessant shuffle of movement and aid. We drove by one of the entrances to the camp (now preparing to increase its size to support 800,000 refugees) and there I saw a child running over a hill with a kite in tow.  Behind him, more children, more kites. We had an entourage of onlookers who followed the teenagers body down from the camp, and now back up towards the heart of it, children ran and laughed.

A few days before to this event, on Winter Solstice, my team walked through the camp. We saw soccer fields and cricket pitches we rice once grew. We saw families playing kick volley ball together, small shops selling snacks. We saw many kites made from discarded plastic. Even the darkest day of the year was filled with the palpable energy of play. Children had filled a plastic water jug with air and were hitting it into the air as if it was a balloon. Adults laughed together, telling stories.  This neighborhood in the camp was lit with excitement.  It reminded me of walking through holiday markets in New York City’s Central Park.  There was the flavor of thrill in the air.  But through the crowd of onlookers watching the evening sports, we saw a man who walked towards the festivities from the road. He carried something on his shoulder. As he approached, we saw that it was a body, a woman in her late teens or early twenties. She was dead.  He had brought her home, presumably from a clinic nearby, to his new home, to his home in which there was no fear of government sponsored rape, arson or massacre. He carried her to this now home to be buried in peace.

The scenes of suffering and joy here remain in polar contrast while ever shifting.  There are moments of paralysis and moments of action.  There are treatments for catatonia.  There are methods by which to keep moving forward regardless of what has gone in the past.  The solutions are as fluid as the crisis itself, and yet one thing remains constant in this collective.  This thing looks like hope.  It looks like resilience.  It arises from family and community.  At times it seems completely impossible, absurd even to consider.  Yet, it remains pervasive.

I write this on Christmas Eve, a holiday that I was raised celebrating.  It is time when we light candles and sing songs of birth, of rebirth.  This is a time, back home, we we use the word “peace” with abandon. Here in the camp, we say it with every greeting: as-salāmu ʿalaykum  (Peace be with you). Here, we see profound suffering every day, which is but a fraction of the trauma that most Rohingyas have experienced for years. The Myanmar government denies this ethnic cleansing, calling it “fake news.” Other media sources have reported on the horrors here, with keen accuracy, but they write without a sense of resiliency.  What you read in the free press is true. But there is another truth that I would like to add to the narrative.  It is the truth of human survival that rises with the kites in the mornings, held by children, who fly them above the hardship below.

If you are interested in helping, please consider donating to one of the many organizations working tirelessly to serve Rohingya refugees.  The organization I’m working with is called MedGlobalYou can support them here.







What’s up with that kid on the bucket?

Clowns Without Borders

Our Clowns without Borders show ends as it begins, with music. Music provides a safe mode through which we catalyze an initial connection with our audience and then later facilitate a smooth exit. The last two days we were invited to perform at two different homes for children who had lost their parents or caretakers to Ebola. The children we performed for eagerly joined us on “stage” to participate in our magic tricks, to pull the metal bucket off of my foot after I had accidentally stepped into it and had not been able to kick it off, to attack Apple’s bubbles with unkept joy, and to dance with us at the end, each taking turns to stand atop our metal bucket and show the rest of the crowd their dance moves, their strength.

We end our show with a dance party for two reasons. One is that our work is about the child, for the child and we believe the child’s place is center-stage. The second reason, I will address in a few minutes. Before I do I need to share a challenge we have faced in these two homes and many others, in other countries, too.

After the dance parties ended and we had a chance to change out of our sweat soaked costumes, on both days we met with a leader from each of the two homes. As if scripted, each individual called a child, then two, then three by name with a harsh tone. The children were singled out as “strangers” in their own homes. Upon being called, they walked over to their elder, eyes turned downward and with humility–this was quite the contrast from how they were dancing and playing just minutes earlier. This child had lost both parents to Ebola, this child was homeless because her family was evicted, this child was born with a deformity and left to live on the streets until he was rescued by our children’s home. The stories were heartbreaking; they also felt rehearsed. The children about whom the leaders were speaking listened to, once again, the story of why they were rejected. During our time at the second children’s home I heard the story about the young boy born with a deformed arm and back a second time after the head of the home told me about how they needed more funds.

It is a travesty that children are introduced to foreigners by someone else telling the story of their suffering. It is unconscionable that a child be forced to hear, again and again, their story of rejection any time a foreign visitor, NGO or potential donor visits. It is not a travesty to ask for money, it is not unconscionable to assume that a person from a resource wealthy nation may feel moved to donate and support an important cause, but it should be done in a way that does not risk stirring a child’s own trauma.

But sadly, this is nothing new.

Television commercials in the mid 1980’s that played Pachelbel’s Canon while flashing photos of malnourished children looking miserable, the comedian, Jack Black, just a couple of years ago weeping while he visited children living in Uganda for the U.S.version of “Red Nose Day–the manipulation of suffering as a pitch for donations, we’ve all seen it before.

But what if it was your child singled out by some foreign film crew and recorded at his very worst? What if your most wretched moment was caught on tape (without your permission) and then used to raise millions of dollars?

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent rail against this kind of exploitation. It states clearly in its code of ethics that “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.”

But it still happens.

So what if we could change that narrative? What if we could tell the story of a child or family’s hardships without risking exacerbating their PTSD? What if we could raise funds, awareness and advocacy for people in need without framing them by only their suffering?

And now back to my second point as to why we end our shows with a dance party. I’ll also answer why there is a child standing on a bucket. We bring a child on stage with us as our shows end and we start a copy-cat routine. It begins with the child copying silly dance moves and then the bit moves towards them flexing their arms like an Olympic champion. (Think Michael Phelps, but shorter.) The child, depending on how comfortable they are in the moment, then stands on my shoulders to flex or they choose to stand on the bucket, elevated above the crowd. Some children roar like lions when they are standing there. During our last two shows, children lined up during the final dance party so that they could take their turns standing resolutely on the bucket.

We do not choose to highlight children because of their perceived deformities or weaknesses. We select children from the audience who seem engaged in the clown foolishness in front of them. When they join us on our makeshift stage, they always win and their strength shines through.

This we call resilience. It is resilience through playfulness; it is resilience through laughter.

This we celebrate.

In our short two-weeks here we have witnessed and heard of extreme hardships. The children we have met have gone through indescribable challenges; most of them continue to face these challenges head on, because they have to. In no way do I want to make their hardships seem unimportant and I do so strongly believe that children’s homes like the ones where we worked need support, yet the image I hope to leave you with is one of resilience despite all else: a child standing proudly on an overturned metal bucket, flexing her arms and the audience cheering for her, for who she is and what she will become.



Learn more about the work of Clowns Without Borders.

From rubber gloves to rubber chickens

Clowns Without Borders, Ebola, Uncategorized

When I got in the Uber four days ago, my brand new red Converse were still untied. I was rushing as I often do. In the car, the radio played Toto’s “Africa.” You know, that  catchy tune from 1982 about a continent confused by many to be a country? (There are 54 countries in Africa). While Toto was busy blessing the rains down in Africa, my head was down as I tied my shoes and bit my tongue. Though that song sold millions of copies and its chorus gets stuck in your head for hours, its message is disturbing. It paints a general picture of suffering that highlights a common narrative about an immensely diverse continent. We are told that “Africans are poor, they are sick and they need to be saved.” When epidemics strike, like the recent Ebola epidemic that occurred from December 2013-March 2016 in West Africa (primarily Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia), the media condemns the whole continent. Headlines like “Ebola in Africa,” Famine in Africa,” “Malaria in Africa” are not untrue, but they are misleading, generalizing and most unfortunately, they are othering.

(Is that song still stuck in your head?)

“Othering” causes distancing; it allows us to unrelate from people, communities and those with differing points of view.  By separating ourselves from the “others”we become much less tuned into the world around us. “Othering” is easy though, it feels safe, it is a very human reaction. It is also dangerous.

Taking my mind off of Toto’s tune, I perserverated on what I had packed, afraid that I had forgotten something important. I thought about my clown gear, the people that had given me elements of it and those who had inspired me to take this trip. I had juggling clubs that Sam Lee gave me, rubber chickens from Sarah Foster, squeaker toys from B.B. Widdop, Jamie Lachman’s antique horn, George Lennox’s 1970’s ruffled tuxedo shirt, David Lichtenstein’s nose and a head full of clown routines I had learned from friends and mentors–Rudi, Moshe, Esther, Hilary, Pops and Peppe, to name a few. My clown character had become a compilation of gifts from extraordinary people. They all flashed through my head as that godforsaken song stopped. I was on my way to the airport, to fly to Sierra Leone, meet up with Eva and Malin, create a show and perform for street children and families affected by the Ebola epidemic.

This is my second time in Sierra Leone, the first was during that epidemic that took more than 11,000 lives and once again stigmatized a continent. Then, I was a nurse treating children with Ebola. Now I am a clown, treating no one, just playing. Then, the rule of law was ABC: Avoid Body Contact. Now, once again clinics, mosques, churches and markets are open, you are allowed to hold hands, hug, congregate and interact normally, like humans. Now the sounds of car horns overpower the then eerie drone of ambulances 24 hours a day. Now we can safely share a plate of “chop,” communal meals of fish, groundnut sauce and rice. Music, once again, is everywhere.

Eva, a musician and Malin, a clown and old friend of mine, both from Sweden, were invited with me to come and be ‘based’ at the Lotte Elf School in Portee. There we built our show and have been teaching music and clown workshops. It is from there that we travel to put on shows. Cars cannot drive to where we work without getting stuck or destroying their undercarriage because of the rocks, mud and holes. Our team carries our entire show with us in suitcases and backpacks. Usually we share the load, except for when we are in character and Malin’s clown, “Apple,” is tasked with schlepping all the gear while Eva and I warm up the audience with a song. Eva plays the quattro and I, my banjolele while Malin’s clown struggles with chaotic finesse to set up our stage.

For our first show, the stage was in a ruddy intersection, its backdrop, an electric blue passenger van with dilapidated windows and a yellow racing stripe. More than 100 people waited for us in the Sunday morning sun. As the show ensued the crowd doubled in size. Children in bright colored formal clothes and men in white tunics cheered us on while we introduced each character with eccentric dance moves in our oversized outfits. An elderly woman in a maroon and purple dress, a complex lappa design resembling lightening bolts and cracked ice with a pristine matching hat, stood in the front of the crowd singing with us as if she knew the words to all of our songs. A man in nothing but shorts came out of his home–perhaps he had just woken from a long Saturday night–he scrutinized our magic tricks and tried to explain them to other audience members. The crowd clapped and cheered, mesmerized by the duet played by Eva and I on the flute and musical saw and always ready to cheer on Malin as her clown, the “number three” character (think Groucho Marx), stole the show.

Early on in the show we play a routine in which we fight over who gets to read a newspaper. The fight builds in ridiculousness, tempo and intensity to the point at which the newspaper rips and we turn the now halved paper into a pair of binoculars. We look into the audience, like children having completely forgotten about our argument and we are immediately distracted by who we see in the crowd. We see a child and we go to shake his hand. Each clown wants to give the best handshake and so the three of us end up running circles in front of the child taking our turn to give the funniest, most formal or most ridiculous shake. We invite him on our stage then and do a routine in which, while holding his hands, we try to figure out how we can all bow together.

The child we picked in our first show was thrilled to be the center of attention. He grasped our hands laughing while Malin and I tried to figure out to make us all three face forward.  I’ve done this routine hundreds of times in at least 10 different countries; it gets similar laughs for its simple absurdity. But this time on this day it was particularly powerful. I realized that there in my red nose and black tuxedo that I could hold a hand with no fear of contagion. There was no risk that this child or anyone that I shook hands with would infect me with anything more than a sense of friendship. I still carry the trauma of holding the hands of the dead and dying in this country not long ago. Covered in latex gloves and Tyvek suits, we sat with countless people, each sick, each with a unique story and name, cut short. But then, with that child, I realized all of that was over. With a tear in my eye, I wondered what it was like when the ABC rule was lifted in Sierra Leone and the fear of contact dissipated.


Clowns learning how to bow

The show was a hit and much of the crowd followed us back to the school from where we started it all. At the entrance of the school three of us sweaty, dirty and happily exhausted said, “goodbye.” We rested for about two hours and then climbed to the roof of the building to host a music and clown workshop for about 50 children.

Eva took the lead on the workshop after I opened with a short warm-up call and response song called “Flea.” She taught a group of 55 fourth graders a song that she had written in Krio. It is a sweet tune that requires each child in the group to say their name. One at a time, a child speaks and then the whole group sings the chorus featuring that child’s name. We stood in a circle and each child’s name resonated through the group, survivors of Ebola, survivors of living in the streets, and survivors of the world’s indifference, these children, each child, had a unique chance to shine.


The classroom where we ran our workshop at the top of the school

Our contribution is small, we would say “small small” in Krio. But what we can do and what we strive to do with Clowns Without Borders is to elevate the child, the individual child, to learn a part of her story and share it. As individuals we all desire, in one way or another, for our name to be sung in a song’s chorus. And too, that we are all a compilation of individual gifts and inspirations, that when our name is celebrated, we are actually celebrating a much larger whole.


A child turns me into an air pump to blow up a balloon

Our show ended as so many of our shows have, in which we invite a child to come on stage and dance with us. A young boy joined us and mimicked the pose of a circus side-show “strong man.” He flexed his muscles over and over again.  He then climbed to my shoulders and stood there, flexed one more time and cheered. He was the tallest and strongest person in town.

To learn more about this project and the work of Clowns Without Borders, look here and here.