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.