Thanks Malia Wollan @mwollan for interviewing me in the NYTimes Magazine. It’s more than just falling, it’s about resilience and bouncing back: “How to Pratfall.”
Thanks Malia Wollan @mwollan for interviewing me in the NYTimes Magazine. It’s more than just falling, it’s about resilience and bouncing back: “How to Pratfall.”
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.
CNET (cnet.com) posted this piece I wrote about the changing landscape of clown shows by CWB and how smartphones, with clowns, are bringing us all together. Take a read!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When are we allowed to laugh?
I was invited to participate in a very last minute and end-of-year capacity building project with our friends in Turkey who are on their way to forming a new chapter of Clowns Without Borders in Turkey– Sınır Tanımayan Palyaçolar. I arrived the night of December 30th to Güray’s neighborhood, which had not had electricity for two days because of heavy winds. He walked me through the quiet streets of Kadıköy, the ancient neighborhood just on the Asian side of Istanbul. The streets were not quiet only because there was no power—this was a Friday night, the night before New Years Eve and we were in the bar district—people had just not been going out. Güray’s friend’s met us at a candlelit bar, one of the few that were open and immediately began cracking jokes about bombings, terror attacks and how no one came to Turkey any more to visit.
“So what’s wrong with you?” One asked me.
At some point during our second beer the power came back on, the bar came to life with light and sound, but still not many other people came in that night.
The next day, Güray, Ecenur, Melike and myself met at his apartment to plan an afternoon show for a nearby hospital. Though strong performers, none of them had extensive experience working in hospitals. We planned and rehearsed for three hours and then, in costume, took a cab to the Siyami Ersek Hastanesi, a cardiac hospital. There we were first greeted by a cat that walked from the hospital lobby to rub up against my leg—for those of you who have not been to Istanbul, there are rumors that there are more cats than citizens here; and all cats, those domesticated and those living in the streets are treated like royalty. An anesthesia resident came down from the acute care unit and brought us upstairs for our show.
We had planned, well hoped, for a large room with space to run around and maybe even high ceilings do to some juggling. We got neither. We were brought into a small playroom with probably the capacity of about 20 people. It was not what we expected; it was perfect.
Children trickled in with parents, some in wheelchairs with central line IV’s coming out of their necks, a grey tone to their skin. One child had two surgical drains pulling bright red blood from his body. As a nurse I took for granted that situation is “normal” for a cardiac care unit, however, for the other clowns, they had not seen anything quite like that before. A group of five or so mothers then came in with infants; they sat together and though I doubt that their relatively newborn children will remember any of the show, the mothers laughed heartily throughout the experience.
We opened our show with some quiet music and when one of the audience members, a child who was maybe five years old, took the stage and began to belly dance to the delight of the rest of the audience, we took that as permission to increase the volume and energy—the show was underway. We played for about 30 minutes, some magic, some juggling, different ways to present and highlight kids in the room and then the four of us split up in the room to give each child direct and undivided attention.
One child, who looked particularly sick, stood for most of the performance. She moved slowly perhaps because of her disease condition and also the multiple IV lines coming from her body, but she refused to sit while we played. She helped me juggle by tossing balls to me when I purposefully dropped them in front of her and she also instigated the disappearance of the magic handkerchief by blowing on the hand in which I had stuffed it (the handkerchief, after vanishing into thin air found its way to the 17-year-old patient in the back of the room and came out from under the collar of his shirt). She played boldly with us and left the room with a huge smile when the performance was over saying teşekkür (thank you).
After the show, the anesthesiologist who coordinated our visit escorted us to a couple of rooms to visit some kids who were unable to leave their beds; she told us along the way that this performance and time at the hospital was far more than what she could have imagined. Her surprise met our surprise when she then told us that the young girl who juggled with me was a patient that had been extremely depressed as of recent, so much so that the doctor did not think that the girl would even come to the show.
We work in a world of surprise, always as clowns and maybe almost always as humans.
That night Güray and I celebrated New Years with a few friends at a neighbor’s home. Just one hour and 15 minutes into 2017 we were met with another surprise, the mass shooting at a night club on the other side of the Bosphorus River from us. We were immediately on our phones texting friends and families, reading news reports, quiet and sad. Eyes rolling at the news and hearts sunken low. We knew we were safe. Well thought we were safe at least.
January 1st was somber except for a few jokes about terrorism. Too soon, I thought, but then reflecting on the fact that this country, since the horrid suicide attack in Suruç in July of 2015, has seen multiple acts of terrorism, I wondered if the threshold for jokes about the violence decreases each time an attack occurs.
The second part of this short project was offering clown workshops to Turkish clowns who had worked with CWB in the past or who were interested in volunteering for CWB in upcoming projects. We had a total of 15 participants and for two days we explored character, status, clown choreography and our own relationships to objects and playfulness. Though we were practicing and studying clown, the mood was frequently measured. A police car parked outside of the studio during the last few minutes of our workshop. It kept is sirens on and what sense of play was in the room was quickly transformed to an uneasiness until the vehicle slowly drove away.
There are few jobs in Turkey now as the economy is weakening. There are fewer jobs in the arts. There are drastic changes occurring in this place, many of which are result of the attacks here and the artists are all feeling a new, uncertain squeeze.
But we played hard, and we played well. We played as best we could. After the workshop some of the artists commented that yes, they learned some new skills that they are happy to practice, but more importantly they laughed, themselves. Many said they had not laughed that well in a long time. One artist thanked me for coming to Turkey. She said with all that is going on, people are not coming here any longer (she doesn’t blame them), but because of it, she expressed a sense of loneliness in this unpredictable place.
We at Clowns Without Borders support our artist friends and colleagues living throughout Turkey. We believe that everyone has the capacity to laugh, when the time is right. And as clowns, we recognize we cannot often predict when laughter will arise, but we strive to be ready to nourish and celebrate it when it does.
To read more about the work of Clowns Without Borders, click here.
Why Clowns Without Borders Works
Tortell pirouettes quickly and the microphone swings around behind him; it has a life of its own. The centrifugal force of the windscreen pulls the instrument around his arms and legs, making his clown blazer flop poetic in the wind. The crowd’s eyes are wide with surprise when he catches the mic just before it hits him in the face—Tortell’s eyes matching the eyes of the 100 children and families in the audience. His relief, their laughter.
He has just spent the first 10 minutes of the show warming up the audience, a master street artist who draws the crowd in as he sets the stage. It is more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, pushing 105 even. The audience and clowns from Spain stand in the shadow of a two-story colonial building with stone archways and wooden doors. Its tile portico is cool to the bare feet of some of the audience, the West African designs deflect the heat of the pounding sun. It is about three in the afternoon, Tortell and his clowns have already performed two shows in Freetown and now they are presenting their final show of the day before heading further east.
This is the first day of Clowns Without Borders shows in Sierra Leone since the Ebola epidemic began in late 2013. It is now early 2015, February. This is also the first Clowns Without Borders show that I have ever seen as an audience member. This is the first time I’ve seen healthy children and families play, dance and be together since I had arrived in Sierra Leone eight weeks prior.
Once Tortell regained control of his rogue microphone he announced the opening of the show—acrobats and movement artists entreated the audience to a spectacle that consisted of partner juggling while standing on the ground and on shoulders. The performers danced with fantastic and impossible objects—a giant fabric butterfly and streamers. All the while Tortell interjected the finessed scenes with mischievous intrigue, he tried (and always failed) to recreate what the movement artists had just performed, he filled the space with magic tricks winning over the audience with his glorious, comedic bungles.
I stuck out as an audience member, the only white person in the crowd. And though I tried to stand back from the front row, away from children and among the adults, parents turned to me and asked me when I would go and join the clowns.
“I’m not in the show.”
“Yes, but you must be.” An audience member grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the stage.
I froze, not playfully, but with a sense of deep, reactionary discomfort.
“No no, I am not in the show. They are my friends there, I know them, but I am not in the show.”
I had not been touched for almost nine weeks, by a stranger, that is. We were not supposed to.
The government of Sierra Leone had set a national edict—ABC: Avoid Body Contact. When the woman from the audience touched my arm and I felt a surge of adrenaline, then fear. It was fight or flight. I was breaking the rules; they had been broken on me. I felt like, for a fleeting moment, a victim. Had I been contaminated?
The woman then laughed out loud, seeing my awkward reaction to her touch “OK, but I think you are a clown too! Look at them, they are so amazing!”
Another man near us noticed our commotion and he then held my hand as he explained to me why Tortell’s magic plastic bag bit was so funny. He described in detail how he thought the magic trick was happening, and having done the gag before myself, I can say that he was mostly correct.
“But look at the children! Look at them! They love this so much!” Another man chimed in.
Around us, scrambling to the top of adults’ shoulders were kids who clambered to get closer to the clowns. Their laughter was silenced to a vibrant, low chatter only when the clowns presented movement pieces of silks flying through the air and then then thunder released again when Tortell entered and tripped over a brick on the rough strewn road. Like waves of the ocean, their laughter came and went. Laughter like this, according to the host who welcomed the clowns from a small German NGO, had not been heard for some time.
I came to Sierra Leone, like hundreds of others, to work as a nurse. From 2013-2016 the Ebola epidemic, first in Guinea, then Liberia and Sierra Leone took the lives of more than 11,000 people. Children (under the age of five) who were infected had a 20% chance of survival when the disease prevalence was near its peak. As a pediatric nurse, I still find it hard to describe the heartbreak of losing eight out of every ten pediatric patients we treated with Ebola. The rate of survival for older children increased with their age, as did fear; as did depression; and as did withdrawal from play and community.
The unfathomable psychological destruction of the Ebola crisis reared its ugly head every day to those of us who worked in the “hot zone,” constantly desperate for supplies, more human power and for a cure. Children who survived the disease appeared frightened to leave our treatment units and return home—we learned very quickly that community members were often not welcomed home after surviving Ebola because of stigma born of fear and misunderstanding the nature of the contagion. People separated themselves from others, people were afraid to interact like before, people were judged and communities fractured. Children no longer played.
Towards the end of the clown show, one of the acrobats found a red, triangular flag and showed it to the audience, which had doubled in size and by now had formed a complete circle around the artists. The clown waved the flag proudly in the air. Tortell snatched it, then invited an audience member to come to the stage. A grown man stepped forward much to the pleasure of the audience. The clowns made the red flag disappear, then appear again from places like the man’s ear or from inside of his shirt. Then a clown made the cloth disappear and reached into Tortell’s waistband to retrieve it. Instead of the cloth coming forth, a long strip of plastic, red and white caution tape, like that used at the site of a crime scene appeared as the clown ran from Tortell revealing its full length. The tape had red and white vertical stripes—the same tape used throughout Sierra Leone to quarantine homes with people suspected of having Ebola. The clowns ran around the audience member with the tape and they all became entangled in a picturesque finale for that bit. The audience, especially the man they volunteered were beside themselves with laughter. A man near me, who still did not believe that I was not in the show held my arm and leaned against me for a better view. For a moment, we were all limitless in our laughter.
I looked through the audience and for the first time since I had arrived in Sierra Leone, there was not a face that showed fear. People were not stymied to stand with each other and accompany each other in playfulness. Everyone was together. Everyone looked normal.
War, poverty and disease trigger the worst of humanity. They create a “new normal” of suffering, stigma and division. What the clowns did on this excruciatingly hot day was provide a platform whereby normalcy reigned again. The laughter broke the hold of stigma—even if it was just for a moment—and through the ridiculousness of the clowns, people saw each other not through the lens of disease but through that of a common humanity.
Not just the best medicine, but frequently in times of crisis and even times of peace, it’s the most accessible medicine. Often, it’s the only medicine. You don’t need a prescription, you don’t need training, you don’t need much to find it if you can simply know where to look—it’s laughter and it’s simple.
It’s how you entice a potential mother-in-law that you might be a good candidate for her daughter’s hand. It’s a way to efficiently release tension when the board meeting is not going so well. It’s a tool that is universal with regards to language. It’s a tool that lays a foundation for connectivity between the heart, the mind and the global community.
We have witnessed laughter at the sites of a suicide bombing in Eastern Turkey—artists performing for children who lost loved ones in that very place. I’ve watched children, dying of Ebola, sit up on bed and laugh and play despite indescribably pain in their joints and severe dehydration. And I’ve watched children in Central Park freeze in a state of wonder and awe as they watch an artist form bubbles the size of the children themselves—and when they pop, shrieks of joy follow. And then their parents smile.
Resilience abounds when the catalyst for laughter is present.
No matter who we are, we have the capability to laugh. No matter who we are, we have the capability to make others smile.
Clown teachers from around the U.S. will be offering classes, accessible to all people interested. Educators, parents, artists, healthcare workers—anyone. Our faculty will work with you to “Find your Funny” and explore methods by which you can bring laughter and joy into your community, into your home and into your workplace. We are not here to make you clowns, but we will play with you, using clown techniques, to help you explore the funny within.
Our master teachers are internationally renown instructors and performers: Barry Lubin—a member of the International Clown Hall of Fame and creator of “Grandma,” who has starred in the Big Apple Circus and Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey; Moshe Cohen—the founder of Clowns Without Borders-USA and a visionary in the field of dancing between the worlds of Clown and Zen practices; Hilary Chaplain—co-founder of the New York Goofs and award winning solo performer; Sarah Foster—long-time performing artist and board member of Clowns Without Borders-USA, hospital clown and humanitarian; and myself (humbled to share the stage with these amazing clowns). We will collaborate to provide workshops that culminate in a community of people that play well together, people that may understand the seriousness and silllyness of laughter, and people that will leave this workshop with a better knowing of how they can bring a smile to someone else’s face.
Now is the time to sign up for this workshop. Now is the time to meet Clowns Without Borders, meet clowns with a vast array of experience and learn together, in safe setting, about playfulness.
This is a way to support the work of Clowns Without Borders-USA. By participating in this workshop, a portion of your tuition goes directly to support the work of CWB. You may already know about what we do, but if not, read this.
Come play with us. And if you can’t play, consider sponsoring someone else to play. You can donate tuition for the event and then another person can come play in your honor.
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how you can join in the fun!
The workshop runs from July 3-July 8 at the beautiful Omega campus in Rhinebeck, NY.