A Zambian circus group’s social initiatives could teach us all a lesson about the undervalued importance of play.
Gift Chansa grew up in Chibolya, a neighbourhood in Lusaka, Zambia, known as one of the roughest parts of the city. Stereotyped as a festering hub of crime and drug culture, Chansa’s childhood backdrop came with a lot of baggage.
According to Chansa, “If you come from Chibolya, then no one takes you seriously.” Few people in Lusaka would hire someone from Chibolya, and at job interviews Chansa and his friends used to say that they were from somewhere else, anywhere else.
“Sometimes though,” said Chansa, “you don’t think about it and you say, ‘I am from Chibolya’, and then people treat you different. You’re always pushed back and reminded where you come from.”
It’s a vicious cycle, almost impossible to escape. No one could have predicted that Chansa was destined to fly – there were to be no boundaries pushing him back, and nothing stopping him from bringing Chibolya along for the ride.
It was in the streets of Chibolya, about 16 years ago,that the seeds of Chansa’s incredible journey were sown. Having learnt how to do a perfect backflip simply through playing, a nine-year-old Chansa and his childhood pals put together an informal acrobatics group, and organised street competitions and shows that other kids from the neighbourhood would come and watch.
During one of these competitions, Chansa was scouted by Mr Kapota – a minor celebrity (and major personality) in Lusaka at the time – to be a part of an acrobatic group of young people called the African Dance Factory, started in 2005. It was through this that he was introduced to Barefeet Theatre in 2006, a performance group-come-grassroots initiative for underprivileged children in Lusaka.
Barefeet Theatre’s programming provided Chansa with the platform that he needed to soar. He was exposed to artists and academics from around the world, introduced to other teenagers who were interested in performance arts, and given the responsibility of facilitating his own workshops and performances. Most importantly, he was provided with a safe space in which he could learn to trust and express himself.
Chansa and his friends spent almost every waking hour after school practising, competing, and showing off their moves. “It was a way of life, I would say.” There was no time outside of training to get dragged into harmful activities (such as drugs, drinking, and quick money schemes) to which teenagers are susceptible.
“I think, in a way, it protected us, because we always had something to do.”
By 2013, Chansa had become a junior facilitator at Barefeet. He toured the world, performing in Ireland, Zimbabwe, China and many other countries. The performance group also helped him enroll in a circus school in the Netherlands, where, during his final performance, he had a revelation.
“I was amazed by how many people came to see the performance that we did. I was like, oh, people want to see me do this, they want to see me in the circus. People actually appreciate this.”
At that moment Chansa knew that he wanted to bring the circus back to Chibolya, and to put on shows in the neighbourhood itself.
“That way people could come into the compound and see our shows and see that not all young people from there are criminals. There are also young people who need a chance. They need help to reach their full potential.”
And thus was the genesis of Circus Zambia, what Chansa refers to as “a social enterprise that equips young people with circus, life skills, education support, and job opportunities”.
Co-founded in 2016 with Chansa’s childhood friends, Amos Malokwa and Bernard Kaumba, as well as Charlotte Groen from the Netherlands, Circus Zambia comprises two major parts. The first is the performance company (the guys who are professional at eating fire, juggling, stilt-walking etc.) The incredible bodily feats executed by this group provide a substantial amount of the funding for the latter section of Circus Zambia: The Social Circus Hub.
The Social Circus Hub programme is designed to support the development of children from Chibolya and other underprivileged neighbourhoods in Lusaka. Healthy living, community building, and body contortions are all a part of the holistic curriculum, which is organised into three sections: Body, Mind, and Soul.
The Body section of the programme is the physical training. Chansa calls it the “roadmap for young people to learn how to be performers, how to do acrobatics, how to juggle, do a handstand, a backflip.”
Children enroll in the “Toes” level, then progress through “Knees,” “Shoulders,” and finally “Heads.” Once you are a “Head” you are a trained circus performer. Many of the programme’s graduates stay to be a part of Circus Zambia itself, while others join circus troupes elsewhere in the world.
The Mind section of the Social Circus is all about education. Circus Zambia provides money for about 100 children a year to attend local schools. The funding, when it doesn’t come directly from the revenue generated by the shows put on by the performance company, comes from international grants as well as local benefactors and campaigns on gofundme. The circus also has a library programme in which children are exposed to literature and are able to borrow books at any time.
The final section, Soul, is the real essence of the circus. It tackles issues that young people face in local communities, issues that are difficult to tackle within traditional social structures.
One such issue is that of safe sex. “It’s hard to talk about sex in Zambia,” Chansa told theThomson Reuters Foundation in 2018, “nobody talks about sex.” This is a huge problem in a country that was so devastated by the AIDS epidemic in the early 2000s.
Circus Zambia’s “Clowns for Condoms” initiative is an attempt at talking about these issues in an entertaining way. Sponsored by MTV Staying Alive Foundation, the circus puts together hilarious shows and workshops that freely address the issues of STIs, safe sex, condoms, and the origins of HIV. The clowns are usually accompanied by members of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who provide testing and further educational literature on the subject.
Another issue that was tackled by the circus’s Soul programme was that of gender equality and women empowerment. A project named Pamodzi Ya Bakazi, sponsored by Danish company CISU, featured performances that tackled some of the issues that women face…
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