An open letter from Sosina Wogayehu:
My Name is Sosina Wogayehu. I am a circus director/producer based in Ethiopia. I started circus at the age of six. I became a gymnastics champion at the age nine and 11. I supported myself selling chewing gum and cigarettes on the street to Addis for four years. I grew up independent and learned to survive even in harsh situations which I am proud of.
When Circus Ethiopia established in 1991, I was one of the kids who was part of the first revolution with Circus Ethiopia. I traveled for the first time outside of Ethiopia and performed for the Queen of Holland. We had a lot of success and it was a great model performance.
I moved to Australia in 1998. I studied, lived and worked globally for over 25 years (since my early teens.) I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Performing Arts from Swinburne University and my Second degree in BHD of Circus Arts from the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne, Australia. I traveled with major companies around the world as a performer and served as a member on the board of directors. I received six awards for a lead artist and performer. I am also a recipient of the Order of Australia Medal for 2019. I acted in three movies. For more, I would suggest you check out, The Abyssinian Contortionist, my biography written by David Carlin.
A few reflections:
1. You had mentioned in your research that “the reason for decline of circus in Ethiopia is because the kids [are] running away and leaving circus.” Have you further researched about why those kids were leaving the circus? The fact is because some of the kids were abused and violated by pedophiles and the only way out of it to save themselves was by running away. It is important to state the facts so that such incidents never happen again to vulnerable and young kids. I think it would have been great if you could ask more questions instead of accusing the kids of leaving through no mistake of their own. I am sure if you had a consultation with people who have firsthand information with the African arts market, specifically Ethiopian Circus, your findings would have been closer to the reality.
2. Intention matters. While you are presenting success stories, you have not showcased the reality on the ground. Cases of shows produced and cases of best artists who have demonstrated and won in various festivals were completely left out.
The portrayal of poverty being associate with Ethiopia is not going to help the young kids in the long term. Based on my experience, I remember even if I performed on the biggest stages around the world, people backstage or after the performance asked me about how I or my family survived the drought of 1984, etc. It is because of the images they have experienced, all about Ethiopia was associated with poverty. Yes, we have poverty but there is [so] much more to Ethiopia than a short-sighted portrayal of kids on a dumpster. We have to allow the young to tell their inspiring stories, their resilience and build their self-confidence. We have artists with the best talents in Africa and Ethiopia is one of them.
My mission is to promote talent, not poverty. We intentionally take photos in areas that doesn’t [detract] from the core intention of showcasing talent and art. Let’s promote and focus on the talent and art.
3. Circuses in Ethiopia. There are around 30 circuses across Ethiopia . And of course, there are managers, trainers and other stakeholders in it. Except for the Italian journalist who shared great stories, you have not made an effort to meet other great ones. You can refer to Juggling Magazine. I can not thank you enough, Mr. Adolfo Rossomando, a director of Juggling Magazine who has documented stories about Ethiopian Circus. Thank you!
4. There are various models of running circuses in Ethiopia and there was no mention of at least a couple of models and also masterclasses that happened in Ethiopia which influence many young artists.
5. History of circus in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a long history of doing acrobatics. The people Gamo and Wolayeta in Southern Ethiopia have done acrobatics for thousands of years as an expression of love and respect. Historically, circus has been part of life in Southern Ethiopia.
6. Circus Ethiopia founders. You are right, Circus Ethiopia was found in 1991 by Marc La Chance. When you mentioned the names of the founders of Circus Ethiopia, you failed to mention the six Ethiopian boys who started Fekat by their names.
7. Since Circus Ethiopia time, some great shows have been produced and there are so many Ethiopian artists who train in poor conditions but became very successful and win many festivals. A company like Cirque de Soleil runs auditions for the last three years. Also, we had partnership, technical support, and mentorship including the provision of Improvisation workshops. They also toured the circus schools to see the conditions of the spaces and how the acts are developed and training all the trainers and managers.
8. Talent over poverty. Despite the challenges and hardships circus kids face, their dedication and commitment is what makes them successful in circus in Ethiopia. You may even reach out to our friends, such as Holland Johan, who knows me from my early teen and far more experience about Ethiopian circus or Jorgan from Scandinavia who traveled with around Ethiopia with me and experienced firsthand the many places that Ethiopian circus artist and kids train and inspired by their discipline.
Because of the role models (most of them women) I had/have my whole life, I speak my mind, confident, authentically, and unapologetically fight for my fellow young artists and performers.
I believe when you come next time around, I am hoping you would take a little bit of time to explore the inspiring and amazing culture that inspires circus. There are areas that we could share experiences and knowledge and support each other for the great, good African Art growth. Because of the role models (most of them women) I had/have my whole life, I speak my mind, confident, authentically, and unapologetically fight for my fellow young artists and performers.
Finally, it is very important you consider reviewing and rewriting evidence base research article based on the history of Ethiopian circus that gives the right information, data, cases and most of all findings that depict the reality on the ground. We need real change! If you want to help us, please help us by doing the right things.
Thank you for your time.
Sosina Wogayehu (OAM)
President Addis Ababa Gymnastics federation
CEO Ethio Circus Entertainment P.L.C
An open letter from Jasmine Straga:
After 11 years of working with the Ethiopian circus industry, I am highly disappointed in the lazy and racially insensitive research masquerading as a broad view of circus in Ethiopia made by Circostrada and I argue that this research is damaging to the cause it claims to support.
The research is inaccurate, at times sexist and racially insensitive to the rich circus culture, history and struggles the industry in Ethiopia faces today. Whilst I do not feel it was all intentional, there is a lot we can learn from the articles mistakes.
Failing to acknowledge this history is whitewashing it. It is an attempt to portray Europeans as some kind of founding fathers of Ethiopian circus.
They try to highlight Ethiopian circus history, whilst not acknowledging any form of rich acrobatic culture of Gamo or Wolayeta that has existed for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Marc Le Chance. It pays homage to Marc Le Chance founder of Circus Ethiopia, yet fails to highlight that this man and his colleague David were paedophiles taking advantage of not only Ethiopian orphans at their orphanage, but also sexually abusing many of their circus artists, something that landed him and his colleague in jail.
If you don’t acknowledge the history, you cannot move forward.
Failing to acknowledge this history is whitewashing it. It is an attempt to portray Europeans as some kind of founding fathers of Ethiopian circus. They founded an organisation, they didn’t found circus arts in Ethiopia, let’s make that clear.
Not acknowledging this history is telling their victims they don’t matter and not identifying a major risk factor for Ethiopian artists who are at risk of both local and foreign sexual predators or slave labour. If you don’t acknowledge the history, you cannot move forward. You MUST acknowledge the history of Gamo and Wolayeta if you are to speak of its history.
The researcher states “It was understood that African Circuses are not yet at a stage to work at continental level.” This statement is demeaning to some of the successful circus troupes that have not only toured Europe, but throughout Oceania, Africa and Asia. Once again, do your research. Perhaps if the researcher and Fekat Circus had actually invited the 5 MAIN players in the Ethiopian international act managers/creators field, they would have seen a higher quality production and left with a higher opinion of African Circus Arts. Not only did they not reach out to the key players to include their extensive knowledge into this research, but when two of these key players reached out to the festival to take part in discussions, they were left unanswered.
It speaks of the lack of women being represented in Ethiopian circus, but fails to have done any research, because nowhere does it mention the “I’m a circus girl” project that Sosina Wogayehu and myself launched that had local TV, radio and the participation of businesses and global foreign affairs involved. It fails to highlight any of the extensive work both Sosina, Rich, others and myself have done with women over the past decade to elevate Ethiopian circus women. It fails to highlight handfuls of highly successful female circus performers which can be used as a benchmark for the next generation to aspire to.
- Let’s name a few of the many successful Ethio Circus women:
- Rich Metiku’s has worked in Moulin Rouge, Circus Krone, Flicflac, competed in the Festival International du Cirque de Monte Carlo and won multiple prizes in China, Spain and elsewhere.
- Senayt Asefa Cirque du Soleil’s 1903 and Germany’s Circus of Horrors.
- Duo Samsara, toured Europe and competed in Belarus.
- Trilogy Acrobatic Trio bronze prize in Spain, worked in Circus Krone.
- Trio Black Diamond has won multiple awards around the globe and worked in some of the world’s leading shows.
- Firtuna Embaye has competed in circus festivals and toured the world.
- Eden Getachew worked in Paris with Cirque Phoenix and toured Eastern Europe.
One could argue that whilst Ethiopian Circus women may not make up the majority of the troupes performing globally, they are usually working in more of the leading shows and are thus higher paid than the men due to the experienced women mentoring and creating acts for them who have utilised their industry contacts to get them into the good positions. Once again, the big picture was not highlighted.
It mentions act creators creating acts for the international market, yet it is not factual. Who they speak about are not act truly act creators, but instead are circus schools teaching acrobatic skills, who’s students have gone onto being trained by managers and act creators in other cities, this important partnership or chain has not been highlighted. They fail to mention the leading five-act creators over the last decade anywhere in this document.
It fails to have done the research to cover the technical and artistic influences that have played a role in Ethiopian circus over the last ten years. It fails to mention Cirque du Soleil visited and ran workshops with the Ethiopian circus industry. It also doesn’t mention Mongolian trainer Mrs. Ruddle’s work technically training artists, especially contortionists in Ethiopia. It fails to mention Rich Metiku who used her experience touring abroad to train this generation of artists. It fails to mention Ethiopia’s very own Sosina Wogayehu, who was trained at the National Institute of Circus Arts and toured the world with Circus Oz who returned with all her amazing knowledge to give back to the next generation. It fails to mention the work I’ve done there mentoring students in professional development, contortion, acrobatics, physical theatre, dance and act creation. It fails to mention numerous others that have played important roles in the development of circus as we know it today.
I’d like to highlight an important thing, Africans don’t need white people coming in and telling them they are some kind of lost cause that can only survive if you donate to them. This is entirely the wrong narrative and dangerously creates a cycle by forcing white narrative above the incredible potential and talent these amazing artists behold. Yes, it’s very important they receive support to reach their global potential more easily and support enables them to have appropriate access to safe training facilities etc, but please don’t use African circus as a world vision style commercial. A helping hand is different to “saving.” I had to learn myself by spending a lot of time in Ethiopia and with Ethiopian people.
This form of whitewashing Ethiopian culture with westernised views of Ethiopia is portrayed when this research highlights the work of Ivan Kralj, who stereotypically used the world vision style of commercial to raise awareness and donations for Ethiopian circus. Whilst I love that he wants to help and his motives are surely lovely, please don’t put Ethiopian artists doing circus skills on top of garbage as if it is some kind of demonstration of the realities there. With 11yrs of working with Ethiopia, NEVER once did I see any artist performing on garbage and broken items. Yes, they needed crash mats and some equipment, but portraying them in this fashion is not elevating them as the incredible acrobats they are. You are forcing your self dialogue on them that they are impoverished by making both the trash and the artist the salient feature in the image.
The research document states “Having experienced the lucrative circus market in the global North, circus artists from Ethiopia started to runaway during their tours abroad. This habit left a stain on the international image of Ethiopian circus artists and instilled a lasting suspicion towards the motives of Ethiopian circus artists travelling abroad.”
But its not entirely correct! The artists that run away during contracts in majority actually do NOT run away because the CIRCUS work is lucrative abroad, they usually no longer work in circus after they have repatriated, usually they find other means of income that is more stable to support themselves and their families back home.
The article fails to highlight how the leading managers are working to change this habit, by educating the artists to feel passionate about their culture, their traditions and country. How they can come back between contracts and be with their families and invest the money they make on contracts back home to improve their country instead of running away.
The article fails to highlight how “successful” managers and act creators have managed to work their way around the complications with visas by creating strong relationships with foreign embassies and foreign companies that can sponsor visas and make it easier to hire African artists. They have failed to highlight using foreign training as a method of acquiring the stamps they need in their passports to more easily acquire working visas at a later stage.
If you are going to highlight problems, at least highlight the incredible solutions that are and have been utilised for quite some time to overcome these issues. Sharing that information enables more artists to find work and this helping to repair these issues.
It failed to highlight one of the main issues affecting artists getting work:
- Fake agents pretending they represent acts.
- Artists using other artists videos in order to obtain contracts.
- The toxic politics and gossip between schools and managers that threaten to dismantle the industry both locally and overseas.
- Fake agents pretending they own exclusive rights to the work made by other act creators or agents when they have simply spoken to the artist and take a YouTube video.
- Fails to highlight the problem of forced/slave labour that occurs globally with African artists being preyed upon by crooked show owners who do not pay the artists either partially or in full for the work they do, or underpay them.
- Fails to highlight agents overcharging Ethiopians (Sometimes taking up to 80% of their income for themselves).
- Communication and cultural issues when reading through contracts and understanding the needs and expectations of foreign employers.
There are so many more problems with this inaccurate research. Whilst it’s wonderful they want to “help” Ethiopia, to truly help Ethiopia you must learn from Ethiopia and the only way you can learn is by spending more time there, asking more questions and meeting more people, ESPECIALLY the key players to get a truly world view about the industry.
I do hope Circostrada continue to make this partnership, but they MUST open dialogue with more institutions and individuals if they want to truly create everlasting change for a country with so much wonderful potential! These artists are stars! They deserve it.
Please be careful when producing items like this, as these items in some years time will be what people look back on as accurate telling of the reality of Ethiopian circus history and they deserve the most objective and researched response possible.
These open letters were first published on the author's respective Facebook pages.