It is the rainy season in Haiti. Most nights, and sometimes during the day, there are downpours that turn the dirt roads into series of ponds and stretches of mud. Rain mixes with whatever is on the ground and runs into the water supply, and clinics are once again seeing an increase in the number of new cholera cases.
As the two local teachers I’ve been training lead their enthusiastic class of 8-11-year-olds through the basics of juggling, rain starts dancing and pounding on the tin roof of the recently-constructed recreation hall of Petit Paradis, “Little Paradise,” a small community of tarp houses and tents.
Outside the windows, groups of kids peer through the slats to watch what we’re doing. When the rain starts they stay right where they are, hardly reacting. It is so hot and humid outside that being drenched with rain probably feels similar, or slightly preferable, to not being drenched with rain. And watching the strange and energetic goings-on in the newly-trained circus teachers’ class is preferable to staying dryer in the monotony of the tent camp.
Last Thursday I arrived here to join a fantastic team of clowns – Iman, Marykristn, and Dave – who had already spent a week training a group of TDH facilitators in clowning and circus skills. The facilitators are local people employed by TDH to teach groups of children at their child-safe centers. This weekend, their clown training culminated in a series of four performances of at local orphanages. Today is their first day of teaching clown and circus skills to groups of kids in three different areas of Grand Goâve.
The two trainers I am mentoring for the week teach a good first class. They had some pretty intense clown training with the CWB team last week – when I arrived I was amazed at the level of clowning they’d achieved after only a week of work – and they manage to translate a number of the breathing and focus exercises Iman did with them into kid-friendly games. The kids are paying attention and enjoying themselves, exploring the difference between breathing high up in the chest versus low down in the belly. When the trainers have them breathe down low, feel their weight in their legs and hips, and walk around the room, they giggle at their own exaggeratedly-grounded, powerful steps.
Often, on Clowns Without Borders trips, we do a big tour of shows in schools, villages, and orphanages, reaching as many children as possible in crisis-affected areas. On this trip, a partnership with the Swiss organization Terre des Hommes, while we are performing, we’re doing much more teaching. We are spending a lot of time with the TDH facilitators, training them in the teaching and performance of clown, juggling skills, stilt walking, and acrobatics, so that they can continue this work later without us.
The show we built with these new clowns is much less skill- and trick-heavy than most CWB shows. The facilitators haven’t had enough time yet to become strong in juggling and other technical skills. But their short, original clown bits, mostly involving imaginative transformation of objects, have been affecting audiences in a sweet, beautiful way. While crowds aren’t always screaming and roaring with laughter at Thierry’s motorcycle mime, or Brionvil’s fisherman act, they are watching with concentration, maybe smiling, and whispering to each other, “Oh! Did you see? He just caught a fish!” Watching their elders explore a world of discovery and imagination has a different kind of power than watching white people walk on tall stilts, juggle five clubs, or perform more polished clown acts.