It is Saturday, late morning, here in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland – our first day off after 2 weeks of training and performing. The autumn air is sharp and crisp with the sunshine casting beautiful shadows on the surrounding hills near the SOS Children’s Village where we are staying. I am sitting on my bed with the shivers from a little stomach flu as I try to catch up on the work that has piled up over the week. In the other room, Sarah Liane Foster and Matt Chapman play hot dice with our siSwati partners of the Piggs Peak Clowns Initiative, Sibusiso, Mancoba, Nconbile, Pilile, and Kosi. The sounds of the dice hitting the table and roars of “Nothing!” tell me that the group is grateful for a day of rest. Our schedule has been grueling from the time we arrived in Piggs Peak to yesterday when we performed 3 shows for children in nearby primary schools. In the last 5 days, we have done 11 performances around Mbabane at Drop-in Centres, primary schools, and high schools. Our focus on this expedition is quite different from previous trips when we could afford to devote our energies entirely to working with the children. Beyond the routine of the shows and rehearsals, a lot of our time is spent developing group dynamics, teaching clown technique and stagecraft, and managing the logistics of feeding and organizing 8 performers. We are collaborating with more siSwatis than expected – Sibusiso, the group leader, has organized a troupe of 7 performers that have been rehearsing and practicing three days a week for the past month. While we would have loved to bring everyone along, we have been limited by our means of transportation. Thankfully, a wonderful donation of a Nissan pickup truck from Imperial Car Rental has allowed us to take five siSwati performers with us from Piggs Peak.
All of our partners have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in one way or another. Death is a reality here. One has lost 2 brothers in the past year, another takes care of her sick mother at home in Piggs Peak, yet another is positive with HIV. Although their experience performing is limited by opportunities and education, their desire to use the clown and laughter to address the crisis is very strong. Pilile tells me that there is nothing she wants to do more than to raise awareness about the virus and prevention – it is her life’s work.
Our first week is focused on rehearsing our show and creating a common understanding of our intentions and purpose. Matt and Sarah facilitate many “Getting-to-know” the group games. Garth, our South African partner and all-round genius at clowning, costume-design, cooking, and scrabble, teaches juggling to Mancoba and Kosi who pick it up very quickly. We share routines and work to create a show with themes of HIV/AIDS prevention and psychosocial support. However, the main thrust of our show is a celebration of fun and laughter as well as playing with the inherent comedy found in a multi-national and racial group working together. We would have loved to develop more direct routines about HIV/AIDS but have had to make allowances due to the short time we have together. Nevertheless, it is our hope that the group will take from the experience of creating and performing new material so that the work of Clowns Without Borders can continue after we leave.
There is certainly a lot to learn! Comic timing, awareness on stage, playing a character, vocal projection, working with a volunteer, directing the audience’s focus, and being a clown are all new concepts to many of them. At the same time, we are learning so much about siSwati culture, gender dynamics, and language. When we sit around the dinner table eating a Thanksgiving-style meal each night and laughing at each other’s quirks and jokes, I feel that we are making great strides in bridging two very different worlds united together for the purpose of bringing happiness to those in need.
In Mbabane, it is lovely to revisit many of the schools we performed at last year. The children seem to appreciate the biracial makeup of the group and respond positively to the mixture of siSwati language, culture, and classical Western comedy routines – something never seen before in Swaziland. Our return to the SACRO Drop-in Centre for a morning show for street children is greeted with hugs and kisses from the community social workers. “Siyabonga for coming back!” they tell us. Many of the youth that Tim and I taught juggling outside the SOS cottage still remember their three ball tricks and cluster around Mancoba to learn some more. Boys and girls shout out “Awoogah!, awoogah!” when we pass them in the streets. What new catch phrases will they pickup after this visit?
We close out our residency in Mbabane with a final farewell show for the children at SOS Children’s Village. As the setting sun shoots pink and purple rays into the dust filled evening, about 50 children huddle together in the twilight. They gasp at the gigantic bubbles Kosi conjures with a wand to begin the show, echoe Matt’s attempt at pronouncing “akuhlobe” (clean it up) and “ngiyabuya” (I will return) with shrieks of laughter, cackle at Sibusiso’s offering of a rubber chicken to Nconbile (“Chicken Licken?”) in our Women’s Empowerment sketch, and blink with amazement at Sarah’s agility on the stilts chasing after Mancoba. Afterwards, Sarah and I play music on the banjo and trombone for at least an hour singing and dancing into the early evening. After our first week, everything is coming together wonderfully as an ensemble and a team. This really is a beginning of something special – something that will continue to grow and surprise us each day.