We have finally made it back to Pigg’s Peak where it all started 18 days ago. The Swazi clowns were delighted to arrive home on Thursday. To see their children or parents, feed the chickens, or just breathe the smoky mountain air once again. Yesterday’s performances at the Positive Vision for Swaziland (www.positivevisionforswaziland.org) crèches was much more relaxed and playful. It is a wonder what a night’s sleep in one’s own bed will do to the spirit. Of course, it has been a while since I have had that fortune…not even sure if there is a place I can call my own bed anymore. Ah, the life of an itinerant clown!
This morning is our first lazy Saturday in a while. Instead of waking up at 5:00 to the crow of roosters perched on our window sill, Matt, Sarah, and I manage to sleep in until 6:30. The extra hour and a half has us groggy and slow but ready for the day. After breakfast of Jungle Oats, the standard Swazi fare, we head into town to meet Sibusiso and Mancoba. Sarah and Matt have promised to teach them how to use the internet and create an email account so we can communicate overseas. The lesson is yet another reminder of how much we take for granted: moving a mouse cursor, opening a web page, typing your name in, and even finding the @ key are all foreign concepts to them. However, so was taking a bath in a basin with boiling water or making a pot of pap to us two weeks ago.
At 12:30, the entire cast meets at the Positive Vision to get ready for our final show. We will be performing at a community candlelight vigil for victims of HIV/AIDS organized by the Alliance of Mayors and Municipal Leaders on HIV/AIDS in Africa (AMICAAL). The vigil is slated for this afternoon because many of the participants have far to travel afterwards; on a Saturday night, this can be dangerous, especially after payday. Thabile Ndlovu, the local coordinator for the event, has asked us to help gather an audience by parading from the Score Supermarket on Main Street to the community hall where we rehearsed for our show two and a half weeks ago. As per usual in Swaziland, there is confusion as to where and what time we must start and exactly what the program will be. Nevertheless, like so many times before, a little patience goes a long way to easing anxiety and confusion. We have learned to let things unfold instead of forcing them to happen exactly when they must. With a little trust everything turns out just okay or even better than expected.
Just as we are about to load up Chongololo (our Imperial Car Hire donated truck) and head to the starting point, Nconbile approaches me to tell me that she will not be joining us tonight for our celebration because she needs to catch a taxi to Manzini in central Swaziland. She has just learned that her sister’s niece has been killed in a car accident. It happened a week ago but her family decided to wait until Nconbile returned from the tour before telling her. This is the second daughter her sister has lost due to car accidents this month. Afraid that she will disappoint the team, Nconbilie says she will perform and then leave straight after even though she is unsure if there will be transportation at that late hour. Here we are, met with death – a constant reminder during the expedition of how life hangs in a tenuous balance here in Swaziland. We assure her that it is more important for her to be with her family at this time. Although we will miss her and her outstanding Women’s Empowerment sketch, it is clear that she must leave straight away to catch the bus. After tearful goodbyes and save journeys, our wonderful partnership and collaboration has begun to come to an end. As Chongololo pulls away, Nconbile waves one last time and then walks with her head held high towards the taxi and bus rink.
I guess an important lesson I have learned is that one must move on in life and accept what is happening without either liking or disliking it. Things are always changing and it is up to us to adjust and move forward. The dampened enthusiasm of the team is reignited while we march through the streets of Pigg’s Peak. This is our final performance and first public show in Pigg’s Peak for many of the cast. Sarah towers on stilts above the group sending bubble’s through the air. Khosi and Mancoba juggle while Pilile and Sibusiso hold hands with children who have joined us. I move in and out of the crowd with an umbrella rigged to look like it is raining on this beautiful blue-sky day. Kids squeal with laughter running out of the way.
In the community hall, the mood is muted with somber remembrance of those who have passed away. Speakers alternate with choirs and traditional dances commemorating the vigil. When it is our turn to perform, the atmosphere brightens. The Balloon Funeral sketch is both hilarious and fitting for the occasion. A local eccentric performer joins us onstage to delight of the crowd. Instead of my usual gibberish sermon, Sibusiso and I step out of the clown and talk about the balloon as a symbol of life – precious, yet fragile. In Swaziland, before we can even begin to talk about prevention, acceptance of the threat of HIV/AIDS and removal of the stigma is the first step. Many both in the audience and onstage have lost a father, mother, brother, sister, child, or more to HIV/AIDS. The trauma is real and immediate. Yet, there is still hope. Just as the broken balloon turns into a red nose, joy and celebration can be reborn out of death and mourning. As we sing “Siani Thanda (we love you), Positive or Negative, in our final song and dance number, our message is simple: together, we can overcome HIV/AIDS.
Afterwards, the MC of the event approaches Sibusiso and I to thank us for our participation. “It is so important, what you are doing,” he tells us. “Bringing humor into the struggle opens our eyes and our hearts. People listen and they enjoy themselves. We can laugh and play and fight HIV at the same time. Thank-you.” I guess that is what this work is all about. Using laughter and humor as a means to give people faith in the face of suffering. To have the strength and hope that their dreams can be achieved. To see that life is beautiful.
For now, this wonderful collaboration has come to a close as we are all heading in separate ways. Sibusiso will support 3 children in school at his homestead. Mancoba to take a driving course. Pilile to care for her mother. Khosi to continue learning about youth counseling. Nconbilie to pursue a life in psychology. Matt is back in New York City teaching clown and performing with his company, Under the Table (www.underthetabletheatre.org). Sarah is leading a group of teenagers to create and perform in California with Windsor Mountain. I am back in Joburg getting ready for the next trip as well as a return to the United States to raise awareness of our work on the West Coast. Another experience with new challenges to encounter and much more laughter to spread.
Thanks so much for all your wonderful responses while on the road. They have been heartwarming, inspiring, and so supportive!
May you be full of peace and happiness,
PS – If you want to support the expedition and help us continue to do our work providing laughter and emotional relief to children affected by HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, you can always send a tax deductible donation made out to “Clowns Without Borders” with “Project Njabulo” in the memo to 21 Arnoldale Rd., West Hartford, CT 06119. We are also always looking for places to visit in the US to raise awareness and funds and would love to come to your hometown to spread the word!