The rhythmic chant of 200 children and adults dancing triumphantly in a schoolyard at the Escuala Cartagena echoes on aFriday afternoon in the Risaralda community just outside of Pereira, Colombia. The audience has just participated in an hour of juggling, diabalo spinning, acrobatics and slapstick comedy as three clowns try to figure out the act that is suitable for a fourth clown who is very hard to please. “No, eso NO!” is his only response to each bit in the show that has the audience cheering and laughing throughout. Finally, after a fit of tears that turn into a hip-hop dance, the other clowns with the help of the audience turn on the negative clown and affirm that “Yes! This is it!”
Clowns Without Borders USA is continuing a partnership with Pasos de Payaso that started two years ago that is bringing laughter to remote regions of Colombia in some of its poorest communities while also providing teacher training and enrichment workshops. I’m writing this journal entry after one week of our three-tier program. Each morning we rise to the sound of the rooster (between 4-6 am) and half of our team (Barnaby, Wilmer and Caliche) teaches workshops to 30 children at the Santa Ana School while Lucho and I teach about 30 adults (all of whom are teachers themselves and directors of local theatre groups) clown, storytelling and movement. Then each afternoon we pack up our gear to take our performance into the rolling mountains, lush and green speckled with coffee plants and banana trees.
“You are the clown that came to see us,” exclaims one child to Barnaby after a show at la Escuela Rivera. Yes, we are those clowns. Although some of our shows might only have audiences of 30-50 children, we do our best to take the work where we are invited, no matter how far out of the way it may seem.
The farming communities outside of Pereira are home to thousands of internally displaced people–families who in the past decades have fled the Pacific jungles because of the trauma and violence from the guerrilla wars that have raged in Colombia for years. This lush region provides the majority of the coffee production in the country and therefore also houses many people desperately seeking work in these poor communities. Despite the intense labor required to harvest, dry and prepare coffee beans, it continues to sell at a relatively low price in the world markets; feeding the structural violence in this country that prevents growth and financial wealth.
The children we meet out here often feel forgotten by the rest of the world, and many of them are trying to leave the farms, leave their homelands and move to the big cities where there is a promise (albeit often empty) of more opportunity and the chance for a different type of work. But these kids don’t seem a bit afraid to jump on our shoulders, grab our props, cheer us as we drive loaded into one jeep up some of the steepest roads I’ve ever seen. The children we’ve met so far in our workshops and shows are ferocious to play, eager to learn and fascinated with the red noses.
As we left our show at la Escuala Rivera, after receiving thanks from the children recognizing how far we traveled to play for them, we began the steep descent back to our farm. Our driver suddenly drove our jeep off the side of the road and propped up half of the jeep on a steep embankment. We carefully unloaded the jeep while some of us counterbalanced the weight by hanging off of the roll bars until everyone was safely away from it. Our driver told us that the brakes had gone out and he had to run us off the road in order to keep us from careening down the mountainside. “Never a dull moment with this work” should be one of our CWB mottos second to “No Child Without a Smile.”
We found ourselves exhausted from our show, sitting on the side of the road scratching out heads and trying to figure out how we’d get back home before sunset. Fortunately there was a construction team nearby with a large flatbed truck and after some time bleeding the brakes on our jeep and loading our gear up on the truck; we were off again, driving 2-5 mph maximum down the mountainside.
Everyone jumps in, everyone helps out and no one feels left out. Daily I awake with a sense of community of everyone working together to get the show up on its feet, to bring in an audience, to help us get to the remote schools for our performances and to make sure although resources are limited that all are fed, clothed and happy. The simplicity of laughter is magical and that resonates to folks of all ages around here. Even the police chief showed up at one of our workshops the other day to check in on the ‘new thing going on’ in the community. He left with a huge smile on his face and offered us any help he could give…even a police escort if we needed!
This project continues until early March, but it is another step in a process that will go on for 3-5 more years as we support these rural families with laughter and local performers with training. Can you jump in and help us continue this work? Without a doubt, a little can go a very long way here in Risaralda; please consider making a tax-deductible donation to CWB USA to keep this work going and the smiles reaching out into the corners of this beautiful land.
Thank you in advanced for your help and support!