Hello from hilly Swaziland!
I’m here on an expedition with Clowns Without Borders. Swaziland is a tiny, landlocked country that borders South Africa to the west and Mozambique to the east. Out of the population of 1 million, an estimated 42% are HIV positive, and the life expectancy is 32. Many of the people we meet here, some of whom we’re working and performing with, live in extreme poverty, and have lost many family members to disease and accidents. In the face of all of this, the people we meet are almost across the board extremely warm and welcoming, ready to play.
It’s been about a week since we drove late at night into Pigg’s Peak, Swaziland – 3 of us from the United States plus Garth, a South African juggler, magician, and humble genius of circus skills. It had been tricky to communicate in advance with the siSwati clowns who were to collaborate with us. Sibusiso, our main contact, who Jamie met on an expedition last year, does not have email or a consistent phone. We went to sleep, 2 of us in the office of our host organization and 2 at the orphanage they run down the road, not knowing how many clowns the next day would bring us. Maybe just Sibusiso … maybe a couple more. Sibusiso came to meet us at 8:30 the next morning. He is a small, effusive man with shining eyes. On stage he is bright and hilarious. Unlike most of the people of Swaziland who are HIV positive (an estimated 44% of its 1 million citizens), he is very open about his disease, and eager to educate others about it. He has been training and rehearsing 3 times a week with a group of eight siSwati people who are similarly eager to perform, entertain, and educate. This is a larger group of collaborators than we expected! We met with the full group that afternoon and narrowed it down to a quarum of 5 who could commit to 3 weeks of rehearsal and performance. They have very little experience – some have never performed at all. And so the focus of our expedition shifted somewhat. Now, along with the mission of entertaining children, helping to relieve trauma through laughter, we have an added mission of training a group of siSwati performers in clowning and performance. We are teaching routines and principles of clowning, and learning more than I can describe from this group.
Words in English and siSwati fly through the air, as do bubbles, and people (since our basic acrobatics workshop). Two of the siSwati women have learned to walk on stilts now. I walked next to Ncobile as she struggled with fear and walked 7 feet tall down the road. “Sing me a song,” she says. I start singing and she joins in in harmony. Pilile, who flat out refused to touch a stilt at first, now walks around shouting “I am the tallest woman in Swaziland.” Women’s empowerment is a huge issue in this country – men can have many wives (the king has at least 10); women must never wear pants once they are married; wives are often thrown out of the house if they even go and get tested for HIV. So it is good to have a couple of siSwati women walking 7 feet tall. In the show we built together, the female clowns almost always have higher status than the men. When Pilile hands Matt and Sibusiso dusters and orders them to clean, the crowd goes wild. We are on the road now, performing 2-3 shows a day at elementary schools and orphanages. It’s mad and hard and hilarious. I’ll write more soon.