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TRAPPED in a minibus with six clowns, a pair of purple knickers and a unicycle is no joke. But these clowns are not just fooling around — they’re headed to schools in a remote part of rural KwaZulu-Natal to show off their clowning tricks and to give these children a dose of laughter.
Three of the clowns are Irish volunteers Simon Llewellyn, Caroline Abbot and Colm O’Grady, and their mission is to share their skills and knowledge. The other three are South Africans clowns — Gavin Stockdon, Sussie Mjwara and Mr Fish. I joined them last week.
Our guide is a local woman from the nearby community of Centocow (a church mission) who does volunteer HIV counselling. She is our human GPS and community liaison. Bumping up and down the gravel roads, avoiding cattle and goats, has become second nature to Llewellyn, who has never been to South Africa before.
Back in Belfast he is a circus trainer, and he teaches many types of performing arts between shows. Before venturing out into the harsh sunlight, the team slather on sunscreen with SPF30+ in expectation of another hot day.
He has already cut his hair very short and trimmed his beard to cope with the warm temperatures. Most of the schools they go to have no school hall, and performances are done on a rough patch of open ground.
Clowns Without Borders (CWB) is a humanitarian organisation dedicated to improving the lives of children affected by the scourge of HIV/Aids. The funnymen aim to reach those in poverty through laughter, play and crisis interventions.
Under the baking sun the team gets to work, and in minutes some tentative chuckles burst out. As the performance continues the children become more comfortable, and smiles emerge from behind hands and eyes start to sparkle.
Children love slapstick humour — the kick-up-the-butt routine never fails to get a giggle. As the clowns fall down, slap each other with newspapers and chase after an imaginary bee, the audience is captivated.
A boy is chosen to participate in a rope trick. Cries of “Hau!” and “Haibo!” are uttered as the rope splits magically into half and then into three pieces. The shy participant becomes a hero as he magically escapes from being tied up.
“The language of clowning is universal,” says O’Grady who directed this show. “I have gone to several other countries and the language is always a barrier, but you work with common ideas and they translate across all cultures.”
O’Grady describes the happiness of laughing children as like a bottle of champagne popping open. “It’s such a fulfilling sensation. To spread laughter and happiness is real job satisfaction.” O’Grady was training to be a nurse, but he had so much fun making people laugh that he switched professions.
South African clowns have also travelled to other countries to participate in joint programmes. This month, they are performing at 20 schools and orphanages around Creighton.
Stockdon explains that many children who have been orphaned by Aids live with their grandparents. “There is a big generation gap and elderly grandparents often give the children chores to do from morning to nightfall. They forget that children need to have fun.”
One of their other interventions is to teach affected families how to play games, and how to relate across the generation gap. “The gift of laughter cannot be underestimated,” said CWB managing director Lulu Ngcobo.
“This programme is a wonderful opportunity for the clowns to exchange ideas and skills, while also reaching those in need,” she added.
KZN has the highest number of people affected by Aids in the world, and CWBSA works full time using its projects to provide support through arts-based interventions to try to reach as many children as possible.
Sussie Mjwara, a local clown, works at a Durban youth shelter, and relating to children comes easily. She has taught the others songs to use in the show. Mr Fish is a professional clown, who has worked with the Brian Boswell circus for years.
All of the clowns have circus skills like gymnastics, juggling and magic tricks, which they use in the show. They even include a bit of soccer, and instead of a red card a red sock comes out to show the “player” he is out of line.
At the end of the show, they have a red nose and a red face from the hot beating sun, but if they’ve made a few children forget their troubles for an hour then they’ve done a good job.