The performers draw people in with the novelty of the circus and then hit them with didactic plays on the major social ails of the country, like khat abuse, human trafficking, unemployment, and female genital mutilation.
The Kaah Business Center, a half-hour’s drive outside the jammed and haphazard streets of downtown Hargeisa, Somaliland, serves as an oasis of tranquility and normalcy for local families. A small, lonely enclosure next to a gas station on the desert road north to Berbera, the Center houses a leafy green garden restaurant, and the only real playground in the region. Children flock to half of the dusty, flat field where the businessmen behind the Center have somehow materialized pristine sets of monkey bars, swings, and roundabouts with Donald Duck standing on the central peg. Usually, the other half of the field is overlooked for the shiny toys, but today a stoop-shoulder, wiry older man in a loose-fitting uniform striped green, red, and white like the Somaliland flag scuttles about, throwing down gymnastic mats, juggling pins, and metal hoops, while hollering encouragement at about a dozen young men, anywhere between ten and 18, in solid orange getups practicing kick-ups and backflips.
These boys and men are the Somaliland Circus—one of them at least—and they’re attracting a crowd of curious children and parents alike even before they've started performing. Somaliland has no real tradition of the circus arts, so rather than admiring the talent of the young tumblers, most of the families are puzzling over the getups, the maneuvers, and most certainly the stilts leaned up against the compound wall and the massive pair of pants wadded up beside them.
But that’s just the way the Somaliland Circus wants it, because they’re not here to make money. In fact, all of their shows are free (the businessmen behind the Center have just agreed to fund them to perform here every Friday). They just want as many people as possible to attend, because they believe their show has the potential to transform Somaliland for the better. They’re acrobats with a social mission, drawing people in with the novelty of the circus and the allure of the word “free” and then hitting them with didactic plays on the major social ails of the country: khat abuse, human trafficking, unemployment, female genital mutilation, and so on.
The Somaliland Circus was not the first such troupe in the region, nor the first to perform with an explicit social mission. Of the three circuses currently operating in Somaliland, all descend from the original, Haba Yoko, a consciousness-raising venture of athletes trained by more established ringleaders and acrobats in Mogadishu and Mombasa that operated in the region for years on a small scale with limited success. Frustrated at having reached the skill level of their ringleader, and seeing no room for further learning or growth, a number of acrobats broke off in 1997 to found their own circuses, including Abdi Raheem, the leathery thin man in the Somaliland flag costume laying down mats, better known to his friends as “Circus.”
Circus preaching to the crowd.
By 2004, Circus had attracted enough students to put together a troupe of his own—four young expert jugglers and China stick spinners. Although by 2006 Circus’s troupe had gained a small local following of its own, the early fracture and ambition of the socially-conscious circus performers of Somaliland has spiraled into a competition for scarce funding. Haba Yoko picked up a sponsorship from the Kow Media Corporation fairly early on, leaving the other two circuses to scramble from event to event, never able to announce a show more than a day in advance and sometimes cancelling at the last minute when their hitched ride or free venue fell through.
As part of the quest for cash, recognition, and an ever-larger audience for their public service announcement performances, Circus and his acrobats have pushed themselves to diversify their acts and specialize in skills the other two haven’t yet figured out. For Circus, that’s unicycling, tightrope walking, and eating apples while juggling them. He’s also started training girls—something unprecedented and complex in the conservative Muslim country, requiring special hoods and a good deal of elastic to preserve an air of modesty. That particular innovation, Circus fears, the public is still not ready for, although demands for closed, private performances have helped to put the group into a slightly more tenable financial situation. And anything that brings solvency in the service of a socially minded message is, regardless of the complications, worthwhile.
Today, the social message in question will be tarib, a broad term for a host of problems associated with youth unemployment and human trafficking to more prosperous regional nations. Tarib has come onto the national radar as the quest for employment has become more complex and dangerous in recent years with the descent into turmoil of Libya and Yemen, the two recent economic migration destinations of recent years. Abuse, extortion, and death have become all too common in the quest for fewer and fewer jobs, but the stories stirring the nation’s imagination right now are those of kidnapping and organ trafficking of Somali migrants.
Midway through their show, the acrobats clear the stage while a few of their peers pull flimsy costumes over their orange uniforms. They begin to act out an archetypal story of economic woe—two children in search of jobs, afraid of the ire of their father if they return home from school unable to support the family. Seeing no future in the town, the boys flee over the Ethiopian border. There they fall into the hands of traffickers and die terrible deaths, the heartache of which kills their father in the end.
The onlookers, who in my cynicism I’d suspected might wander away once the show stopped and things got a little too preachy, get into the play wholeheartedly. They react like a school class to the guided moralism of the play, responding with “yes” and “no” in unison as Circus deconstructs every scene for the lessons that should be learned, pointing out what the children did wrong and the perils of tarib.
But it’s hard to tell whether the plays are actually doing any good. They may, in some cases, be fostering misinformation—even hatred—to the detriment of their overall social value. The acting in the play is overwrought with a level of silly melodrama and high-pitched screaming that sends the audience into laughter more often than anything else. Gratuitous fight scenes are worked into the story, it seems, so that the older boys in the troupe can act out machismo fantasies and work in some of their skills, while death scenes all involve lolling tongues and flailing, gangly limbs that make the whole thing a farce rather than a dire warning.
Most troubling, when the Ethiopian traffickers are introduced, they drag themselves in on their knuckles and haunch on all fours like savage animals, and proceed to pantomime eating the eyes and raw heart of the eldest boy while still alive. In a nation rife with hatred and violence against marginalized Ethiopian economic refugees, trapped in the region on their own quest for jobs, it’s easy to see how this message could backfire, and hard to know how seriously these young children have taken the intended screed against tarib, so buried in shtick and so devoid of positive alternative messages.
Of course, that’s not how Circus and his athletes see it. They are not social workers, nor are they deeply versed in social issues beyond the knowledge and concern of an average, intelligent Somalilander. They’re concerned citizens trying to the best of their ability to do something they believe will help.
But there may be a flicker of deeper personal ambitions within the troupe. Circus also trains many of his athletes in Olympic-style track and field games and judo. He hopes to take some of them to the 2014 Djibouti Judo Tournament to gain regional fame and recognition, and to expand his practice. There’s even talk amongst some of the young athletes about one day taking on China in gymnastics in the Olympics.
But for now they must content themselves with their social preaching and the cheers and adulations of young children who cluster around them and chase them across the yard as they don their stilts and long pants and go teetering off, proclaiming, “I am the tallest man in the world!”