Bibi Tesfamariam and Bichu Tesfamariam have taken an unconventional route to pursue a shared dream of joining the circus arts.
Their journey has been filled with obstacles, but perseverance has enabled them to mentor a new generation of Ethiopian circus stars while showcasing the country’s talents on stages around the world.
For Bibi, 38, and Bichu, 37, their involvement in performing arts started over two decades ago with a dream of entering the magical, bone-defying world of the circus.
Fueled by a mutual love of circus performers’ acrobatics and illusions, the duo from Jimma, Ethiopia set sight on becoming performers themselves. With no circus schools nearby, opportunities seemed scarce, but their passion drove them to practice wherever they could – street corners, at festivals – honing their skills and building determination.
At ages 13 and 14, these future circus stars first began juggling, discovering their calling which also helped hone other shared talents. Over the years, the emerging circus scene in Ethiopia has expanded with new troupes and circus training centers sprouting up.
Overcoming early obstacles, especially the limited exposure to exhibit their artistry beyond Ethiopia’s borders for wider renown, they persisted.
One of the biggest obstacles was the lack of opportunities, they claimed. “You don’t get many chances, especially outside the country that would give you better prospects for recognition,” they said.
In addition to the challenge of finding opportunities, the development of their skills proved difficult. The issue of not having a place to learn was also a problem since acts and talents can only grow through training and learning.
“We didn’t even have the professional equipment to train and there wasn’t the chance to import it,” Bichu says.
They hand-made and crafted juggling props and used materials they could find, according to Bichu.
Bichu explained, “I remember, after moving to England to start performing, we finally had access to professional materials, we realized how much easier it made the act itself.”
In 1996, opportunity came knocking for Bibi and Bichu in the form of an invitation to join Circus Jimma for their first European tour at the Brighton Festival in England. The circus stars-in-the-making realized a childhood dream was within their grasp.
At the end of 1999, the doors to opportunity swung open in the form of an invite to England. Scouted during their Circus Jimma stint, the duo were recruited by Gandini Juggling, led by revered juggler Sean Gandini.
After two years with the troupe, Bichu and Bibi joined Giffords Circus where they dazzled audiences for an entire decade.
During a visit back home in 2011, Bichu crossed paths with his former acrobatics coach Solomon Tadesse, who directed circus troupe Wingate in Addis Ababa. During their conversation, Solomon mentioned the lack of funds forcing him to potentially close the school.
“My brother and I have always wanted to give back to our country,” Bichu said. He says when they heard about Solomon’s school, they knew they had a chance to help.
“So we seized the opportunity,” he said.
Bichu and Bibi began funding Circus Wingate by providing materials and necessities. Initially, only 13 or 14 kids practiced circus arts there, but now there are over 150 kids.
According to Bichu, the number of circus groups in Addis Ababa had risen to 20.
He believes joining these troupes and schools gives youngsters a chance at a career and to support themselves financially by providing a stage to showcase their art while learning life lessons about grit and perseverance.
Soon after Bichu and Bibi started funding circus Wingate, they discussed with Giffords circus the potential and abilities of these kids. Upon gaining the green light, they brought 12 young Ethiopian circus stars to train and work alongside them.
“After working with them for two years there and seeing the potential these kids had, we had the idea of forming our own group,” Bichu said. “That’s how Circus Abyssinia was born, and launching in 2017 debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“Ever since launching, we continued to share our culture around the world,” he says.
Circus Abyssinia recently completed their second world tour with shows in Asia, Europe, Australia, North America, and Africa.
The troupe’s meteoric rise is remarkable because so few African circus troupes have made it onto the global stage. This wide-open landscape has cleared a path for the up-and-coming upstarts, catapulting them onto stages alongside juggernauts of the genre.
The challenge of measuring with some of the best in the genre also spurs Circus Abyssinia to hone their acts with laser-like focus. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival – where they’ve flown high for the past four years, with plans to return this coming August – is one of their premier showcases.
The Adelaide Festival in Australia, where they’ve had regular slots and enraptured audiences for three years straight, is also key exposure for Circus Abyssinia due to the massive audience and connoisseurs who can make or break a troupe.
Bichu attributes the flourishing of the circus arts to the influx of international circus stars and jaw-dropping productions. In Ethiopia, circus wasn’t well known or appreciated until recently – after a period of hiatus when reports of child abuse caused the industry to shutter briefly.
Since then, things have changed for the better. Hundreds of circus artists are emerging, like those showcased at a recent Ethiopian circus festival. But Bichu notes that there’s still plenty of room to grow, for circus lacks traction as a true art form in Ethiopia.
“It’s disappointing that the government and those responsible don’t recognize the potential of circus arts,” says Bichu, explaining that many artists promote Ethiopia worldwide, winning competitions and gaining global recognition for their country.”
He believes Ethiopian circus arts have reached a new level thanks to the efforts of these artists. They’re now competing evenly with Europeans, showcasing better performances and more artistic skill.
For Bichu, one reason Ethiopian audiences have been hesitant to embrace circus as an art form is the belief that it cannot provide gainful employment or be as viable a career path. More commonly, it is seen as an extracurricular activity.
Nevertheless, he firmly believes acceptance of the circus arts has made notable strides in Ethiopia and will continue to make headway over the coming decade. Troupes like Circus Abyssinia are helping reshape perceptions by demonstrating that circus can indeed serve as a respectable profession.
The artists journey from street performers to founding an internationally acclaimed circus troupe demonstrates the transformational power of perseverance, dedication to one’s art, and fortuitous opportunities.
Through Circus Abyssinia, Bichu and Bibi are showcasing Ethiopia’s vast circus talents on the world stage while inspiring a new generation of performers in their home country.
However, for the circus arts to truly thrive in Ethiopia, greater support and recognition from the government and public are still needed. Circus schools require more funding and resources while social perceptions must continue to shift towards valuing circus as a legitimate career option.
Still, troupes like Circus Abyssinia are helping drive that change through global success and cultural richness.
Through determination and talent, Bibi and Bichu have put Ethiopia’s circus arts in the spotlight, bringing Ethiopian performers onto stages worldwide. Their story inspires a new generation of circus artists within Ethiopia, demonstrating what passion and perseverance can make possible. As mentors for emerging circus stars, they show Ethiopia’s youth that their dreams of captivating global audiences can take flight from the most unlikely beginnings.
In that way, Circus Abyssinia has become more than just a troupe – it’s a beacon of possibility, illustrating what grit, vision and access to opportunity can make possible, even in the most unlikely of places.