Celebrating cultural diversity, creativity
Thousands of people swarmed around the large and grassy compound of Mekonenoch Kibeb (Defense Force Officers’ Club) the past weekend to attend the second edition of the African Circus Arts Festival (ACAF). The Festival gathered prestigious circus teams from all over Africa to celebrate unity, cultural diversity, and creativity, writes Hiwot Abebe.
The excitement of the gathered crowd, stirred up by large comical marionettes from Marionetas Gigantes (Mozambique), was palpable and infectious. As parents kept a careful eye, children bounced in plastic castles, gleefully chased bubbles, gathered around puppets, and got their faces painted like animals or superheroes.
While various vendors provided delicious cakes, pizza, and popcorn, the crowd was serenaded by reggae music and Giorgia, MC for the day and one of the organizers of the festival, intermittently incited the crowd to join the festivities and occasionally called for peace and unity. There were interminably long lines for food and children gathered around tents impatiently waiting for a face-paint or a pizza, a common grievance heard from those in attendance.
Selam Tamene, a doctor in her early 30s, who attended the event on Saturday, was one attendee who commented on the queues, even though she was extremely pleased with the event in general. She mentioned the choice of venue, which was open, green, and spacious, as a major positive highlight of the event. Like most other attendees, she was also happy that the event was inclusive and kid friendly.
“I was glad the handicrafts bazaar showcased craftspeople that usually don’t get any exposure,” she said. She jokingly mentioned, however, her disappointment at not seeing performances by the levitating women hanging from their hair that were depicted in the promotional poster. “I was really looking forward to that,” she stated. The hair-hangers were part of the first edition of ACAF in 2015.
Organized by Fekat Circus with the support of the European Union and the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism, African Circus Arts Festival is an annual event that first took place in 2015. According to Sarah Bushra, communications officer at Fekat, it was established to draw attention to African circus arts, which is a unique blend of rich cultural heritage and the struggles that plague contemporary African lifestyle. ACAF aims to empower young African circus performers to increase their social impact, promote cultural exchanges among African circus companies, and stimulate the development of a circus market within Africa.
Eleven African circus troupes including the creative Colokolo Cirque Urbain from Morocco, Marionetas Gigantes from Mozambique with their iconic puppets, the vibrant Sarakasi Trust from Kenya, Tinafan from Guinea, Zip Zap Circus from South Africa, and six Ethiopian troupes (Fekat Circus, Circuses Arba Minch, Bahir Dar, Debre Berhan, Dire Dawa and Hawassa) performed at the three-day event. There were workshops and conferences held at Alliance Ethio-Française and sneak peaks at various spots around Addis prior to the main show.
The event, aside from the prime attraction of the circus, included live music by prominent musicians and DJs, various circus games, marionettes, bouncy castles and trampolines, as well as various handicraft vendors selling clothes, leather products and customized items representing Africa’s rich cultural diversity.
A tightly knit group of organizers and volunteers purposefully ran across the beautifully lush grounds of Mekonenoch Kebeb as they made sure everything was in place and going according to schedule. A volunteer selling Fekat Circus t-shirts urged customers to go into the circus tent and enjoy the show. Despite the poor weather on Sunday and the long queue to enter the tent, many attendants of the event were still excited by the festivities. One mother in her late 30s standing in line for popcorn said she was happy there are events like this she could enjoy with her children.
According to Mihret, who attended the event on Saturday evening, the music was a highlight and the event was inclusive of different audiences who do not usually gather at the same place. She ascribed the strong promotional strategy the organizers employed for the diversity of the crowd. Fekat Circus used their website, social media, pop-up shows around the city, posters, fliers, radio ads and word of mouth. Families large and small, the old and the young, professionals enjoying the festivities with friends or loved ones, groups of teenagers and many internationals filled the venue. “There aren’t enough wholesome, fun, and culturally rich events that cater to everyone living in Addis. We need more of this, “ Mihret added.
The performances took place on a stage outdoors and inside a classic circus tent, the largest erected in the country with a capacity to hold 500 people. While excited children ran around eating popcorn and blowing bubbles, close to a hundred people queued to enter the circus tent. Since the outdoor performances were somewhat hindered by bad weather, most braved the drizzle and kept standing in line, finally able to enter for the final performances of the weekend.
The tent was brightly illuminated, classic stripes of red and white on the outside and blue on the inside, evocative of what we imagine a real circus experience must be like – magical. The inside was fully packed and the smell of straw and popcorn greeted my entrance. As the organizers and volunteers cleared the stage, the audience patiently waited for the next show. The performances were both exhilarating and anxiety inducing. Combining dance, theater, and music, jugglers, trapeze artists, both flying and bungee, object manipulators, acrobats and contortionists created an electrifying atmosphere and showed off their extraordinary skills. The festival’s most lauded troupe Zip Zap Circus took the stage. When the beautiful trapeze artist from South Africa swung from a hanging horizontal bar the crowd gasped, held their breath while she seemingly flew up into the air and collectively exhaled once she landed safely on the ground. Her dismount was followed by loud applause.
The lights dimmed to welcome a joint show from the French circus troupe PPCM and Fekat Circus. Their performance was subtle and contemplative; a woman was slowly encased in a cube she kept trying to escape, the crew fell and bounced on a trampoline in cohesion and took turns demonstrating the immense trust that must exist between performers of this sort. One must truly accept falling and reconcile with the possibility of a hard and perilous landing to put on such a performance.
With the showmanship and comedic antics of the artists and the integration of cultural identity into their performances, the troupes were a definite treat to those in attendance. Seeing individuals of various nationalities sharing a stage and representing the talent of one continent was wonderful.
Anatoli Bulti, a 22 year old volunteer for the festival, stated he has enjoyed his time working with Fekat and was especially happy to participate in such an international and diverse team. “Aside from being able to meet circus artists from around Africa and all over the world, I was able to work with the Fekat team and many other volunteers that were dedicated to making the event go as smoothly as possible. Even though at times it was a bit disorganized and the rainy weather disrupted the original schedule, it was as fun and energetic as one would expect from a circus festival.” he said.
Fekat Circus promotes the circus arts through its school and outreach programs. It is determined to put African circus arts on the global map. Sarah says they had been working on ACAF for the past two years, after the first African Circus Arts Festival was held in 2015 and attracted tens of thousands. Fekat was able to accomplish this event with the help of many young volunteers passionate about helping foster the arts and creating a global community of artists. The show is expected to travel to certain cultural venues and town centers in Addis.
Contributed by Hiwot Abebe