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Building connections and community through creativity: Fekat Circus

By Katie Kurz

It started as a dream more than 13 years ago. Dereje Dange Mulate and five close friends were passionate acrobats and they were inspired by circus arts.  They shared a vision for the future: to create a circus with youngsters who had never imagined being on a stage.  The six founders’ passion for creativity, expression and engagement was the driving force behind making their dream a reality. Fekat Circus – literally translated as “blossoming circus” from Amharic – was established in 2004.  

“Our work in Addis Ababa, throughout the country and around the world is a labor of love,” remarks Dereje, one of the founders and the Circus’ President.  Fekat Circus sees itself as a social enterprise, and while it relies on the support of generous donors from around the world today, it aims to become a sustainable circus. “In addition to the recognition we have garnered from various global organizations,” Dereje says, “I am so proud to see the connections we are forging with the community everyday.”

Circus arts spark social change

Today, Fekat Circus has a robust offering for children and adults alike.  Their work includes two circus schools open to the community; a transformative program called Smile Medicine, which brings circus arts to patients and families at the Black Lion Hospital; a team of more than 30 talented circus professionals that perform around Ethiopia and internationally; and numerous creative services for enhancing private celebrations, birthday parties, festivals, team-building and tourists activities.  

On a hilly cobblestone street lined with bougainvillea, Fekat Circus is situated near the historical neighborhood of Piassa.  The circus school is full of life everyday with youngsters jumping, tumbling, and dancing.  Eyob Teshome leads the private classes at the circus school – four sessions per week for local and international students, as well as the creative camps that are held during the school holidays and summer break.

Eyob is an energetic 22-year old who grew up with the Circus’ founders practicing acrobatics.  Now he is also part of the professional circus troupe, specializing in the trapeze and cyr-wheel.  Eyob recognizes the special bond he has with the kids.  “As a role model for these students, I know that my work is having a positive impact.

Eyob enables trainees to harness and develop their physicals skills through acrobatics, balancing acts like the handstand, various juggling arts (with balls, clubs, rings, etc.), and aerial arts.  But equally important, these activities promote crucial life skills for the kids like sharing, cross-cultural communication, and assertiveness.  For example, when the kids are challenged to create a human pyramid: “They must collaborate with each other to build the pyramid. It requires teamwork, problem-solving and self-awareness,” explains Eyob. Fekat Circus believes that by providing students with a safe and fun environment, they can learn, grow and express themselves freely in a way that is different from school or at home.

One of the members of the community circus school is Zehara.  A ninth grader at Fana secondary school, she travels quite a distance from her home in Gemo to practice.  “My relationship with the trainers is really good because I perform with them. There is an intense closeness,” she says. Before Fekat Circus, Zehara aspired to be a football player; now she dreams of becoming a circus artist. “I have a lot of respect for the trainers; whenever I need help or want to learn something new or improve my acts on the aerial hoop, they are always there to support me.” 

Nearby another young girl practices the aerial hoop with Zehara.  Her name is Yeruta, an eighth grader at the Gojebt Hibret primary school.  Yeruta becomes emotional when she talks about what Fekat means to her: “There are no words to explain it because it means so much to me. Fekat is a special place where I can comfortably interact with others.” Yeruta is passionate about the aerial hoop and hopes one day to travel internationally with the circus.   

Laughter is the best medicine

Another founder of Fekat Circus is Shimelis Getachew, a 36-year old from Addis Ababa with an infectious smile.  He is also a member of Fekat’s professional troupe. For more than seven years now, Shimelis has led Smile Medicine, a unique program that was devised to serve the community better.  In close collaboration with the pediatric ward of Black Lion Hospital, Smile Medicine brings happiness, smiles and healing to the youngest patients and their families.  This program is an effective means to raise awareness about the healing power of the arts at Black Lion. 

As a professional clown, acrobat and magician, Shimelis is one of the four Doctor Clowns that go to the hospital everyday to visit the bedridden children.  Smile Medicine is committed to reaching every child in the ward.  Shimelis has seen firsthand the success of his work: “It is a beautiful thing to connect with these kids during such a challenging time in the hospital. I love bringing a smile to their faces.”

Recently a young patient gave one of the Doctor Clowns a brief hand-written note, a true testament of the special bond that had formed; it read: “I want to come back to the hospital soon because I already miss you.” Fekat Circus is grateful for the multi-year funding and support from Fondation Alta Mane in Italy and Switzerland, and Fekat is eager to secure funding from another generous donor to allow Smile Medicine to continue well beyond 2017. 

Bringing circus arts into the spotlight

Fekat Circus hosts captivating performances for children and adults every month.  Earlier in February the professional troupe performed their newest show, Ertale, which debuted December 2016 at the Calabar Carnival in Nigeria. The entertainers love to introduce new routines and see the audience’s reactions, especially the kids, who are always mesmerized, sitting on the edge of the seats and wide-eyed.

Looking to the future, Fekat Circus aspires to become a financially sustainable organization that maintains its strong focus on youth, the local community and empowering individuals to find their inner potential through circus arts.  Fekat Circus sees significant opportunities to continue to engage and partner with the Ethiopian Ministries of Cultural Affairs and Education, and others to generate greater awareness about the positive benefits of circus arts. 

In 2015, Fekat Circus was recognized and funded by UNESCO to host the First African Circus Arts Festival in Addis Ababa.  With more than 108 artists in attendance from all over Africa, the Festival hosted numerous performances and trainings, and created a unique platform for exchange, promotion and awareness-building for circus arts.  A massive undertaking, the Festival was organized by Fekat Circus.  It was a critical milestone for the team and planning is already underway for the second festival in 2018.

More recently last September, Fekat Circus (together with four other Ethiopian organizations) was awarded a two-year grant from the European Union to further develop circus arts in Ethiopia.  In the coming 18 months, the team at Fekat Circus will take the lead in developing and implementing modules that showcase best practices for social circuses.  Grants like this and international exchange programs among different circuses are essential to promote the work, new ideas and benefits of circus arts in Ethiopia, on the continent and around the world.

Dereje smiles as he thinks about the future: “We have tremendous opportunities.  Circus arts are a powerful tool to spread joy and positive values in this world afflicted with suffering and individualism. This is why Fekat Circus is committed to create awareness about circus arts, reach as many children and youngsters as possible, and give them a chance to blossom and develop their inner potential.”

Fekat Circus hosts monthly performances at their compound near Piassa in Addis Ababa. Mandragora Circo will perform this weekend (March 4-5, 2017) at 6:00 PM on Saturday and 4:00 PM on Sunday.  This unique performance features two Argentinian clowns sharing a story of comedy, love, and dialog without words.

Ed.’s Note: Katie Kurz is volunteering at The Reporter.