“Helping has always been important to me”, says Roosa Hannikainen (24), a graduate of the Commedia International Theatre School of Copenhagen, Denmark.
“That is why I immediately got exited about Clowns Without Borders.”
Active since 1993, Clowns Without Borders has brought laughter to the everyday life of children in developing countries, as well as to refugee camps and other areas of crisis. Members of the organization want to tell the people in the Western countries what it is like to live in the middle of a conflict.
It all started with a group of clowns from Barcelona, Spain, which travelled to perform in a refugee camp in Croatia. Since then, members of the organization are now working in six countries and have put up dozens of volunteer projects.
Hannikainen is nevertheless not an actual member of the organization.
“They told us there were too many volunteers, and that is why me and my Swedish classmate Åsa Lundgren decided to work on our own project”, she explains.
In early spring of 2006, the two young women left for a clowning tour in Uganda. They completed their two-month project in cooperation with a local citizens` organization.
Hannikainen says the most important outcome of their clowning work were three workshops, each lasting for a week and teaching 17- to 25-year-olds the basics of expressing themselves. The idea was to put together theatre groups that could continue with their work later. One of the groups produced independently a performance dealing with AIDS.
“It was mind-blowing to see what theatre can do to people. The youngsters were exhilarated about their bodies. For example stretching was something completely new to most of them.”
In the northern parts of the 23-million nation, a guerilla movement called the Lord`s Resistance Army (LRA) is waging a gruesome war against the government. LRA is known for its uncanny violence as well as kidnapping children as soldiers and sex slaves. Is it right to use funds to make people laugh in this kind of situation?
“People everywhere need more than just medicine and food to survive. Especially children get a powerful experience from the show. It feeds their imagination and may help them to find their own creativity”, Hannikainen debates.
“Naturally I can`t tell whether the show has been even traumatic to some viewers. I haven`t noticed anyone leaving offended or sad, though. The feedback we got was always positive. We performed in calmer areas, where the people did not suffer from shortage of food or medication as such.”
In Uganda, many spectators were not familiar with the red-nosed costumes of clowns nor the conventions of Western theatre.
“At first the children just stared, motionless. People recognize other people doing silly things, though. They especially enjoyed stereotypes concerning the roles of men and women. And their favourite part was when my character wants to kiss the audience.”
In a different occasion, both children performing in the show as well as the audience came hours early to the show, scheduled after a workshop.
“It was supposed to be our dress rehearsal, but people came in through windows and doors. So we went through the rehearsal in front of a live audience. Everyone was puzzled, when we did the same show all over again.”
Clowning is not all fun and games.
“One could see that development cooperation sure has its tricks. You`ve got your vice president, your meetings and your plans of action. Even when everyone knows that this will never work in real life”, Hannikainen reviews her frustration.
Personally she found it hard to see the reality of the young people in Uganda: unemployment, lacking education, poverty and the scars of war. Hannikainen met a girl, fled from the Northern parts of the country, whose parents had been killed in front of her eyes.
“I shook and cried. For the first time I realized what is actually going on in Uganda.”
However, it was hard to leave for home.
“It felt so bad to think that we are now returning to the safety of our country, but they can never leave this place. Even if they had the money, they would never get a visa.”
If everything goes well, Roosa and Åsa will return to Uganda in the spring, this time as representatives of Clowns Without Borders.
The project, lasting for a month, puts up a workshop for youngsters in Kampala. The topic is equality between the two sexes, and the aim is to get the young to continue working on the project later. The clowns are also planning on spending a week performing in a refugee camp.
How about introducing Clowns without borders into Finland?
“I`m planning on bringing the organization here, but I don`t know when I`ll have the time”, Hannikainen says with a sigh. Then she goes and checks her e-mail for replies from Uganda.
Photograph Satu Haavisto