Bring On The Clowns

by Robert Salisbury, November 12, 2013

I’ve been trying to get out to see the local refugee camps, aka “Internally Displaced Persons” or IDP camps. There are checkpoints where documents are inspected and you must have some reason for going. My ticket came in the form of Clowns Without Borders from Sweden. Wow, two birds-one stone, (actually three clowns-one stoner) who suddenly appeared in Sittwe on a day’s notice. I attended the so-called planning meeting and conned my way into being their unofficial roadie. It’s kind of like Mendocino County where you can be whoever you say you are, or so I thought, (a nod to Bruce Anderson here). Most of the other NGOs figured I was somehow connected, the soldiers at the checkpoint need a name and some numbers, no problem there, and the people in the camps thought I was just another clown. With the government, and the UN, as long as you stay within certain boundaries, which I am just learning, and, if you act like you know what you’re doing, it’s all good. But you better know those boundaries.

The clowns played in Sittwe town as well as the camps, several schools and lots of monasteries, plus the hospital. A great visual was “Papa Dave” swallowing a long animal balloon in front of a huge sitting Buddha. The monks seemed to enjoy the show as did the nurses and teachers, but it was the kids who really dug it, Rakhine and Muslim alike. The appeal of clowns is pretty universal though even clowns must be aware of cultural and religious mores. The first time I saw Papa Dave pull that balloon he swallowed out of his butt transformed into an animal balloon I thought uh-oh, but no, everyone cracked up. The butt jokes work in any language.

Great interest was aroused just showing up in the camps. People would come round to stare at you, and if you started messing with the kids look out! All of a sudden I was surrounded by 40, no 50, now 70 kids and more coming. Pressing, pressing in this ocean of arms, touching, touching, shaking hands, the brudda handshake, all hands in the center and raised up, up. My ridiculous, almost obscene, white white hand big and clumsy next to their skinny brown agile ones. Everything was repeated, each movement each sound. Do a little jig, they are jigging. Sing a song, they are singing; growl, they are growling. Pat your belly and rub your head, they are… Ohhhh! stumped ‘em for a minute, but they soon got it. I had not appreciated the concern over crowd control at the shows, now I do. Anybody who thinks these clowns are fooling around ought to join us in the camps and feel the pressure, the intensity, and if you survive, your reward is laughter, and man that is very powerful stuff.

Sometimes there were 300-400 people at a performance, other times 60 or 70 in a cramped bamboo room and always more coming, pressing, pressing, at the windows, at the door, trying to get a look. These guys were hungry for this. Maybe they had seen their house burned or people being killed. Maybe they never had much and even less now. I’m pretty sure they had never seen adults acting this way.

The clowns were really good. Camilla, Papa Dave, and Karen didn’t have to speak. We saw them do acrobatics, a bit of magic, slapstick, classic clown shtick. Dave was great on the spinning Diablo, and I still don’t know how he swallowed that balloon. What really excited the kids was the interaction, especially mayhem, running through the crowd brought an absolute cacophony of wriggling squeals and screams. Every chance they got the kids would be up, pressing, pressing closer and closer. The stage would get smaller and smaller. They had to stop one show because there wasn’t any crowd control and so many people pressing closer and closer there was no room to move. Sometimes it was scary, the pent up need for these kids to release what they are carrying in them. It is potent and I am glad that they could let some of that go with laughter.

It is not a solution, this clowning around. I am coming to realize there is no solution. Nobody’s gonna fix this. There is no bingo. No aha moment. But people will need to see the other as a human being, until then, bring on the clowns!

Now it’s nearly a month later and I’m back traveling with clowns again. This time it’s only two, Than and Maia from Yangon. The scheduling is rather a mess, there’s not much support from the NGOs. Us clowns are pretty much on our own, which is how I ran afoul of the humanitarian organization charged with security issues which attempts to facilitate coordination of all of these separate NGOs. Granted not an easy task, and not made easier by, shall we say, a certain arrogance wielded by just the kind of people you might imagine would gravitate to running these affairs.

Lord Buddha knows at times I’ve been guilty of the same thing, seems like it’s human nature. This time though I was on the receiving end. The day before was supposedly the President of Myanmar’s visit to this area and all NGO personnel were pulled out of the field for security I guess. The following day we (the clowns) heard the president was still around — nobody was telling us anything so I figured I’d go to the security meeting to get the word as we had shows to do in the camps that day, Well, big Boo-boo. Worse yet, I even spoke, ah horrors! The chairperson glared at me and asked who I represented, I said I was a consultant and was told only head of missions were allowed at these meetings. I found out late if any underlings slithered in they were observers only, no talky. She was on a roll and strictly speaking she was correct. If any yayhoo in town showed up and started blabbing away it would not serve the purpose of the meeting.

BUT, I had a purpose, albeit I was “ unofficial “ in my purpose and certainly not head of the clown mission. Why, I didn’t even have my nose on. The public castration did not sit well with me (oweee), but when I saw a bunch of eye rolling among the others at the table I realized they had been down this road before. There was no mention of the president still being around. Yeah, well, HELLO security people, the president was actually out by the camp us clowns were headed for.

Later that day on our way to the field we’re seeing all these soldiers lining the road. Police too. We got pulled over. Well guarded. We got to watch the president’s convoy go by La- de- da. BUT, now I’m on the shit list of people pretending to know what they’re doing and being in a position to make my life miserable which is not a good place for me to be. Gotta keep a low profile for a while and keep reminding myself, boundaries, Rainbow, boundaries. I could get over the public deballing but the pain continued.

The next day the chairwoman called Yangon and complained to Yvonne’s boss, head of country. Did the chairwoman speak with me and explain how she likes to run her meetings? Nope. If she would have I would have apologized and never shown my intrusive head again. End of story, mea culpa.

But now we got repercussions. This is affecting my wife and her NGO. In this case there was no need to involve anyone else, but it pointed out to me how everything I do here is seen as connected to my wife’s position in an NGO. I have no authority, no power, no standing, but anything I get involved in reflects back to my wife and her organization. In short it sucks. And I must say, I’m having some gender issues here. Seems like the ex-pat women in the “humanitarian community,” when they find a guy like me with no standing, take a special pleasure in “clipping my wings.” I guess it’s payback. I get it, but it still sucks.

The Yangon Clowns would do a short show for up to around 80 kids, and then workshops with 20 kids that always turned into 40 with more trying to get in. Maia and Than knew a lot of “New Games” which stress cooperation rather than competition. I became a sort of Ed McMahon for the Yangon clowns, goofing with the kids, warming up the crowd, it was pretty fun. By the end of their stay I was doing a little improv with Than and Maia, which, given language barriers all around, definitely requires focus. I was exhausted by the end of each day. We had a couple of rough crowds who didn’t take much to this cooperation thing. The boys, as usual (I speak from experience here, being one) were the most unruly. I wonder what more than one brief visit could do?

One of the last shows we did was at an orphanage. The place smelled of urine. A rundown building way out past the edge of town. We were greeted at the cage-like door by a couple of teachers and kids. The kids here were very young, 3 to 7 I’d guess. Maia and Than hadn’t played a crowd like this and I knew that much of what I had seen them do wouldn’t work for such a young group. One of the kids at the door clung to it as it opened. He stared at us with what seemed to me dull lifeless eyes as he was taken away from the door. Something was wrong with his legs and he could only pull himself along by his arms, dragging his legs behind. We headed down the bare stinky corridor to a small room. It didn’t have to be big as the “crowd” wasn’t either, in size or number. These kids were subdued, there was none of the playful chirping and rustling usual with kids this age. The boy who had been at the entry just stared blankly. Than and Maia started slow. They were improvising as they went along, feeling their way. At one point there was dancing, I was dancing, one of the teachers was dancing. A cardboard box turned into a hat on my head, then I put it on the teacher who was a real ham. The kids got into it. Than produced newspaper hats, you know, folding up newspaper, kinda looks like a boat. Our driver as it turns out was quite a character. He got into it too, bouncing a kid on his knee with a newspaper hat on his head, very sweet moment. Sweet as well was to see the crippled boy’s eyes brighten, laughing along with everyone.

In NGO speak these types of programs (Clowns) fall under the heading of Psycho-Social, just about the worst possible title anybody could think up. Plus they seem to be at the bottom of everyone’s list of important things to do. Lord knows how important all those endless meetings are. I still say Bring on the clowns!

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