A circus from the town of Debre Berhan is trying to communicate important social messages to Ethiopians through the medium of acrobatic entertainment.
Tameru Zegaye sits at a local restaurant with his fellow circus troupe members on a windy February day in Debre Berhan, a small Ethiopian town 120 kilometres northeast of Addis Ababa. His story is symbolic and inspirational.
He was born in a small village in the north in the 1970s to an unmarried mother. His legs were turned inwards and people claimed he was a curse from the devil. Zegaye's mother left him before his father abandoned him too, leaving him to be raised by one of his grandfathers.
Stigmatised and alone, Zegaye, at the age of nine, escaped his village to the town of Lalibela by walking on his hands. The journey took him four days.
After reaching Lalibela, he started earning money as a beggar. He begged his way into earning enough money to try to escape to Europe through Libya three times, but never succeeded in making the sea crossing. Now it seems this was probably for the best.
Since his teenage years in Lalibela, certain 'miracles' changed his life. First came the help of a German NGO who put him on multiple operating tables to correct his disability, an effort which proved successful as he can now walk.
Then his schooling, which he commenced at primary level at the age of 19, was funded by two American well-wishers who met him in Lalibela. In his late 20s, Zegaye managed to move to Addis Ababa and earnt a university degree as an official tour guide. Then, finally, Circus Debre Berhan found him, or he found them, and Zegaye became part of the troupe.
He has now been part of Circus Debre Berhan for almost a month, and he has already earned recognition and respect for his impressive physical abilities.
The art of social awareness
For Circus Debre Berhan, Zegaye is their latest member who is either deaf or has a physical disability. The troupe was established back in 1998, taking its name from the town in which it was founded, with the vision of promoting social awareness on various issues concerning health and stigma as well as spreading the message of equality.
The idea of 'theatre for social development' has a long history throughout the developing world. Moving in the opposite direction to the themes promoted by 'freak shows', the 1970s saw the rise of non-elite entertainment along the lines of Augusto Boal's arguments against "idealist poetics" which he saw as disconnected from socioeconomic realities.
Boal's Marxist-inspired ideas had been fermenting for a few decades, but broke free and swept across the developing world especially after Boal's creation of the 'Theatre of the Oppressed' in Brazil.
Since then, the idea of the 'Social Circus' has been a growing force in the performance arts of developing countries. This has been strengthened by the Cirque du Soleil donating funds to the Cirque du Monde to support the concept of the Social Circus whereby "young people develop a sense of belonging, freedom, creativity, perseverance and discipline".
Theatre for Ethiopia
Debre Berhan Circus is also part of a growing tradition of Ethiopian circus, which has been growing in popularity over the past three decades and now numbers around 25 circus troupes nationwide.
Some of Ethiopia's circus roots lie in diverse global influences, the ancient Chinese tradition being first among them, but the most direct influence on today's circus repertoire comes from the founding members of Circus Addis Ababa.
Circus Addis Ababa was Ethiopia's first circus and was founded in 1991 by American Andy Goldman and French-Canadian Marc La Chance. In 1993, the two men founded an umbrella institution called the Circus in Ethiopia for Youth and Social Development (CIE), which became an NGO, and La Chance obtained costumes from the Cirque du Soleil.
Debre Berhan Circus builds on from the foundations laid by Circus Addis Ababa and tries to integrate Ethiopian characteristics such as music, costumes, and hairstyles, into a global circus language. Circus Debre Berhan is also affiliated with European theatres and organisations, and often arranges seminars with European tutors for its actors.
The European theatre tradition thus infuses itself in Debre Berhan's acts too. This range of influences can be seen in the troupe's performances. "We often change scenarios and play out different storylines in our performances. Sometimes there is no storyline at all", Henok Teklu Asheger, the circus' director, told Think Africa Press.
Circus Debre Berhan, moreover, tries to differentiate itself from 'big circuses' in that its acrobats do not rely on ropes or other protective measures. Their protection lies only in the trust which has grown between the performers as well as endless practice. Cooperation and persistence have consequently become defining themes in this type of art.
The single most important feature in this circus, however, lies in the fact it employs performers who have, or once had, physical disabilities as well as those who are deaf.
These performers, both those in the children's act and the adult's act, are extremely talented. Circus Debre Berhan's shows open with the children's beautiful and often very challenging acrobatics, followed by the adult act which is staggering in its intricacy and difficulty.
The performances are usually held in public spaces such as markets and main squares where possible in order to reach and entertain as many people as possible.
At the moment, Circus Debre Berhan is touring all over Ethiopia with its hundred or so performers split into small groups to cover the vast countryside. If it continues its success, it will hopefully help change perceptions of disability and stigma in the region while also find and incorporate inspirational figures like Tameru Zegaye into its ranks.
A book of Tameru Zegaye's story is currently being written by the author.
Alexia Liakounakou holds a BA in the Archaeology of the Middle East and Africa, and an MA in Social Anthropology, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
She has teaching experience at an elementary rural school in Sierra Leone and was team coordinator and researcher for the Center of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Peloponnese, Greece. She currently works as a freelance Islamic and African Arts researcher and writer. Follow her on twitter @alexialia.