Clowns spark laughter amid crises

Red-nosed performers are bringing laughter, joy and theatrical mayhem to children living in refugee camps, orphanages and conflict zones

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, child survivors were so traumatised by the collapse of buildings that they were afraid to go inside. Medical and food aid sent by aid agencies met their immediate physical needs but failed to address this mental trauma.

International clowning group Clowns Without Borders (CWB) saw this as an ideal opportunity to help. Clowns were sent to Haiti to help children – through their juggling, magic tricks, handstands, practical jokes and lots of falling over – to rediscover playfulness, confront their fears and move beyond their trauma.

“We allow children to be children,” says Dianna Hahn, volunteer director at CWB USA. “The clowns came up with this incredible rhyming chant in Creole that said we can go back inside and it will be okay,” she explains.

Children learn mostly through trial and error and play. We really try to give them that opportunity to explore the world through a sense of creativity and imagination 

Since the earthquake, the clowns have performed to over 50,000 children and young people in Haiti and have worked with child support agency Terre des Hommes to provide trauma relief training for community leaders.

CWB was founded in 1993 when Tortell Poltrona, a professional clown from Spain, was invited to perform at a refugee camp in Croatia. Over 700 children attended the performance, convincing Tortell of the need for clowns in crisis situations.

The organisation has grown from there, and today clowns from nine countries – including Germany, Ireland and South Africa – volunteer with CWB worldwide, putting on hundreds of performances every year.

In South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland, clowns perform to children in rural and township communities. Many of these children have lost friends and family members to Africa’s sub-Saharan HIV/Aids epidemic, or are themselves HIV positive.

“Children learn mostly through trial and error and play,” says Jamie Lachmann, director of CWB South Africa. “We really try to give them that opportunity to explore the world through a sense of creativity and imagination.”

Jamie believes that through helping children who have suffered trauma to embrace play and rediscover their imagination, clowns inspire children to discover their potential as human beings.

“The more you give children the invitation to be creative, the more they can see that there might be more to their lives than what they have right now,” he says. “They can start to dream, to see beyond and to start doing things in the present moment that might change their lives in the future. This is important with any children in any society, but it’s even more important when you’re working with kids affected by trauma.”

To give their work a long-term impact, CWB South Africa has developed projects focused on improving the relationship between children and their primary caregivers. Clown-led workshops featuring dance, drama, storytelling and African song strengthen the bonds between children and their guardians. Clowns then train members of the local community to continue this relationship-building and healing work.

Jamie has also taken his clowning antics to Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, training clowns and circus artists in these countries to use circus arts and play as a tool for peacemaking and to build bridges of understanding across cultures. He believes that play and wonder have the power to connect people, and to help former enemies see one another as human beings.

“Our work is about awakening into a sense of playfulness and joy,” he says. “I remember in one workshop, a Palestinian women leading an Israeli man around a garden, giving him things to smell, or feel, or things to touch, encouraging him to listen to the birds singing. It was beautiful.”

As well as empowering children to rediscover play, CWB are often asked by local community leaders to address serious issues in their performance.

“Clowns by their nature address uncomfortable situations and uncomfortable topics,” explains Dianna. “We see this as part of our role, and we’re often asked to address death, grieving, disease, sanitation, and environmental issues.”

Like everything clowns do, taking their performances into conflict zones and crisis areas is unconventional. Yet it interrupts cycles of violence and trauma, allowing communities to come together in a positive way that they will remember.

“The thing about clowning is that once you feel it and once you experience it, it’s in you, you can’t forget it,” says Dianna. “It’s a very intimate experience. Seeing clowns perform changes you. Whatever is released in your body when you laugh, it changes you, and you remember feeling that.”