A few years ago, people couldn’t point to Guinea on a map. Even people who thought they knew something about the West African country were usually just confusing it with somewhere else.
People still probably can’t point to Guinea on a map, but at least now they’ve heard of it. “Isn’t that where they have Ebola?” they ask. “You went there?!”
Yes, and yes I did.
The first time I “ran away with the circus” was in 2014. Unable to decide on my next move in life, I took a job selling tickets in the box office when a show came to my home town. It never crossed my mind that a troupe of West African acrobats would become some of my best friends, and that after learning of my love for travel, they would invite me to visit their family and friends in the capital city of Conakry.
Formerly known as French Guinea, modern-day Guinea gained its independence from France in 1958. Officially, it is the Republic of Guinea, but you may also hear it referred to as Guinea-Conakry to distinguish it from Guinea-Bissau or Equatorial Guinea.
The majority of people in the capital city speak Susu as their first language though Guinea as a whole has kept French as its official language. I don’t know much Susu, and my French is perhaps at a preschool level, but always up for an adventure, I bought a plane ticket.
The acrobats hadn’t been home to visit their families in two years. The show typically allows them to visit every year, but after Guinea’s Ministry of Health reported the outbreak of Ebola in 2014, they had been unable to visit the previous year.
Even before the Ebola outbreak, Guinea was home to a whole host of problems: extreme poverty (70-ish% of the population), human rights abuses, malnutrition, political unrest, lack of education, AIDS, malaria, you name it.
So, how did world-class acrobats even get from poverty-stricken West Africa to starring in some of the greatest shows in the world?
Well, for one, there’s a circus school. Once sponsored by UNICEF, the original goal of the program, like any after-school program here in the U.S., was to keep kids off the streets: get them involved, give them a sense of community, and give them something to look forward to. Dancing, drumming, and acrobatics were already part of the culture, so they decided to try to revitalize the community through teaching performance-based skills.
The school is now home to dancers, drummers, jugglers, aerial artists, tumblers, contortionists and all manner of circus-related performers. Initially, the level of chaos is entirely overwhelming, but as you start to take it all in, the skill starts to stand out. These mostly self- and peer-taught acrobats are incredible!
The school knows not everyone will become a professional acrobat, but it has, on the whole, been a success. Kids have somewhere to go, goals to work toward, and yes, many now make it to the pros.
Horse-based circus, Cavalia, employs the highest number of the Guinean acrobats, but others have performed with Montreal’s Cirque Éloize, UniverSoul Circus, and even Cirque du Soleil. One even learned the Khmer language and toured with the Cambodian circus, Phare.
The Guineans themselves are the most family-oriented, physically affectionate, welcoming people I have ever known. “Wontanara,” they teach me, a Susu word that translates roughly to, “We are one.”
An ocean now separates the acrobats on tour from their families, but there is no less love. They will answer any phone call, day or night, from their friends or relatives. They send money home every time they get paid, happily sending extra when their sister needs malaria medication or their nephew needs a new school uniform. Many now send additional funds directly to the circus school for new equipment and upkeep.
The pros are home-town celebrities, and the circus school is extra-packed on the days they volunteer to run workshops, teaching the young, eager acrobats new tricks and encouraging them to work hard.
The third “generation” of Conakry acrobats arrives in Montreal this week.
“Il fait trop froide.” It is so cold, was the main sentiment expressed by Mamadama Soumah when I asked her about Montreal. Mamadama is an incredible dancer and contortionist and is only the second female acrobat to make it out of Conakry. Her twin sister, Mahawa, will join her in the coming weeks.
“Do you like Montreal though?” Oui.
My first African dance class with Mamadama and Mahawa:
As the school produces more and more success stories, it is giving hope to the community and putting Guinea back on the map: this time, for something other than Ebola.
For more wanderings and ponderings from Lady Hobo, go to www.LadyHobo.com