In a faded hall with tattered carpets, young acrobats launch off their partners’ feet high into the air with a spin, as others perform juggling feats, somersaults or twist into contortions.
Despite meager resources, the Dire Dawa Circus in eastern Ethiopia teaches young people discipline and hard work, and has distinguished itself at prestigious international festivals.
Endale Haile, its artistic director, has 35 aspiring and established performers in his troupe. Its youngest member is just five years old, but most are in their 20s.
Among them is 18-year-old Nardos Awilitu, who spoke fondly of her many years in the circus, as she tossed half a dozen hoops back and forth with a friend.
“I started [at] the circus when I was seven years old,” she said, as a child nearby rehearsed somersaulting onto the shoulders of a friend standing atop two strong men. “First, it helps us to have a good attitude, and second, it allows us to work better at school. Generally, it helps in everything in our life.”
“We love and care for each other, and there is unity,” she said.
The circus is a lifeline for young people here. Once an economic hub and Ethiopia’s second-largest city, Dire Dawa has faded as the railroad that put it on the map fell into disrepair.
There is little to keep young people entertained and out of trouble.
“In Dire Dawa, the most popular sport is football. There are fenced football fields, but there are few recreational places. The circus is essential. It attracts many young people,” said Endale, who cofounded the troupe in 1997.
“We have helped young people not to spend their time on addictive substances. As you have seen, most people around here chew khat [a narcotic shrub] and take drugs, but we taught them disciplines with gymnastics,” he said.
Joining is free, and the circus has no trouble recruiting.
“The number of children that want to train here is more than our capacity,” Endale said.
“We go on tours overseas, and the youngsters improve their life with the money they get. When other families see this, they come to us and ask the kids to join us,” he said.
Abduldefar Rameto, who at 24 has been attending the circus since he was six, is a hand-to-hand acrobat skilled in several circus disciplines and high-level gymnastics.
“When other kids played football, I was more interested in acrobatics,” he said after dismounting from an aerial headstand position atop his partner, Ekariya.
He earns a living performing, but the road to success was long and hard.
“Discipline is the most important thing. You can be a high performer, but without discipline, it is nothing. The second thing is hard work. You have to practice for at least three years to master one performance,” he said.
Dire Dawa Circus has won awards at renowned festivals, including in China and Russia.
In 2019, a hand-to-hand double act, Abdurahim and Abele, took home seven awards — including the most prestigious gong — at the “New Generation” competition of the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival. Four years earlier, in the same discipline, Remedan and Biniyam brought home a bronze medal from the 36th Festival du Cirque de Demain in Paris.
International tours are Dire Dawa Circus’ only source of income, but success has not translated into abundant resources.
“This hall was given to us by the [city] authorities, and we also had support from them with some materials, but we don’t have a regular budget,” Endale said. “Our main problem is that we need more materials from overseas, which are expensive.”
“These were given to us by the sports commission when the circus was formed. It is damaged already, as you can see,” he said, pointing to ripped carpets and split upholstery. “We cannot afford to buy new ones.”
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