Making a difference
Meet two women running a circus of hope in Kathmandu, Nepal.
A group of Nepalese youths who were stolen from their homes and put through terrifying ordeals in ‘circus-prisons’ have learnt, since their rescue, to use their artistic skills to become stars of the global circus world. Anthea Ayache meets the founders of Circus Kathmandu
The lights shone brightly on to the sawdust circus floor, preventing Bina* from seeing the audience. Gingerly, she stepped out in her shabby pink, sequined leotard, a far cry from the “new clothes of the stars” she had been promised when lured away from her home in Nepal across the border into India. In a foreign land, far from anyone she knew or loved and harshly beaten into learning dangerous and difficult circus tricks, Bina felt her body tremble uncontrollably under the unforgiving glare of her circus master.
Just 13 years old, Bina felt an overwhelming urge to cry, but she knew tears would be in vain and ultimately would only lead to more physical pain from her captors. Instead, she shut her eyes, inhaled to calm her nerves and elegantly began the one-hour daring performance she had been rehearsing from dusk to dawn for months. Seeing the families in the audience, she pushed aside thoughts of her own parents and her feelings of abandonment and confusion, and focused all her efforts on being the child entertainer she had been forced to become.
Bina’s story is one that resonates for hundreds of Nepalese children trafficked every year over the border and enslaved in Indian circuses. Preyed upon by traffickers in poor rural villages, children as young as five are sold by parents who believe they are offering their children a better life.
“The whole issue of families selling their children is a very complicated one,” says Sky Neal, cofounder of Circus Kathmandu (CK), Nepal’s first and only contemporary circus company comprising young people who have been rescued from human trafficking and other vulnerable situations. “It’s also a very misunderstood one.
“I have met quite a few families and often they are uneducated and poor, and the traffickers are very often tied in through family links, caste or ethnicity. They prey on these very vulnerable families and give the young people ideas that they are going off to a much better life where they are going to get an education, new clothes and huge opportunities. So, often when these families sell their children they genuinely believe they are giving them a better life.”
But once they are taken far away from their families, the children are often beaten, abused and held captive in some of India’s 100 or more circuses, of which only 12 are registered with the Indian Circus Federation. With no chance of escape they are forced to learn a multitude of tricks, including Starkiss – a cruel performance where the entertainer is lifted up in the air by a rope to which they are attached by their teeth.
Asked why Indian circuses prefer Nepalese girls, Childline India’s Komal Ganotra told Humangoods.net, a website that discusses trafficking issues, “Some circus owners have said… that genetically the Nepalese have a very flexible body to perform, so they prefer those children… [and] the girls from Nepal are considered to be more exotic.”
And they are easy prey in impoverished rural communities where awareness-raising messages have not yet filtered in. Here, children are enticed with enchanting tales of a glamorous new life and are sold for as little as Nepalese Rs1,000 (Dh38), the families rarely receiving the money.
“They’re told they will be dressing like movie stars,” says Robyn Simpson, who co-founded CK with Sky, “and they will see tall buildings and cities and that they will lead exciting international lives. When they were trafficked those claims were all lies but through Circus Kathmandu, those dreams are finally coming true.”
Circus Kathmandu was formed in 2011 in Nepal with the support of FSI. A UKbased charity with offices in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers, FSI combats human trafficking and bonded labour in Nepal and last year won the End Human Trafficking Now Award at theWorld Economic Forum in Davos. On hearing about the refuge FSI was offering to rescued returnees from Indian circuses, Sky, a producer and director within both film arts and circus for internationally renowned names such as Al Jazeera International and BBC, decided to voluntarily lend her skills to the
In areas of extreme poverty in Nepal, children are sold for as little as Rs1,000 (Dh38)
Kathmandu Refuge, a home in Nepal’s capital that cares for displaced children.
Helping the children, teenagers and young adults to use skills that had been acquired through abuse in hostile environments was never going to be an easy feat. But with the right approach, the right support network and the right teaching methods to enable the use of skills as a psychological healing tool, Sky set forth with the task.
“It was three-and-a-half years ago when I tentatively went to volunteer with the refuge,” she says, “and that’s where a lot of the circus returnees [the term used for children who have been trafficked and returned back to their homeland and/or families] were. I gently started introducing games and circus-related activities to both – those who were circus refugees and those who weren’t.”
Sky was able to convince some of the more reluctant kids to join in and seeing their potential and skills, decided to utilise it to help them. She was joined a few months later by Robyn, also an internationally acclaimed aerial, dance and circus choreographer and performer specialising in high-quality large-
scale productions, including this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics and London’s 2012 Olympics. With their skill set and the growing professionalism of the troupe, the pair slowly began to set up a full-time social circus course for the children of the refuge.
Says Sky, “Over the course of a few weeks we ran a social circus project for 25 kids, which was very much based on the therapeutic use of theatre and circus. It was a very gentle process and we used a lot of trust games where the performers would have to rely on one another to achieve their acts. We also had lots of fun and silly activities that allowed them as children to use their own creativity within performing arts, something they had never done in their previous experiences.”
Having been held captive and forced to learn rote routines under the threat of injury – in some cases a child would be required to stitch up their own wounds, sustained when falling off bikes or from a height for instance – many of the children had scant idea of how to use their imagination within performing arts.
“They had previously been instructed to perform so it was something they just carried out mechanically,” explains Robyn. “When we first started working with them it was a little like working with robots rather than the energetic, wonderful, enthusiastic young people that they are today. The real challenge at that time was to give them enough confidence and to make them feel safe enough to explore and to carry out an idea without being instructed on what to do and how to do it.
“There were a multitude of challenges,” says Robyn. “Getting them to work as a team was one. They were 25 individuals who looked after themselves so we trained them to work together through games like lifting each other up, sharing circus materials and props and suddenly putting them in positions where they had to rely on each other and build trust. That played a really substantial role because without realising, they were letting each other in.”
The motivation for this course was to allow the children to use skills acquired negatively and translate them into something positive, and their confidence and talents grew. Sky and Robyn then asked them if they would consider a live performance. Surprisingly many came forward, proud of their newfound self-assurance, and after an outstanding first performance in Kathmandu, which garnered a standing ovation, it began to dawn on the pair that perhaps there was more they could offer these damaged, displaced children.
“It really was a great month for breaking barriers with 25 young people,” says Sky. “And from that point it occurred to us that this could become something else. We saw the impact that it had, particularly on those young adults who had been trafficked in circuses; they were confident and positively glowing at the end of the show and you could see the transformation from thinking ‘I am someone who has been trafficked and stigmatised’ to someone who thinks ‘I have amazing skills that are world recognised’.”
Circus in Nepal remains largely an antiquated industry that is shunned and misunderstood by the general public. Many Nepalese have little idea of the industry’s transformation from Big Top troupes of the 1980s to a contemporary form of art recognised and respected the world over.
Compared with traditional circuses with heavy reliance on clowns, trained animals, acrobats and stunt artists, contemporary circuses focuses on the overall aesthetic detail alongside character and story development – a very new concept to the trafficked young adults in Kathmandu and Nepalese audiences.
“I think there was a very significant turning point when they were introduced to someone who was a circus professional from theWest,” says Sky. “It was a turning point especially for the girls who had really only seen it as a lonely, stigmatised profession. When I showed them videos and explained that actually there was this incredible worldwide industry and they began to realise that they possessed skills that are recognised in the rest of the world, there was a significant change in their perception.”
With the success of the one-off performance in Kathmandu, the two women decided to offer performers from the first show a chance to take up circus as a vocational training project. It was from this point that Robyn and Sky began a journey that today is Circus Kathmandu. With 13 youths officially on board, the pair set about planning and delivering
a programme to train the children to creatively perform mythical Nepalese stories through a fusion of circus, theatre and dance.
Most of the kids, because they had missed out on school and lacked any vocational training, had very few options for what they could do, says Robyn. “Further education and work opportunities were very limited for them. It meant they were uniquely vulnerable to being trafficked again or falling into bonded labour.”
Often the children were either reluctant to return home to parents who sent them away initially for meagre sums of money, or were no longer welcome in their homes and villages due to the stigma of having been trafficked.
Even for those who do return home, having missed years of education while in captivity, the chances of returning to school are slim, and bonded labour in foreign countries is often an only option.
“We knew they had the potential to become international performers and we recognised they had the skills to help set up the industry in Nepal and tap into potential European markets. We wanted to offer them a package that could determine their future and their jobs under their own terms,” says Sky.
Over the next three years Sky and Robyn made CK a professional circus company with the help of volunteer trainers on the ground in Nepal. Working closely with the small group, the pair oversaw the technical, creative and education development, strategic planning and ensured that the shows were consistently of high quality.
The pair kept their jobs in the UK in order to continue funding and fundraising for the projects and travelled regularly between the two countries, leaving the newfound troupe in the capable hands of refuge staff and trained circus professionals from Kathmandu.
“What we started off with in Nepal was an environment that didn’t recognise circus as a positive industry,” explains Sky. “So now it’s really exciting that we’re beginning to see that happen; the corporate industry is really beginning to pay attention to CK and we have events coming up like Nepal FashionWeek and performances for events runs by multinational organisations.”
Says Robyn: “We started off in an environment where the kids were embarrassed to say they were involved in circus. At the end of last year we performed at a large conference attended by some of the world’s richest entrepreneurs and the former Prime Minister of Nepal. Suddenly these 13 kids who had been so scared of talking about their circus background were proud to be performing at this incredibly high profile event and a month later they performed on national TV. ”
Early this year, CK made the transition to international performances and held two outstanding shows at the Dubai British School in the Springs Community, performances that were sponsored by UK charity Freedom Matters, and that were able to raise Dh25,000 towards preventing more children from falling into the hands of traffickers in Nepal.
“The reception from the Dubai audience had such an impact on their confidence,” says Sky. “They felt the impression they made. It was very obviously a significant milestone and since then they are all posting on Facebook about their profession and are proud of what they’re doing.”
Sky and Robyn are currently investigating the possibility of holding more dazzling spectacles at the International Circus Festival in Norway this summer. They’ve had an invitation to perform in the Theatre and Circus areas at the Glastonbury Festival in the UK next week. They’re also looking to hold more performances in Dubai, the place that marked their first foray into the international circus circuit.
Meanwhile, the 13 members are focusing on stamping out the trafficking issue in Nepal. With outreach programmes extending to rural villages across the country, the youths are today warning others of the perils of human trafficking.
Says Sky, “They take powerful awareness raising campaigns to villages and deliver a show and social circus-based workshops where they work with young people and families to raise awareness and empower people to know where to go for help and where to report trafficking activities.”
Says Robyn, “It also really helps them deal with their own trauma because as kids in Nepal they have very little access to therapy so being able to make sense or have a purpose for their own past in helping prevent others undergo what they did is a really positive way of managing their histories.
“Now they are standing tall, they are vibrant, engaged young people who have self-confidence, live on their own and send money back to their families. Its great to see them doing what any young person around the world should be doing.”
As Sky says, “They are living the dream now that they were unfairly sold when they were trafficked.” And who more deserving than these talented young stars such as Bina who today is living with her family, standing on her own two feet and earning money to support herself and her siblings. Proof that with the right support, dedication and care, anyone can become an international star no matter their background.”
‘We started off in an environment where the kids were embarrassed to say they were in circus’
CK trains circus returnees professionally
Getting the kids to work as a team was a major challenge
CK helps children to use the skills they have learnt in a positive way
CK has staged performances in Nepal and Dubai