Mobile Mini Circus for Children (MMCC), Kabul

By Jeff Rosenberg, April 14, 2005

When Mads Kjaer granted me my Christmas wish last year of distributing some funds to a worthy endeavor here in Kabul (I hate to use the word “charity”), I had no trouble making up my mind, it was easy, a “no-brainer,” in American slang. It was now time for Kjaer Group to give something back after successfully operating in the Afghan market for almost two and half years. Finally, I could make good on my promise to MMCC’s co-director, David Mason, to support his circus once we started making a profit here in Kabul. For those who would like to feel warm and fuzzy right away, skip right away to their impressive web site at:

I first met David when we used to see each other at the Mustafa Hotel, where he lived and where we had our Lilliputian-sized cubicle of an office back in 2003. When clients came by to visit, it was sometimes impossible for both Anders Blak and me to be in the office at the same time! We could not complain too much, though, since David’s office at the time was the hotel’s ground floor internet café. Anders and I often went down there to inquire (scream would be more appropriate) why the internet was down. After eventually calming down, we would catch up on the local gossip over coffee and invariably see David tapping away at his laptop or showing people digital photos of a recent performance of his circus.

Who was this soft spoken, exotic character, who spoke both Danish and Dari (a spy perhaps?). “What brings you to Kabul?” was my typical opening line, and I finally found out that, MMCC was not some secret agency, but rather the Mobile Mini Circus for Children.

As a trained dancer, David could not be more qualified to get his ambitious, “artsy” project off the ground. Being a fluent Dari speaker, he was able to fully integrate and interpret Afghan culture in ways most Westerners rarely get to do. MMCC’s programming was truly “from the ground up” and incredibly culturally sensitive and specific. For example, what you and I might assume (be careful here!) to be universally “funny”, like a clown with a red nose, I was informed, just does not work here in traditional Afghan culture.

MMCC had a philosophy of adapting their crafts to what was available throughout the country. If supplies were not readily available locally and inexpensively, an idea was not even considered. The supplies were often just simple scrap pieces of paper, crayons, old ribbons, a used newspaper, anything a child could turn into a hat, fake sword, you name it! Unlike so many of the better funded clients, this NGO did not have a room full of imported furniture and rows of incredibly modern computer equipment. The only extravagance they wished for (and still do) is a “fun-mobile” to transport the performers and supplies throughout the country.

Those in the “aid and development market” who work in the regions love to boast just how comfortable easy we have it living in the capital city (I admit it, guilty as charged, hhmmmm… did I want Chinese or Turkish food tonight). Working outside Kabul is an entirely different scenario with horrendous roads, a limited (if any) supply of power or water, and, need I forget to mention, an extremely dangerous security situation. Well, when David would nonchalantly mention the communities they had visited and performed in, my jaw would just drop in awe. There were plenty of us who thought this soft-spoken, modest Dane was either mentally imbalanced or incredibly brave, or both. So many expat diplomats and UN workers are forbidden to even travel to certain neighborhoods of Kabul without approval. Here was a brave bunch of performers, who were determined to bring some fun and joy to all Afghans children, even if most of us could not even pronounce some of these more exotic locations.

The energy, vision and commitment David had regarding his circus plans started off quite modestly, and without (thankfully) the usual business plan and PowerPoint presentation. He and his assembled gang would travel on their own expense to hospitals and schools teaching kids how to juggle, do basic acrobatics and basically brighten their days with fun, creative activities and skits.

The secret of MMCC’s success was that it involved everyone—pupils, teachers, nurses, whoever was around would get involved. When visiting regional schools, they would often set up shop for three days, getting to know the children better, tapping into their creativity and unlocking loads of energy. As the same time, they would run workshops for teachers to transfer their skills and on-the-job knowledge. The final day would typically culminate into a full- blown performance for visitors and parents to enjoy. MMCC’s ex-pat and Afghan staff brought boundless optimism, playful energy and joy to what most outsiders view as dismally dark and dreary institutions. They also respected their audience’s intelligence and cultural norms, while never sinking into a cynical whine as to why they were not receiving all this donor money that was pouring into Kabul.

Word-of-mouth was gradually spreading in Kabul about this incredible (some would say, “mad”) group of circus performers around town. Slowly, small donations (just don’t expect a formal receipt) would trickle in, but getting properly registered would take almost a year of hard work and perseverance. All the established donors loved the concept of the Circus and praised it, but no one wanted to be the first to fund what they thought was still a risky endeavor. Luckily, Danida came through with some start-up funding and others eventually came on board. David’s co-director, Berit Muhlhausen, a fellow Dane, has contributed greatly to strengthening this NGO. I cannot think of a more deserving Kabul NGO that is truly “making a difference” in Afghan children’s lives.

What so impressed me about the MMCC was that it just went ahead with its limited resources and amazing energy, and tackled its goals head on, brightening up the lives of children -- who so often suffer the most during years of war and conflict. It is easy to forget just how oppressive the Taliban years were for children in the “fun department;” with cinemas, kite flying (an Afghan passion) and music banned. So many kids were robbed of a safe, “normal” childhood with laughter and boundless games. Playing outside was not a safe viable option for so many years for most of these children. Even now, seeing small children in Kabul having endless fun flying a home-made kite from a discarded plastic bag is humbling. Having a safe place for these kids to kick around a ball or grab a nutritious, free snack is greatly appreciated in this poor country.

Well, let’s move fast forward to MMCC’s incredible “Culture House” in Karte Se, one of Kabul’s outlying neighborhoods. Ironically, it is near the IM Jensen guest house where several Kjaer & Kjaer employees used to live. The first thing a visitor notices behind the very non-descript yellow walls is the explosion of colors and brightly decorated surroundings. There are happy children everywhere playing, sitting in groups, taking sewing or carpentry classes inside their center, and so much more. You cannot but be moved when an adorable, pint- sized child looks up with those beaming eyes, sticks out his hand for you to shake and yells: “how are youuuuu?” Within a few seconds, all his friends race over to welcome the visitor with similar greetings. This mini-parade of children eventually escorts you to the main house and offices.

This cultural center and the new addition they are building are quite modest, but very appropriately so here in Afghanistan. It is hard to describe, but when you walk around the spacious front yard, you feel that you are in a genuine, Afghan environment; not something artificially imported from the West and inappropriately plopped down in someone else’s culture. One also never gets the feeling that these children are not incredibly proud of their center. I was told by David that after they repainted many of the classrooms in bright colors, they noticed the children began taking on a special pride in keeping it extra clean and orderly.

MMCC’s Culture House really fills a necessary void here in Kabul. It is a full service community center, a place where girls learn to sew and boys take carpentry classes. Mixed classes of young boys and girls learn traditional Afghan songs and poetry. Some children excel at pottery classes, while many kids eagerly learn circus acrobatics and juggling. Right now, the center is looking for a unicycle and developing a children’s petting zoo. Not too many NGO’s could have both a mini-bus and two ponies on their “wish list”.

During Taliban times it was rare for girls to receive even the most rudimentary formal education. They were basically kept at home and out of sight. Seeing a recent performance of Afghan girls singing traditional songs was such a moving experience. What seems so normal anywhere else was shattering old taboos here today. The self-confidence and pride all these children took in their performances were truly heart warming. I am not sure the child struggling to hold a giant toothbrush bigger then himself in one skit is going to make it to Broadway any time soon, but he was certainly the real star for at least that afternoon. When the young boy dressed as a monkey occasionally fell off the human pyramid he was attempting to climb, no one in the audience seemed to mind -- these skits were all about having fun and releasing all kinds of playful, creative energy.

According to David, the MMCC has touched more than 400.000 of children in Afghanistan since it began operations in November, 2003. They get tremendous support from the Afghan Ministry of Education, which gives them the proper introductions to be welcomed warmly throughout the country. Unlike their attitude toward many international NGO’s, the Afghan government has nothing but praise for this organization.

Although quite modest and not seeking publicity, the staff of MMCC discreetly and quite effectively try to attend to the many needs of the children who visit it. During one recent visit, I was informed how a small girl will be traveling to the USA for badly-needed heart surgery. You would never know it from the laughter in the air, but these children have seen such horrors of war that it is incredible they can play and laugh like regular kids. A majority of these children are returning refugees living in abandoned buildings that are slowly being reclaimed by their original owners. As this neighborhood begins the process of reconstruction (progress?), the future livelihood and well-being of these children remain troubling.

I am quite excited that the MMCC will be traveling to Denmark and Germany this August and September, and there are plans for them to perform in Svendborg as well as at the Aarhus festival. I hope all of us will be able to see and support these children perform their traditional Afghan songs, acrobatics and funny skits. It is never too early to learn some welcoming Dari phrases. In my heart, I know this is definitely the type of project Kjaer Group (and especially Mads) is so proud to sponsor and support.