Where Laughter is the Order of the Day

By Jessica Barry, Freelance journalist

The Children's Culture House, situated in a quiet residential neighbourhood of the Afghan capital Kabul, is like nowhere else in that teeming, dusty, struggling city. From the moment the door opens each morning, youngsters can be seen going in and out -- some to practice circus routines, others to learn theatre skills or to take English lessons, yet more simply to meet friends and play.

Around a third of the 150 or so kids who go there regularly are members of a troupe known as the Mobile Mini Circus for Children (MMCC) which, over the past two years, has performed for more than 40.000 children at schools and children institutions in Kabul. And their masters, a group of adult artists who perform all over Afghanistan bringing delight and entertainment so far to more 400,000 youngsters. The performers are trained in juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking, clown routines and much, much more. Companion theatre pieces focus mainly on health issues, peace education and landmine awareness, using scenarios and characters drawn from the children's own imaginations.

That the MMCC is a wonderland for kids is beyond doubt. But it is also helping them develop skills to cope with the fast changing, and much harsher, world out on the streets.

The Culture House is an extraordinary place -- part family, part training centre for the performing arts, and part school. Underpinning the whole enterprise is the notion that laughter and play are valuable therapies. At the same time, gaining the discipline required to learn to juggle, or to balance on stilts, or to ride a unicycle, and acquiring the self-confidence needed to create, rehearse and perform plays as part of a team, are qualities that will stand the children in good stead for the rest of their lives.

"The circus is not the whole, or only focus of our work," explains
41-year-old Berit Mühlhausen from Denmark, who runs MMCC with its founder David Mason. "It is rather the medium through which we hope to equip the children mentally to cope with the many new challenges they are facing in Afghanistan today."

The first thing that strikes you when you visit the Culture house is the level of the children's enthusiasm, for the place is bubbling with energy and laughter. .

The 11 teachers, of whom four are women, are both friends and mentors to the kids, teaching them singing, music, miniature painting, theatre techniques and improvisation, languages, math, carpentry and tailoring as well as performance skills. Lessons are segregated in keeping with Afghanistan's strict cultural norms.

"It's boring to stay at home," comments 15-year-old Zubai, whose family returned to Kabul from Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban. "It's much more fun to come here. My parents came once to see what we do, and they liked it too."

Everywhere you look in Kabul these days you can see signs of change -- glass fronted shopping malls, new hotels, and enormous private houses are mushrooming all over the Afghan capital. So, too, are thousands of individual businesses, from artisans' workshops to restaurants to Internet cafes.

But if these are the tangible, outward signs of Afghanistan's much-hailed renaissance, they show only one side of the coin. Take a glimpse behind the shop fronts, or into the ruins of the houses along the city's former front lines where fighting was intense during the civil war in the early nineties, and you will see the other face of Kabul. People here have no illusions. They know that the nearest they are likely to get to the shopping malls, or the palatial villas, is when their children beg outside or scour the nearby trash heaps for saleable items that they quickly stuff into dirty white sacks slung over their shoulders.

It is for the kids of the poor, as much as for anyone else, that the Mini Mobile Children's Circus was created, shortly after the ouster of the fundamentalist Taliban.

"Our aim is for the children to have fun," David Mason explains. "But also to learn how to share the benefit that play can bring with others."

One idea currently being discussed is to form a team of circus
artists who could respond immediately when disasters, such as the recent Indian Ocean tsunami, happen.

"We feel that these Afghans, with so much personal experience of war and hardship, could be the best placed to help youngsters in other countries during moments of crisis," explains Berit.

"It would be a kind of circus 'ambulance', "David adds, "partly to
provide fun and therapy for children in distress, and partly to train them to become performers themselves, so that they could help and entertain others once the 'ambulance' team leaves."

Later this summer, a dozen children from the Culture house will travel to Denmark to take part in the Aarhus Cultural Festival. This year's theme will be 'The Fairy Tale of my Life -- The Magic of Hans Christian Andersen's World and Beyond', celebrating the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. The team will also visit Germany to perform at a number of places among them the World Play Festival, in Hamburg. That the MMCC has been invited to take part is a triumph, and recognition of its value in helping children to overcome the
trauma of war through laughter and play.

For the young performers, whose usual haunts are the dusty streets and ruined buildings of the Afghan capital, it will be a fairy tale beyond their wildest dreams.