Putting Laughter, Learning, and Creativity Back Into Afghan Children's Lives

by Vanni Cappelli

On a bright Kabul autumn morning a play is being performed for a large crowd of rapt and delighted children in an outdoor setting in the south of the city, loomed over by the war-devastated ruins of the once grand royal Chilsitoon palace, high up on a nearby hill. A dirty man is engaged in a struggle wih a huge, equally dirty felt hand which is, well, manhandling him. The boys and girls laugh with wild abandon at the antics of the two, which culminate in the man clutching his stomach and moaning about severe intestinal pain. For all of the levity of these proceedings intended to capture the children's imaginations, the subject of the play is no laughing matter, as they will soon learn. Suddenly another man, well-groomed and well spoken, comes forward to explain the vital importance of personal hygiene to the kids with the aid of a series of pictures painted on cloth. The procedures for washing and the price that is to be paid for not doing so are calmly explained to the now hushed audience, which has the painful fate of the dirty man vividly in their minds. Finally, a spanking white hand holding flowers emerges, accompanied by the now clean man wearing a white T-shirt, in the bloom of health and happiness. A group of people close with a tuneful song
extolling the benefits of washing, framed by the bouncing hand and the equally
bouncing children.
The Mobile Mini Circus For Children has imparted another valuable life lesson to the children of Afghanistan in a way that they are not likely to forget, as it has been conveyed with laughter, imagination, and love.
Active since the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban and the renewed international engagement in Afghanistan, MMCC strives to entertain
and educate traumatized children through performances, workshops and training, providing vital psycho-social support to the ultimate building blocks of the country's future -- its kids.
Explaining the troupe's self-help philosophy, founder David Mason emphasizes a truth which should be taken to heart by all those dealing with Afghanistan's limited physical and ample human resources.
"We don't 'do' anything for them", he says. "They do it all. We
Simply help them to do it by themselves."
A self-described "child protection project" consisting of Mason and
eight Afghan artists recruited from the country's different ethnicities, MMCC integrates health and peace education, landmine awareness, and creative self-help into their adult performances, workshops, and children's performances. Always mindful of the vast potential of this great nation, the players seek to awaken the Afghan spirit rather than imposing anything from outside.
"We don't bring anything culturally", Mason affirms. "We discover and develop things from here. We do things on a level approachable for everyone in Afghanistan."
Although its delighful adult performances are MMCC's staple and the aspect of their activity that they can be called upon to perform at any time, its true engagement with the hearts, minds, and futures of Afganistan's kids lies in the workshops and children's performances with which it taps into the vital energy that is the nation's best hope.
Spread out over a five day period which culminates in the kids actually practicing what they have learned, the workshops--child performance program is at once focusing, fruitful, and fun. The eight Afghan artists each take a group of 10-40 children and instruct them in singing, painting, acting, dancing, acrobatics, papier mache, sewing costumes for puppets and acting with puppets. But the emphasis is always on acquiring skills -- the ultimate creativity is left to the kids themselves.
"For the puppet show we don't tell them what the story should be", Mason explains. "We let them make it up themselves. The same is true for acting. We show them how to make an angry face, employ facial muscles, etc. We don't dictate the narrative. We just show them how to tell it."
In a refreshing contrast to the focus of so many NGO's on Kabul,
MMCC's mandate is to all of Afghanistan. The children of Ghazni, Gardez,
Mazar-i-Sharif, Pul-i-Khomri, Salang, the Panjshir, and Shebargan have
all benefited from its peripatetic teaching, a gift which Mason eagerly wishes to extend to ever more remote corners of the country, when the necessary funding materializes.
"We have rented buses until now when we have gone out to the provinces", he explains. "But our great dream is to have a bus to call our own, a permanent means to reach Afghan children whenever the opportunity arises -- a real mobile circus."
That Afghan children have their own stories to tell and that bringing out even the most painful stories can be both therapeutic and liberating is illustrated by the anecdote Mason tells of a child he encountered just north of Kabul, who teachers had told him always fought with other kids and cried.
"For three hours we managed to focus him on painting", he relates. Instead of fighting, he was sighing. I asked him what he was painting. On the sheet of paper before him were coffins and dead bodies. He had seen it all, even losing family members. In painting there is an element of therapy, as in the puppet show and other activities. They can say things through art that they couldn't say in the real world. I later heard from the teachers that he was much better behaved after that."
MMCC's potent value to the Afghan reconstruction effort has been highly praised by the gamut of international NGO's active in Afghanistan, as well as by native aid organizations. Its role in the necessary reciprocal interaction of the two worlds is perhaps best highlighted by the statement of Olivier Tor of the Swiss NGO Terres des Hommes, which works closely with the ASCHIANA Children's Center in Kabul : "MMCC's dynamism and creativity have undeniably greatly motivated the staff of ASCHIANA and the children."
Perhaps the ultimate testimony to MMCC's continuing mission to the children of Afghanistan and the place it has won in the hearts of adults and children alike is the comment made by an elderly gentleman after David Mason asked him whether a visiting troupe of French clowns had performed better than MMCC.
"Yes", the man replied. "But you are ours."