World Humanitarian Day 2020: Clowns Without Borders bringing laughter to children displaced by Boko Haram

Guest Writer: Kirsty Cameron, International Rescue Committee

“I can’t start where I’m not. I have to start where I am.”

 I love those words. I passed them onto a friend the other day, who was really struggling with her anxiety. I was trying to help her accept how she was feeling instead of getting anxious about being anxious and beating herself up about it. I had personally found those words to be useful, and I thought I’d heard them from a psychologist, or a yoga teacher, or somebody else sensible who was known for their wisdom. But it turns out that they were actually said to me by a clown. And clowns, I had always assumed, were the least sensible people of all. 

But I’ve changed my mind. 

Team of Clowns without borders from Sweden. Photograph: Grace Ekpu

I met this particular one in Maiduguri. She was there with three other clowns and they were all part of an organization called Clowns Without Borders who had come to do some performances for the children living in the camps there. Some of the children were living there because they’d been left with no other choice but to run from their homes because of Boko Haram. Others had been born there because their families had fled – and they’d never lived anywhere else. 

Although the main things you might imagine that people need when they’ve had to flee for their lives is shelter, food and water, there are other NGOs that provide those things, so Clowns Without Borders tries to help people feel happiness – which might be something that they don’t feel very often anymore. 

So the clowns I met had come to bring the children some light relief and I was really lucky, because I got the chance not only to watch some of their performances, but also to interview them to find out why they do what they do. And I thought what they said was fascinating so I wanted to share some more of their wisdom in case, like me, you also didn’t know that clowns knew interesting stuff ☺.

Clowns without borders visit conflict zones to bring smiles on faces of children. Photographs: Grace Ekpu

 The first thing I learnt was that play can help you heal inside and laughter can help build resilience. It can help people forget where they are and what they’ve been through for a moment, which is important, because, they said, it’s one thing to survive, but it’s quite another to actually live and to really enjoy your life. 

So they do their job because they want to remind people that there are more emotions that exist apart from the ones they live with every day, like stress, horror and fear. They want to help remind people that there are happy feelings too. When a child sees its caregiver laugh, it might be something they’ve never witnessed before, which will fill them with wonder and amazement. And one of the most beautiful things the clowns said was that when parents see their children laugh, when all they’ve seen is horror on their faces for such a long time, it gives them hope. 

Displaced children in one of the IDP camps enjoying a session from Clowns without borders. Photograph: Grace Ekpu

So the second thing I learnt was the reason why hope is important, which is that if you’re stuck thinking that everything is going to be awful forever, then you don’t have any. But if you suddenly get exposed to a new situation where an adult gets its head stuck in a bucket and starts waving its legs around in the air– when you always thought before that grown-ups knew how to do everything and had all the answers in life – then your brain has to recalculate because it realizes that actually, everything isn’t as you had
always thought it was. So your brain starts to open up to new thoughts. And new passages start to open up in your mind. And it’s this process – thinking new thoughts – that is connected to hope. 

And playfulness and creativity are important in this because they help people think these new thoughts and see new possibilities. Hope is the ability to create an idea in your mind and imagine a solution. To get to a point where although perhaps you can’t yet see the solution itself, suddenly you have the ability to see that there might be a solution and you won’t be stuck forever. So, according to the clowns,
imagination – being able to think up a solution – is one of the strongest powers we have.

Clowns performing to displaced children in Borno. Photographs: Grace Ekpu

 I know not everyone is all that keen on clowns, but I hope that if you’re interested in the ideas they shared with me you’ll go to the Clowns Without Borders website. There’s loads more info on there and all sorts of research is being carried out – there’s even a field known as “laughter theory” where scientists are looking at what happens in our brains when we experience emotions like surprise and wonder. 

The reason the clown said she couldn’t start where she isn’t and has to start where she is, was because she said that sometimes you might not be having a good day and it’s quite difficult to do a performance – but you still have to do it. So a way to get through it is to work with what you’ve got – whether it’s that you’re feeling shy, or grumpy or tired – and to work it into your performance. I really like that as a
coping mechanism for what life throws at you, and – not that I had anything against them to begin with – it’s made me see clowns in a different light.

All Photographs by Grace Ekpu

Kirsty Cameron is IRC’s Regional Media Manager for the Middle East and North Africa

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