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If you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tanzania here, check out the new blog I've started on Wordpress as of November, 2017. It's called "Back to Tanzania" and you can read it here. All new adventures in Tanzania from an older, wiser, more experienced expat.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Circus Mama Afrika

I recently attended Circus Mama Afrika here in Arusha--twice.

The first time, about a month ago, I went with Shanette. We really enjoyed the show. She'd made the bus trip from Moshi in the rain. It rained so hard that morning, I didn't think I could get my car through the mud out near my house, so I'd walked partway and taken a taxi to town. When I met Shanette at a restaurant near the circus, my hiking boots were caked with three inches of sticky red clay. The circus was not a big, glitzy affair as I might have expected in America. It was better! The big top wasn't all that big, but it was waterproof, so at least we were dry.

After the show, I asked Shanette if it'd been worth the bus ride, and she said, "Oh, definitely." And then added some comments about a dearth of entertainment in Moshi. We parted in a downpour, she in a taxi to the bus station. She called me about 3 hours laters, around 9:00 pm, saying, "Barbara, I just have to vent." On the way home, she had gotten one of those developing-country-kind-of bus rides. And she was in the front seat, so she saw everything. First, just outside of Arusha, the bus driver couldn't see too well in the dark and he just drove off the road! The bus didn't tip and nobody was hurt. He drove back onto the tarmac, then lied to the passengers and said it was because someone had passed him improperly and forced him off the road. Next, the conductor passed among the passengers to collect fares. The night fare is 1000 Tshillings (about 75 cents U.S.) higher than the day fare (maybe because it's hard to stay on the road after dark). This was a surprise to some of the passengers, and they refused to pay. So the driver pulled over and threatened not to move the bus until every passenger paid. After 20 minutes, everybody but one woman had paid. The driver relented and continued to Moshi. But when he reached Moshi, rather than head to the bus station, he announced he was taking the entire busload of passengers to the police station where he would, by God, get that last fare. At this point, Shanette had had enough and demanded to be let out of the bus, and caught a taxi home. I asked her again, "Do you still think the circus was worth the bus ride?" We both just laughed and reflected on how what seems like hell at the time makes a good story later.

Last weekend, Anna's mum and aunt were finishing a visit to Tanzania and they invited me to join them at the circus. I'd enjoyed it the first time, and I wanted to spend some time with them, so I went again. Plus, the first time I went, the ringmaster announced that photography was permitted, and I hadn't brought my camera. I brought it with me the second time, so here are some pictures of this fun African show.

They opened with a big African dance number...

...with frenzied drumming.

"In Afrika," a band of about ten musicians with a male singer, backed every act. They were great! They played many African favorites, as well as a bit of American R&B and some Caribbean songs.

Jugglers next. Notice the big yellow pot behind her... spinning above her feet...

...and now flying over to the feet of the next cute girl in spandex.

Next, whirling plastic tables. (They didn't throw these back and forth.)

Then juggling each other.

Next, this contortionist scuttled around the stage on his hands like this. He seemed really crab- or insect-like.

I'm sure he was a fine performer, but he was so unnatural it just gave me the creeps. Anna was shuddering, too.

And then he stuffed himself into a little glass box.

And came back out smiling.  Eeeewww!

Gymnastics tricks balanced at the top of a tower of chairs.

Twirling multiple hula hoops.

Another splashy dance number, complete with polar fleece zebra print for the guys.

Even though I just made a snarky comment about the zebra skin, the costumes, music, and dancing throughout the show were fabulous. During most acts, I found myself dancing along to the music in my seat. Not during the contortionist act, though. That led more to hunching up my shoulders and crossing my arms.

Unicycle tricks...

...on a very tall unicycle...

...and a very short unicycle.

Between tricks, this unicyclist had us laughing just with his facial expressions, gestures, and even his posture. All of the performers, in addition to doing cool tricks, had this knack for connecting with the audience through a smile or a thumbs up. You really couldn't just sit and watch. You had to respond to the performers. Especially the ones who commanded the audience to cheer or clap, and then bullied us because we were too reserved. Must have been too many Brits in the audience, eh wot?

The audience did include a disproportionate number of expats. The ticket prices ranged from 12,000 Tshillings (about $8.00 U.S.) to 16,000 Tshillings. That's  not prohibitively expensive for middle class Tanzanians, but it's a bit expensive for many working class people here. When I attended on a Sunday afternoon with Shanette, the seats were only about half full. At the end of the show the ringmaster asked,"Did you enjoy the show?" 

Of course we all yelled out, "Yes!"

"Was it worth the money you paid?"

"Yes!" Nobody's going to say they just got ripped off, are they? Although, yes, it really was worth the price of admission.

"Then tell your friends to come see the show. We won't come back to Arusha for a long time if we can't fill the seats!"

The second time, on a Saturday afternoon, the seats were mostly full. There was a large group of school children in their school uniforms. All through its stay in Arusha, the circus has been appealing  for donations to pay for children to attend the show. Anna told me that last year, an Australian sponsor paid for every student at St. Jude's School to see the circus. That's about 1,300 students! Glad I didn't have to chaperone that, because all of the children in the audience were excited. Many ended up out of their seats and sitting on the floor in front of the first row.

During intermission, the children mobbed this clown, demanding balloon animals. Even in Africa, with all its iconic wildlife, the balloon animals all looked like dachsunds.

To warm up the crowd after intermission, the dancers invited many ring-side audience members to join them in a circle dance. Three young men asked Anna to come out and dance (because she's a pretty young blonde), but she refused (maybe because she's a reserved Brit). These Tanzanian ladies were into it, though!

 Another balancing act, this time on a board on a pile of cylinders stacked on their sides on a rickety card table.

He fell off once, and had to restack everything. Once he got balanced, he stepped through these rings...

...crossed them over his body, and stepped back out.

This dancer on tall, tall stilts roamed around the ring, danced a bit, fell down (on purpose, part of the act) and struggled back up twice. He approached the children sitting on the floor ringside, and they jumped up and ran up the bleachers to get away, then laughed at themselves and came back for high-fives. High for the kids, low for the man on stilts!

The stilt man made a final, dramatic fall and lay on the floor as if dead. Then this sort of envelope creature came out and scurried around the ring. One of the contortionists was inside and moved it around the floor very smoothly and quickly.

The envelope creature moved across the stilt man and shook its tassles and brought the stilt man back to life. He struggled back to his feet, scared the kids one more time, and made a grand exit.

Oh no! More contortionists.

Really! This is just not normal.

You guys are killing me!

And for their big finish, the vertical guy rotated his hips and bounced the horizontal guy.

The performance finished with more dancing and music, multiple bows by all the performers, and a bit more bullying the audience to cheer louder. 

I tried to find more information about Circus Mama Afrika and some of their acts on the internet, but I couldn't find much. I think it's Tanzanian, and travels around the country. Some of the music and dances struck me as being from southern Africa, and I think the stilt dancer is from west Africa, maybe Mali or Ghana. And one of the gymnastics acts was reminiscent of the Chippendale Dancers, a totally American phenomenon. Sorry, ladies, the pictures of that one were blurry. Anyway, a fun time was had by all, especially the kids. And Anna's worst fear--of being dragged into an audience-participation act because of our ringside seats--did not come to pass.

A quick update on my househunting exploits. We closed the deal on the house with the turrets. The landlord agreed to finish several things inside the house, such as installing light fixtures. I was nervous about that. We'd paid our six months' rent (it's typical here to pay six months up front). I didn't expect him to keep his promise and spend the money to fnish everything, but he did! So the house needs to be cleaned, and then we can move in. Of course, now that it's too late, I've been looking at the property and worrying about security, because it only has a block wall on one side, and the rest is only wire fence and hedges. And the landlady here finally decided to fix the water system at our current house, which might have changed my  mind about moving had it happened a week ago.


  1. I envy your experience with the Circus. I have seen many pictures from safaris (including those of my daughter - I want to be her when I grow up!) but an African Circus - never. If a musical track had been included I would have felt like I was there. Post pictures of the house when you get settled in. Happy moving.


  2. WHEEEEE a circus great fun! I always enjoy your stories. Ya know perhaps what was 'creepy' about the 1st contortionist was his furry arms and legs.

    dodie joanie

  3. I'm glad to hear househunting has had some results. I'm sure you'll enjoy the new location. Carol