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Clowning for Kids, Sans Borders

ED GORDON, host:

We've heard a lot in recent months about the misery political conflicts have brought to villages in places like Sudan and Lebanon. The efforts made to help heal the psychic wounds caused by such trauma are less well publicized. One such effort is spearheaded by a man named Jamie McLaren Lachman.

He directs an organization called Clowns Without Borders that helps children around the world laugh in the face of daunting obstacles. Lachman spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

TONY COX reporting:

Give me your African name again?

Mr. JAMIE MCLAREN LACHMAN (Director, Clowns Without Borders): It's a Zulu name. It's Jabulani(ph).

COX: Jabulani. What does it mean?

Mr. LACHMAN: It means one who brings happiness. And I was actually given the name at birth.

COX: Really?

Mr. LACHMAN: Yeah.

COX: So project Njabulo, which is your project, brings happiness and joy, or attempts to at least, to youngsters across Africa who are suffering in many ways.

Mr. LACHMAN: In very many ways. A focus is HIV/AIDS relief, but really the world encompasses poverty, violence, child abuse, malnutrition, you name it. We're using the laughter and play for emotional relief.

COX: Give us an example of how you go into a village or to an area and you bring this laughter. How does it work and how are you received?

Mr. LACHMAN: Well, usually we're working with local grassroots, community-based organizations. And so we will coordinate before we even arrive in southern Africa with these organizations. And then when we go into a village or a community, if we're doing a performance, normally that will be focused on a primary school in the area where the children are located in concentrated numbers.

We set up the audience, which sometimes takes about an hour because a lot of these areas they're not really used to having someone come to do a performance for them. So we'll set them up with chairs and make a big round circle, kind of like an impromptu circus ring. And then we parade in and we do our show, which is usually about an hour long. And afterwards we spend about two hours just playing with the kids, singing songs, doing a lot of call and response. A lot of different activities, more informal interaction.

COX: So this is big red noses, big shoes, the whole thing that we normally associate with going to a circus and clowns?

Mr. LACHMAN: Not really. People think of clowns in the United States as these huge makeup, big colorful wig.

COX: Right, right.

Mr. LACHMAN: We're more human. So we will use a little bit of makeup, sometimes around the mouth of below the eyes and that's for a large audience. And so they can see our features. But really if you look at that makeup really close up, the traditional clown makeup, it's scary. And we don't want to scare the kids. I mean the (unintelligible) really instead of coming out of the big funny costumes or the makeup that comes from the heart.

COX: In what ways do you find that the youngsters who come to your performances - let's talk about the performances separate from the training that you do there - how do they respond to humor? And how is it different than how an American audience or a European audience of kids might respond, kids who are not involved in the level of, you know, atrocities that these kids have to live through?

Mr. LACHMAN: Well, these audiences - actually, they respond with a lot of enthusiasm to the work. We work in a very non verbal way, very much like what you'd imagine the silent movies are like or non verbal cartoons. When we do our performances, we do address issues that these children have experienced.

For instance, we have a routine where we have a balloon that pops and it becomes a funeral for the balloon. And it's a death. We march around; we say prayers over it. And so we're juxtaposing something that is common in their daily life with something that is also humorous. And out of the balloon, when we put it into a hat, it magically comes out as a red nose, which then goes onto a volunteer's face.

COX: How did Project Njabulo begin?

Mr. LACHMAN: About five years ago, my partner at the time and I were traveling throughout southern Africa. And we were just tourists. And at the end of the trip, we were in Cape Town and we were looking at each other and we both really spiritually wasted. We had seen a lot of poverty and a lot of struggling just to survive.

We asked ourselves what we can we do next time - if we ever go back here, what would we do? And we're both, we're clowns. And so we were like, well, let's use laughter as a way to address some of the needs of people that we were encountering.

And then the next year, we started off. We did a short expedition of like three and a half weeks, and from there it's grown to four months and this year we'll be six months in the field.

COX: And it's not just performing. Talk about the other element of what you do.

Mr. LACHMAN: Well, Project Njabulo has four different focuses. We do performances for a wide audience, and then we do a more focused approach with workshops, which are really working on effected children. We will spend time in the classroom with them using theatre arts education as a means to address some of these needs.

So we're looking at like self-confidence, creativity, cultivating a sense of play and giving them really tools to be children again. Because a lot of times the trauma takes them out of that life of a child, the life of imagination and hope.

COX: Are there areas where you can't go or don't or won't go?

Mr. LACHMAN: Well, with Clowns Without Borders, we have to be careful cause we don't want to go to places that the situation hasn't been stabilized. For instance, in Sudan, we had just recently did an expedition to Khartoum, but we didn't go to the southern part in Darfur because the situation is really still risky.

While we believe that our service is very important for the sustenance of life, we have to make sure that the primary needs are met of health and shelter and food before you bring in the laughter and the emotional relief.

COX: I must ask you this because I'm curious about it. I know that you're South African and you're a white African. Has that been a factor at all in terms of how you have been received by these black African children on the continent?

Mr. LACHMAN: Sometimes it is. I mean, there's really a bridging of a racial divide. In South Africa, it's still very much divided. I think sometimes it's a positive, has a positive effect. Because a lot of the children, their only relationship with white people is in a very hierarchal manner. And when we come in with the clown, the clown really plays with the kids on their level, whether it's with outrageous physical humor or a tender time when you're just singing a song or just doing a small little dance.

We've also collaborated with Swazi and South African performers. And that's a great opportunity then for cross-cultural exchange and growth for both of us. So it's kind of like a two-way street.

COX: You get a good feeling from this, don't you?

Mr. LACHMAN: Yeah.

COX: I could tell.

Mr. LACHMAN: It's very magical.

COX: Thank you so much for coming in. Jamie McLaren Lachman aka Jabulani…

Mr. LACHMAN: That's right.

COX: …directs Clowns Without Borders Project Njabulo. Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. LACHMAN: It's my pleasure. Thanks, Tony.

GORDON: That was NPR's Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to give us a comment, call 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.