The Broader Picture: A time to laugh

THIS IS not voluntary foreign aid as we are accustomed to seeing it on news reports. This unique kind of aid worker arrives at refugee encampments or stricken regions armed not with blankets, food or tents, but with stilts, comic wigs and plastic red noses. This is because what we have here is a performer from the French charity troupe "Clowns sans Frontieres" ("Clowns without borders"), bringing his special kind of cheer to some slightly sceptical-looking children from a Guatemalan shanty-town.

The organisation was founded in 1994 by a group of comedians, dancers, clowns, musicians and acrobats. "Without discriminating about race, religion or political beliefs," reads its high-flown manifesto (translated from the French), "Clowns sans Frontieres organises professional shows for victims of war, refugees and those who are suffering, wherever such needs exist ... we believe that trying to raise morale is as important to people's wellbeing as providing material aid. Through our shows we hope to transmit a message of hope and peace, not only to the displaced but also to artists demoralised by war, in order to encourage them to rediscover their creativity."

So far, more than 100 performers have taken part in Clowns sans Frontieres projects (the group does not have a permanent troupe, but instead relies on volunteers). The excursions - of which there are about seven each year - are funded by private donations, company sponsorship and support from theatrical and humanitarian agencies. The "Clowns" are keen to emphasise that only professional performers need apply - not "guitar- graters" hankering after exotic holidays.

The photographer, Malik Nahassia, followed this troupe as they travelled through the slums of central America, but the "Clowns" have also been to Croatia, Sarajevo, Romania, Lebanon, Haiti and the Gaza Strip. It's hard to imagine them attempting to offer solace to the refugees from Kosovo but, as it turns out, a visit to Montenegro is planned for later in the year. The final word goes to Nahassia, who says that the Clowns sans Frontieres cannot always know "whether the bottle thrown into the sea ever arrives; what matters is that someone throws it".

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