Circus brings hope to street children of lawless Colombia

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The Independent Online
FELICITY SIMPSON packed a bag and ran away to the circus. The year was 1980, she was 16, the home she was leaving behind was in Shepherd's Bush, London, her destination across the channel in France.

She has performed around the world since then but can now be found, with some difficulty, in the lawless, drug and violence-infested shanty slums of Cali, teaching glue-sniffing street children how to juggle, play the concertina, ride a one-wheeled cycle or walk a tightrope.

Now 34, Felicity and her professional partner, Cali native Hector Fabio Cobo, run probably the world's only professional circus school for street children. It is based in an old car warehouse in a working class Cali suburb but, piling into a beaten-up open top fruit delivery van at weekends, they also take it to the forgotten children of the slums in an effort to give them hope.

It is an incongruous sight to see a tall, blonde Londoner, whose fluent Spanish is sprinkled with Portuguese and French words, idioms and inflexions, teach circus tricks to muddy-faced urchins in areas the police and army do not dare to enter.

In the Agua Blanca slums she visits with her Circo para Todos (Circus for Everyone), there have been 543 murders, mostly drugs or politically- motivated, so far this year. There are more than 100 gangs and countless sicarios (teenage hitmen) prepared to borrar ("rub out") anyone in return for pounds 40.

Ironically, the poverty is partly due to the run-down in the Cali economy caused by the jailing of the Cali cartel's top druglords. "The cocaine business had a trickle down effect from top to bottom. Putting them out of business also put a lot of street chewing gum vendors out of business," said Hector.

"These barrios are really no-go areas. But you get respect because you can do something they can't, like ride a unicycle," Felicity told me after her teenage instructors, street children she and Hector trained, held a workshop in the Agua Blanca slums this week, teaching shoeless children the basics of acrobatics, juggling, riding a unicycle or walking on stilts. "The great thing about circus is that it brings down class barriers."

The children, some homeless, others with parents and roofs over their heads, were in their element, giggling and screaming as the circus school instructors helped them form human pyramids and showed them how to do somersaults without hurting themselves.

"These kids' lives are an endless balancing act. This gives them equilibrium, self-confidence, self-worth, a purpose. The excitement of something new gives them a balance between challenge and achievability. Many of them have come off glue and drugs as a result. You can't balance on a highwire if you've been sniffing glue. Being part of a circus gives them a different kind of high."

After studying with the late French clown Annie Fratellini in France, Felicity moved to Brazil in 1984, met Hector, an all-round artiste, and they started an act called the Intrepid Troupe, known for its offbeat repertoire and the duo's tango act (he on stilts, she on a tall unicycle). Although both were foreign, they were chosen to represent Brazil in the prestigious Circus Festival of Tomorrow in Paris in 1989.

"They weren't quite ready for us. We were a bit off the wall for them," said Felicity. "But the audience response was so great that they created a special prize for us, the Coup de Coeur, I guess because it was heartfelt."

Felicity and Hector saw that they were bringing out dreams and counter- balancing the street children's violence and aggression, they realised their act had increasingly become a socio-cultural project. Since there were already 18 circus schools in Brazil but none in Colombia, they decided to move to Cali to help the forgotten children of the street. "We had always wanted to generate something here, to do our bit to create a new generation," said Hector.

"The problem with the glue is that it affects the lungs and the brain. They start trembling and can't do without it. A lot of them just die and no one ever knows," he said as we watched ragged boys of eight years old in central Cali inhaling deeply from little bottles every few steps.

Felicity raised funds from the the municipality of Cali, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, the London-based Children of the Andes (via a National Lottery grant) and other charities. Last Wednesday, the renowned Canada-based Cirque du Soleil put on a gala performance in New York's Battery Park, partly to raise funds for the Cali project which first got off the ground in 1995. The circus school itself opened last summer with 45 students, many of them street children.

"When we first opened the school the inhalantes (the inhalers or glue- sniffers) came in sniffing from their frasquitos (little bottles). The circus was like a magnet. In the beginning they'd hand over their bottles to the instructor at the start of the acrobatics mat, do an unsteady forward roll, and ask for their bottle back at the other end," Felicity said.

"Then we gave them lockers with their names on them, to put their bottles in, but you can't juggle or walk on stilts if you've just been sniffing cola (glue used for sticking on shoe soles). They never knew the day of the week so they forget when to come back. But eventually, as they got more interested, they started giving the stuff up. After one of our boys, Jesus, gave up the habit, we rewarded him by letting him perform in a show we put on for the Princess Royal last November when she was here on behalf of Save the Children. He was thrilled. `I never thought I'd ever see a real princess,' he told me."