When you get the chance to join a community circus for a day, you don’t say no. Fekat is more than a circus – for some of its artists, students, and audience, it’s a sense of possibility.
On a slate-colored April afternoon, Ethiopia’s capital is knee-deep in water. Rows of bug-eyed blue and white Soviet taxis slide slowly through the deluge, heaving a thick spray onto the sidewalks as all around them water bursts from the city’s seams, spilling out of clogged gutters and rushing through the cracks in walls and roofs and fences.
But down a steep cobbled street lined with bougainvillea, behind the aluminum-sheeted walls of a small compound, the show must go on.
As the rainstorm tap dances across the roof, two dozen children hop and tumble across a squishy blue mat, jumping and falling with all the precision of popping popcorn. “Good!” calls out an instructor. “Again!”
Every afternoon, whether the thin Addis air is dry or wet, the courtyard of Fekat Circus fills with children from the surrounding neighborhood, diving through hoops and flopping in and out of handstands as part of a daily crash course in the circus arts.
“For a lot of people, the circus is about escape,” says Dereje Dange, watching a string-beany girl wobble, giggling, out of a somersault, flipping her blue hijab out of her face as she goes. He would know. Before he co-founded Fekat, in 2004, he was a gymnast for the Ethiopian national team, teetering on the edge of burnout and looking for a less competitive way to do what he loved.
“But that’s not really the point for me,” he says. “We’re trying to be a community first and then a circus after that.”
That’s why each day, at 4 p.m., he hustles the performers in Fekat’s professional company off the stage and lays out mats to train whatever one or two or three dozen neighborhood kids feel like dropping by.
When they’re gone a couple hours later, Mr. Dange heads home, but doesn’t lock up. He doesn’t need to. A group of his performers lives here, at the back of the circus’s main office, which before it stored unicycles and clown noses had a long prior life as a Protestant church.
That’s par for the course in Addis, a city where layers of history are scrunched together so tightly they’re often hard to separate. In the neighborhood outside Fekat’s gates, for instance, the Italian art deco of the Mussolini era backs up into the concrete modernist office blocks of the infamous Derg military regime and octagonal, metal-roofed churches built by the Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century.
And like the city itself, Fekat is many jumbled things at once.
The circus, whose name means “blossoming” in Amharic, has a touring professional company. They travel around the country and the world, performing shows that weave together the universal elements of the circus – impossibly bendy acrobats, jugglers with an entire bowling alley of pins in the air above them – with uniquely Ethiopian storylines.