By Michelle Cohan, CNN
Tucked behind a colorful tin roof dwelling in Addis Ababa, acrobats of all ages are spinning, contorting and balancing in ways that seemingly defy the laws of physics.
Off to the left of the action is their ringleader, Dereje Dange — a world-class juggler who can easily keep seven hats going at once.
Yet nowadays, he has little time for sleights of hand. As president of Ethiopia’s renowned Fekat Circus, he’s tasked with organizing tours around the continent, wrangling funds for their community circus school, and managing hospital outreach programs.
Fekat is fiercely promoting and fostering circus talent in Ethiopia to share with the world.
CNN caught up with the group in the final stretch of its monthlong tour across the country. Riding in an indigo retro-style bus from town to town, their stops are many, but their goal is simple: engage crowds with fantastical feats in the hopes of starting a circus movement.
Ethiopia’s budding circus scene
Fekat Circus performs during the second edition of the African Circus Arts Festival in Addis Ababa, on March 2, 2018.
Circus has not traditionally played a part in Ethiopian culture, nor Africa as a whole. Over the past 20 years it has gained some traction; there are now more than 100 circus schools in the country. And Fekat is hoping to increase those numbers.
Dereje Dange sets up his rolling circus.
Dange is the first off the bus as it pulls into a dusty stretch of road in Dilla, a small town in southern Ethiopia. Lugging out mats and poles, assembling beams and loudspeakers, the crew has no easy set-up or break down. Yet almost every year, Fekat embarks on a countrywide tour, traveling to places that most circuses don’t go.
“When we had the first tour around the country, it was, like, 62 days. We reach(ed) around, like, 370,000 people because we were traveling deep in the countryside,” Dange said.
It’s tiring, but rewarding for the crew — and the crowd, both learning a little bit about each other.
Fekat performs in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, during its monthlong tour across the country.
“I try to study the people, how they see our show, and try to improve a bit. We are from the city, so I’m careful to not bring something they don’t like,” Dange told CNN.
From self-taught to stardom
Dange’s intro to the performing arts began at age 12, through a local YMCA acrobatics class. To practice at home, he cut the grass in his yard and used the clippings as a makeshift landing pad. It quickly became more than extracurricular for him, much to his parents’ disapproval.
“My family, they used to think I’m crazy. They never supported me doing circus, because for them, it was a sport. It was playing,” Dange said.
A younger Bichu Tesfamariam juggles.
This sentiment is echoed by two Ethiopian brothers, part of another traveling troupe, who also dreamed of circus stardom from a young age — Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam.
“It was addictive to us. We just instantly said, ‘OK, cool. This is what we’re going to do.’ Even though our parents were very skeptical of it,” Bibi Tesfamariam said.
A Cirque du Soleil tape was their teacher, and the streets their audience. After attracting a lot of attention, they landed their first gig with Circus Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s first circus, founded in 1991.
Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam juggle in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The brothers left home for the United Kingdom in 1999, where they trained under the famous juggler Sean Gandini — a man they credit for helping them start their own Ethiopia-based group, Circus Abyssinia, in 2015.
Dange, too, left home at an early age to pursue his passion. After forming what would later become Fekat, in 2004, with a few fellow artists, he was invited to go on a tour in Europe called, “Mama Africa.” While there, he realized his dreams weren’t abroad, but rather back home. He wanted to bring the circus to Africa.
With the help of a UNESCO grant, Dange created Africa’s first circus festival, aptly named “African Circus Arts Festival.” It connected circus groups across the continent, first in 2015, and again in 2018.
Cultivating the next generation
Fekat Circus community school offers free classes.
After Dange and the Tesfamariam brothers were established in their careers, they both saw the need to help foster the next generation of performers.
Dange’s Fekat Circus offers community school programs, camps and advanced classes. Fekat claims to have trained 47 professional artists to date.
Daniel Amerga, a performer with Fekat, started with the circus six years ago when his friends brought him to a class as a joke.
“I kept coming. The circus teaches you a good life and to stay away from the bad stuff. It’s a family,” Amerga told CNN.
And it really is just that — they share everything from the roof over their heads to the food on their plates.
A young member of Circus Abyssinia performs on tour.
The Tesfamariams founded their own circus school in 2010 called Circus Wingate, which now has about 100 students of all ages. Many of their young stars have gone on to become performers within Circus Abyssinia’s world tours.
Reaching the masses
The cast of Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams.
In 2018, Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam launched their first global production, “Ethiopian Dreams,” which tells the tale of their journey into the circus. The story is acted out through impressive juggling, acrobatics, contortions and hoop jumping, to name a few.
“We (Ethiopians) are known for running and coffee and things like that, but not the circus. So we have a responsibility to take (our talent) out to the world stage. We have to be ambassadors,” Bichu Tesfamariam told CNN.
Producing, directing and appearing in their own show took a tremendous amount of work. But it has paid off for them in ways they never could have envisioned.
The brothers met popular film director Tim Burton while he was planning his remake of Walt Disney’s “Dumbo.” He later asked them to be a part of the circus-themed movie.
“Monday through Friday we filmed. That went on for seven months,” Bichu recalled.
Being in big productions overseas has helped put circus in the spotlight back home in Ethiopia. For the young performers, it’s a chance to support their families and inspire more children to join the circus.
Circus as a tool for communication
Back on the bus, Fekat Circus is getting ready for its next stop in Arba Minch, a city 500 km (310 miles) from the country’s capital. They’re getting closer to home, which is Addis Ababa, but there is still much more work to be done, more cities that need the circus. Dange is already planning the next tour.
“It’s kind of a dream, to bring a circus to the people who’ve never seen a circus. For us it’s an easy way to connect with people. We don’t just have to speak to communicate. We can also use the circus arts,” he said.
Fekat Circus performers visit a hospital in Addis Ababa as part of the Smile Medicine Project.
Fekat reaches more than 15,000 people per year in hospitals, prisons and schools through its outreach program. It is a part of the Smile Medicine Project and delivers cheer where it’s needed most: pediatric units in hospitals across Africa.
As both traveling troupes push on to their next destinations, either abroad or at home, their work is creating a better environment for circus to thrive in Ethiopia.
“We feel like we (are) just getting started. We can’t wait to see what happens in the future,” Bichu Tesfamariam said.