Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Gabon’s circus hangs by a tightrope



Gabon’s circus hangs by a tightrope

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Without funding or equipment, it could not keep up with the demands of a modern circus. AFP

Gabon’s circus hangs by a tightrope

Wiltrid Mabiala climbs to the top of a human pyramid – backwards – with the lithe agility of a cat. Six metres below, a thin mat offers little protection if he puts a foot wrong.

The leopard print-clad acrobat is a performer with Le Cirque de l’Equateur, which once represented Gabon at the world’s biggest circus festivals, but now cannot afford even basic safety equipment.

The mats are falling apart, the safety ropes have snapped and the acrobatic nets are long gone. The small central African country’s only circus troupe – and its only circus school – is facing ruin.

The oldest member of the troupe, Seraphin Abessolo, has spent nearly 30 of his 49 years with the circus.

“The circus is all about stage equipment – trampolines, juggling gear, diabolos. All of that is gone. Even though we have specialists in all those areas,” he says with a sigh.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, “nobody calls us, it’s been almost nine months since we last performed”.

But the circus was struggling even before the pandemic hit.

‘You must control the fear’

At its home in Gabon’s capital Libreville, the trees carry red signs recalling the glory days – Cirque Bouglione 1994-1995, Shanghai Festival 1998-2000, Rome Festival 2000.

“In the past we had more than 20 bookings a year,” the association’s president Maik Mpoungou says.

“The problems started in 2005. We had fewer and fewer contracts, circuses asked for new acts which are more difficult to implement, and our resources dwindled.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An acrobat trains on a tightrope at the facilities of ‘Le Cirque de l’Equateur’ circus troupe in Libreville on October 30. AFP

Then the culture ministry stopped paying its annual subsidy of 500,000 Central African CFA francs ($900) in 2009.

It could no long keep up with the demands of a modern circus, which have themselves recently struggled across the world due to animal welfare concerns, rising touring costs and now the pandemic.

The circus still has its home in Libreville on land that late president Omar Bongo Ondimba gave to the Saint Andre church, where the missionary and Le Cirque de l’Equateur’s founder Jean-Yves Thegner had worked. Thegner died from Covid-19 in March.

In the small green space in the heart of the capital, the sound of birds singing rings through the mango and banana trees.

Children run, jump, dance and do acrobatics on old tyres. In the shade of a faded umbrella, older people play chess, casting occasional distracted looks at the leaping kids.

Free of charge, the circus school trains 19 “student artists” aged from eight to 14, most coming from the local neighbourhood.

“Stretch your feet!” shouts trainer Corneille Mba Edzang.

“You must control the fear,” he tells a student who missed a landing.

“What drew me here is doing acrobatics,” says 12-year-old Brice, in his third year at the school.

“We also want to travel and join the professional troupe,” chips in fellow student Emmanuel.

A shared dream

The grounds still bounce to the rhythm of the acrobatics.

But according to the older members, the site is a shadow of its former self.

“It was once like a small village,” recalls Abessolo.

“There was a small stone tunnel at the entrance and when you came out of it, you were amazed,” he says. The tunnel has since caved in.

The walls are cracked and crumbling in the makeshift quarters where a dozen members of the troupe live. During the rainy season, water drips through the roof.

The circus is now pleading for help from sponsors and the authorities.

“We wrote to the minister and even the president of the republic Ali Bongo Ondimba, but nothing worked,” Mpoungou says.

“The objective of the school is to take unemployed young people and offer them training so they can become seasoned artists, so they can have contracts, travel and live from their art.”

Some students become discouraged and quit, but others like Mathieu Bikoubilou, a 28-year-old acrobat who has been with the troupe for five years, refuse to give up hope.

“Today I have to do small jobs to survive. But our shared dream is to represent Gabon internationally,” he says.

“So I work and I tell myself that at the end of all these difficulties, happiness is waiting for us.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh unveils rules for post-lockdown transition

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration issued a set of detailed guidelines for the seven days to May 12 after the capital emerges from lockdown at the onset of May 6. In the 14-page document signed by municipal governor Khuong Sreng released on the evening of May 5, the

  • SBI LY HOUR Bank Launches Cross Border Money Transfer Service between Cambodia and Vietnam on RippleNet, utilizing DLT

    SBI LY HOUR Bank Plc and Hanoi-based Tien Phong Commercial Joint Stock Bank (TPBank) on Friday launched the first Cambodia-Vietnam money transfer service in real currency via RippleNet, provided by SBI Ripple Asia Co Ltd to provide safe, fast and convenient services. SBI LY HOUR

  • Gov’t issues guidelines as lockdown nears end

    The government has issued a five-page set of instructions to be enforced when the three-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Takmao town in Kandal province ends on May 6. According to an announcement signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 4, the instructions cover a

  • Cambodia ready to exit LDC status

    Cambodia is well-prepared to minimise economic risks when it graduates from its Least Developed Countries status, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Commerce on May 7. Four LDCs – Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Nepal – met at a virtual workshop last week to explore potential

  • Tottenham Hotspur to wear ISF Cambodia logo on jerseys in match against Sheffield United

    Last year, the Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF) – an NGO providing education to underprivileged children in Cambodia – made global headlines with its “socially distanced” football initiative. This year, a world-class football club – Tottenham Hotspur FC – will wear special edition jerseys to show their support for ISF

  • Nine US franchises eye Cambodia debut

    Nine famous US franchising companies are looking for business opportunities and expansion into Cambodia to build a footstep for a strong foundation in Southeast Asia. The US embassy in Phnom Penh, in partnership with the US Foreign Commercial Service and with support from the American