The Tamba Africa Social Circus crew take turns applying paint strokes on each other's faces. They then huddle up, clasp each other's hands and bow their heads.
Troupe leader, Tinotenda Makamure, looks each of them in the eye, carefully enunciating the words, "Remember who we are, where we come from, and what we are about to do."
The circus is at the Madsoc Theatre in Lilongwe, Malawi. In a few moments, they will walk out on stage to a fully packed auditorium to perform a healing dance chronicling the pain, sorrows, and suffering brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tamba means to dance in the local Shona language, and the ensemble does not perform for performing's sake. Each production serves as a vehicle to inspire social change and heal society's wounds.
"We work with annual programs, and a significant portion of those are focused on gender-based violence, the inclusion of people with disabilities into the mainstream, as well as mental health and arts for healing- which includes the use of natural Zimbabwean cultural heritage, mbira therapy and meditation sessions," said the group's managing director, Haleema Mekani.
In late 2022, the circus embarked on a "Caravan of Hope" tour to coincide with the Climate Change Conference in Egypt. They staged performances and hosted workshops focused on climate justice issues following the route of Cyclone Idai, which affected the Chimanimani region in Zimbabwe.
They put on a dance, music, and spoken word performances and amplified the voices and stories of those affected by the cyclone to create channels for them to receive help from well-wishers and advocate for climate justice.
"At its core, Tamba Africa Social Circus is a space for young people to come in and find creative ways of communicating, advocating and realising their potential. So, you're learning circus skills, dance, music, theatre, patience, teamwork, how to manage time; all those things are factored into how you learn the skills of circus," said Mekani.
The social circus model is not unique to Zimbabwe.
Zambia boasts a social circus, Circus Zambia, that conducts educational programs. South Africa's Zip Zap circus aims to give youngsters from some of Cape Town's roughest neighbourhoods a path to a different future. At the same time, Ethiopia's Kiné Circus trains artists to feed people into more giant circuses.
In 2018, the 33-year-old Mekani, a fashion designer then, was thrilled when she was approached to be part of the circus' founding.
"I was approached in its conception in 2018 by Ngonidzashe Edward, my co-founder. As a creative, I prefer doing work that speaks to empowering or providing opportunities to people in the creative space that would otherwise not be able to create spaces for themselves and to use their art for social change," Mekani explained.
Over the years, Mekani and her team at Tamba Africa Social Circus, formerly known as Tamba Africa Circus Caravan, have created structures to ensure the sustainability of the circus, which targets youth from disadvantaged communities.
Now, the circus is fully operational with a viable structure sustained by a year-on-year funder and supplements the annual grants through performance fees.
"Initially, we tried to maintain a hierarchical system with full-time staff, but with COVID, it became challenging. So now, all the staff is seasonal, which also helps us in budgeting. The only full-time staff are the management; then we have project staff. We work on a facilitator basis; people come in as and when needed," she added.
A social circus aims not only to entertain but also to teach valuable life skills and create a nurturing environment, foster personal development among members and achieve positive social change.
Troupe leader, Makamure, who joined the circus in 2019, says being part of Tamba Africa has improved his skillset and livelihood.
"Tamba Africa helped me develop from being a dancer to a well-rounded performing artist. Being one of the collective's core members also means I earn a regular income on a project basis, which has helped enhance my livelihood," said Makamure.
The circus has also made him travel across the continent.
"I have toured Malawi, Mozambique, and Chimanimani [Zimbabwe] with the Tamba circus, which exposed me to people from different backgrounds," he added.
The social circus has over 50 members enrolled through Tamba Africa's month-long social circus school, which runs once a year, targeting young people aged 18 and above.
"Young people have so many social issues that affect them, but sometimes finding the language or spaces to explore solutions to those problems can be very difficult, but when you do it with play, it becomes much easier for young people to engage in those conversations and come up with solutions to those issues," said Mekani.
Miyellani Kadungure, who joined the circus in 2019 and now serves as a troupe leader overseeing the girls' portfolio, says her work with Tamba Africa enhanced her confidence and leadership skills.
"I oversee the Nyakasikana arm of the circus, which is centred around programming for girls. I can say that being part of Tamba Africa helped me develop my speech, ability to speak in front of a crowd and to be a better leader," she said.
Tamba has a core troupe with five members with a dance, acrobatic and spoken word background and supplements for productions through their caravan.
"It's so difficult to gauge success when it's not monetised," said Mekani.
"But when I see our core troupe members start to shift their mindsets, even in their personal lives, when I see the communities we work with benefit from our programs, that yearning where they reach out and say 'we want you to come back, our kids love when you come in, we saw such a big difference when you left,' those sorts of things are very rewarding to us."
bird story agency