17-23 April 2015 #754

The circus of hope

Naresh Newar

Trafficked children grow up to be world class performers in Circus Kathmandu

When she was nine years old, Saraswati Adhikari was trafficked to India by a trusted family friend from Hetauda, and trained to do acrobatics in a Kerala-based travelling circus. She never went to school, was married at 14 and had three children by the time she was 18.

Adhikari and other Nepali children had to practice with their troupes and were often beaten and poorly fed. They were never paid. After she was rescued five years ago, Adhikari returned to Nepal and today, aged 23, works as a professional artist in Circus Kathmandu.

“I don’t want people to see us as victims but as role models by focusing on our strengths,” she told Nepali Times this week as she packed for her troupe’s tour of Australia later this month.

Adhikari and her fellow artists have worked hard to perfect their routines and become world class circus performers. Circus Kathmandu has staged international events where the artists have become brand ambassadors for Nepal, wowing audiences with not just acrobatics but also their incredible stories of struggle and survival.

After they were rescued, Adhikari and her mates came back to Nepal to an uncertain future in a shelter. They had minimal prospects, lived far from their parents, had no citizenship certificates and lacked income.

“Today, we have passports, live in rented apartments and have our own money to support our families,” says 27-year old Jamuna Tamang, a deft rope artist.

Tamang was trafficked from Hetauda when she was only 12, and wants to become an activist against child trafficking and travel across Nepal. At some point she also wants to return to her old company in India and teach her former employers that circuses can be run professionally and ethically.

Jamuna Tamang, 27, who was sold to a circus in India when she was just 12, wants to become an activist against child trafficking.

Adhikari and Tamang were circus slaves in India during their childhood. Today, they are confident young women with a vision of preventing others like them from falling victims to traffickers.

They credit their self-assurance to Circus Kathmandu founders Sky Neal and Robyn Simpson, who are themselves international circus artists.

Circus Kathmandu performers with their Hula Hoop act. Photo: Circus Kathmandu

Founded by Sky Neal and Robyn Simpson, Circus Kathmandu is the first project of its kind in the world, helping support a group to move from being vulnerable young adults to successful, empowered artists and antitrafficking advocates. Photo: Circus Kathmandu

“When I first came to Nepal four years ago with a trapeze and a camera, I had no idea how much my life was going to change,” Neal told Nepali Times from London. The duo started Circus Kathmandu at a time when attitudes towards circuses were negative, but working with trafficked circus children rescued from India made the project unique.

Simpson recalls how the girls were very excited to go back to what they were good at doing. Circus Kathmandu is the first project of its kind in the world, helping support a group in an uplifting story of a journey from being vulnerable young adults to successful, empowered artists and anti-trafficking advocates.

“There was a camaraderie that came from us all being circus girls, that I think helped them trust us and to start seeing their lives differently”, Simpson explained.

Rajan Baswal, a 23-year-old high pole climber also turned his life around. “I’m not ashamed to talk about my past because today I am very successful,” says Baswal, originally from Butwal and was a drug addict at 12.

For Circus Kathmandu, longterm sustainability is a priority and they hired two young Nepali professionals to develop indigenous management skills.“Their determination is so strong that I have seen an amazing change in these young adults,” says Sam Jabour, the circus’ development director.

Besides being professional performers, members of the circus are also social reformers. The circus has become an important part of helping the most disadvantaged and stigmatised young people turn their lives around. “Circus connects or reconnects people with an inner strength, resilience,” says Simpson.

Circus Kathmandu was spurred to act after seeing how young women rescued from the clutches of traffickers were stigmatised and how they lost out on education and a livelihood.

“Nepal has so many talented and creative people, it makes sense to try different approaches,” says Simpson. And Circus Kathmandu is living proof of restoring a sense of self-worth for young men and women who never had a childhood.

All photos by Circus Kathmandu and Mark Robinson

Read also:

Circus Kathmandu in Europe, Marit Bakke

A faraway rescue, Rubeena Mahato

Nepal’s circus champs, Rubeena Mahato

Juggling with young lives, Pranaya SJB Rana

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