Laughter is the best medicine in Ethiopia

A circus full of doctor clowns in Ethiopia is helping to bring joy to sick children, writes Maria Mocerino.

The old adage “laughter is the best medicine,” can be traced back as far back as the bible but more recently, research is revealing that expression might be true.

Laughter releases endorphins, helps combat stress, increases cellular activity, and protects the heart. Laughter could be called a medicine without negative side effects. But if laughter is medicine, then a clown can be a doctor.

Fekat Circus was founded in 2004 by a group of former street kids in the suburbs of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Fekat or blossoming in Amharic, is not a traditional circus troupe but a non-profit organisation with the aim of bringing about social change.

Aside from training everyday and performing once a month for the community to address social issues, they also train the neighborhood children in circus arts such as acrobatics, offering them a kind of oasis in the middle of a harsh environment.

Back in 2009, they launched an ongoing project “Smile is a Medicine” in response to an issue in Ethiopia that is quite serious — healthcare.

In Ethiopia, one in 10 children die before their first birthday and very few people live past 60 years of age. Although Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, it is burdened with a plethora of diseases.

The health care system has mostly focused on the prevention and treatment of communicable diseases such as malaria. It is now however, turning its attention to the growing problem of non-communicable diseases.

Not an easy task in any case, especially when the ratio of doctor to patient is 1:20,000. In Ireland it is 1:360. In France: 1:300. In the United States: 1:390.

Tikur Anbessa, or Black Lion Hospital is one of the largest public hospitals in Ethiopia. It is also the only cancer referral center in the country, but resources such as accessibility to doctors, preventative care, and medical equipment are still limited.

Anyone in the country with any problem that cannot be treated in local clinics is sent here. Whole families camp out outside and the hallways are packed with people.

For the children confined to the pediatric wing of the hospital, there is very little lightness in their lives.

Aside from the burden of physical illness, the environment itself does not evoke a feeling of hope. With such a disparate doctor/nurse to patient ratio, the staff can only do so much. Their parents can only do so much This is where Fekat comes in, responding to this need for support, with humor and heart.

For two hours a day, six days a week, Fekat members enter the overcrowded and austere environment of Black Lion Hospital disguised as “doctor clowns.”

With colorful wigs, painted faces and red noses, they make their way down the corridors to visit the children in the pediatric wing.

The doctor clowns interact with the children, perform and tell stories, organise activities such as painting and puppetry, and try to bring joy into their lives.

They are sometimes even present for routine medical procedures to distract them, to sooth them, to support them.

“We don’t learn about diseases, we don’t use medicine like medical doctors, we do not treat patients by pills or injections, for clown doctors the best cure is laughter, a smile or a joke,” said Eyob, one of the doctor clowns.

Laughter itself is not a cure but most of these children have diseases that don’t have one. The lives of these children revolve around their illnesses. The clown doctors do their best to improve the condition of their reality week after week.

It’s this consistent and daily presence that has deepened these lighthearted and playful exchanges. The clowns have bonded with the children and the bond is the foundation of their practice.

“It isn’t always easy” Eyob admits, “Sometimes I could be sad when I enter the room, but after a day with the kids I feel happier.”

For the members of Fekat however, life hasn’t been easy either. Most of them were orphans and grew up on the streets, and they stand as a testament to the fact that circus can change lives and make them.

“Circus is love. We give love through circus,” Eyob says. This lies at the heart of the organization.

Love, for Fekat circus, is the best medicine and they administered it in different forms. They are stepping forward as active players, using their tools to inspire, to educate, and to reveal. They are committed to being a positive force of change.

There is still much work to be done in Ethiopia but despite the heavy burden, their methods highlight where the problems are, even simply through contrast: they use laughter to drive our attention to issues that are anything but funny.

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