“If you believe in yourself, others will support you.”
Street circus relies on a diverse array of skills: correct technique, good equipment, practice, courage and, of course, talent. But what really counts is trust. It’s the foundation for everything. This is the story of a young woman from Tanzania who had an idea and made it – and an entire circus – fly.
“If you want to be a good circus artist, you have to start by being someone whom the other artists can totally trust,” says Habiba Issa. And her warm laugh, expressive voice and alert gaze make you feel – even while Skyping across a distance of 6,500 kilometres – that this is someone you can rely on. Habiba talks with self-assurance about the Flying Circus Academy, about negotiations with donors and project partners, about success and setbacks – and about how it all began with a childhood dream.
Chapter 1: Childhood
“Cows are born with ears; later they grow horns.”
1979. The International Year of the Child. Habiba Issa is one of millions of children who come into the world this year. Her birthplace is Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Habiba grows up in the Morogoro region to the west of the city. Her parents – a primary school teacher and a small businessman – do all they can to give their three daughters a good education and prospects for the future. From the start, Habiba is a bundle of energy. Small and slight, she excels at netball, as she is quick and agile with good control of the ball. She learns that a team will only be successful if the players trust each other. Then at the age of nine or ten, she discovers her real passion – acrobatics. “Acrobatics?” Habiba’s mother shakes her head, incredulous. “You’re far too small for that!” But Habiba refuses to give up on her dream. If they hadn’t known before, it becomes clear to her parents that inside Habiba’s small body burns a very strong will.
Chapter 2: Years of training
“Every bird flies with its own wings.”
In late 2000, Habiba begins her studies at Bagamoyo College of Arts at Bagamoyo district before joining the University of Dar es Salaam at the Fine and Performing Arts department in 2004. She is a dedicated student, soaking up the theory and gritting her teeth during the practical training: as one of the smallest students, her classmates tend to use her as a human juggling ball in the acrobatics classes, she recalls with a smile. But after graduation, reality set in. “The job prospects were dreadful,” she says. “Although we have such a rich heritage in Tanzania, there is very little awareness of the value of the arts and culture. Tanzanians don’t regard culture as a proper job. Even in Dar es Salaam, there are very few cultural institutions or commercial theatres.” Habiba scraped by for a while, just making ends meet. In 2007, she was offered an internship at the Parapanda Theatre Lab and later she worked as an artistic director at the Babawatoto Centre in downtown Mburahati, a district of Dar es Salaam where people’s lives are marred by unemployment, petty crime and latent violence, mainly against girls and women.
At the Babawatoto Centre, children are able to escape the harsh realities of daily life for a while and take classes in local music and dance. Habiba gained first-hand experience as a trainer – and Director Mgunga Mwa Mnyenyelwa instantly spotted her potential. In 2008, Mgunga heard about a grant from the Cultural Management in Africa Programme, run by the Goethe-Institut and InWEnt (now the GIZ – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) with the aim of giving cultural managers in sub-Saharan Africa professional training and better prospects of employment in the arts. It didn’t take Mgunga long to decide who to suggest as a candidate for the award. When the application was approved, Habiba thought: this could change my life. Full of smiles, she packed her bags and boarded a plane to Berlin.
Chapter 3: The journey
“You learn more among strangers than if you stay at home.”
“Habiba’s internship was a well-planned stroke of good fortune for us,” Daniela Titze from Berlin’s ufaFabrik recalls with a smile. Well-planned because the Goethe-Institut attaches great importance to finding exactly the right temporary placement in Germany for every grant beneficiary from Africa. And fortunate because Habiba and the ufaFabrik International Culture Centre were a perfect match. One of Berlin’s best known arts centres, ufaFabrik promotes engagement in culture through exchange and education with its programme of theatre, music, cabaret, vaudeville, dance – and children’s circus. On her placement, Habiba worked in the programme office. One of her tasks was to help organise a festival of circus skills. “Habiba filled our office with life. She was a ray of sunshine, keeping watch over our work like a guardian angel,” Daniela Titze recalls. She hit it off with the young African from the start. “Daniela is my mentor, my role model,” says Habiba, who learned a great deal about developing, planning and organising arts projects from Daniela, an experienced cultural manager. But above all, the grant gave Habiba self-confidence and the awareness that you can make things happen with cultural skills – and perhaps even make them your livelihood. In Berlin, an idea started to germinate: Habiba decided to set up a circus academy in Dar es Salaam.