- Tamra Biedrzycki
- Patrick Chikoloma
When Zambian circus artist Patrick Chikoloma does a back flip or strikes a pose on a Chinese pole in front of an enraptured audience, he isn't just defying gravity. He's also proving skeptics wrong.
Chikoloma, 18, grew up in Chibolya Township, a slum in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
"If you come from Chibolya, no one believes in you," said Chikoloma in an audition video that he submitted to Circus Smirkus last December. "My target is to kill the bad name of Chibolya using circus as a tool."
Since July, Chikoloma has been touring New England as a member of the Greensboro-based youth circus' annual Big Top Tour, along with 29 other performers. To cap off their two-month travels, the circus artists will perform eight shows in Montpelier and Greensboro next week.
The first-ever sub-Saharan African member of the tour, Chikoloma performs acts on the Chinese pole and does banquine, acrobatics and hand balancing. "This is my greatest opportunity," he said in a phone interview after a show in St. Johnsbury last month. "It's my first time living a true circus life."
Chikoloma first visited the U.S. last summer as part of an exchange program between students of the Van Lodostov Family Circus in Hartford, Vt., and Circus Zambia. The latter group was founded by his cousin, Gift Chansa, who accompanied him on the exchange trip.
Chansa started the nonprofit Circus Zambia in 2014 to equip vulnerable youth in Chibolya with circus and life skills, as well as to offer them educational and employment opportunities.
"We grew up in a notorious compound," said Chansa in a Skype interview from his residence in Lusaka. "It was considered to be dangerous ... a lot of criminality [and] drugs."
Chansa, 26, became interested in acrobatics as a young boy and was introduced to circus arts in 2011. He has performed in China, Europe and the U.S. "Whenever we go somewhere, we try to bring our identity as Zambians," Chansa continued. The performers do this by wearing costumes made from chitenge, a colorful garment, similar to a sarong, that is often worn by women in Zambia.
Circus Zambia members train with rudimentary equipment. They share one gymnastics mat and practice acrobatics by jumping off of old truck tires. But when the kids see the fruits of hours spent practicing juggling and acrobatics, it instills in them a work ethic and sense of purpose, Chansa said. "Young people think this is the only way they can get out of the ghetto."
When Chikoloma and Chansa visited the Upper Valley last year, they put on several shows, including one with Circus Smirkus. "They gave [Chikoloma] a standing ovation," Chansa recalled. The teen caught the eye of Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin and executive director Ed LeClair, who both encouraged him to audition for the Big Top Tour.
When Chikoloma got accepted, his host family and friends in the Upper Valley organized bake sales and donated money to help him return to the U.S. and perform with Circus Smirkus. So far, the experience has been "good" and "fun," said Chikoloma. In his free time, he goes swimming with his new friends and enjoys Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
The reception that Chikoloma receives in the U.S. has been very different from the one he's used to at home. "You're so great," "You're fearless" and "You almost gave me a heart attack" are just some of the comments the teen said he has heard from audience members.
In Zambia, by contrast, Chikoloma said, "After performing, you'd hear comments like 'You're going to break your neck; stop doing that.'"
While "circus is new in Zambia," he noted, the American audience appreciates circus arts. "They understand how much effort you put in; they cheer for you."
Most Zambians still associate circus with juju, or witchcraft, Chansa continued. To dismantle that perception, Circus Zambia members avoid wearing masks. Instead, they typically wear costumes made from chitenge and perform at churches. When people see the performances, they realize that "it's just talent," not juju, Chansa said.
After the Big Top Tour ends, Chikoloma will return to Zambia for a short rest before leaving for Japan to participate in the Awaji Art Circus festival. Despite his jet-setting lifestyle, Chikoloma plans to make good on his promise to impart his new skills to his fellow Circus Zambia members. "The skills that I learned," he said, "I'll go back and teach."