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Educating Outside The Square

What are you looking for in your child’s next school? Academic excellence? Co-curricular diversity? Tradition and strong Catholic values? Comprehensive circus training…?

It may sound farfetched and even trivial, but for hundreds of students in Cochabamba, Bolivia, clowning around is serious business. Serious enough to be life-changing for the city’s most disadvantaged youth. We find it unimaginable our children falling victim to circumstances that would bring them lives of violence, exploitation and addiction. We find it impossible that, should this happen, there would be no way out for them in a society that has forgotten them. But this is a reality for many children in Cochabamba – a reality that Caritas Australia, in partnership with Educar es Fiesta (Education is a Celebration), is trying to change.

Bolivians call Cochabamba the ‘City of Eternal Spring’. Nestled in a fertile valley to the east of the Andes, the city boasts an enviable climate with year-long Spring temperatures. A giant statue of Christ towers above the city, arms wide open in perpetual embrace. Rich beauty and life teem through the city’s rugged streets and fashionable boulevards, but not everyone is nurtured by Cochabamba’s warm embrace.

At street corners and under bridges, in parks and by waterways, in the many nooks and forgotten crannies of this vibrant city, the Niños de la calle (children of the street) eke out a living. Left behind by parents forced to seek work beyond the city limits, life for these children quickly descends into a dangerous mix of sexual and physical violence, exploitation and addiction.

On the margins of the Cochabamba, small family homes are crammed onto the arid and sun-burnt hills of Ushpa-Ushpa. Families here live on around US$1.20 per day and, faced with a local stream contaminated by pesticides and human effluence, most will spend ten percent of their wages on drinking water alone.

For all Cochabamba’s natural beauty, there’s no hiding the fact that the city, like the rest of Bolivia, is wracked by devastating poverty. And, as always, it is the most vulnerable members of society, those who most need our protection, our care and our compassion, that slip through the cracks and are forgotten. Educar es Fiesta – a circus and performing arts school – has not forgotten.

At an age when life ought to be full of promise, enriched by learning and liberty, many of the children in Cochabamba find themselves belittled by abuse and constrained by the three R’s: rigidity, repetition and responsibility. In the grand circus tradition, Educar es Fiesta brings smiles and laughter when it comes to town; but for Cochabamba’s children, the big top represents so much more than this.

For almost ten years, Educar es Fiesta – education is a celebration – has been training Cochabamba’s most disadvantaged youth in circus and performing arts. But what the children learn is far more than just how to juggle, contort, or play Bolivian wind instruments. The organisation employs psychologists alongside artists and teachers, in a real effort to help these young victims of poverty and violence to overcome the traumatic experiences they have faced in their short lives, and build themselves a brighter future.

Students are equipped with theatre, music and circus skills and directed in how to use these as tools to challenge the very structures that led to their disenfranchisement. Circus skills are a new vocabulary for young people to talk to adults, in their own voice, about their hopes and experiences; and to shape the world so that it is just for all people, including the young and marginalized.

“Educar es Fiesta is about helping children reach their full potential; creatively, artistically, as human beings. It’s holistic learning,” says the CEO of Educar es Fiesta, Edson Quezada.

In Ushpah-Ushpah, the circus runs homework classes, complementing the school curriculum by teaching through music, theatre and games. Mario is a 13-year-old student whose life was crammed with long hours accompanying his mother to work, caring for his seven brothers and sisters and squeezing school into the time remaining. Then the circus came to town: “Before the classes I worked, cleaned, played and went to school,” he explains. But bring up the homework classes and his enthusiasm is palpable. “It changed everything,” he declares. With the help of Educar es Fiesta, Mario has become a young leader in his community. He is confident speaking in public, his grades have improved, and is now engaged in the community to secure his rights.

From within an education system in which rigidity is paramount and the voices of children go largely unheard, Caritas Australia and Educar es Fiesta are providing young people with true freedom; building confidence and working in partnership with government and communities to tackle the root causes of abuse and disadvantage in Bolivia.

With your support for Caritas Australia’s Project Compassion 2011, you too can help make education a celebration for children around the world.


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