Circus Abyssinia: The Ethiopian jugglers living the dream

Jimma, Ethiopia, in the early 1990s. Two boys are watching TV. They watch transfixed as the acrobats of Cirque du Soleil tumble across the screen. They've never been to a circus, but now a new world is unfolding before their eyes. Bibi and Bichu know exactly what they want to do.

Circus Abyssinia's Konjowoch Troupe help to 'live the dream'. Picture: Contributed

They are already jugglers. It began when they saw their gymnastics teacher juggling three oranges. “We just got fascinated, asked him to show us how to do it,” says Bichu Tesfamariam. “Something pulled us in.”

The boys used every spare moment to practise their juggling. They cut the toes off their socks and filled them with sand to make juggling balls. “We worked hard at school, because otherwise we’d be grounded and we wouldn’t be able to practise,” says Bibi. “Our grades were good, so our parents were happy.” He flashes a big African smile. “Except they weren’t happy about our socks.”

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This was no passing childhood daydream. Bibi and Bichu are now professional jugglers based in the UK with 11 seasons at Giffords Circus under their belts. They have appeared on stage and on TV, from CBeebies to the Millennium Dome, and English National Opera’s Olivier award-winning Akhnetan, and recently, have been filming with Tim Burton on Dumbo.

Their own show, Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams, is featuring at the Fringe. The excitement is clear on their faces. “We’ve put everything into this show,” says Bichu. “Yeah, we’re living the dream. We just can’t wait to put it out there.”

The brothers – Bibi is older, by 18 months – have always juggled together. Sitting next to each other in a cafe, they finish one another’s sentences, and rarely speak about themselves in the singular. “Me and him” is a phrase that keeps coming up.

Although Ethiopia had almost no circus culture in the early 1990s, they were encouraged by their teacher who spotted their talent for juggling. As teenagers, they were part of the original line-up in Circus Jimma, and were cast in Shoe Shine, the award-winning theatre-opera by Ethiopian director Ato Abate Makuria.

Circus Jimma toured Europe in 1998, including a visit to the Brighton Festival. “That’s when we really got the buzz of performing and having an audience,” says Bichu. “In Brighton, people stayed behind to tell us how much they liked the act. We started to think, yeah, this is happening.” They talk about the importance of discipline, practising seven days a week and never giving up on the dream.

In 1999, they moved to England to study, still hoping to join an English circus but with no idea how. One day, a teacher at college saw Bichu juggling three pencils and gave them the address for Circus Space (now the National Centre for Circus Arts). They signed up for an adult juggling class. “We just started juggling, we were just really excited to be doing it again,” says Bichu. “And the room went quiet – everyone was watching us. We started with three clubs, and people kept throwing us more, we went up to nine, ten. They were all jugglers too and they wanted to know how we were doing it.”

Everyone they met in the circus world said they should meet Sean Gandini, founder of the world-renowned Gandini jugglers. One day, practising at Circus Space, they became aware of a man watching them: it was Gandini. The next day, he offered them a job at the Millennium Dome. “That was our big break,” says Bichu. “Sean has been amazing, he’s been a mentor, a big brother, we still work with him, get advice from him. I don’t think we’d be here is it wasn’t for him.”

When the brothers heard that Giffords Circus was looking for performers, they asked for an audition. “They gave us a time and place, but we went to Circomedia (in Bristol), while they were at Circus Space (in London),” says Bibi. “But it was meant to be, because they waited until we got back.” After seeing two minutes of their act, Nell Gifford signed them up.

However, nothing prepared them for their arrival at the circus, then based in a field in the Cotswolds. “This was not the typical circus we were dreaming about,” says Bibi. “No big, colourful tent, just a few caravans. There were no seats in the big top, just a few hay bales. We were sleeping on bunk beds in a wagon – it was so small you had to go outside to get changed. There was mud everywhere, and we were wearing really clean trainers!”

“But they were just chasing their dream as well,” says Bichu. “We helped build the seats, make the show from scratch, and now they’re one of the biggest circuses in England, doing sold out-shows. It helped us because now we know so much more about how it works.”

The team on Circus Abyssinia – Bibi and Bichu call them “the kids” – are young performers from the circus school they support in Ethiopia. Known as the Konjowoch Troupe, they have already completed two seasons with Giffords. “People love them, says Bichu. “It’s not just the performance, it’s the way they enjoy being on stage, they are so hungry for success. They can’t wait to get to get to Edinburgh.” “We thought they’d be nervous,” says Bibi. “Me and him, we’re nervous, they’re giving us hugs and saying, don’t worry, it’s going to be good.”

Ethiopian Dreams is the story of two little boys in Ethiopia who have a dream.“These two kids are talking to the man on the moon, asking him to grant their wish to join an English circus,” says Bichu. He grins. “And that’s all you’re going to get, you’re going to have to wait and see the show.” I think I might be able to guess, though, the way this might go.