Tag Archives: Tradition

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Meet the Tognis: Las familia Circo

Yecid’s clothes don’t fit him quite right, his shoes are four sizes too large, his left wrist sometimes pops out of place and it always aches with arthritis. The mangled joint is a painful reminder of a fall he suffered at work. At the same job he’s had more than forty years, where every night his employer beats him and a gathered crowd of spectators applaud his humiliation.

This may seem exploitative, but Yecid has passion for a craft he hopes others find silly. He’s a clown in the Darix Togni Italian National Circus. His employer is the tiger-tamer and both say the Circus is more than work, it is a culture, a family and a lifestyle they will perpetuate.

“When you are born into it (the circus). It is a part of you, it’s in your blood,” Yecid says. He sits on a concrete park bench between two temporary alligator ponds. He’s forty-five and at this point has done every job under the big top. In addition to clown duties he is also the crew’s chief animal wrangler and makes nightly cameos with the trapeze act. “The circus gives me joy, I live for the adventure.”

 This clown’s nomadic path began at birth in a caravan in Venezuela. His father was a trapeze artist and his mother dazzled audiences with graceful precision on the aerial silks (aka ribbon trapeze). “Her performance was the most beautiful,” he says, pausing a moment to wipe nostalgic tears from his face. “All eyes in the crowd were on her. It inspired me.”

As a toddler, he takes his first steps into the performance ring. The act is child- clown, but by five he is on the trapeze and in his teens he is seen on television screens across South America.

“I became famous, people in the streets of towns I’d never walked knew my name.” Yecid’s performance is an rigorous display of refined acrobatics executed above the heads of frenzied fans. During one of these spectacles his hand slips. Momentum carries him outside the net while gravity brings him down with force. He attempts to break his fall but his left arm shatters on impact. The accident leaves him with broken ribs, bruises and an arm no longer capable of strenuous trapeze maneuvers.

The last moments before showtime are critical. Backstage is an open-air yard fortified by strategically placed shipping containers, fences and temporary animal enclosures where five tigers, two alligators and one kangaroo watch the performer’s final preparations. A group of men converse in Spanish and Italian. They spin wrenches, tell jokes and fine tune the motorcycles used in the “Globe of death” act. Circo showgirls Astrid, Alessandra and Alissa plume their head-dresses while others gather around an octagonal pedestal beneath a canopy. Vera, a Brazilian acrobat, goes through a yogic stretch routine while Mongolian contortionists Inga and Tsatsral apply shimmered eye make-up to their faces.

Martina, a blonde Italian clown, and Ali, the resident mystic, sit on the edge of the octagon. The pair are already painted and take a few moments to entertain a baby while the child’s parents prepare. The infant is the seventh generation of Togni to travel with the circus. His parents are Francisco, the strong man, and Elis Togni, the solo trapeze artist.

“It’s an extended family,” says Elis, in a pleasant maternal voice. “We look out for each other, help each other.” She scans the group of artists gathered before her, “I know if I need help with the baby they are here. And they know they are safe and protected. If an outsider caused a problem it would be handled.”

The family patriarch is tiger-tamer and master of ceremonies Davio Togni. He and his brother Livio, a former Italian National Senator, keep a watchful eye over the circus and its naturalized offspring. This family tradition descends from a legendary Italian performer.

“In Milan, Darix Togni is synonymous with Circus,” says trapeze artist Daniel Togni, while reviewing the playlist for the night’s performance. He is the son of Davio, brother of Elis and heir apparent. “Darix was the first man in Italy to master the art of animal taming.” Daniel never met his famous ancestor, but the family moniker has defined much of his life. From youth, he studied circus performance in Italy, and the United States where his mother works as a costume supervisor for Cirque de Soleil. “Traveling with the circus is never boring,” he says.

It has been forty-four years since the Togni family last appeared in Ghana. Times have changed, and the entertainment market is unforgiving. In the interval several major circuses closed their tents permanently. However, the Togni’s continue to electrify their audience. At times the journey takes them into exotic, conflicted, and dangerous territory. In 2009, the circus was nearly stolen in Iran when an opportunist sponsor used the Twitter Revolution as an excuse to keep their tent and everything in it. They were forced to escape on a late night cargo ship organized by Uncle Livio and spent the next year entertaining a mysterious Oil Sheik in Qatar.

The Togni family owns a three uniquely arranged circuses. “When we come to places like this (Ghana) we bring the small circus. This is most peoples first time, so they are still amazed by the traditional acts.” The family business is headquartered in Lombardy, Italy. Their home-base is a large compound house on a ranch where family, friends, performers, giraffes, elephants and tigers are a welcome and common. But many of these performers haven’t seen home in years. Constant travel can weigh heavily on group dynamics and mileage with animals, artists and loads of burdensome equipment can revert to utter chaos.

Patriarch and animal trainer Davio, has a substantial scar on his abdomen. When asked how he got it he is quick to redirect the discussion. His son Daniel is more willing to tell the story. “He didn’t get it from the tigers,” he says with a laugh. The wound was left by one of two Brazilian brothers, once a part of the Togni’s circus. “It was the moto-boys. They were with the circus a while but they were drunkards,” says Daniel. “One night, they got drunk and one punched up his girlfriend’s face (a fellow performer- name withheld),” says Daniel, shifting to a serious tone. “My Father was teaching him a lesson when the other brother stabbed him.” He says, thrusting his right arm in front of him. “They took off and left my father with the knife still in him.”

Davio bled profusely but retained consciousness and enough strength to secure medical attention. The brothers fled to the nearest Brazilian embassy, leaving their bikes and other articles behind. The incident left the Togni family’s leader in hospital, a female artist unable to perform and no-one able to execute the final act. Rather than shut the tent, the crew rallied together. The Wonderboys, a pair of juggling, tight rope walkers from Colombia decided to give the Globe of Death a shot. By the time Davio was released the pair had mastered the act and perform it nightly ever since. “This is the way in the circus,” says Daniel.

Now, Yecid has performed with the Togni family’s circus for more than two years and his clowning has brought smiles to international faces of all ages. He sleeps backstage in a shipping crate cluttered with over-sized wardrobe changes, prop jokes and other more banal necessities of life. He has five children of his own, all in Venezuela, some in the circus and others who are not. “It is their decision, I would never force them into this life. But they know it is the only life for me.”

The Togni’s “Il Florigielo” Circus Ghana tour has been extended. The big top will continue to host shows six nights a week in Accra’s Children’s Park opposite National Theatre until May 20th.

Miss Real African beauty pageant: A women empowerment controversy

“A real African woman has to be a big, full figured, confident and responsible woman.”

This is what pageant coordinator Florence Banda’s responded with when asked why she felt there is a need for a beauty contest dedicated to Malawian plus size women. According to Mrs. Banda, full figured women have been on the sideline for too long in the beauty world.

Promoting her event as the only beauty contest recognizing true traditional beauty, this idea emerged back in 2009 specifically targeting women weighted above 85kg.

Mrs. Real African beauty was created in order to empower oversized women. According to many Malawians, though, full figured ladies are praised in Malawi since they are perceived as healthier and in a good financial situation because they can afford quality food and services.

This is the case of Madalo Chimalizeni, a 29 years old make-up artist currently studying human assessment management at Malawi’s polytechnic continuing education centre (CEC). On February 24th 2012 she became Blantyre’s Miss Real African beauty defeating the nine other contestants.

“The competition was tough. I’m very proud of my body and I’m not afraid to show it,” she said.

Even though she never experienced any problems as a plus size woman, she explained that it was important for her to show all the full figured women that they are capable of achieving success.

“African women need to boost their self-esteem. Many of them are very shy; they need to be out there.”

Tradition meeting progress

Participant number 6 whipping the floor wearing a traditional Malawian dress.

Mrs. Chimalizeni wishes to join an institution to help abused women and encourage them to keep their heads up through these difficult times. Funny enough though that this confident empowered educated woman subscribed to many controversial gestures during the competition such as reenacting a traditional woman wiping the floor or bowing down on her knees to the minister of tourism in order to receive her crown.

The third category in which the ladies of Miss Real African beauty compete in was entitled Traditional behaviors. Each and every one of them had to parade in front of the judges wearing traditional clothing reenacting everyday chores while the audience widely clapped and screamed as a sign of approbation.

“This is what makes this pageant unique. This is how an African woman should behave every day in the morning. These are the unique skills that only African women have,” Deguzman Kaminjow proudly said as the host of the contest and director of FD communications.

As more women walked across the stage, Mr. Kaminjow spoke about appropriate women behaviors which included gentleness and sensibility. “Women are supposed to cry”, he said.

When contestant number two, Nancy Chisale, was asked how she will help empower Malawian women her answer was chokingly vague:

“I will help them do things that would keep them busy so they don’t do bad things like going out,” she said.

Minister of tourism Daniel Liwimbi was also present as a special guest. While sharing a few words with the public, he explained how Miss Real African beauty was an innovative event that will potentially attract more tourism since Malawi and Zimbabwe are the only countries in Africa holding pageant dedicated to curvy women.

“We are establishing the role of full figured women in the development of our country”, he said.

Only ten out of the 18 women who initially subscribed to the contest actually showed up to compete, most of them withdrawing due to the pressure of their husbands.

“People think models are prostitutes or putting themselves on the market”, admits Banda.

When asked about how she is including everyone in her fight for women empowerment, considering that most Malawians are regular size females, Banda said that her message is to promote self-acceptance for all regardless of their weight.

“Some people are born big, it’s in their genes. These are the people we are promoting, we are not pushing slim ladies to eat”, she concluded.

Women all over the world are pressuring themselves to follow the various social standards they belong to. If fighting for women empowerment is what Mrs. Real African beauty is all about, reducing women to a stereotypical image and idealistic traditional behaviors surely is not the way to do so.

The Fine Line between Traditional and Modern Worlds

Acrylic Painting of a Woman Headporter on Canvas

One of the many advantages of travelling is the opportunity to experience diverse cultures and, participate in cross cultural exchanges with locals, immigrants and other travelers. These encounters with differences and the unfamiliar are incredibly enriching. It allows people to connect and learn common values, while understanding and accepting each others’ differences.  Beliefs, behaviours and norms can also clash within inter-cultural and cross-cultural environments. As we continue our development research for CIDA and our journalism internship at Kapital Radio, we are observing the role of traditional attitudes and practices in the developing context of modern Ghana first hand. Two events this week revealed the complicated balance between both worlds.

We were fortunate enough to witness some traditional drumming and dancing performances at the National Cultural Centre in Kumasi. Wearing their familial Kente cloth, performers moved fluidly and in synch with the drum beat to honor the tribal Chief and director of the Centre. As customary music and dance was expressed to pay tribute, a less conventional offering was also given-spectators, performers and other elders also paid their respect with donations of cash. They stuck low denominations of Ghana Cedis (the local currency) on the Chief’s forehead as an offering of their respect and support for the Centre, the Chief and the culture, as he continued dancing all the while

Performers honour the Chief/Director of the National Cultural Centre in Kumasi

After the performance, we browsed the stalls of art that were set up for sale in the open space of the compound.  Vibrant colours and images were displayed in paintings, carvings, beadwork and in the traditional Kente cloth representing the many family clans and tribes of the diverse Asante peoples. I chatted with a Ghanaian Asante artist from a small rural village named Bobo, who was selling his paintings and thread art representing traditional village life. As we exchanged personal stories, I asked him his opinion on whether material forms of art and culture lose their intended meaning when they are reproduced.  He explained that his paintings had much more significance than what the symbols and activities represented. His work was the realization of skills and talents of his ancestors, passed down through generations. Bobo’s work symbolized the bonds of his family, their history and their traditional values. Selling his art was also Bobo’s method of earning an income. Living back home in his village, he did have many viable opportunities. He moved to Kumasi in the hopes of succeeding as an artist and to pursue a degree in business at Kumasi Polytechnic College. For Bobo, it is important to support his family and community and maintain his culture, and he can achieve this by selling his art. The reproduction of his art and culture clearly had more meaning than I expected.

Although we come from two different upbringings and have different plans in life, we bonded over our common values for family and honest friendships. By the end of our conversation, I grew appreciative of Bobo, his life and his art. He did not ask me to buy any of his work, but only requested that “[I] return so we could spend more time learning from one another.”

This week we also learned about the gender equalities that can result from traditional patriarchal thinking.

For the past month, we have been helping plan and produce Up Front, a youth talk show on Kapital Radio that airs Saturdays from 8-9 pm. Last week, we discussed whether teenagers need parental consent for dating.  In recent local news, a 16-year-old girl was shot and killed by her own father for disobeying his orders by dating a boy he did not approve of behind his back.

Many people called in to express their thoughts and opinions regarding the issue, but something one of our panel guests said really stuck out. She referred to the incident as “an unfortunate accident.” However, she justified the father’s actions, explaining that the girls’ disobedience in dating without consent had led to his violent reaction due to emotional stress.

This traditional way of thinking is embedded in the minds of many people. Although it is important for one to maintain one’s traditional values and customs, tradition does not override human rights. Ghana, as a state, has committed itself to protecting these rights by signing on to various human rights doctrines, and enacting various rights protection acts. Regardless of traditional rationale, the aforementioned man has his daughter’s blood on his hands.

Next week, Laura and I are heading to the field- the Upper West Region, one of the least developed areas in Ghana, to work on our priority issues.