(Editor's note: The political views expressed in the following articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the IJA administration. However, the stories certainly represent an emerging use of juggling as political statement, joining its more traditional uses as performance art, educational tool, sport, personal meditation, etc.)
Short in stature, but strong in spirit. Ben Linder went to Nicaragua to work as an engineer on small-scale village electrical projects. But he spent much time clowning and teaching juggling to the children of Cua-Bocay.
To the people he served he was also a magician, making electricity out of rivers and lighting villages for the first time. As our juggling ambassador, Ben Linder was among the best of America's gifts to Nicaragua. The photo above (Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times) shows Ben Linder as he is remembered unicycling through Seattle during a 1980 unicycle trip from the Canadian border to Santa Barbara, Calif. He was a member of our family. We are proud of his work and we mourn his loss.
Benjamin Linder was killed by US-backed Contra soldiers just days before our Jugglers for Peace Nicaragua Tour '87 arrived in Managua. We dedicated our 30 shows that month of May to the memory of this Portland, Ore., juggler slain as he worked to bring electricity to a small village.
The original goal of the tour was to bring juggling, clowning and circus performances to the schools, orphanages, hospitals and cooperative farms of this struggling country. Linder's death gave an even more meaningful context to the trip and involved us in an American peace march to the war zone in the northern part of the country. We witnessed a courageous struggle for justice that was being purchased dearly with the lives of men, women and children.
Members of the troupe were Graham Ellis and Sean Minnock from Hawaii, Sara Felder from San Francisco, Mark Deutschmann from Nashville, Tim King from Denmark and videographer Cort Peterson from Hawaii.
The tour was supported by $2,000 worth of props donated by individuals and propmakers for distribution to jugglers in the national circus school, touring circuses and small neighborhood circuses.
Early in the trip we juggled at a weekly American demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy in Managua. The Jugglers for Peace were asked by CUSCLIN (U.S. citizens living in Nicaragua) to join 70 Americans the next weekend to march 45 kilometers to the site of Linder's death. As coordinator of the tour, Ellis felt a responsibility to avoid the dangerous war zone. But each member of the tour felt it was important to be part of an undertaking to affirm that development projects would continue despite the threat of Contra terrorism.
The next four days were spent with these Americans teachers, agricultural experts, doctors, nurses and church workers. Jugglers added a little anarchy and fun to this very serious undertaking.
The march started in El Cua and ended in San Jose de Bocay. An American nun met us just outside of El Cua and said the townspeople were on their way to the cemetery to bury two members of the town militia who had been killed by the Contras the day before. We joined them to express our sorrow at this war that keeps taking their loved ones from them. The village leaders let us know that the pain of the late afternoon should give way to a joyful evening, as they wanted to welcome us to El Cua.
That evening Jugglers for Peace used torches and green glow sticks for light and opened our hearts to these people. This show was special, as it was here in El Cua that Ben Linder had spent the last months of his life helping, teaching and playing with the families we performed for that evening.
Ellis opened the show on stilts swinging flaming torches. Felder juggled boxes, a magic crystal ball and devil sticks that filled the children with wonder. Minnock brought laughter and amazement with his clowning and magic tricks. An inventive three, four and five ball juggling routine by Deutschmann kept audience and performers alike guessing where the balls would be caught and tossed back into the pattern.
Fluent in Spanish, Deutschmann drew young members of the audience onto the stage and made them the centerpiece of a passing pattern. The finale was a four person passing routine, the first of its kind performed before Nicaraguan audiences. After the final catch, Felder explained to the audience the purpose of the trip and dedicated the show to the memory of Ben Linder.
The next morning we visited Linder's house. Deutschmann took down juggling clubs still hanging on the wall and examined them. "They look well-used, "he must have got around," Deutschmann said.
We stopped at the hydroelectric plant Linder helped complete. It was a small plant in a small river valley that for the first time brought electricity to a small town. But to the Contras, its makers were targets for death.
As the march pushed on, the Jugglers for Peace kept spirits high by juggling clubs, balls and even wet sand from river beds, blowing whistles, singing and clowning every step of the way. We learned much in return, as fellow marchers told us about their lives in Nicaragua. The country described by them had little resemblance to the dark picture of Nicaragua painted by President Reagan.
El Cedro was the middle stop of our walk. It was here that the beauty of the Nicaraguan people and countryside contrasted most starkly with the poverty and the hardships of war. We were greeted warmly by the cooperative leader who told us that his cooperative had been attacked by the contras on four occasions. He also showed us American-made Claymore land mines and anti-personnel mines excavated on the road that day by the town's militia.
It was important for us to produce a show in El Cedro that sparkled with joy, and we succeeded. The looks on the childrens', farmers' and soldiers' faces was what Nicaragua Tour '87 was all about. Deutschmann, in a clown mask, drew three kids out of the crowd and had them lay on their backs. He juggled three and four balls inches from their startled faces. Minnock did his famous string tricks, swallowed a four-foot long balloon and drew out of his mouth the longest piece of multi-colored ribbon these people might ever see! The show could have gone on forever.
The evening was filled with serious meetings. Our group felt very vulnerable as gunshots went off in the dark around us. The leaders of the walk wanted to talk about the mines found on the road and discuss what we should do the next day. The jugglers allowed the others to make plans for our safety, and headed for the center of the town with glowing green sticks for an impromptu show.
The response warmed our hearts. The people of El Cedro let us know they had never in their lives seen anything like the shows performed. We marched on the next morning, leaving a little bit of our hearts behind.
We set out for San Jose de Bocay, caught in the midst of the seven-year Contra war only 15 kilometers from the Honduran border. A group of townspeople marched out to greet us, carrying banners and chanting, "If Benjamin Linder was alive, in Bocay he would be living!"
We all walked into the town square, where 800 soldiers of the national army greeted us. When Jugglers for Peace took the stage in Bocay, more than 1,000 people watched the well-traveled show. We did two more shows there, performing for 40 patients in the field hospital and at night with blazing torches.
The next day we headed back to the capital city of Managua, feeling that our tour had been to the area that needed it most!
Deutschmann commented later that most people back home didn't really want to hear about his trip in depth. "I understand this," he said. "People have their own worlds. It's a lot to take on Nicaragua's heartache, too. I might have responded the same before I went. Now, though, I will never be able to ignore Nicaragua the way I did before the trip. When I read a story, I don't stop at the headlines. It's real to me -- real people getting killed, ordinary people who want the chance to live, just like me."
The Jugglers for Peace plan to return to Nicaragua next year. Anyone interested in the 1988 Jugglers for Peace Nicaragua Tour or the "Passing through Nicaragua" video should write: Jugglers for Peace, Box 283, Honokaa, HI 96727.
Why Nicaragua? No place seemed more appropriate to launch our circus than in the new Nicaragua, an eight-year-old experiment in participatory democracy.
We all hoped that we could offer laughter in the shadow of the contra war sponsored by our own country.
"What if there was a performing troupe of women who combined feminist ideology, women's values and a political vision with theatrical and circus arts? Think about it."
I did. And by January 1986 all the women interested in the project met in San Francisco. Among other things, we pledged to meet in one year in Mexico to rehearse for two months, then tour the show in Nicaragua for three weeks in March of 1987.
Why Nicaragua? No place seemed more appropriate to launch our circus than in the new Nicaragua, an eight-year-old experiment in participatory democracy. For some of us this trip would be a pass into our political sensibilities, for others a pass out of exhausted activism. We all hoped that we could offer laughter in the shadow of the contra war sponsored by our own country.
During our rehearsal period in Mexico we found ourselves in a strange culture, trying to speak a foreign language and struggling with what it meant to live and work collectively. We had all worked professionally either in circus or dance, mime, music and theatre troupes, so each individual came to the project with expertise in a particular field. We spent a lot of time exchanging skills.
It was during rehearsal in Mexico that Jennifer Miller fell from the high rope and dislocated her elbow. To adjust to her temporary disability, we borrowed American Dream's "fat man" concept, putting two people in one giant pair of jeans.
We became "Sara and Jennifer, the Two-Armed Juggler." This way she could use her good arm as we performed object manipulation with hat, sunglasses and lit cigarette, transferring objects from one person's face/head to the other's. We played the saxophone together, sharing fingering, and ended juggling four and five balls and apple eating. Little did we know at the time there were no apples in Nicaragua!
In fact, there's not a lot of anything in Nicaragua, due in large part to the U.S. trade embargo instituted in May 1985. How many Nicaraguans does it take to change a light bulb? None, there are no extra bulbs...
We performed for two weeks in military camps. Revolutionary or not, army life is hard, boring and emotionally traumatic. We drove from camp to camp on dusty roads, performing sometimes for 15 soldiers, sometimes 800. We often performed twice a day in devastating heat.
We were going to out-Bob Hope Bob Hope, no matter how many mosquitoes, stinking outhouses and meals of beans and rice we had to endure. We used diesel for our torches instead of the precious rationed gasoline and ate oranges or tomatoes in the apple-eating act.
Yet there were many times riding back from a show in the bump-bump-bump army truck that I felt the happiest I'd ever been as a performer. Nicaraguans, living their daily lives surrounded by death and sorrow, are quick to laugh and look for celebration.
Our show began with a parade of musicians, jugglers, ribbon twirlers and stiltwalkers. It evolved into the opening number with an Afro-Caribbean style stilt dance. I performed cigar box solo, representing them as defective boom-boxes that only played music correctly if I manipulated them right. Susan Seizer executed graceful, ballet moves on the slack rope while Miller (as a clown) valiantly tried to copy the elegance of the dancer.
Deborah Davis, Seizer and I passed clubs in the guise of street kids out for a good time on a summer night. But the patterns were interrupted by Christine Lewis (as clown), who tried to get into the act. Miller joined us later for a fire piece with torch juggling and swinging. Our two musicians, Leslie Lind and Camilla Saunders, played a variety of instruments to enhance our performances.
The army loved these acts, but it was even more gratifying to perform for schoolchildren in Managua during the last week of our tour. The children have a keen grasp of politics, and appreciated our one overtly political act.
To the backdrop of three of us juggling cans filled with pebbles and doing assembly-line type patterns with them, Davis explained life as a cannery worker in the United States and the need for unions. In the end she vowed to fight the people who run the company and the people who run the country until the time returns when "life and work are sacred." We were trying to convey a sense of the similarities and differences between our political work in the United States and the struggle in Nicaragua.
Our group has now disbanded to pursue individual priorities. But we are confident that the Women's Circus will reincarnate in different forms as needed. If you'd like to join our network of women jugglers and circus artists, write Deborah Davis, 9460 S. 96 St., Franklin, WI 53132.