Aerialists in the Sky: Uganda’s Hiccup Circus

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Back in January I did a story for VOA on Uganda’s Hiccup Circus which can be found here. In it, I detailed how this circus troupe was bringing educational messages and entertainment to children in poorer regions of Kampala, as well as refugee camps around Uganda.

Many of the aerialists in the circus are self taught, and spend hours practicing dangerous drops and loops to entertain their fans. Here are some photos from the shoot, which highlights the incredible skill of these young men.

One of the senior aerialists in the Hiccup Circus gets wrapped up in his work (ba-dum-ching!)

One of the senior aerialists in the Hiccup Circus gets wrapped up in his work (ba-dum-ching!)

The silks stretch slightly to allow give when aerialists do particular drops. Because of this, climbing them can be a momentous task and takes serious upper body strength.

The silks stretch slightly to allow give when aerialists do particular drops. Because of this, climbing them can be a momentous task and takes serious upper body strength.

Instructions from the ground are called up to the aerialist as he practices his performance.

Instructions from the ground are called up to the aerialist as he practices his performance.

Keeping a cool head while hanging by one leg is a must.

Keeping a cool head while hanging by one leg is a must.

Peeking through, the series of wraps performed by this aerialist has allowed him some time to relax while suspended in the air.

Peeking through, the series of wraps performed by this aerialist has allowed him some time to relax while suspended in the air.

To take down the silks, climbers shimmy up the pole and untie it. This is far more dangerous than most of the moves performed while on the silks because he's outside the radius of the crash pad.

To take down the silks, climbers shimmy up the pole and untie it. This is far more dangerous than most of the moves performed while on the silks because he’s outside the radius of the crash pad.

The Price of Gravel

Although dangerous, this quarry remains a main source of income in the area.

Although dangerous, this quarry remains a main source of income in the Acholi Quarters.

Most slums in Kampala are situated in low lying areas, muffled by the hills around them. Wealth here is a vertical concept, but the Acholi Quarters in Kireka break this mold. One of the few low-income areas perched with a view, the neighborhood is a world away from the hustle of Kampala.

This small community is made up almost entirely of Northern Ugandans who had fled the LRA’s bloody insurgency years ago. Many here suffer from PTSD and psychosocial care is badly needed. However most NGOs in the area focus on skill creation for the women.

While well intentioned, this has created its own disparity. Focusing primarily on women, and leaving out men, has been blamed for the high rates of alcoholism in the area. Some men say that they are being left behind, and without the ability to contribute, feel worthless.

Those who do find work spend their days cutting and hoisting large stones out of the pits. They are brought to the surface where women sit, pounding them down into gravel. Most workers are paid less than 5,000UGX per day (about $1.50 USD) for up to 12 hours of labor.

A heavily pregnant woman spends her day pounding larger stones into gravel. Most residents are paid by the kilo for their work.

A heavily pregnant woman spends her day pounding larger stones into gravel. Most residents are paid by the kilo for their work.

It is a poor neighborhood but residents say that crime is low. This is because it’s a tight knit and somewhat secluded community. Discrimination against northerners, and Acholis in particular, is high in Uganda. Those with darker skin and thinner bodies (hallmarks to many of Acholi ethnicity) are often ridiculed. This is particularly true with children. It is because of this discrimination that many residents have a strong preference to keep to themselves.

A few years ago the Acholi Quarters opened a modern primary school for their children. They say that when their kids were finally allowed to learn without being picked on, they excelled in their studies. Many of the women bragged about some of the best students in Uganda coming from their schools.

Homes on the outskirts of the Acholi Quarters. The community could be seen as self-contained, with schools, shops, clinics and bars within the small area.

Homes on the outskirts of the Acholi Quarters. The community could be seen as self-contained, with schools, shops, clinics and bars within the small area.

Although there has been progress in recent years, dangers still exist throughout the area. Last year at least 3 children died falling into the quarries. Many families need both parents working outside the home, and with little time for supervision, accidents are common.

Yet this small ethnic enclave, which started as a refuge from violence, has high hopes that extend far beyond the quarry pits. Rather its the newly built schools, funded in part by the residents themselves, that leave most parents optimistic. Hopeful that their own children will never have to learn the price of gravel.

Just feet away from this quarry, trucks sit waiting to carry the gravel into the city.

Just feet away from this quarry, trucks sit waiting to carry the gravel into the city.

Uganda’s Wheelchair Basketball Teams Face Off

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Coach Describes Next Play

Members of the team use special sports wheelchairs donated by the Lion’s Club of China. Before these donated chairs, the chances of sustaining injury on the court was far more likely, as regular chairs aren’t made for quick turns or speed.

Two teams: The Rebels and the Nakeseros faced off in an epic showdown. They had come early that morning from all over Kampala’s outlying areas, waiting patiently for the court to free up. Once it was open, they took off spinning, ramming and shooting, flying up and down the court.

For the players it is not stigma, shame or disability that has become their biggest challenge. Rather, it’s finance. Without proper funding and sponsorship many have to pay to play, and therefore their ability to participate is limited to their personal budget.

I did a story on wheelchair basketball for Voice of America in February that can be found here. However I hope this small collection of photos can capture the passion these players have for the game.

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Coach Edwin Mulima watches as two rival sides face off. Mulima, who used to play on the national team, had to learn how to play in a wheelchair when he first started his job as coach.

Rebels Line Up for  Drills

The Rebels line up for drills before the game starts. Many players say that the confidence they gain from sports is beyond compare. For many disabled Ugandans, being outside and visible is already a radical act of defiance against cultural norms.

Stand Off

The onlookers grow as the game starts to heat up. In Uganda, it’s not uncommon to see a disabled person as being ‘cursed’. Even when a scientific explanation is given, many family members believe in a spiritual element to the disability. Because of this, some are afraid of touching, or even being around, the disabled.

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Despite stigma, interest in parasport games is growing throughout Uganda. Parasport basketball teams first started in the northern town of Gulu and later spread down to Kampala. Players hope that in the coming years, international matches with Kenya and other East African nations become common.

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Kids crowd against the fence to watch the players. Staring or remarking on disabilities is common throughout Uganda. Yet one of the organizers, who is also disabled, said that she doesn’t care, she’s happy to educate people on her disability and her continued ability to be active and healthy.

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A quick rest and a check on injuries by one of the coaches. Then the Nakeseros will be ready to head back out to the court. Many who attended the game traveled for hours to get to Old Kampala Primary School, with most having to fund their own journeys.

Football Unites All Ugandans, Even the Disabled

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Amputations or the inability to walk are no reason to sit on the sidelines. As children gathered, the men began to include them in the drill. Though curious, many were happy to join in.

In Uganda disabilities are still often kept behind closed doors. However, a number of players refuse to let public stigma stop them. These pictures are the first part of a two part series on parasports in Uganda. Taken during a citywide sports day, I wanted to capture not just the curiosity of onlookers, but the indifference of the disabled players. Comfortable and happy in their own skin, they took over the field, shouting, laughing and playing football on their own terms.

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Children watch as a man with a foot disorder practices his kicks. Seeing adults with disabilities is uncommon in Uganda, and many are afraid of the disabled due to lack of exposure.

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The football team carries out drills as their opponents warm up. For players on crutches, one crutch is often used in place of their foot, while the momentum of their swinging legs is used for balance.

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A child watches as a man inspects his prosthetic leg. Prosthetic legs are still rare in Uganda and attaching one in public is virtually unheard of.

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Parasport football players battle on the field. The playing can get intense and at times the athletes hit the ground. Because they are disabled the crowd often gasps loudly and becomes especially worried. However one player told me, “What is going to happen? Shall I become more paralyzed? People don’t need to worry so much. We can be tough”