By Victor Kuijpens
What do you tell your friends when you come back from Africa? To be frank, I tell the same stories about poverty, corruption and rhythmic African music as everyone else does. In order to break the cliché, I will close off this blog series with a story about a remarkable man called Segun Ola, and his philosophy of poor thinking.
In his youth, Segun was a street child in Lagos, Nigeria. In one of the most crowded cities of Africa, most would expect he would have to suffer to survive. But Segun escaped poverty by acting as a street comedian. Fellow artists introduced him to the world of circus, music and magic. From that point on, Segun moved to Benin to learn French, travelled to Europe for concerts and collaborated with some of Africa’s greatest artists. Today, Segun Ola Creation and the West African Circus teaches the same skills to street children in Benin.
While the kids attend primarily to get some of the food distributed during sessions, they clearly enjoy the learning process as well. It takes them out of survival-mode for an hour and encourages them to think creatively. For the same reasons, the circus company is an actual company, instead of a foundation or an NGO. “When people say they have an NGO, it means that they drive around in big SUVs with the excuse of helping others”, Segun confides me. Segun wants to get people out of that ‘poor thinking’ mindset. Why struggle to get a bigger piece of a small cake, if you can bake a bigger cake yourself?
While circus tricks may seem useless for a street child, that mindset change is important. Going beyond the question of how to get something to eat, they learn to ask themselves what value they can create. Eventually, this will enable them to grow out of poverty on their own. It remains true that they face unfair barriers of corruption, economic exclusion and (in some areas) conflict. But I also saw many savvy business women who invest in their shop, artists who create beauty for the sake of it and journalists who challenge their government. I think they are Benin’s future, and I would rather write about them.