LIBREVILLE : Wiltrid Mbiala climbs to the top of human pyramid - backwards - with the lithe agility of a cat. Six meters below, a thin mat offers little protection if he puts a foot wrong.

The leopard print-clad- acrobat is a performer with Le Cirque de l' Equateur., which once represented Gabon as the world's biggest circus festivals but now, cannot afford even basic safety equipment.

The lats are falling apart, the safety ropes have snapped and the acrobatic nets are long gone. The small central African country's only circus troupe - and its only circus school - is facing ruin.

The oldest member of the troupe Seraphin Abessolo has spent nearly 30 of his 49 years with the circus. ''The circus is all about stage equipment - trampolines, juggling gear, diabolos. All of that is gone. Even though we have specialists in all those areas,'' he said with a sigh.

''Since the beginning of the pandemic, nobody calls us. It's almost been nine months since we last performed.'' But Le Cirque de I' Equateur was struggling even before.

'You must control the fear'

At its home in Libreville, the trees carry red signs recalling the glory days : Cirque Bouglione 1994-95, Shanghai Festival 1998-2000, Rome Festival 2000.

''In the past, we had more than 2,000 bookings a year,'' the association president Maik Mpoungpu said. ''The problem started in 2005. We had fewer and fewer contracts, circuses asked for new acts which are more difficult to implement and our resources dwindled.''

Then the culture ministry stopped paying its annual subsidy of 500,000 Central African CFA frans [$900] in 2009. It could no longer keep up with the demands of a modern circus. which have themselves recently struggled across the world due to animal welfare concerns, rising tours costs and now, coronavirus.

The circus still has its home in Liberville on land that late president Omar Bongo Ondimba gave to the Saint Andre church, where the missionary and Le Cirque de I'Equateur's founder Jean-Yves Thegner had worked. The latter died from Covid-19 in March.

In the small green space in the heart of the capital, the sound of birds singing rings through the mango and banana trees. Children run, jump, dance and do acrobatics on old tires. In the shade of a faded umbrella, older people play chess, casting occasional distracted looks at the leaping kids.

Free of charge, the circus school trains 19 ''students artists'' aged from eight to 14, most coming from the local neighborhood.

''Stretch your feet!'' shouted trainer Corneille Mba Edzang. ''You must control the fear,'' he told a student who missed a landing.

''What drew me here is doing acrobatics,'' said a 12-year-old Brice. In his third year at the school. ''We also want to tavel and join the professional troupe,'' chipped in fellow student Emmanuel.

A Shared Dream

The grounds still bounce to the rhythm of the acrobatics. But according to the older members, the site is a shadow of its former self.

'' It was once a small village,'' recalled Abessolo. There was a small stone tunnel at the entrance and when you came out of it, you were amazed,'' he said.

The tunnel has since caved in. The walls are cracked and crumbling in the makeshift quarters where a dozen members of the troupe live. During the rainy season, water drips through the roof.

The circus is now pleading for help from sponsors and the authorities. ''We wrote to the minister and even the president of the Republic Ali Bongo Ondimba, but nothing worked,'' Mpoungou shared.

''The object of the school is to take. unemployed young people and offer them training so they can become seasoned artists, travel and live from the art.''

Some students become discouraged and quit, but others like Mathieu Bikoubiliou, a 28-year-old acrobat who has been with the troupe for five years, refuse to give up hope.

''Today, I have to do small jobs to survive. But our shared dream is to represent Gabon internationally. So I hang on, I work and tell myself that at the end of all these difficulties, happiness is waiting for us.'' [AFP]


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