Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

I lived on the same dormitory floor as Selena during my freshman year of college. Although we didn’t see each other as much as we did when we lived on either side of the floor’s co-ed bathroom, we remained friendly enough during the next three years that Selena made a point of adding me to an email list she wrote to during the year she spent after graduation literally clowning around. With periodic intermissions, she has kept clowning–and emailing me–ever since. After her most recent adventures, I asked my editor if I could interview her for MIL. The  product of our two-hour-long conversation is below.

Selena McMahan’s life as an international clown began when she won the liberal-arts equivalent of an internship at Goldman Sachs: the Watson Fellowship, a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant to travel the world for a year pursuing, well, whatever. Soon after graduating from Bowdoin College in the summer of 2005, McMahan used her award to tour nine countries on four continents—putting on clown shows at every stop. (The Watson may offer little in terms of future earning power, but every year it gives some 40 students from America’s elite small colleges a lifetime’s worth of stories.)

Her Watson year marked the beginning of what has become a one-woman circus. Upon returning to New York City, where McMahan had lived before college, she began volunteering with the American chapter of Clowns Without Borders (CWB). McMahan’s first trip with the organisation was to the FEMA trailer parks of hurricane-devastated New Orleans in 2007. Most recently, she took her clown show on tour in Ethiopia. Shortly after returning from CWB’s annual meeting of international chapters in Berlin, McMahan spoke with More Intelligent Life from her apartment in France, where she first studied the art of the clown and where she lives now. We discussed the perception and politics of clowning around the world.

More Intelligent Life: Is there a difference between the way clowns are viewed in America and Europe?

Selena McMahan: Clowning is something that is more respected in European theatre traditionally. In the States, it’s starting to change now. It didn’t used to be that way in the States. If you look at Charlie Chaplin, “I Love Lucy”—there’s been huge clowns in the US. But recently clowning has become more circus clown and birthday clown—something not very valued or artistic. In Europe that hasn’t happened, or not to the same extent.

MIL: You recently completed a two-year diploma programme in physical theatre. I get the sense that you do not have a very high opinion of the amateur clowns one might find at a children’s birthday party.

SM: Right. In America a lot of what’s happened with birthday clowning is really big make-up that’s designed to be seen in a circus tent of 7,000 people or more. People started dressing up like clowns in a circus, but in a birthday party in someone’s living room. A circus clown in a living room is scary. The make-up is not meant for that environment. I think that’s why a lot of people are afraid of clowns and we have a bad reputation now. It’s about finding a costume that goes with the clown suitable for that environment.

MIL: Like the blog that grew out of it, your Watson Fellowship project was called the Contemporary Clown Circuit. Can you explain what that phrase means?

SM: It felt to me that in this day and age the interesting place for clowns is in a real-life setting. It’s not in the theatre. It’s not on movies and TV. It’s in the world. The role of the clown is to be the person who can question the authority, who can question the status quo. That’s childlike but at the same time is extremely wise. By this balance of being extremely naïve and wise but with a different kind of logic, clowns have permission to do things that other people never could. A typical example is that a court jester can make fun of the king.

MIL: Can you give a contemporary example of clowns questioning authority or satirising political power?

Click here to leave a comment and read Selena’s answer about staging shows in the military state of Myanmar, clowns in government, and being an artist in Europe.

Read Full Post »

The tax loophole Fifa imposed on the World Cup’s developing nation host country was what originally attracted me to this piece. As I read more though, the post became less about “the Death Star that is Fifa,” as David Smith of South Africa’s Mail & Gardian put it, and more about how bad of an idea it was for the country’s leaders to take on this tournament.

With South Africans’ dreams of soccer glory dashed by the elimination of their Bafana Bafana from the tournament today, fans may now be hoping that at least the World Cup will deliver on the economic boost its organizers have repeatedly promised them. They are likely to be disappointed again. 

“We want, on behalf of our continent, to stage an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo—an event that will create social and economic opportunities throughout Africa,” former South African President Thabo Mbeki said in the run up to the tournament. While Mbeki touted the international attention the World Cup would bring to South Africa, the government of his successor Jacob Zuma has made much of the attendant infrastructure improvements. Following a victory by Bafana Bafana in a friendly against Columbia in the newly renovated Soccer City stadium on May 27th, the national spokesman of the ruling ANC party issued a celebratory press release suggesting that the upgrades would “make the country ready to meet the many demands of a growing economy.”

The headline figures in a report from accountancy firm Grant Thornton released on the eve of the tournament seem to support the politicians’ claims. Despite the dampening effect the recession and weak global recovery have had on attendance, their study predicted that World Cup could add as much as half a percentage point to South Africa’s annual gross domestic product. That would be a huge boost for a country where GDP is only expected to grow by some 2.5 to three percent in 2010.

But there is good reason to question those figures…

Click here to read the rest of the post for TNR‘s World Cup blog or to make a comment.

Photo credit: AfricanGoals2010 (via Flickr)

Read Full Post »

This is my third post on a topic of my choice for the Prospect‘s writing test (and the favorite of my sister, who graciously helped to copy edit my submissions). I give a Minnesotan take on the Oracle of Omaha in this piece. The first TAP test post had a green angle, the second talked up tax policy.

Warren Buffett is perhaps the only financer in history who is as revered on Main Street as he is on Wall Street. Buffett’s appeal in the Midwest—the part of the country that most closely resembles the mythical Main Street of American political lore—can be explained by his plainspoken criticism of financial excess, his long-standing commitment to philanthropy, and the fact that the Oracle of Omaha actually lives in Nebraska. Even the annual shareholder meetings of his $100 billion conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway are as American as apple pie.

So many were surprised by Buffett’s unabashed support for Goldman Sachs at what has been called “the informal summit of Main Street American capitalism.” No one should be shocked by Buffett’s satisfaction with the $5 billion preferred stock investment he made in Goldman or his support for the bank’s embattled CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Buffett’s statements are part of a broader pattern of advocating for one thing while profiting by contradicting his supposed beliefs.

Read Full Post »

This box, my first piece to be featured in Mother Jones magazine, was based on some research I did for my “Lines in the sand” article. I pitched the concept for this box on my third day in the DC bureau and was very pleasantly surprised when it was picked to run in print.

Four Don Quixote-style climate change projects—and how likely they are to succeed.

While politicians still debate the when and if of climate change, some governments and corporations are already bankrolling massive projects to stave off the catastrophic effects. But are they just global warming boondoggles?

Click here to see rest of the feature box from the November/December issue.

Photo credit: Chandra Marsono (via Flickr)

Read Full Post »

3073565061_4ee6aeaaa4The rejected title was “Promising Polls.”


The month of January featured not one but two notable inaugurations. As Barack Obama headed toward the White House, the arrival of John Atta Mills in Ghana‘s presidential palace also signaled a hopeful advance for democracy. In a free and fair runoff election monitored by EU observers, Atta Mills of the social democratic National Democratic Congress (NDC) defeated Nana Akufo-Addo of the free market-oriented incumbent New Patriotic Party (NPP) by a margin of less than 0.5 percent. Atta Mills campaigned to bridge the country’s development gap and stop the growth of corruption, which ballooned under the NPP. His peaceful accession to power in Accra stands in stark contrast to the widespread violence that marred the outcomes of similar contests in Nigeria and Kenya in 2007, and recently in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Akufo-Addo and the outgoing president, John Kufuor, who stepped down after serving the constitutional maximum of two terms, attended the January 7 inauguration. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the “democratic achievement” of Ghana and its leaders for “setting an admirable example.”

Click here to see the issue this piece was featured in.


Picture credit: bbcworldservice (via Flickr)

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: