It was a hot, cramped and noisy night at the Rawabet Theater last Tuesday, but there was a buzz of irrepressible enthusiasm in the air – the kind you only feel with a room full of children.
Seventeen kids ascended the Rawabet stage as several more, sitting among the audience, giggled and cheered as they watched their chums’ variety show, the culmination of the El-Shehab Institution for Comprehensive Development’s annual summer camp.
For 14 days, over a period of three weeks, children from the impoverished area of Ezbet El-Haggana participated in various art-oriented workshops which ended with a presentation of their creative output. This year’s fare included an exhibit of paintings, a puppet show and a theatrical performance.
Non-profit organization El-Shehab, founded in 2001 to address the pressing needs of Cairo’s most marginalized areas using El-Haggana as a “test case, first organized the camp four years ago. It’s one of the institution’s various projects aimed at community empowerment and cohesion.
This year’s focus was on the children’s right to play, acquire a proper education and maintain a healthy lifestyle; a continuation of last summer’s theme of personalizing the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child to suit their specific needs and wants. The debut topic of “Accepting the Other was also reprised.
The participating children are an even mix of Muslims, Christians, boys and girls, and Egyptians and Sudanese refugees who populate the impoverished area.
The participating children sat in a row surrounded by their artwork, bright self portraits, friends and family. The evening began with a projected slideshow of the kids at work on their paintings, puppet making and acting exercises, guided by the team of young volunteers who work with El-Shehab.
The children, watching the inverted images from behind the screen, were clearly enjoying watching themselves, almost drowning out the accompanying music with their fits of laughter.
The screen then doubled as the masking for a Punch and Judy-esque doll show, complete with beatings and squeaky voices for the handmade paper puppets. An undercurrent of seriousness tempered the fun, though. The plot of the performance began with a corrupt teacher milking students and their families for tutoring money – not a farfetched story for El-Haggana (or for the rest of Egypt, for that matter).
According to Managing Project Coordinator Abdel-Razek Abu El-Ela, school absenteeism is a serious problem the area is grappling with. Children feel voiceless, often beaten or treated as walking piggybanks.
The workshop’s theater performance, directed by Mohamed Fathallah, clearly aimed to give them back their voice. After what seemed like an extended vocal and movement exercise, interspersed with short comic sketches and sing-a-longs, the children got up one by one to have their say.
There was Amira, who wants to be a nurse, a flight attendant, a tour guide, a teacher and a lawyer all rolled into one; Selim, who works on a microbus makes peace with the boy who fought him and gave him a scar; or Youssef, who flew a rocket to Mars, finds the missing WMDs, and sells them on the black market. At this point, the youngest girl ran up to tug on Youssef’s sleeve: “Hey, the videogame is over! The room, audience and actors alike, fell to pieces.
Was the performance a success? In terms of academic artistic and theatrical standards, it’s quite difficult to evaluate. The one sure thing is that the show was absolutely enjoyable.
Youssef is among the kids who have been participating since 2005 and wants to keep coming back. The “quarter to 14 year-old Sudanese Abeer desperately hopes to find something similar when she returns back to her hometown next year. The kids clearly believe the workshop is a smash hit – and since it was all about them to begin with, that’s all that matters.