Smiling in Africa

Jesper Grønkjær has performed in Morocco, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. With a combination of magic and his Danish humour, Jesper brought tears to the eyes of the children at the AIDS-hospital as well as elicit laughter at poor orphanages.

In Tanzania Jesper turned to the African Masai warriors. Panic and commotion broke out in the bush when the Danish magician performed his magic. No one had ever experienced anything like it (watch video?).


Orphanage in Uganda

when I first visited Africa it was a completely new world opening up to me.

We started out in Uganda, where we went to see schools and orphanages to perform for the children. The people were very interested in this, but I was heedful with the contrast between rich an poor people. Not just in the manners of their life standards, but also in their manners of hospitality.

In a smaller town the rich Europeans lived on one side of a mountain. They had large, beautiful houses with fences, pools, satellite on the rooftops and nice garden furniture on their grand terraces. The hospitality in this area was on the contrary hard to find. A common gesture like a salute seemed hard for them to do. Only a few hundred meters away, on the other side of the mountain, lived the locals. Families with 7-8 members who lived in clay cottages without windows with just two rooms. There were off course no furniture except a bed, which took up the one room. In this the parents slept with some of the children. The rest slept on a mat on the floor. Above the bed there would typically be some laundry and kitchen wear. The families in this area were, opposite the rich, white people, extremely hospitable. As soon as we came walking down the street, we were met by people yelling ”Mzungu-weelcome” - welcome white man.         

In their faces a broad smile would appear, when we accepted their invitation and went with them inside. Fast the reputation of our presence spread, so neighbors gathered around. This was an excellent occasion for me to open my magic suitcase and perform some tricks. People gathered closely around me and yelled out loud. Everyone wanted to see, but no one wanted to be in front. But it turned out to be the most interesting experience for them when we showed them the footage of themselves and their friends in our small camera, that we had brought. They had never seen anything like that and cheered every time they saw someone they knew. Funny enough they didn't cheer, when they saw themselves. They had never before looked upon themselves in this way through the eyes of “others” and they couldn't identify with the picture.  

When we one day performed at an orphanage it got pretty wild as well. For them it was an amazing experience that a Mzungu visited them and acted funny. They lived in a locked up, poor home with a large fence around it. But my magic tricks didn't mean as much as the fact that something suddenly was going on in their world. When I performed my tricks in their courtyard, the people of the village could hear, that something was going on in there, and they climbed the fence to see what was happening. Normally it was the other way around – the children looking out at life on the other side. This time the roles were reversed for a few moments, when the outsiders tried to sneak a peak of what was going on in there.   


Visiting an AIDS hospital in Tanzania

 From Masaka we drove with a small, local bus - a so called matatu. We drove along an extremely bumpy road, which indeed was made of asphalt some places, but not the plain kind. And most of the time the road consisted of the dusty, red earth.

In the matatu there were seats for 15 people. Do I need to mention, that we were  27 besides the sacks of rice, topped suitcases, bananas, chickens and a goat! On the way we changed vehicle and got squeezed into the cargo area of a pick-up, which drove with 120 km/h – about the same speed as our hearts raced, when we thought we would fall of the truck. 
In Bukoba we found an old ferry, which could take us across the Victoria Lake. Up to this day I still don't know, why I indulged in this practice. On the other hand we had no other options.

We had arrived to Tanzania, but the journey was far from over. In an old train, quite the same age as the ferry, we drove several days through all of Tanzania and we could see the landscape changing through the open doors in the train. The dusty fields and poor lands changed to green areas, where people clearly had more money.

We shared a small compartment for six people with four local men and we had a great time. They didn't speak any English, and they knew just as many Danish words as we knew in their language: None. But we enjoyed each others company, played cards and I did some magic tricks. We prepared the food on our small primus, while we during the night tried to sleep, which was not easy. Either the springs were not present at all or they were uncomfortably poking up through the seat, which made it impossible to sleep more than a few minutes at a time. Furthermore we had to deal with the unbearable heat, that were driving us mad.    

After some days traveling in this manner we made it to the capital of Tanzania, Dar E Salam, where we performed at various schools, orphanages and hospitals. Especially one visit at a hospital in the country made a strong impression on us. One thing is that the beds are often crowded with both four or five children in them, but it was worse, when the doctor showed us an insane patient, who was tied to the bed.  

When we entered the room with the paint peeling of the walls and flies everywhere, we could see that the patient were not mentally retarded. Unfortunately she was a spastic, not able to use her body or a language to express herself. But you could see in her eyes, that her brain was working, and she looked completely desperate. The doctors probably didn't know this illness and had just signed her up as an insane, which meant that she was kept k´locked up and tied down in the small room.   

There were also a great amount of patients with AIDS, and it was a tough job to do tricks and be funny in that place. But on the other hand it is liberating to give joy to someone, who need it the most. It is sad to perform in front of an audience like that, but  at the same time amazing to be able to give these people a laugh.

Snake-magic at the Masai warriors

After a few days with a safari and a short trip to the bounty-island Zanzibar, we headed for the Masai, which is a proud people from the east of Africa. We spend some days traveling among small villages, where the Masai people greeted us with open arms, no matter if we visited hospitals, schools, performed in fields or in old barns, where the men gathered for a cozy time. Often it started out with an official welcome from the leader of the place: The inspector of the school, the chief, the mayor or others. Afterwards the show began, which was something that people in these areas were not costumed to. They jumped several feet back and yelled, when my empty boxes filled up with balloons, cigarettes, candy and a lot of other good stuff, and they reacted the same way, when my magic flowers grew from my suitcase. They were astound by my vase with water, that could be empty one moment and full the next. The next time I emptied it, they talked out loud, the third they got scared, and then they started laughing, when I emptied the apparently empty vase again and again.

But what made it into magic history was an experience, that caught both the audience and the magician by a surprise!      

One day the rumor of the Danish magic show had run all across the savanna, which meant that about 1500 Masai people from here and there came to see the show. They had walked up to 15 kilometers to see Danish magic. In Denmark the audience often sits in front of the performer, but in this case they both stood in front and behind me. They sat on rooftops or in the trees. They were everywhere. At one point in my show I wanted to do a joke with a long fabric snake, which jumps  up a small can.

When this happened the audience got so scared, that the ones in the front row turned to run away screaming. They then knocked over the ones, that were standing behind them and this continued down the lines. It was chaos. Everyone was screaming and yelling, and the dust started to whirl, when they all tried to get a way from the completely harmless stuffed snake!    

I stood in the middle of the gathering and I almost got just as scared seeing their reaction. Luckily it didn't take long before the calm was restored and the audience came back. The most frightened ones had run more than a hundred meters to get away, before they turned around again.

The best thing about this incident is that everyone was roaring with laughter afterwards. Even those who were lying on the ground, who had been stepped on, when everyone else wanted to escape. They laughed and laughed and the best part of the show turned out not to be the magicians abilities but on the contrary a toy snake from Denmark!

The Smiling Fairytale Society