Circus Somaliland acrobats practicing in Hargeisa, Somaliland, April 2, 2016. (J. Craig/VOA)
Circus Somaliland acrobats practicing in Hargeisa, Somaliland, April 2, 2016. (J. Craig/VOA)

HARGEISA, SOMALILAND - They perform feats that can be nerve-wracking simply to watch – building human pyramids high into the air, leap-frogging over one another, and tumbling down long mats at high speed.

But it’s all in a day’s work, or practice, for young Somaliland performers like 14-year-old Ahmed Yassin.

“I like it because it builds your body, you become active, and you stay away from drugs,” said Yassin.

It may not be a circus in the traditional sense, but Yassin and other young people have been twisting, tumbling and jumping their way around Somaliland in order to teach people, predominately in the rural areas, key social messages.

Entertain, educate

Yassin and his 64 fellow acrobats between the ages of seven and 24 are members of Circus Somaliland, which puts on as many as 40 events per year around Somaliland, aiming to entertain as well as educate.

Abdilahi Hassan is the country representative for the Horn of Africa Voluntary Youth Committee, which founded the circus in 1997.

“So it’s something new, something innovative, so that’s why people they like. And it’s different from what they’ve been seeing for centuries,” said Hassan. “It’s a new thing to Somaliland.”

Nineteen year-old acrobat Said Abdi Ali agrees that the traveling shows are popular.

“People like us, they come to watch and when we go to other regions, they also come to watch,” Ali said. “Some of them are surprised at what we do.”

Malaria, HIV

The acrobatic feats draw the crowds while the circus's drama team addresses topics like malaria and HIV/AIDS, girls’ education, the prevention of early marriage, children’s rights, the dangers of drug use, and landmine avoidance.

An Anopheles stephensi mosquito obtains a blood me
An Anopheles stephensi mosquito obtains a blood meal from a human host through its pointed proboscis in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters Nov. 23, 2015.

And they also perform skits about the perils of illegal migration, says circus manager Kamal Hassan Isak, himself a former acrobat and member of the inaugural circus group in 1997.

“Really, it’s a big issue because a lot of children and youth have died in the Sahara or the sea, the Mediterranean Sea,” said Isak.

The International Organization on Migration says over 66,000 migrants from the Horn of Africa arrived in Europe last year, a “marked increase” from 2014.

And it remains a dangerous journey. Hundreds of East African migrants were killed when their boat capsized in the southern Mediterranean just this April.

FILE - Migrants ask for help from a dinghy boat as
FILE - Migrants ask for help from a dinghy boat as they are approached by the SOS Meditrranee's ship Aquarius, background, off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, April 17, 2016.

The drama team grabs stories like that from the headlines and reenacts them.

Hassan says that the shows are effective, because people in the rural areas have limited access to TVs and radios. And also for another reason…

“It’s a good tool that we can deliver messages to the community because in Somali society, most of them don’t read or write,” said Hassan.

And the energy of these young performers keeps the crowds coming back for more.