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What Culture Means to Me: Brian Fleming

Co Author:
Brian Fleming

Culture you’re
Grown organically
Created collectively,
Indigenous, contagious,
You nourish
You’re cult you’re
Identity, harmony,
Collective coping strategies for life

“A man had two skins that he brought every day to the well to collect water. The well was many, many miles away and he had to carry the skins all the way on his back, two hours there, three hours home, every day. Oh how he would sweat as the sun rose higher!”

On a bus in a refugee camp in Rwanda, dripping in sweat, a baldy pink-headed clown is telling a story. Ten panting sets of eyes, some African, some Irish, focus on the clown as he gives himself to the story. I’m staring at him trying to remember how I got here.

About 12 years previously, a teacher in Walton’s on George’s St said to me
“Here Brian, I’ve got this idea to bring music workshops to Moghadishu in Somalia. It’s the most dangerous city in the world. The kids there must be dying for a bit of music and we have all the organisation and instruments. What do you think?”
I told him
“That’s a really nice idea. I just wonder if when people are running for their lives, would they really want to learn violin or drumming? And then they have their own culture and they might want to learn that, or what about if you used the money to send food or something instead?”
He never followed through and I was ok with that. I felt I’d done him a favour.

Vanessa Carvalho
Brian Fleming, Project Manager

Now 12 years on, I’d finally agreed to go on a trip with Clowns Without Borders Ireland to do shows for Congolese refugees in Rwanda. The clowns needed a musician and ‘straight man’ to complete their show and I’d never been to Rwanda. To be honest, I didn’t know how I felt about their work. Doctors Without Borders I understand; they send highly skilled people into crisis situations to solve problems. Clowns Without Borders, on the other hand, send in fools. I was constantly questioning whether we had the right to be trying to be funny with people whose lives were in turmoil. What if we weren’t funny, just an embarrassment, heaping misery on misery? To be honest, the local UN field officers initially had no clue why we were there either.

In the end, the ‘straight man’ act turned out to be not as hard as I thought. Bad dancing seemed to come naturally to me and the strong man from the local acrobat team raised a cheer by picking me up with his teeth during every show and carrying me off into the crowd in his mouth. From there I could see the clowns at work. Thousands of children and adults flocked to see the clowns and acrobats.

IMG_2534 (1)
I’m pretty sure the clowns can’t succeed all the time, but on that trip, one UN field officer told us she’d never seen days like it in the camp. For the days the clowns were in the refugee camps there were no complaints or requests to go to hospitals. The only talk was about fools and acrobats.

Back on the bus and the clown telling his story about the old man bringing his two skins to the well…

“One of the skins was broken and would leak for the whole three-hour walk home. Until one day the broken skin spoke to the man and said
“Please don’t waste your energy carrying me; I spill your water on the road every day. There is nearly nothing left when we get home”
To which the man replied
“You have left a trail of water on the ground all the way to the well for years now and in that trail flowers and shrubs have grown. It’s looking at these that gives me the strength to go on.”

Brian Fleming is Project Manager for the North West area of The National Neighbourhood. The National Neighbourhood spans the Dublin City Council region, and brings together the Public Libraries, the area offices, the City Arts Office and Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, in partnership with National Cultural Institutions, connecting Dubliners in significant ways on projects that are relevant to their expressed concerns. Each project has evolved from a series of conversations and are harnessing the appetites of particular groups for cultural engagement.

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