High hoops: how two brothers became Africa’s biggest circus duo

It all started with three oranges. One school breaktime in Jimma, western Ethiopia, Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam saw a teacher throwing fruit into the air. “He had three oranges and started doing tricks, and me and my brother were like: ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing we’ve ever seen!’ We didn’t even know what it was called. He told us: ‘This is juggling,’” says younger brother Bichu, then 13, and now 38. The brothers were desperate to learn. “We came back the next day with lots of oranges.”

That was the start of a career that has led to the brothers performing around the world, from appearing at the opening celebrations of the Millennium Dome in London to the Fuji Rock festival in Japan. They have juggled at English National Opera and on numerous TV shows. They provided entertainment for 14 years at Giffords Circus before setting up Circus Abyssinia to showcase the talent of other young circus artists from Ethiopia. Their latest show, Tulu, is about to set out on a world tour, starting in London before going to Edinburgh.

Circus wasn’t a big part of Ethiopian culture when Bichu and Bibi were growing up – they’d only glimpsed it on TV – but after that breaktime encounter the pair became obsessed with juggling. The teacher in question was from Canada and brought in a Cirque du Soleil video, which they would diligently copy. He taught them how to make their own juggling balls by cutting a sock in half, filling it with sand or seeds and sewing it up. They would make their own juggling clubs out of wood in the school workshop. “We’ve still got scars from the blades,” says elder brother Bibi, 40.

The brothers would perform tricks in the market opposite their house every Thursday and Saturday, drawing a crowd. “It was fascinating to us, the ways we could keep the balls in the air,” says Bichu. “And the reaction from the audience made us want to keep going.” They started training in acrobatics at a local school, and were invited to join a circus tour in South Africa as teenagers. They had found their calling.

The response from their parents, however, was mixed. Their mum was supportive. “It kept us out of trouble – from getting involved in fighting in the street,” says Bibi. But their father, a maths teacher, wanted them to focus on studying. “African parents, their minds are already set: you’ll be a doctor, nurse, engineer, that kind of thing. They had the shock of their lives when we said this is what we wanted to do.” The brothers were determined, though. “That feeling you get when you perform, the response from the public, it’s addictive,” says Bibi. “Our minds were already made up.”

That Bibi and Bichu were in it together gave them the confidence to pursue their dreams. The pair are very close; when we speak, Bichu has been in Ethiopia for three months and Bibi is at home in London. It’s the longest they’ve been apart. “I find it really weird,” says Bichu. “He’s my best friend. Usually we see each other every day.”

“I’m the older one, but he’s stronger than me,” says Bibi. “He’s more stubborn. I’m more calm. Sometimes I give up on things but if he wants something, nothing will stop him, which is a good thing.” Bichu laughs: “I agree, I’m quite stubborn. When we started Circus Abyssinia we had nothing, no setup, but I said: ‘Right, I want to do our own thing,’ and he believed in me.”

Once the brothers started touring Europe and making money, their dad changed his mind. They moved to London and carved out a successful career, but they knew they wanted to create something to honour their roots. “We wanted to make circus with our culture,” says Bichu. “We want to express ourselves, to be us, and not copy western countries.”

Having sponsored a circus school back home, Circus Wingate, for almost a decade, they wanted to show how much skill is there. “Ethiopia has a very rich culture: all kinds of costumes, dancing, music,” says Bibi. “Yes we wanted to use that, but we wanted to prioritise the act. There are lots of African shows where people go to see the costumes and dancing, but we want people to appreciate that these are world-class performers. They can do all this crazy stuff.”

One of those performers is Betelhem Dejene, 24, known as Betty. She was 10 and on her way to sign up for a karate class when she bumped into a trainer from Circus Wingate, who persuaded her to join his group instead. One look into the room and she was hooked. “Seeing the freedom of the kids, playing and throwing and catching – I’d never seen anything like that,” she says. Naturally limber, she trained as a contortionist. “I loved experiencing all the things I never knew my body could do. I knew I was flexible but I didn’t know I was that flexible!”

Circus Abyssinia’s new show is also about celebrating Ethiopian talent – that of one woman in particular, the distance runner Derartu Tulu. Tulu was the first Black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in the 10,000m in 1992. It was a huge moment for African sport: Tulu and South African runner Elana Meyer were vying for the lead, with Tulu striding ahead on the final lap. “That was the first time we were allowed to stay up late in our house, to watch her run,” remembers Bichu. “It was very emotional. I remember how passionate she was about her country. Afterwards she was crying her eyes out. It stuck with us for a very long time.”

“It made you realise that anything is possible,” says Bibi. It chimes with their own story: “Two young kids passionate about something and making it happen.”

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