The Sudanese Acrobatic Troupe: A Tool for a Forgotten Cultural Investment

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW)—Late Sudanese President Jaafer Nimeiry was taking part in an African summit conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa at a time when the Sudanese regional relations were strained when, on the fringes of the conference, girl acrobat Lubna, of the Sudanese Acrobatic Troupe, presented a magnificent show. "What was presented by this girl in 15 minutes the Foreign Ministry was unable to achieve in 20 years," Nimeiry told the Sudanese ambassador.
This reflects the effective role that can be played by the arts in introducing the history and glories of a nation by delivering a quick, direct message to the recipient's emotion, a role which shows the importance of the concern that must be paid by the State. The Sudanese Acrobatic Troupe was formed at a time when there was a growing concern with the role to be played by the arts in promotion of the cultural and social development. It was the brain-child of late President Jaafer Nimeiry during a state visit to the People's Republic of China when he had a chance to watch the Chinese acrobatics after which he decided to take this art to the Sudan.
In 1971, with the beginning of reactivation of the Sino-Sudanese cultural protocol, a number of children engaged in the child radio programmes, their friends and others living in the vicinity of the radio station in Omdurman city were selected to form the first troupe. In addition, a number of children from the Music Corps School formed the nucleus of the Musical Acrobatic Troupe.
After that, a team of Chinese experts arrived in Sudan for interviewing a number of children out of whom 50 boys and girls passed the interviews to make the first nucleus of the Sudanese Acrobatic Troupe. Those children travelled to the PRC and were subjected in Wuhan City to an intensive training programme of four consecutive years. The remarkable performance of the troupe was highly admired by the Chinese instructors and by the massive audience that attended numerous shows of performance that depends on aesthetics of the human body and its motions.

Photos taken during a training session
Photos taken during a training session

None of the Sudanese of the 1970s-mid-80s can forget the amazingly charming amusing shows by the troupe which was the first one of its kind in Africa and the Middle East.
Abdulla Hassab al-Rasoul Ali, an actor, producer, designer and director of the theatrical arts administration, said the first Acrobatic Troupe show he watched was in Shendi stadium, River Nile State, in the 1970s when the troupe presented a number of shows which were so amazing that some members of the audience described those children as magicians. He said some of the extraordinarily astonishing shows included walking on a cable, climbing a pole, jumping on each other and similar bewildering acrobatic acts.
The acrobats were accorded a great measure of attention and care as President Nimeiry regarded the troupe as one of the factors which were largely conducive to the improvement of his regional relations. He was accompanied in his external travels by an acrobatic group or a folklore troupe, either travelling in his company or going ahead of him because he believed they were the best expression of the Sudanese identity and civilization. The troupe remained steadfast at that time because all elements of existence were available and it was allocated a spacious hall for training and continued presenting its distinguishing shows, but, according to Ali, "in the Sudan every project makes a good start and then begins to decline".
President Nimeiry used to frequently visit the headquarters of the Troupe, watch their training sessions and jest with them. During one of those visits, Nimeiry asked the acrobats to brief him on their experience and their future projects and on the problems facing them. He discovered that the Troupe was under the Ministry of Culture's Theatrical Arts Administration and was provided with all training and dieting requirements and the acrobats were enrolled in excellent schools. On another visit to the Troupe, Nimeiry found out that some requirements began to diminish and immediately ordered affiliation of the Troupe to the Ministry of Defense which had an open budget. Nimeiry took this decision in the 1980s because he believed that the Troupe should continue in existence on grounds of its remarkable performance. Late Major-General Jaafer Fadul Moula was appointed as a manager of the Troupe provided that it should not be militarized. The Troupe continued presentations of its shows in all states of the Sudan, making a positive impression on the society.


He went on to say that the Chinese "brothers" firmly believe that this Troupe was the kernel of the Sino-Sudanese friendship and, for this reason, they take care of it each year. The group which is presently undergoing training in China is the sixth group which consists of six children and an accompanying instructor. China still follows the situation of the Troupe. "But, as I have previously said, we make a good start for any project but soon afterwards it begins to decline, and the same has happened for the Acrobatic Troupe on which weakness began to creep for several reasons with the discontinued training coming foremost, as the acrobatic art depends largely on the physical skills which are developed by continued exercises."
There is also the problem of recruiting new groups due to failure of conciliation between the training and the schooling, something which requires a full understanding by the State. If there is a strong belief in the importance of the sustainability of the Troupe, it is inevitable to reconsider this sort of art and the terms of the contracts and employment of the acrobats should be different for a person who exerts a highly risky effort. This calls for finding a positive outlook, something which we lack in our overall outlook for the Acrobatic Troupe.
The Manager said the group when return from China will be highly qualified but the decline will begin soon afterwards due to the unavailability of training aids, follow-up, nutrients, boarding-houses and transport. Yet, the acrobatics art continued in existence, despite all those obstacles, thanks to the intimacy among the acrobats as their growth was connected with this art since their early childhood.
The Troupe used to perform since its inception about 20 shows but now these shows have waned and are in need of reactivation. The Troupe's programme music section also diminished to only three to four musicians, in spite of its importance as complementary to the performance.
All this is due to a minimized care for the Troupe and to the media disinterest in it as a result of absence of the philosophy of the cultural continuity as the Ministry of Culture possesses no clear vision of such troupes. It is now even believed that culture is a community task. "I agree it is a community task but it needs planning and detecting its effect on the community," the manager said. He criticized annexation of the Troupe to the Ministry of Culture as a big mistake because, he argued, this Ministry is itself unstable.

"The Sudan was the first country in the region to introduce acrobatics in the 1970s and an acrobatic institute should have been established for development of the art within the Sudan but we are lacking stability and ability for assessment of our needs in a positive way and so, degradation was an inevitable result," the official said. The pioneers still exist and are still capable of practicing the acrobatics in a proper way, he said, adding: "Ahlam Sirdar still walks on the rope, proving that the foundation was sound".

Ahalm Sirdar during graduation ceremonies, China 1974
Ahalm Sirdar during graduation ceremonies, China 1974
 Sirdar, now a trainer
Sirdar, now a trainer

The Theatrical Arts Manager said during the early days of the Ingaz government, Salah Karrar, one of its senior officials, during a visit to the Troupe, suggested that the Troupe should not remain in Sudan and, instead, should travel abroad for presentation of its fascinating shows, bringing in foreign exchange and for enhancement of the tourist and economic activities in addition to finding a vision on how could the arts troupes contribute to the public income.
The Manager, however, said an attractive performance needs money and in order to be invested, the cultural projects should first be established inside the country. Instead of unleashing hollow slogans, a cultural project should be subject to studies and the bodies of its implementation must be named beside provision of the required infrastructures and laying down the strategies before talking about the investment.
Abdul Azim Ali Taha, a pioneer of the Acrobatic Troupe, said in response to a complaint to President Omar al-Beshir, the Troupe was transferred to the Ministry of Defense once again. But the problem this time was something different; the Troupe was militarized and the acrobats were given low ranks which were rejected by some of them and accepted by others and thus the Troupe split in two parts. Concern with new batches no longer existed and the Chinese government cut down its scholarships to an annual four to six to undergo training for one year. This could not be considered a batch as instruction during the first year is restricted to the basic exercises while during the second year each trainee is instructed on the acrobatic act which suits him/ her and after that the acrobat is instructed on how to enter and exit from the theatre and on how to face the audience and so on.

He attributed reluctance by the Troupe to present shows to economic reasons which dissuade the fans from going to the theatre and to the high cost of the theatre. The Manager appealed to the State to positively intervene by imposition of tax exemptions, for instance, and by encouraging the cultural troupes. He noted that nearly all of the surrounding countries, including South Sudan, have set up acrobatic troupes. Most of the members of our first batch presently work as instructors with an experience that is not available even in China, he said.

Al-Sir Ali Hamid playing a Chinese musical instrument
Al-Sir Ali Hamid playing a Chinese musical instrument
Nahid Sharhabeel Ahmed
Nahid Sharhabeel Ahmed
Abdulla Hassab al-Rasoul  and Abdul Azim Ali Taha
Abdulla Hassab al-Rasoul and Abdul Azim Ali Taha

Ahlam Sirdar, member of the first batch of the Sudanese Acrobatics who specializes in rope-walking at high altitudes, said she participated in an international circus in Syria. "We presented splendid shows in several Syrian cities and competed against troupes from Romania, Ukraine and Syria. I represented the Sudan with the high-altitude rope-walking act and I was honored at the Festival," Sirdar said.
She added that the Troupe had participated in many events in several countries including Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Iraq, Libya, Djibouti and other countries and won gold in some of these countries.
The Troupe chairperson, Nahid Sharhabeel Ahmed (of the first batch) said the members of Troupe are strenuously attempting to keep the Troupe in existence.
"We have exerted our utmost efforts to keep up the acrobatics in Sudan. Until the 1980s there was concern with the Troupe but was forgotten over the successive governments. The youths of today know nothing about the acrobatics because the Troupe does not give presentations; it should not be stored away from the public and devote its shows only to visiting delegations to show off that the Sudanese people are affluent. Our requests for making presentations are rejected on grounds of the taxes. All the infrastructures of the Troupe were damaged, except the hall and if this collapses there will be no place for training. I suggest to the federal Ministry of Culture to stop the cultural exchange, particularly in the field of acrobatics, if it cannot cater for the Troupe," Ahmed said.
She said they "are determined to complete the membership of the Troupe by implementing the acrobatics terms which provide for suspension of the school attendance during the training course in China so that the trainees would not miss the learning opportunity and would have the opportunity of admission to the university. We wish that an acrobat will one day become a minister."

Ibrahim Abdulla
Ibrahim Abdulla

Ahmed blamed the State for barring the members of the Troupe from acquiring education.
The member of the Troupe's musical band, Al-Sir Ali Hamid, said the formation of a musical band for the Acrobatic Troupe was for establishing a musical relationship between the Sudan and China, studying the Chinese musical instruments and specialization in the programme music which is not available in Sudan. This sort of music portrays the move or the person before his appearance on the stage and this is the difference between this music and the accompanying one. The music presently played along with the dramatic works is for singing and is not related to the move and therefore is not a programme music, Hamid said.

The director of the administrative affairs of the Sudanese Acrobatics and former member of the Troupe, Ibrahim Abdulla, blamed previous administrations for the "terrible decline" of the Troupe, explaining that until the 1980s the budget's second chapter was allocated for the acrobats, not for cooperators, but now there are 71 cooperators being paid from this chapter. He lamented the fact that the equipment of the training hall dates back to 1974 and, wondering to whom they would complain, Abdulla appealed to the authorities to pay attention to the Troupe and take it back to its previous glories as the region's leading troupe.


Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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