Carolyn Webb | The Age |  Wednesday 11 March 2015

Sosina Wogayehu, Circus Oz performer from Ethiopia.

Sosina Wogayehu, Circus Oz performer from Ethiopia. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

Her friend David Carlin calls contortionist Sosina Wogayehu a “can-do kind of woman”, and reading his new biography on the former child asylum seeker and Circus Oz star, it’s hard to argue.

This is a woman who talked her way into a theatre course at Swinburne University, and later the National Institute of Circus Arts — on both occasions after applications had closed.

She raised enormous sums to bring her father Tewabe, dying of cancer, from Addis Ababa to Melbourne for hospital treatment.

Circus Oz performer Sosina Wogayehu.

Circus Oz performer Sosina Wogayehu. Photo: Neil Newitt

She was a globetrotting performer with Circus Ethiopia for five years in her teens, until in 1998 she and 14 other young members sought asylum in Australia because their leader was a paedophile who abused, underpaid and overworked them.

After a two year fight, they were allowed to stay. Wogayehu became a star with Circus Oz, performing across Europe and on Broadway.

She later became a mother of two, actor and cabaret artist, but a dream was forming: to give back, given all the opportunities she’d had, by opening a circus school in her native Ethiopia

Carlin, whose biography of Wogayehu, The Abyssinian Contortionist, says even given she is “absolutely fearless and determined”, the speed of achieving the circus school project was “breathtaking”. In early 2012, she voiced to him the idea, and by early 2013, she had opened the Gamo Circus School of Ethiopia.

Gamo means “lion”  in the language of the Gamo people, who perform acrobatics at loved ones’ funerals.

The circus school, based in a rent-free community hall in Addis Ababa, using donated equipment, and volunteer, background-checked staff, trains 80 children age 6 to 15.

Wogayehu now wants to build permanent headquarters, including an academic school. and to set up a Foundation to make Gamo self-sufficient, with paid staff.

Wogayehu wants students to tour overseas, and to be paid for it. The school would have a performance space – perhaps one day for visiting Australian artists.

Proceeds of the book, to be launched at Circus Oz’s Melba Spiegeltent in Collingwood on Thursday, will go to Gamo.

Most students are poor, but the potential value to their future horizons was recently brought home to her. Noticing that a nine-year-old gymnast looked tired, Wogayehu was told the girl’s mother is a prostitute, and the girl cares for her baby brother at night.

A career in the circus “would change her life,” says Wogayehu. “It’s big time. It changed mine. It means if she earns income overseas and goes back to Ethiopia, imagine what she can do with it, she can support her Mum, maybe her Mum doesn’t have to work like she did because she’s not desperate anymore.”

“I think that’s what always drives me there because I know it’s not a recreation only. It’s a life changing experience for these young people, so they don’t have to be on the streets or in bad places.”

Wogayehu wants to teach that “everything is possible, you don’t depend on anybody. It’s a kind of survival method, but it’s a good method, it helped me even when I came to Australia, that independency✓ helped me to even go more for it.”


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FEATURED IMAGE: Sosina Wogayehu, Circus Oz performer from Ethiopia. Photography by Vince Caligiuri