Some weeks ago, I went to a circus with my family. It promised to be an interesting experience so we all looked forward to a fun evening. By the time we got there, a few animal right activists were already stationed around the parking lots with placards that denounced ill treatment of animals. I wasn’t bothered by that, really, because I’m not wired that way.
Anyway, we took our seats and after we settled down, one of us went to get popcorn and drinks for the rest of us. One thing was certain, we couldn’t wait for the show to start and we were not the only ones. The mood in that large tent was anticipatory as all around us, people settled in. There was a huge elephant on the stage, giving rides to kids and my adventurous Nwando wasn’t to be left out. She asked if she could go on a ride and was thrilled when she got a ‘yes’. Off she went with her cousin while the Mister tagged along as the paparazzo.
It was wonderful seeing her on that elephant but it also looked strange to see that huge animal walking slowly around the stage with a few people at a time on its back. There was something almost pathetic about that. That elephant looked completely out of place in that scenario. I thought at the time that it would have looked better in a herd in a forest. I could also picture it as a part of a herd standing around some muddy water. In my imagination, in order to get cooler, it was pouring that water all over its body with its massive trunk. Somehow, as it walked around that brightly lit stage, I was waiting to see it throw back its head and to hear that trumpet that screamed ‘elephant’ erupt from its trunk…. Nothing… Absolute silence from it… except if you count those sounds that they make that are very low in pitch, which humans cannot hear.
Soon, Nwando was done with her ride and she was still on a high when she came back to sit beside me. The show started with a lot of pomp and gaiety. We all stomped our feet and cheered loudly as each colourful group of performers came on the stage and took a bow. It was very exciting, really, seeing them dressed so gaily and obviously full of energy. It was as if they couldn’t wait to perform.
Soon, the lights went off and only the stage was lit. The show had finally begun. One after another, each group mesmerized the audience. I couldn’t fault their performance in any way. At a point, though, a young man on a horse, which was racing around the ring, almost slipped and fell but he held on till his show was over and got lots of cheers and clapping for his effort.
At some point, during an interlude, metal bars that were really high were erected around the ring. I knew then that it had to be big cats coming on. I couldn’t wait to see which cats those would be. Soon, cages were wheeled into the tent. There were these magnificent-looking tigers in them. The animals had a handler and he went into the ring first. The cages had a connection to each other and were placed in a straight line so that when each demarcating bars were raised, they had a long runway to walk through and they exited the now-single cage.
As they walked onstage, those animals were graceful, the way only big cats, in the animal kingdom, can be. They were big and they were very dangerous but they were caged. Just like with the elephants, it wasn’t long before my excitement waned. Watching those tigers sit on their hind limbs, like they were begging, made me sad. Watching them leap through rings of fire was entertaining but I, honestly, wasn’t so entertained at that point. All I could think was, “Something is so off about this picture.”
Those animals performed other tricks that got the audience ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ while they made me even more reflective. At some point during the show, Nwando looked at me and asked, “Mummy, why are you sad?” I told her that I wasn’t sad and I was only thinking about something. Really, I was.
I am no animal activist so it wasn’t so much about the animals being caged and being made to do stuff that were not natural to them, just to entertain humans. I was sad that some of them might have been born in captivity and so didn’t know what freedom or being in the wild meant.
I was actually glad to see those cages because it meant that regardless of their circumstances, they were still wild. I was glad to see that thing that made them tigers acknowledged. What really got me was comparing us and them and coming to the realization that, in so many ways, most of us are caged.
Just like that handler wielded his whip and tapped any tiger that was messing up its routine, so do we have different masters cajoling, seducing and, if all that sweet-talking fails, whipping us into line. We often forget who we are and what we have inside of us, when those masters trap us in a cage and make us perform to their wishes.
We forget that just as the tiger never loses its stripes, so do we not stop being the image of Who we are.
We forget that those metal bars are there because our masters know that without them, we are free and that despite them, we are who we are. ( To be continued)
Writer: I’m a wife and mother plus everything in between. I am woman.
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