Teenage juggling champs spin for glory in Afghan finals

His eyes red with concentration, Ahmad Zekria, 13, stumbled from the stage in triumph after keeping four balls spinning through the air for 33 minutes at Afghanistan's national juggling championships.

Cheered on by his team-mates from Bamiyan province, Ahmad outlasted eight other young jugglers to win a trophy at the annual competition, which encourages children to learn circus skills to improve their lives.

"It is good fun, and helps strengthen your mind and your health," said Ahmad, dressed in skinny jeans and a bright yellow belt. "The concentration is very tiring but I want to be an athlete when I am older."

The eighth edition of the championships brought together about 100 extremely talented children who had won through to Wednesday's grand final from heats staged in seven provinces across war-torn Afghanistan.

The event is part of Kabul's week-long circus festival, which includes street parades and coaching sessions in refugee camps as well as the fiercely-competitive championships, held at a bustling public school.

The programme will culminate with a big show on Saturday afternoon featuring juggling, acrobatics and live stunts at the restored Babur gardens in the city centre.

"Juggling encourages these children to show focus, to learn the benefit of routine practice and to demonstrate great passion," trainer Lutfullah Naeemi said.

"At the same time, they get a huge amount of enjoyment and they gain skills, confidence and self-esteem. They learn to be happy through play, and it gives them something to engage with other than the fighting."

While the official competition continued on stage in front of a panel of judges, dozens of children showed off a bewildering array of skills in the school playground.

Shy girls in white headdresses threw spinning clubs to each other, while one girl juggled five tennis balls at once and other children walked around on stilts.

The festival is organised by the Mobile Mini Children's Circus (MMCC), a programme that has provided teaching, support and care for tens of thousands of Afghan children since it was founded in 2002.

"Circus skills are a tool to reach out to children because everyone has fun together, which is what this country needs," said the group's Danish founder Berit Muhlhausen.

The group works in several provinces, and takes a colourful, converted shipping container into internally displaced persons camps to use as a mobile circus centre, Muhlhausen said, adding: "We keep the programme sustainable by former pupils turning into teachers."

Being able to perform breathtaking juggling tricks might seem like an income earner for poor Afghan children, but organisers don't allow pupils to go street-busking because it is associated with begging.

Instead, they encourage children to entertain anyone from infants to old men.

"Often we find children teaching bearded elders some basic juggling skills, but of course the young ones are much better, which always produces laughter," said Muhlhausen.

"Circus skills are special because everyone can try them at some level, even juggling with potatoes or stones, and it just connects people."

The MMCC, which is funded by individual donations and grants including from the Danish embassy, also uses its workshops to teach children about the dangers of landmines and to respect all Afghanistan's ethnic groups, which are often locked in rivalry.

But for Marwa, 12, who wears a long red dress with silver decorations, juggling is all about practice and improvement.

"I juggle for at least one hour every day," she said. "It is very difficult at first, then you learn and get better, and then you can try to learn more tricks."