In Uganda, Performing Arts may have walked into an open Coffin (Part I)

Earlier this year, ‘rumor,’ in form of a Facebook post had it that the management of the Uganda

National Cultural Center (UNCC or the National Theatre) was planning on turning the Dance Studio into a boardroom.

The post attracted the attention of a number of livid theatre enthusiasts and a one Rushekanengwe who was quick to defend UNCC, only for him to be caught in his tracks. Defending an institution like UNCC against ‘negative’ forces when the Green Room just returned to artistic use earlier this month seemed lofty to begin with. UNCC had been leasing it to the Uganda Tourism Board for sometime.

The purpose of a Greenroom includes but is not limited to the following: this is where directors give their cast last notes before the latter go on stage, actors rest in the Greenroom between performances.

If at one point the Green Room was leased out as an office space, instantaneously, any other space in this establishment can become a shop or boardroom.

The good thing that came out of this development is that, Phillip Luswata and a team of artists sprung into action. They have since held meetings with the Permanent Secretary of Gender, Sports and Culture in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development,  Mr. Pius Bigirimaana to express their concerns and in a way, remind UNCC management of its mandate to the arts.

Around this time I travelled to Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend the Revolutions International Theatre Without Borders Symposium. Going to this event I was excited about meeting Stephen Rwangyezi, the CEO of Ndere Centre who was also a participant.

Between workshops and performances we talked at length about the state and fate of Performing Arts in Uganda; the management of performance spaces at the National Theatre, the exorbitant or kiremya auditorium rental fees and generally, the dwindling theatre patrons.

We also talked about the questionable quality of performance arts and above all I wanted to establish how we got here.

Before Europeans interrupted our way of living what we had were performing arts. And it must be noted that it wasn’t art for the sake of art. Occasions determined the nature of performances with social occasions like weddings calling for entertainment.

Here, after people had drunk some tonto or ajoni they danced and sang as a way of expressing their happiness. Societies that had Kings like Buganda and Ankole performed before royals. In Buganda there was formality and a code of conduct in effect because a King was in the audience.

Henceforth performers were careful not to turn their backs against him since it was taboo. The King on the other hand paid attention to the praise singers for this was an opportunity that afforded him to know what society was thinking.

Part of this spectacle was a designated praise singer called ‘katakura.’ The role of katakura or one stuck in childhood was to understand society and then stand before the King and say things that no one else would dare say.
As he rambled on, calling the King all sorts of names, he pointed out all the issues that people mentioned in the absence of the King, point blank.

Societies that had no monarchs like Kigezi, (present day Kabale) the dances were massive. There were no rules. Performance was for self. Wherever one found space, they danced––for themselves.

The other category of performance involved rituals. As an example, the marriage ritual was acted out immediately after a boy identified a girl he wanted to marry. The girl’s paternal aunt is the one who responded to questions posed to the girl in the courtship process.

The parents spoke through representatives who spoke as the boy on one family side and ‘father’ of the bride on the girl’s side. All these actors spoke in first person taking on the embodiment of the people they represented.

The boy’s spokesman therefore said ‘we’ have come to marry your daughter. My name is––. The spokesman for the girl’s family asked the aunt; ‘ebintu tubirye?’ (Should we take the gifts?) And then she’d answer; ‘yee (yes), tubirye or tetubirya (no)’ depending on whether the family liked the boy or not. This courtship play lasted a year or two before culminating into a marriage ceremony.

Another ritual that was performed was the worship ceremony. Many societies had different gods who served different purposes. These gods or lubaale or bajajja (forefathers) spoke through an intermediary, a person called a mulaguzi ‘priest.’ This person was the caretaker of a shrine.

While he was an ordinary community member, he was transformed at which point his body was now a spirit of a god. In this make-believe performance his voice became hoarse, he sang, announced the arrival of the spirit, exuding superior authority as a result. It is this new being that people tendered their supplications to not the man before them.
It was the god sought out that was prayed to and engaged. Where sacrifices were needed, goats and chickens were demanded and given; Most times these were given as gifts, a way of one showing their appreciation when wishes were granted.

Certainly, the storytelling sessions that took place in the evening were a more direct form of art and performance. A family gathered around a fireplace to listen to mythical tales, accounts were recited by those returning from hunting expeditions.

Storytellers personified animals and birds, detailing actions, gestures and moods as experienced in a hunting trip. Paying attention was pertinent. There were phrases and questions asked that elicited response from the audience.

In Ankole the storyteller would say; Mbaganire mbaganire. And the listeners would say; Tebere. In Buganda the storyteller started by saying; Awo olwatuuka (once upon a time) and by way of showing their interest, the audience urged the storyteller on saying–ow’oluganda ng’otulabira (tell us what you saw)Whether this was theatre or not it was our art.

Europeans came with the traditional proscenium arch, written plays, there were known authors, a director, actors, a producer, costumes, there was a stage, there were specific behaviours with in this theatre, a completely new approach.

With this new theatre three groups came into existence; These were the Kampala Artists Theatre Society (KATS), Kampala Amateur Dramatic Society (KADS) and Kampala Kale Kendra that comprised of Indians. KATS and KADS comprised of expatriates who came together, put on shows and then went back to their day jobs.

At that time all the cinemas belonged to Indians so Kampala Kala Kendra performed in Cinema halls. KADS and KATS performed where they found space until they built the current Kampala Club. Along the way KATS carried out a fundraiser and managed to get £ 40.000 that they hoped to use to build a theatre. The colonial government gave them £ 60.000 . What was left was a question of where the theatre would be built.

The government offer of land in Bat valley or the golf course did not appeal to the mostly expatriate audience and legislators who were not enthusiastic about driving to Batvalley. Out of need for convenience the current location of the National Theatre was the best option.

In fact, they brought the architect who designed the Uganda parliament to design the National Theatre, hence the resemblance between the two buildings.

It must be noted though that this space was not built for Ugandans. It was for KATS. When later on the African Artists Association was formed, comprising of the late Wycliff Kiyingi and Zirimenya, they could only use the theatre on Tuesdays.

In 1970, Idi Amin had a dream. The dream was for Indians to leave Uganda. Eventually the Indians left and Kampala Kale Kendra tagged along. The Indians had been brought by the British to build the Uganda railway so Britain protested the expulsion of Indians.

To this Amin invited them to leave as well. In quick succession the British, KATS, KADS and everyone else left. The point the world misses is that Amin gave Indians options. What was happening is–the Indians were British citizens, making money in Uganda and paying taxes to Britain. Amin gave them ninety days to either become Ugandans, start paying to the Ugandan government or leave.Some like Mukwano stayed. Others chose to leave.

During this frenzy, the National Theatre was empty. It should be remembered that KATS had a 40% stake in it. By virtue of the colonial government granting Uganda her Independence in 1962, the government of Uganda now held a 60% stake in the National Theatre.

With KATS out of the picture, Amin had 100% stake in the National Theatre. Sadly there were no artists. The African Artists Association didn’t have plays and didn’t stage western dramas.

In 1972, Radio Uganda started a festival called ‘Radio Uganda Kivulu’ to discover talent that could fill the void while entertaining a ready audience in a live broadcast. The yardstick or audition requirement was making people laugh.
Whoever made the audience laugh was booked to put on a show at the National Theatre.

This is the arrangement that birthed katemba which loosely translates as ‘being silly.’ Many of the people who passed this first test did not know what to do with the bookings, let alone what to put on stage. A good number of groups were formed very fast. Along came Christopher Mukiibi and Omugave Ndugwa.

There was a new play and or new group every other week. In tandem with katemba was a new audience. With the Indians gone, certain sections of the population were given free shops. The beneficiaries were illiterate people who had never manned a shop and had the slightest idea when it came to setting prices for their stockpiles of free goods.

For instance, a shirt size simply became its price. Nonetheless, they made a lot of money, came to be known as the new rich crowd of mafutamingis who needed to spend this money. But, there were no avenues. Bars were closed by 8pm. Football clubs had been banned for political reasons.
As an example, Express FC’s choice of the red colour was interpreted to symbolize an affiliation to Uganda People’s Congress. The only avenue for entertainment was theatre. Sadly not for the serious stylistic dramas that people like Fagil Mande mounted. No. Such concepts were daunting for this crowd and as a result katemba flourished.

Makerere University

The idea of the current Department of Performing Arts and Film at Uganda’s Makerere University was born out of Professor Frank Kalimuzo’s trip to Ghana where he found the late Professor Moses Serwadda pursuing African studies.

Professor Kalimuzo invited Serwadda to Makerere and asked him to start the Music Dance and Drama department specifically, to train the self-made artists that had mushroomed. Unfortunately, the Music Dance and Drama department deviated from its course, started talking about Stanslaviski, Shakespeare; concepts that these artists couldn’t grasp.

In no time everyone left without completing the course. Some like Alex Mukulu were frustrated by what they called a conservatism and oppression that didn’t allow room for any creativity and followed the rest of the drop outs. Those who graduated became teachers and did little or no practice.

What didn’t help this matter was the procedure followed when admitting students to the department. First they started admitting students who had failed senior four and couldn’t get places in senior five.

Then they started admitting senior six leavers who couldn’t get places in other courses. These were not only failures, they weren’t artists. When people coined the phrase ‘musiru ddala ddala’ there was truth in their sentiment.

Day by day katemba continued to flourish and today there are many groups that presuppose that silly means art. This makes advocating for good theatre a nightmare.

Follow author on Twitter @mbaganire

  • Yo

    “….the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Sports and Culture…” There is no such Ministry in Uganda. It is Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.

    • Steven Baguma

      Thank You for the correction!

  • Henry Settimba

    Well done Margret Namulyanga for your analysis of the Department’s loss of it’s potential to achieve the main objective. I hope those concerned in the Department can revisit the previous vision to see if it can be revived to suit the contextual needs for the current audience in the country.