In Uganda, Performing Arts may have walked into an open coffin (Part II)

‘So, seeing that during Amin’s presidency performance meant doing something silly, how come Byron Kawadwa was killed because of a play?’I pursued.

“That’s misinformation.” Rwangyezi replied.

‘But it said that in Oluyimba lwa Wankoko (Song of Wankoko) Kawadwa made a caricature out of Amin.’ I enthused.

“No one has been killed because of their art in Uganda.” Rwangyezi pronounced.

‘Not even Robert Sserumaga?’ I remarked

“Not even Sserumaga. If anything Oluyimba lwa Wankoko made a caricature out of Obote. This must have pleased Amin a great deal.” He further explained.

True, playwrights in the African Theatre Association were mapping their theatre on the European format, and were putting up some serious productions because they had worked with KATS and KADS. Byron Kawadwa, however, wrote for specific reasons.

In the early 70s he had two productions; Makula ga Kulabako (A Beautiful thing for Kulabako) and Oluyimba lwa Wankoko.

Makula ga Kulabako had been sponsored by the people who introduced empuuta (nile perch) to Lake Victoria. The play’s objective was to popularize the L. Victoria staple fish type, have people accept it.

Kawadwa and Sserukenya wrote Oluyimba lwa Wankoko to take part in a competition for the African Opera initiated by the Professional African Artists that was based in Nigeria.

In Uganda a competition was setup in search of a good Ugandan opera. Whoever emerged winner would go to Nigeria. Professor Mbabi Katana entered the competition with The Marriage of Nyakato;

Cosma Warugaba entered Omuhiigo; Kawadwa and Sserukenya submitted Oluyimba lwa Wankoko. With Kawadwa writing the play and Sserukenya composing the music.

It is thought that Katana’s production had won, however Kawadwa declared  himself  the winner and went to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, Kawadwa and his troupe were hosted by one Erisa Kironde a Ugandan exile. It was here that the seed that led to his death was sown.

Erisa Kironde just like many Uganda People’s Congress party members was forced into exile when Amin overthrew Obote. At Kironde’s house, he found a minister in Amin’s government. When this minister returned to Uganda,  he told Amin that “that man (Kawadwa) is organizing a guerrilla.”

Kawadwa and his troupe returned to Uganda, Amin even invited them to perform the play at the state lodge.

Much as the play was a veiled attack on the suppression of people’s liberties in Uganda then, Kawadwa was killed because he went to Erisa Kironde’s house. It was thought he was working with exiles to undermine Amin’s regime.

Robert Sserumaga’s most famous play is Majangwa; a satirical piece about a man who walks around playing a drum and making love to his wife on pavements to the amusement of paying crowds.

Sserumaga joined one of the many guerrilla movements that sprung up in the course of Amin being overthrown. He too didn’t die because of his art.

Ndere Troupe

Rwangyezi started Ndere Troupe in 1984. Around this time he was a teacher at three different schools; Buganda Road Primary school, Lubiri Secondary school and another school in Kasese.

He and his fellow teachers from Lubiri Secondary school came together to start Ndere Troupe.

He wanted to express Ugandan Art in a Ugandan way. He wanted a theatre that would communicate across the board––present Uganda in its entirety so that people would not be under the illusion that there was only one language spoken in Uganda; i.e Luganda because that is what was happening at the time.

He devised a method in which a story exploring contemporary topics was woven into traditional music and dance. They’d have a character run through the production speaking English while the rest of the ensemble responded in vernacular.

The ensemble would ask questions in vernacular, the main character to answer in English by way of translating for the audience.

With the group in place, Rwangyezi approached his boss at Buganda Road primary school and asked to stage a show for the pupils. The headmaster, an Indian gentleman gave him permission.

On the day of the show, at the first sounding of drums, the headmaster who rarely left his office didn’t walk but sprinted to the hall to stop the madness.

The notion that African drums invoked evil spirits was alive and it was demanded that Rwangyezi and group leave the premises right away.

A funny thing happened as the Troupe made its way out of the school. As if possessed by ‘evil spirits’ the pupils excitedly and imploringly followed them.

Luckily for both the performers and the children there was an empty hall at the YMCA center (Young Men’s Christian Association) near the school. It was here that the performance resumed and ended on a high.

In 1984, Rwangyezi went to the National Theatre to get a booking for their first stage play Munaku. Unfortunately, Munaku had been written in English and had different design from the usual productions, National Theatre declined their request.

Hiring the auditorium required money which they didn’t have. The basis for granting an artist a booking was on whether a play would generate good revenue.

From gate collections, management took 60% and the remainder was given to the artist. No one believed the audience would buy into Munaku, though. They made two more attempts to get a booking in 1985 and 1986 in vain.

New Political environment, different Scenes

In 1987, they thought that inviting someone from higher places would solve the problem. The late Dr. Samson Kisekka, then Prime Minister was invited as guest of honor.

This didn’t sway the stance of the management of the National Theatre. They ended up renting space at the City Hall, and booking two shows on a Sunday.

The first show was slated to start at 10am, a lot of people turned up. How many? Three! The Chairman of the Troupe, his wife and the guest of honor, nonetheless the show had to go on, for a whole three hours.

For the afternoon show, nobody turned up, janitors were rounded up and given a free show.

This experience left Rwangyezi determined not to go back to a public stage for at least five years.

During this time he decided he was going to cultivate his own audience. First they traversed the country performing in schools; then between 1988 to 2003 they put up a free show every Sunday at the then Nile Hotel.

The purpose was to introduce traditional music and dances, fused with a blend of dramatic skits to tourists and Ugandan families returning from the diaspora.

In addition to the main performances, he worked with children, and parents loved that. When Ndere Troupe returned to the National Theatre to stage Munaku, they had a following.

Everyone who had enjoyed the free shows was paying to get in. After Munaku, The Trap followed in 1990. The same year he became the House Manager of the National Theatre.

As House Manager, Rwangyezi was able to influence the quality of productions and what was allowed to go on stage. This wasn’t enough to curb artistic mischief.

There is a group that did a show that ‘got out of hand,’ Rwangyezi recalled.

It all started when he found patrons supposed to be inside the auditorium for the evening show idling in the lounge at 3pm.

On inquiring, he was told that the first show was still going on. So he went back stage to find out what had happened.

Omanyi, omuzanyo gwanyumye nnyo nnyo netwongeramu. Kati tetumanyi bwetugumala.”

(The play is so good, we ended up adding some things,  but right now we don’t know how to end the play.)  the performers stated.

A new ending had to be designed. Someone had to stab someone for the play to end. Everyone muttered; ‘Kikola Kikola!’ (That will do! That will do!) in agreement.

Watch this space for (Part III), the final piece!!!