Interview with a rebel: Ugandan cultural activist Stephen Rwangyezi
Stephen Rwangyezi is a fantastic storyteller with a compelling stage presence. What is more, he is a living, breathing – dancing! – Encyclopaedia of Ugandan culture.
In Uganda, Stephen is most famously known as the force behind the Ndere Cultural Centre and the Uganda Development Theatre Association. Internationally, he is perhaps better known for his role in the film The Last King of Scotland.
I was delighted when the Empazi Magazine commissioned me to interview Stephen Rwangyezi. Here are some highlights of our conversation: undoubtedly the most illuminating three hours of my five years living in Uganda.
We discussed dance and development; the impact of colonialism on traditional culture; the issues of homosexuality and born-again Christians; and that all important question: can you teach the Muzungu how to dance like an African?
A former school teacher turned Rural Agricultural economist, Stephen was the Director of the Uganda National Theatre and Cultural Centre from 1990 to 1994. In 2006 he played the character of Jonah Waswa, Idi Amin’s Minister of Health, in the film Last King of Scotland. He is a published author, with a string of films and documentaries to his name.
So Stephen, how did the Ndere Troupe come into being?
It was a practical response to the deep seated anger that had built inside me since childhood – seeing the great arts that gave me most genuine pleasure being derogated as primitive, backward and symbols of evil worship.
When I started the Ndere Troupe, I had two major goals. One was to restore dignity and integrity in the music and dance of Ugandan and African origin, and raise it to the status and look that it should be. For me, that loss of cultural pride was a disaster which led to the loss of self confidence and personal worthiness. So one of my main goals was to ensure that pride and dignity could be rekindled through dignified and artistically beautified cultural activities. The second goal was to work with disadvantaged boys and girls. It was child labour that kept me out of school until I was 15 years of age, but playing the flute got me into, and saw me through, school. Therefore, I wanted to organise boys and girls who had similar talents to mine and ensure that, rather than begging and moaning, they could utilise their talent capital to self actualisation.
In 1987 when I went to my village for a cousin’s wedding ceremonies, I noticed that there were groups of boys who feared HIV AIDS, known as ‘Slim’ in those days. Many people believed it was witchcraft but they had heard of something called a condom, which could kill Slim. So, the young men put some money together to buy one condom, and they used it in turns…. Something that was useful was now becoming dangerous.
I then asked myself: “How do I tell as many of these young people, as quickly as possible, that what they are doing is suicide?”
At that time in Uganda, there was only one newspaper, one radio station and only one TV station that only worked for four hours per day – all based in Kampala. Given that over 87% of the population lived “beyond the last mile” and were illiterate, I decided to use the familiar, attractive and friendly cultural music, dance and drama to spread the message.
Uganda was later credited for having brought down the incidence of HIV AIDS. This was how we did it.
The Ndere Cultural Centre and the Uganda Development Theatre Association
Ndere Cultural Centre has spawned a whole industry and nurtured a whole generation of talented dancers. Dancing, as I quickly found out, is a small part of a much bigger movement.
As with many Ugandan stories, the story of the Ndere Cultural Centre starts off under a mango tree, when a choirmaster and his students agreed to create a performing group that would “change the terrible image painted by colonialists that traditional dances were evil and that whoever performed them could never see eye to eye with God.”
This was in 1984. The group agreed to name themselves the Ndere (‘flute’) Troupe, since it was Stephen’s talent as a flute player that had saved and educated him. The flute was also perceived as the most unifying musical instrument, since it existed in every culture of the world. The group wanted to demonstrate to Ugandans (and the world) who had been engulfed in tribal wars for centuries that we all can share common beauty which already exists in our diverse cultures.
We decided to use music, dance and drama for other public education reasons. Later, when I was Director of the National Theatre, I still made sure I put on at least three plays a year, all across Uganda.
We realised that one group was not enough to effectively serve the whole country. The demand for the efficient dissemination of applied knowledge in different crucial fields was overwhelming. In 1997 the Troupe facilitated the creation of the Uganda Development Theatre Association. The UDTA grew like wildfire, and soon became a nationwide cultural network of development theatre groups, of which there are now 2,084 across Uganda.
Through UDTA, we take ideas from the local groups and create a national competition, equipping young people with life skills. One of the elements for the national competition is that every member of each group has to do a project, such as growing tomatoes. They then use the music, dance and drama to teach the adjoining communities how to implement this successful project. During the festival, the groups bring their produce and look for a market. Thus UDTA is not only about artistic and public education but a means of developing skills for self-sufficiency.
What has been the key to making traditional dance popular again?
“First, I had to upgrade and update the artistic and design quality of the music and dances – to make them more organised and to appeal to contemporary and rather unaware tastes. Remember that previously, the church and school teaching derogated these arts and manipulated the law to prohibit public presentation of these arts. Therefore the only social dancing was at night – without light. This meant that no one bothered about the choreographic designs, costumes, stage organisations, melodic development etc.
Once the artistic spectacle became impressive, I spent many years trying to get Ugandans to appreciate the beauty within traditional dance. I found the children not yet prejudiced therefore I offered free dance performances in primary and secondary schools. These had a wonderful reception. The Ugandan audience that we now have is the children of the 1980s that attended those free shows.
Secondly, every Sunday from 1988 to 2003 there was a free performance at the Nile Hotel (now the Kampala Serena Hotel). This helped to introduce these arts to the international communities, tourists and the middle class Ugandans that had returned from exile (having run away from the political turmoil that engulfed Uganda through the 70s and early 80s). The latter were rather nostalgic and keen to introduce their families to values they had long lost – and were therefore more receptive. This is how the audiences that now throng the Ndere Centre, hire us for social and corporate functions, or even invite us abroad, were cultivated
What do Ugandans of a certain age think about your cultural performances?
Throughout the entire colonial period and the post-colonial mismanagement, school, religions and government all worked hard to deliberately destroy Uganda’s cultural framework.
When I was growing up, The Idle and Disorderly Act (of 1918) forbade African dancing during the day. During the night, there was no electricity, so no one was looking at you dance. For that reason nobody developed the dances because you could only dance for yourself. The Witchcraft Act of 1957 was used to forbid the playing of drums and other traditional music instruments such as ensaasi (gourd rattles or shakers). Wearing of traditional attire and ornaments (such as bark cloth and cowry shells) was forbidden. These items were classified as witchcraft and therefore to be confiscated and destroyed by all law enforcing agents and law loving citizens – who inevitably were products of the same system.
Schools belonged to the church and the church ostracised anything cultural. It urged everybody to “shed off the old skin and be born again” lest one would end in the terrible smouldering eternal fire of hell. Children who were not baptised and confirmed in the schools’ faiths were not allowed in school. Practicing traditional arts was believed to be an indicator of low intelligence, which reflected inheritance of worse low intellectual capacity from one’s parents! What a stigma!
Even at university in Uganda, up to now, the Department of Music, Dance and Drama (MDD), is called Musiru dala dala in the vernacular, literally translated as ‘stupid through and through’. So, over time the “civilised” became antagonists against the growth of culture. The MDD in Uganda has degenerated to just accepting those who could not get admission for other professional courses, thus confirming the label of academic inability as the criterion for admission!
What other factors have helped turn this situation around?
From the days of Idi Amin and later, many people went into exile. While in the diaspora, they were confronted with cultural inadequacy and an identity crisis. On return to Uganda, they had nostalgia for their own culture, so they brought their children along to the Ndere Troupe to try and introduce them to what they had missed. We also took deliberate steps to channel some of own school sponsored troupe members into teacher training, so wherever they taught in primary schools they also taught traditional arts.
President Museveni has also helped. He has been culturally sensitive. Besides reinstating the cultural leaders and kingdoms, he regularly invites the Troupe to perform at functions. This raised the status of the troupe/traditional artists in the perception of the public, setting a new trend. More and more people and organisations started including these arts in their functions. The increased demand led more young and well educated people (especially Ndere graduates) to form more cultural troupes. Now you see that whenever there is a public function, there is always cultural dancing.
As if to prove the point, midway through the interview, Stephen answers his phone: Uganda’s Ambassador to Russia is booking seats for the Russian trade delegation.
“Yes your Excellency, we will see you at the show tonight.”
Top of my list of questions to Stephen was……. how do you select dancers? And can the Muzungu join too?
Recruitment is mainly for the talented and disadvantaged children whom the Troupe took tasks to look after and pay their school fees. Some dancers pay for their own training but the ones we stay with are those who really need it.
Most of the dancers go to school and others work in different places, so we only train on Sundays. None of them would come knowing all the dances. It takes time to learn them all.
For many people the Troupe is a big stepping stone. There are people who have stayed with us for 20 years and are now part of the management and training structure; but what is the use of education if you’re not going to be able to live on your own? The more people we can churn out, the better for the arts. This is development.
Can you teach the Muzungu how to dance like an African?
The centre is open to anyone wishing to learn how to dance. Some people come to us and ask “I would like to know how you shake your hips.”
“All us Muzungu girls want to learn African dance,” I say, and we laugh.
People ask if they can learn playing a specific musical instrument. Recently a lady came and asked if she could make an adungu. In her two weeks here, she made two.
Do you have any idea of how many dancers have passed through Ndere?
I have lost count. At the moment we have 72 dancers. It’s always been oscillating between 40 and 70 for the last 28 years.
I have just watched the show for the third time and it seems as fresh as ever. Does the show change much?
“While the structure of the show doesn’t change, we feature different dances of Uganda. These vary in rhythm, technique, purpose, use of body parts, costume, melody, lyrics and use of instruments.”
Stephen describes the show as “an exposition of Uganda” but it could equally be described as an exposition of Africa.
“Uganda is a microcosm of Africa”, he explains. This is not only a result of the movement of tribes and speaking of different languages but the diverse lifestyles of these peoples that has led to evolution of different types of music. The sedentary crop-grower has a house in which he can safely store delicate or large instruments, such as a drum or an adungu. For the cattle-keeper who is constantly on the move, “their music is composed of very light melodies and they carry flutes, fiddles and zithers. When you set the cows grazing, you don’t have anything else to do but sit, thus their music is poetic, based on the lyrics rather than the rhythms. Because Uganda is endowed with natural resources and good weather suitable for all these economic activities, all the African peoples are represented here and their art is performed by Ndere.”
I hear you are working on a new production. What is it about and what is it called?
The play is about the wider perspective of corruption: the ones who are being arrested in Uganda are not the ones who are corrupt nor the originators of corruption.
I normally don’t name plays until I’m finished. For now it’s called Goat’s Ears, from a traditional saying, that if I put the goat’s ears on me, the leopard can hate me, thinking I’m a goat.
What are your views on the 2012 play that got banned for featuring a homosexual character? People argue that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Africa. What’s your view?
I didn’t get to watch the play read the script, but what I got was the reactions to the story.
Uganda is no different from the West, it’s just a question of timing. There was a time when you went to the West and if you talked about homosexuality, there were very serious repercussions. Now, it is acceptable and even legislated for. The other problem is the unprecedented publicity in the Western media which is being perceived here as deliberate promotion. The same West that persecuted homosexuals yesterday, whose churches ingrained in the brains of their followers that homosexuality was mortal sin, is now the one spearheading the justification for it. People here find this rather confusing, hypocritical and therefore question the intentions for the sudden reversal. The Ugandans who followed and vehemently promoted the Western Christian teaching (where God’s word never changes), castigating and suppressing such practices in the African societies, now find themselves abandoned by the same ideological masters. They are rather embarrassed and do not know how to make the round about turn – hence the fanatic opposition.
Homosexuality has always been here in Uganda; there were even homosexual kings. We have words for homosexuality in the local languages: how could society name something if it didn’t exist?
The main challenge is fanaticism exercised by the so-called ‘born-again’s who I think actually work contrary to the teaching of the same Jesus they profess to follow. Jesus Christ on the cross was open to views of different types of people of all denominations. He said “now it is over for all sinners;” the curtain that used to separate Jews from Gentiles in the temple was torn and the darkness that had engulfed the world vanished! So where do the Christians derive the moral authority to castigate the so-called perverts?
You played the role of Jonah Waswa, Idi Amin’s Minister of Health, in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. Would you recommend people watch this film before they come to Uganda, or would you advise against it?
The problem is when you watch a movie it can turn you off something. However, it might be good to watch the film and then come here and see how much has changed since then.
When I went to the film launch in London and was asked to speak on behalf of all the actors, I said: “This is the first good thing that Idi Amin has done for our country – pointing a light on Uganda in a more entertaining and educational way. Out of all the countries with despotic leaders, past and present, I’m glad that you’ve chosen to highlight Uganda.”
Which words would you use to describe yourself?
“It’s not for me to describe myself, that is for others,“ he said humbly.
“There is a very subversive element to what you do,” I suggest.
“Absolutely. I’ve always known that I’m rebelling. I find that normally, people who create systems to conform to, are doing it for totally other reasons. What preoccupies me is trying to resist manipulative destruction, read the signs correctly and communicate for people who can’t do it for themselves before it is too late. That is what motivates me.”
What does the future hold for you?
“Our only worry for some of us is that we don’t have enough heirs. But at least we shall have done our bit.”
What is your message to the young people of Uganda?
I believe we all have something unique deep inside us. Look deep inside, find a dream you love the most and go for it. You can achieve a lot if you do not listen and bow to the discouraging forces. You can make an indelible mark if you do not try to be simply like the others. You have the energy.
Money makes things happen but it’s the motivation, the drive and the commitment that are important.
The Muzungu adds: Many thanks Stephen for taking the time to talk to me and Empazi Magazine. I could have sat all afternoon listening to you. I learned so much about Uganda’s history and culture.
This article was commissioned by the Empazi Magazine, the brainchild of Ugandan creative Arnie Petit.
Dear readers: If you haven’t been to Ndere’s excellent live show, you really must visit. It’s not just for tourists: last time I attended, the majority of the audience were African, from across the continent.