Volume 16 Number 3
Acting up for Peace
01 June 2003

When a group of Ugandan children was asked to put on a play, they chose war and reconciliation as its themes. Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare worked with them.

During the 1979 Liberation War in Uganda, my village was a battlefield. With bullets whizzing over our heads, we herded our cattle into the kraal, snatched a few belongings, and ran for the mountains. My mother was heavy with her seventh-born and could not keep up, so we had to leave her behind in the next village.

Two days later, the grown-ups sent us young people back to our village to look for food. They thought we would be less likely to be captured and conscripted. I was 15, and this sounded such an honourable duty to perform for our families. Off we scampered, with an immeasurable sense of excitement and freedom.

On the way, we did things we would never have dared to do before. We broke into people's deserted homes and feasted on the food we found. We ate their sugarcane, mangoes, bananas and other fruits. It was all a merry-go-round until we reached the village where we had left my mother. She was okay, and had given birth normally, but the victorious troops were on the rampage, looting homes and raping women and girls. We were hushed into hiding under the beds behind stacks of ripe yellow bananas. By now, the soldiers were weary of eating bananas, and would move on after a casual chat with our grandmas, strategically positioned in the living room.

This was just one of my country's 'liberation wars'. Civil unrest in Uganda had intensified since Amin came to power in 1971 and was not to subside until 1986 when the present government took control. There is still conflict in northern Uganda.

This experience of war has inspired me and some of my age-mates to use our careers in theatre and the arts to advocate coexistence and peaceful living. In particular, I have produced two children's plays for the Uganda Theatre Network (UTN), a community theatre initiative which is part of the Eastern Africa Theatre Institute.

Dustbin Nations (October 2000) was composed and performed by a group of seven, aged from nine to 17, from different parts of Uganda. We had been invited to perform at a youth festival in Ethiopia, and our initial plan was to take entertaining songs, dances and stories. But the children wanted to present something that would reflect what they saw and heard around them daily; something that told of Africa's present and future dilemma.

The play they created revolves around three sets of people in a refugee camp, where tribal hatred leads to the stabbing of a mother of two. The poignant tragedy is the way the grown-ups use the children: the killer asks a 12-year-old to steal a weapon for her in return for meat. The 12-year-old's father later asks, 'Why should wars, poverty, famine, and diseases be the trademark in Africa? The children we maim and orphan are the leaders of tomorrow; give them the peace and love they deserve.'

At first, taking part was heavy for the children, as the plot was close to their own experiences. The mother, for instance, was played by a 16-year-old former refugee of northern origin, who had known war all her life. Her father lives in some sort of exile in London and her mother died in early 2001. As a result of war and Aids, child family heads are not uncommon in some parts of Uganda: in playing the mother, she was acting out her life experience.

Three of the children came from the former Luwero Triangle in Central Uganda, the scene of intense fighting in the early 1980s. Their parents had been displaced, they had lost close relatives in the war and had seen young relatives conscripted. The mother of two of them died of Aids in mid-2001; their father now performs with them in a community theatre group.

In the first week of rehearsals the children were uneasy and unwilling to open up. Even though the story was their idea, we wondered if it was unfair to make them act out these experiences. But the outcome was good. The children became good friends, and have continued to support each other, and we have kept in touch with them since the project ended.

The second play, The Chief of Shumankuzi Village, was written in a similar way, by a group of Ugandans and Ethiopians aged from 12 to 22. They lived and worked together for three weeks in Kampala before they came up with their one-hour production on corruption.

The play tells the story of a village chief who openly cheats a blind boy of his money and physically assaults a widow. Since none of the adults seem to care, the children work together to expose and confound the chief's corrupt tendencies, enlisting the assistance of some circus artists. The play also emphasizes issues of disability, cultural pluralism and regional cooperation.

Five of the children who took part in the play had disabilities-one was blind, another lame, two were deaf and one had mental problems. They performed it five times at the National Theatre in Kampala. Ambassadors and government ministers were in the audience.

As directors and producers of UTN we have also taken theatre to the areas of Uganda which are still experiencing conflict. We have worked with women and young people in the Bundibugyo Refugee Camp in western Uganda, and are now preparing to work with internally displaced people in camps at the heart of the war area in northern Uganda.

Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare is a playwright and Head of Music, Dance and Drama at Makarere University, Kampala.

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