In late July 2013, a friend introduced me to Aida Mbowa, who had recently graduated from Stanford University with a dual Ph.D. in drama and humanities. A few weeks earlier, Mbowa had made a big decision. She made up her mind to go back to live with her family in Uganda instead of staying in the States, because she thought the opportunities for work would be better there. Over coffee at a Harlem establishment, she and I had a stimulating conversation about international theatre and interdisciplinary art-making, and Mbowa invited me to attend the inaugural Kendu Hearth conference on “Innovation and Hybridity in African and International Performing Arts” in Kampala, which she was helping to organize.
How often does one get invited to Africa? My schedule was relatively flexible and something in my gut told me to say yes to this opportunity. “Say yes to life!” I kept telling my friends and colleagues. Kendu Hearth, I learned in short order, was to be a six-day event in Kampala, Uganda’s capital and largest city. It would be devoted—according to its principal organizer, a poet, fashion designer and theatremaker named Acaye Elizabeth Pamela—to “celebrating the many forms of arts that lead us across language, form, style, context, culture, race and ethnicity to embrace the future beckoning.” Kendu is the word for hearth in Alur, a Ugandan language from the West Nile region; the conference was named to evoke home, warmth and welcome—in both Alur and English. (An aside: Note the ordering of Acaye’s name—like some other Ugandans you’ll meet here, she makes a statement by putting her family name before her “Western” names, which can be seen as remnants of a colonial past.)
The Republic of Uganda is a landlocked territory about twice the size of Pennsylvania that contains many large lakes and 10 national parks, and is home to scores of different ethnic groups. No fewer than 40 indigenous languages are spoken within its borders, but English and Swahili are the official ones—an important clue to understanding the history of the country. Great Britain colonized this part of Africa in 1894 and created boundaries that forced together many different ethnic groups with their own cultures and political systems. Though Uganda gained independence in 1962, the cultural differences within the country have made it difficult to establish a working political community. Idi Amin, in power from 1971 to ’79, is the most infamous of Uganda’s dictators, and, so far, every president has come into power through a coup.
Yoweri Museveni took over the presidency in 1986 and brought relative stability and a measure of economic growth to the country. He was a welcome relief when he arrived, but now he has been in power for 28 years and the desire for change is palpable. Uganda is at a crossroads.
Museveni has been tightening his grip on the country. In late February, he made news around the world by signing an anti-pornography bill and an anti-gay bill that can put in prison for life anyone who wears a skirt too short or engages in any act that the authorities consider homosexual.
Meanwhile, these repressive measures aside, there are many exciting artists and intellectuals who are making bold choices with their work. Like my Stanford-educated friend Mbowa, they are hopeful that their art can have serious impact on the future of their country. I am lucky enough to meet several of them in Kampala—also known, I learn upon my arrival, as the City of Seven Hills.
Festival founder Acaye is one of my first new Ugandan friends. She describes the current situation in her country “as a woman experiencing the denial of her lover when she tells him she is carrying his child.” She sees theatre and art as “the new language of conversation. All else is very much talking at the situation, not with it.”
Acaye dreamed up Kendu Hearth last year as a way to encourage “intellectual discourse that allows the process of diverse creativity.” The conference’s hefty subtitle, with its references to good old-fashioned innovation and the less-familiar quality of “hybridity,” is a cue, she says, to the goal of forging “an emerging image out of our diverse identities.” Her expectations for Kendu Hearth are clearly high.
The conference week doesn’t disappoint—it turns out to be full of intense discourse with forward-thinking artists. As I adjust to the sensory impact of being in a new city and get to know the people, every day holds new discoveries about how the arts function in Kampala. At first it all seems so different from New York—but then, to my surprise, similarities begin to stand out more than the differences. It is refreshing to realize that wherever you are in the world, the conversation among artists will always be about two things: identity and funding. Who am I? What am I trying to say? Who are we? What are we saying with our art? How can I be seen as an artist rather than an “oppressed person”? How do I/we find the resources and means to do the work?
One of the artists I connect with is Mpaata Rogers Williams Otako. A powerful performer with a commanding presence and a twinkle in his eye, Mpaata does regular street performances with his company, Foursum Foundation, based on current events and newspaper headlines. He describes a particularly exciting performance in which he staged a fight between a man and woman so that the public’s beliefs about male/female relations were called directly into question—only afterward did spectators realize it was a performance. Mpaata acknowledges that many Ugandans don’t go to the theatre, so he believes street theatre is the way to make an impact. “Theatre is a mirror,” Mpaata says. “I reflect whatever is happening in our society. I make theatre of relevance, hoping to change the lives of people and my country in general.”
In 2012, Mpaata was one of the actors in The River and the Mountain, a play about the struggles of a young gay Ugandan businessman. The play opened at a small venue in Kampala and was scheduled to transfer to the National Theatre. But the night before opening, it was banned by the authorities. Ever since, the government has paid close attention to what Mpaata is doing.
With the signing of the recent bills, Mpaata has been forced to censor himself. He can’t do anything that might be construed as dealing with gay issues, because “you may not know if you have crossed the line or not. This bill has left no room of expression for creative artists like me.”
Given that the Foursum company works with current events and the anti-gay and anti-pornography bills have been all over the news, I ask Mpaata if they are planning to address these headlines. He says yes—they will address them somehow “in our next performance on April 21, 2014, at the National Theatre. However, we are not sure about the repercussions.”