Can tribal traditions bring together war torn Uganda?

As Uganda recovers from a conflict that has left thousands dead and millions displaced, I met Rwangyezi Stephen, director and founder of the Ndere centre but perhaps best known for his role in the 2007 blockbuster ‘The Last King of Scotland’. His aim? Nothing short of building a new Uganda based on traditional values

In 2005 the International Criminal Court announced that Joseph Kony, the leader of Lord Resistance Army, was a wanted man.

His Crime? To recruit thousands of child soldiers and to displace millions of residents across the north of Uganda.

It is estimated that his movement, the LRA, was responsible for the deaths of 300,000 Ugandans. The ICC arrest warrant for Kony stated that the

LRA is an armed group which has established a pattern of brutalization of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements; that abducted civilians, including children, are said to have been forcibly recruited as fighters, porters and sex slaves and to take part in attacks

The LRA developed out of the Acholi dominated Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) and a sense of internal tribal divisions within Uganda.  Specifically, a feeling amongst the Acholi that they had at best been tolerated, and more likely that they had been discriminated against by the central Ugandan government.

Rightly or wrongly, Uganda is often held up as the example of ethno-conflict.

With this in mind, I was interested to meet the actor Rwangyezi Stephen, the founder and director of Kampala’s Ndere centre.

With a beaming smile Stephen introduced his ‘culture centre’ as proof that “different and diverse cultures and tribes can come together to live and work for peace”.

The Ndere centre has its origins in a music and dance troupe that was founded in 1984. On the surface, the troupe simply bought together the different singing, dancing and musical traditions from across Uganda.

In practice, the Ndere centre and Stephen’s vision was something much more radical.

The aim was to transform the colonial myths surrounding the traditional performing arts in Uganda that suggested they were ‘evil or backwards’ into a modern celebration of the culture. A celebration that disadvantaged young people could take part in and use as stepping stone in life in modern Uganda.  Many of the young men and women there were receiving an education only because of the centre.

Like a pied piper, Stephen leads us through the perfectly green grounds of the Ndere centre. We pass a lively bar/cafe and a small shop selling traditional crafts with employees’ positively beaming back at us. Brimming with excitement and a literal bounce in his step, Stephen takes us into a small theatre where some his cast were waiting.

We sit opposite a score of young men and women who sit quietly chatting. Everyone waits for the master of ceremonies to take the next step.

Methodically, Stephen introduces each of them by name and by where they come from. The process is drawn out, theatrical but ultimately entertaining – something that I would learn to be a theme of the Ndere centre.

The process serves a point however – it illustrates the diversity of the performers.

Patiently, Stephen explains to this muzungu audience about the importance of music in traditional Ugandan culture. As he talks he picks up musical instruments made of bits of wood, old tins and plastic pipes that are scattered throughout the theatre.

For the next two hours we watch on as Stephen sweeps us through a whirlwind tour of Ugandan history, politics and culture. With each note from each instrument he or one of his cast draws out, another subtlety and distinction between the different peoples within Uganda is illustrated. It is an education for most of us muzungus, but I suspect, stating the obvious to some Ugandans.

What was obvious though for anyone to see was the confidence with which this collection of young men and women performed. The confidence clearly stemmed from an enjoyment of the art form they were performing – the performing arts from across the tribal divisions within Uganda.

To illustrate a point, Stephen asks why we thought Ugandan women could dance like they do and Europeans struggled to emulate. Some suggested practice, others confidence and a few murmured something about cultures.

Stephen’s answers was much more simple…start by bending your knees. As he said this he grinned and said “see” as he proceeded to shake his hips from side to side. The white, very bottom conscious crowd looked at the floor not sure how to respond.

Sure enough though, before long, Stephen had a room full of muzungus up dancing – well most of us anyway.

The session came to a close with an impressive display of improvised music played by dozens of young men and women.

I left the centre feeling inspired by Stephen’s enthusiasm and passion.

As I was walking out of the theatre back into the afternoon sun I caught up with Stephen to tell him that I thought what he had established at the Ndere centre was really impressive. His answer though was telling, for the first time that day, enthusiasm dropped from his voice as he said:

“I wish my government agreed with you. We do not get any government money to support this work, but we also struggle to get the performing arts taken seriously. You know, I used to perform with these instruments and people would walk out. ”

At the Ndere centre I found young adults raised in a war torn country not only living, studying and working together but young adults enjoying each other’s company and traditions.

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