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Out of East Africa

The show must go on for Uganda orphans and Batwa pygmies, in the wake of cross-border violence, civil wars, disease and devastation

by Lynn Nottage

How far will you go to find a play?

I found my answer last summer when on a whim I purchased a plane ticket to Uganda in hot pursuit of an idea. Director Kate Whoriskey and I had long bandied about the notion of creating a theatre piece centered around the lives of women and girls caught in the middle of the devastating armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was all wonderfully abstract, until I convinced Kate that the only way to understand the physical, social and psychological consequences of war on women in Africa was to hear the firsthand accounts of those directly affected by conflict.

Kate was deep in the process of directing my play Fabulation at New York's Playwrights Horizons when I surprised her with the news that I had bought a plane ticket online. We had discussed going to Africa for months, but I knew that if we didn't act immediately our window of opportunity would close and our dream would never come to fruition. I suggested Uganda, "the pearl of Africa," for its proximity to DRC and Sudan. In addition, its relative stability made it an attractive destination for refugees from throughout the Great Lakes region of Africa. Uganda is a safe haven to one of the largest refugee populations on the continent; it currently hosts hundreds of thousands of nationals from the neighboring states of Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia.

Forty-eight hours later, Kate too had bought a ticket to Uganda. The day after Fabulation opened we boarded a plane to Africa, the motherland. And as we flew across the Atlantic with no clear-cut itinerary, I wondered about what sort of theatre we'd encounter in a region of the world under siege by war, poverty and AIDS.

Where to go next?

Five inoculations later, armed with antimalarial prophylaxis and the Lonely Planet guide to East Africa, Kate, my husband, Tony Gerber, and I arrive in Uganda. We deplane with a bevy of overfed Midwestern missionaries wearing T-shirts with slogans like "I'm on Christ's team" and at least one aging cowboy journalist who is heading to the northern Ugandan conflict zone to write an article for Vanity Fair.

Upon our arrival in the capital city of Kampala, a traffic-choked city of leafy hills, I immediately hit the coin-devouring payphone in the lobby of the unfortunately named Tourist Hotel. I spend more than an hour running through a lengthy list of research contacts provided by friends from U.S.-based human rights organizations. I reach no one. Apparently everyone is either on vacation until the following week or at a conference in Kenya. We don't panic. We decide to experience Uganda and reconnect with our contacts in a week. This is a blessing in disguise, as it will allow us the opportunity to see theatre in Kampala and explore the countryside. But we soon discover that there isn't anything playing at the National Theatre of Uganda until next week. We've arrived a week too soon for everything.

We are thrilled when Deborah Asiimwe, a Ugandan theatre artist I met at the Sundance Theatre Lab, invites us to attend an evening of sketch comedy organized by a group of artists called the Theatre Factory. The performance space is nestled in the back of a crowded nightclub, and the room is filled to the brim with trendy Kampalans. The humorous sketches lampoon rigid social and cultural mores and are performed in a mixture of Luganda and English. The talented cast keeps the evening flowing, and the laughs come quick and easy. Deborah explains that the Theatre Factory is popular because young people sense that they are part of new form of cultural expression taking root in Kampala. It is the first of several theatrical events that we'll see in nontraditional venues in Uganda.

On the road

We leave Kampala at dawn, traveling at a NASCAR pace. Our driver, Kayondo Wahabu, uses his horn promiscuously, with little regard for pedestrians. It is a harrowing ride, which is further exacerbated by the hordes of cockroaches that emerge every time we hit a speed bump. We move so quickly that we barely have the opportunity to enjoy the verdant Ugandan landscape. And after eight hours of travel, we realize that no one in the car, including our driver, has any idea where we are going.

I won't go into the sordid details of our first few days, but let me just say I had a near-death experience, lost a large patch of my hair to grade-five rapids on the Nile, and managed to get into an ugly altercation with some rowdy Australian tourists, which culminated with the throwing of pineapple and watermelon rinds. We survived the requisite flat tire, lost our way more than once, and had to discourage our driver from giving a ride to a stranded 18-year-old in a worn military uniform brandishing an AK-47 near the Congolese border. But mostly we meet warm, generous, beautiful folks eager to share their culture with us.

We arrive at the scenic Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to go gorilla-trekking. The lush mountainous park straddles the border of the DRC and Rwanda, and is one of the few remaining homes to mountain gorillas in the world. We choose the Buhoma Community camp site, because it is run communally by local villagers. We later learn that it is one of the sites where eight tourists and six park rangers were murdered in 1999 by Rwandan guerrillas.

Little trace of the tragedy lingers in the air, but we remain aware of being close to the volatile Congolese border. In fact, eight soldiers and two park rangers accompany us on our gorilla trek, far outnumbering the tourists in our group. It is a sobering reminder of the fractious peace that can be ruptured at any moment. And when we catch up with the troop of gorillas, we gaze in awe, knowing that their numbers are few and that this moment is fragile.

Later that evening, back at the camp, we find ourselves in a lively conversation with a group of local Ugandan officials congregated at the campsite. We share waragi, the locally distilled banana liquor, and colorful anecdotes for nearly two hours. At some point, feeling relaxed with the company, I dare to bring up the issue of AIDS and the toll of civil conflict in the region. Their demeanor instantly shifts. A pall of darkness descends, and their eyes turn to stone. "We used to go to a funeral once a day, now we go every other day, that's progress," confides Bwiza Charity Joy, program manager of the forest conversation trust. I avoid asking any more difficult questions, allowing the laughter and levity to return. I realize it is a necessary salve.

As if on cue, a parade of 50-odd orphan children, ranging in age from 4 to 18, dressed in roughhewn traditional costumes, march in procession onto the campsite lawn, transforming the grassy space into a stage. Fifty brown eyes turn to us, demanding our undivided attention, and we find ourselves a captive audience. Three chairs mysteriously appear beneath a large tree, and we sit, an audience of three.

The orphans treat us to a rather striking and unexpected theatrical event. I must confess we were initially a reluctant audience, fearing a lackluster tourist folklore show. But the orphan children perform beautiful praise songs and courtship dances with such pride, joy and exuberance that it's impossible to resist their charm. There's something soothing about the ancient rhythms and the harmonic blend of their young voices. Kate, Tony and I quickly overcome the self-consciousness of being the sole audience members and surrender to the emotions that the performance conjures up.

At the end of the performance, which lasts just under an hour, the director makes an impassioned plea for donations, and the children display homespun handicrafts and hand-drawn renderings of gorillas sketched in ballpoint pen. The director explains that the village was overrun by homeless children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and the civil conflict. There are currently more than million children orphaned by AIDS and warfare living in Uganda. In response to the crisis, the Bwindi community banded together to form the Bwindi orphanage and school, where children are taught traditional handicrafts, songs, dances and stories, with the goal of restoring self-esteem and preserving the history and traditions of the region. (Beginning in January 2006, Children of Uganda, a professional troupe of 20 orphan children ranging in age from 8 to 18, will tour the U.S. to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis and funds for the Uganda Children's Charity Foundation.)

When all is quiet and the night sky complete, we're left to ponder our complicated feelings about the theatrical presentation. I can't quite place my discomfort. After a couple of glasses of waragi, I realize that it is because it is theatre of necessity, a kind of performance tradition that we don't often encounter in the United States. Theatre of necessity is a ritualized performance event designed for audiences seeking authenticity and purity of indigenous culture. Economic reality necessitates that indigenous people like the Bwindi orphans exploit their own culture in order to survive. Some aspects of traditional cultures will only survive because they have been theatricalized for audiences seeking authenticity. The reality of the situation is that certain indigenous rituals are exoticized and packaged for consumption and drained of their original meaning—but, as in the case of the orphan children, that doesn't mean that the beauty and cultural resonance of the work is entirely diminished. Theatre of necessity is perhaps the fastest—growing and most prevalent form of indigenous theatre throughout the third world, yet it's rarely discussed.

Idi Amin's ghost

We celebrate Kate's birthday on the shores of glorious Lake Bunyonyi. The shell of Idi Amin's old villa haunts the landscape. As the sun sets, we watch evening commuters paddling home in eucalyptus canoes.

Near Lake Bunyonyi we experience the phenomena of the theatre of necessity in a much more profound way. Jackson, the handsome manager of the camp where we're staying, encourages us to visit a remote Batwa (pygmy) village on the border of Rwanda.

Kayondo, our driver, has never been to a Batwa village and asks to join us. Getting there involves crossing the breathtaking Lake Bunyonyi in a motorized pirogue and an hour-long walk along a narrow goat path. Jackson serves as our guide, and is inexplicably dressed in a three-piece suit despite the rigors of the walk. His formal presence is incongruous in the landscape populated by hardworking peasants dressed in secondhand clothing from America.

Kate, Tony, Kayondo and I arrive at the Batwa village, half expecting a refreshment stand and walking tour, but what we encounter is a devastating display of abject poverty and degradation. Many of the adults and children show signs of malnutrition, disease and infection. Green pus oozes from one little girl's eyes, in what looks like the most serious case of conjunctivitis I've ever seen. An elderly woman no larger than a child wears a worn cloth that is so filthy that it's become rigid. We learn that this particular Batwa community recently fled to the Ugandan side of the border after much of their clan was wiped out by Rwandan soldiers. Impoverished and without practical skills, they've been relegated to the lowest echelons of Ugandan culture. They are forced to beg and perform for their very survival, a role that pygmies have unfortunately been cast in for generations.

Tourists rarely visit their compound, which is hidden near the top of a steep hill overlooking the site of a Rwandan massacre. We've come to them because the village elder died the day before our arrival and mourning has prevented the Batwa from making their usual weekly pilgrimage to perform at the marketplace. To our surprise, the elder is still present-he's buried beneath a massive pile of stones in the center of the shanty settlement, where he will lie until his body decomposes. Their grief is apparent; our presence feels very much like an invasion of privacy. Jackson, nevertheless, encourages the Batwa to take an impromptu vote on whether or not to perform for us.

Honestly, we wish they wouldn't. But with the elder gone, no one in the community wants to assume sole responsibility. The majority rules with a single handclap. They turn to the elder's daughter, who raises her arm in a sweeping gesture that we interpret to mean "the show must go on."

They sit us on a crooked eucalyptus bench and proceed to sing and dance with great intensity. The cumulative effect of the entire experience leaves us teary-eyed and emotionally depleted. So much so that when the Batwa invite us to join the ecstatic dance, we're unable to muster the energy. We watch as Jackson, in his three-piece suit, stamps out a rhythmic response to their hardship, as if reassuring them that they're not alone. Again we witness culture as performance, the theatre of necessity.

And, in the end, we all, including Kayondo, perform our side of the contract by sharing whatever money we have in our wallets. Kate is compelled to give the little girl with the pus-filled eyes her jacket, and extra money to buy antibiotics. On the way back to our pirogue, the Batwa parade behind us banging rusty cans and makeshift drums, boasting to the farmers laboring in the fields that they'll be able to buy food and waragi. Along the walk, I reach behind to clasp my husband's hand, and feel warm fingers close around mine. After a few minutes I turn around to find a small Batwa man smiling at me, holding my hand with no self-consciousness. It is a gesture of kinship.

We are silent as we cross the lake back to the campsite with Jackson. I wonder whether he's conscious of the power of this theatrical event. I also wonder how many times a month he brings people on this long emotional journey. We later realize that even though we paid for fuel and transport, the gas used to power the pirogue was siphoned from our car, leaving us on empty.

Isis lives

Kate, Tony and I return to Kampala, exhausted and covered from head to toe in red dust from hours of travel along dirt roads. We manage to reach our research contacts and are rewarded with a wealth of resources. Amnesty International and a local refugee organization arrange for us to interview 15 refugee women from the Sudan and the DRC. It is, after all, the reason we've made this pilgrimage to the motherland.

The stories of the refugee women—all victims of rape and torture at the hands of armed forces—are heart-wrenching, horrifying and poignant. They are told with dignity and conviction, and we feel honored to be entrusted with their personal narratives. Their stories literally take my breath away. The long afternoon proves to be one of the most emotionally taxing experiences of my life.

I ask how they find the strength to go on. "We must live our lives" is their refrain. I'm awed by their resilience. Their words have a catalyzing effect, and we leave feeling like warriors ready to act.

That evening we have the option of seeing a show at the National Theatre of Uganda, but decide against it. The idea of a conventional evening of theatre seems less than inspiring after all that we've experienced.

I leave Uganda pondering the notion of theatre of necessity, intrigued and saddened by how cultures under threat are forced to exploit their own traditions for the sake of survival. It's ironic, however, that the first time many of us will encounter certain cultural traditions is as theatre, and one can only hope that there comes a time when people are able to perform their stories, songs, dances and rituals for audiences not because they have to-but because they want to.

Lynn Nottage is a playwright from Brooklyn. Her most recent plays include Intimate Apparel and Fabulation. An anthology of her plays, Crumbs from the Table of Joy and Other Plays, is available from TCG Books.