Listening to the Women of Uganda

Gulu District is a long way from Denver, but not beyond the reach of theatre

By Douglas Langworthy

September 19, 2011

What is a mild-mannered, mid-career, borderline-geeky dramaturg from Denver, Colo.—that’s me—doing in Uganda, of all places?

Let me explain. Two years ago the Denver Center Theatre Company, where I work, chose Lynn Nottage’s Ruined for its 2010–'11 season. This masterful play documents the brutal toll the 20-year civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has taken on that country’s women, and it all but screams for some sort of public response. By putting our tentacles out into the local community, we connected with Karen Sugar, founder of the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund. WGEF works with women in Gulu, Uganda, who are recovering from the abuses of a related and concurrent war. The women are given education and micro-loans to start small businesses, transforming the quality of life for themselves and their families.

Since Uganda’s recent history parallels in significant ways that of the neighboring DRC, Karen was able to serve as our advisor on the production, talking to the cast, giving a lecture and participating in a number of talkbacks. On the second day of rehearsal she facilitated a spirited face-to-face Skype session between the Denver actors and five women in Uganda. That experience galvanized the cast, giving them an urgent sense of the reality behind the script.

We also discovered a surprise connection between the women in Gulu and our theatre: For three years these women have created a drama festival to help them give voice to a number of issues critical to their lives. The women write, direct and perform plays for their families and their community. And that is why, with the backing of the Denver Center, I am traveling to Uganda to attend their fourth annual drama festival. Each year the women choose a theme, this year’s being a woman’s right to own land, a big issue now that many of WGEF’s clients are farming and running agribusiness projects.

And so I find myself here in Kampala, the first stop on my trip to Gulu. Kampala is a sprawling, smoggy city that reminds me of Mexico for its lush vegetation and the former East Germany for its boxy, Soviet-style buildings. Everyone seems to be going somewhere, some in the large taxi-vans that are always filled to bursting, others in motorcycle cabs that rent out their back seats to anyone in a hurry. Large herons fly through the center of downtown, nesting in the tropical trees that line the main boulevards.

Uganda is a landlocked equatorial country in eastern Africa, bordered on the west by the DRC, on the north by South Sudan, on the east by Kenya, on the south by Tanzania and on the southwest by Rwanda. Uganda was a British colony for almost 70 years; when the country received independence in 1962, Milton Obote became its first prime minister. Eventually, in 1971, Obote was overthrown in a military coup by Idi Amin, whose bloody, corrupt regime lasted for eight years. After Amin was deposed, the country had several leaders until, in 1985, Yoweri Museveni seized the reins of power. For the past 25 years he has attempted to steady the country, despite his inability to quell rebellion in the north (where Gulu is), instigated in 1987 by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2007, Kony was finally chased off into the DRC, after nearly a generation of bloody civil war.

September 20

The ride north to Gulu is long and at times very bumpy. The closer we get to Gulu, the worse the roads get. But the trip is quite scenic. The area around Gulu is known for its agriculture, and I can see corn, limes, tomatoes and cabbages growing. The most exciting part of the trip is when we suddenly come upon the Nile River, known in these parts as the “White Nile,” which is, appropriately, a torrent of white water.

After about five hours on the road, we arrive in Gulu. As soon as I’ve checked into my hotel, the power goes out. I have no idea how long this will last. I’m glad I bought a little battery-powered lantern at Walmart. My bed has a mosquito net suspended over it, as this is malaria country. I’ve also been taking anti-malaria pills and I’ve got super-strong insect repellent. The adventure begins.

September 21

Downtown Gulu resembles a town from a movie western, with its dirt streets and one-story buildings. As in Kampala, these streets are always bustling with activity. SUVs belonging to U.N. agencies zip by, antennae waving, although in general there are fewer cars—here pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists rule the road. In the afternoon you see schoolchildren walking in pairs or small groups wearing brightly colored school uniforms.

The first order of the day is to attend a rehearsal for one of the plays to be presented at the drama festival. The women are rehearsing in a shaded area between a few huts (the round buildings with thatched roofs that are traditional here). This particular group of women came together because they all work at the local rock quarry.

While I can’t understand Acholi, the local language, my translator tells me the play is about a woman with four children who, when her husband dies, is thrown out of the house by his relatives. The same thing happens at her parents’ house. Then comes a comic scene in a bar where everybody is drinking and dancing, and finally the mother ends up in pleading her case to the tribal elders and a judge. This is all performed in agit-prop style, with broad characters, a generous dose of humor and a big social message—the play’s tone and structure remind me of Brecht. The acting is full-throttled—these women throw themselves into their roles like there’s no tomorrow. As an epilogue, they perform a group song and dance, sung to a traditional melody but with loose, improvisatory elements.

This is a scene in a bar from the middle of Winnie’s play. All of the women wearing pants are playing men. This scene would be an audience favorite.


This song and dance section that ended Winnie’s play is a celebration. The woman on the right who dashes back and forth was known for her portrayal of men.

In the afternoon I am taken to the aforementioned rock quarry outside of town, where many WGEF clients work. Although the work is hard, the quarry provides a lucrative and popular business opportunity. Women rent a little piece of ground to work on; they buy large pieces of stone from the men, who carve them from a huge rock outcropping; then they use mallets to break the rock into pieces small enough to be resold to contractors for use in making cement. When the gravel truck arrives, women fill five-gallon containers and carry them on their heads to the truck, where they are paid for each load.

In the quarry, this woman is breaking stone into gravel using a heavy mallet. Notice how close she comes to hitting her fingers. The goggles were provided by Women’s Global Empowerment Fund.

The work is arduous, repetitive and even dangerous, as rock shards fly in every direction. WGEF had recently supplied its clients with safety glasses. The next protective wear they need is work gloves—when I ask them what sorts of injuries they get on the job, they all show me their scarred fingers. The women work eight hours a day, seven days a week. Many bring their children, who, when they are old enough, may work beside them. I ask a woman in her sixties what she does with the money she earns; she replies that she spends it on school fees for her grandchildren (all children pay fees to go to school in Uganda), food and clothing. Seeing them bent anonymously over their work, I have to remind myself that many of these women were in the rehearsal I saw this morning.

September 22

Today we head to the market, another common workplace for WGEF’s clients. A wide variety of vegetables, grains and fish are on sale in covered stalls: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, perfectly round watermelons, and peanuts that are pounded and made into peanut butter. As opposed to the quarry, where the work is intensely focused, the market is a more relaxed and social place, filled with small children, a place where everybody seems to know everybody. Many women use their first WGEF loan to open a stall at the market and eventually, with the help of a second loan and money they’ve saved, open a small business like a restaurant or café.

This evening WGEF holds a town-hall-style meeting of community leaders, WGEF clients and others to discuss land ownership by women. This is a hot-button issue in Gulu, so the conversation is lively, to say the least. A lawyer on the panel explains that the national constitution already grants women the right to own property, although traditional customs refuse to acknowledge this. The men in the audience are split on the issue, and by the end of the evening I see what these women are up against in this patriarchal society.

September 23

Today I visit Joyce, another WGEF client, who has a farm on the outskirts of Gulu. She greets us and starts proudly showing us around. First off, her animals: a milk cow and its calf, and a number of pigs. All of the stalls are clean and the animals seem happy and healthy. She started raising animals when she got an agricultural loan. The diversity of her crops is stunning: papayas (the largest I’ve ever seen), guava, corn, eggplants, peppers, sugar cane (which she grows for her children and grandchildren), mangos, oranges, limes, and much more.

As we wind our way between the trees and vegetables, she tells us that this property has been in her family for years. During the 20 years of civil war, she was able to stay on her land because, as luck would have it, the military barracks were just a stone’s throw away, meaning she and her family didn’t have to fear for their safety. Most other families in this part of Uganda were driven from their homes, landing in crowded and dangerous “internally displaced persons” camps. Those harrowing times come up rarely in polite conversation, although one woman we met in the market was missing most of her fingers.

Today I also meet Winnie Amone, the writer and director of the play I watched in rehearsal. She is a gracious, stately woman who exudes warmth, and she is passionate about the theme of this year’s festival—the barriers that prevent women from owning property are just one more way that women have been mistreated in her country. She’s adamant that women and men, boys and girls, should be treated as equal under the law and within the family: “When you have girls, that’s a gift from heaven,” she declares. She wrote her play in three weeks, working with a circle of women she meets with every Saturday. Stories and drama are a part of her culture.

I am also able to catch up with Grace Akello Ouma, another of the festival playwrights, whom I met last December when WGEF brought her to Denver. At that time Grace told us of her plans to run for local office. Not only did she run, she won the election. To make up for past discrimination, now one third of the local council must be women. Grace, who’s written a monologue that another woman will perform at the festival, believes that drama can change attitudes: “If you put [an issue] into a dramatic form, people will understand it best. So that is how we now are used to passing information to our community.”

I caught up with Grace during the intermission of the festival. Her monologue had already been performed and she was quite proud of it.

September 24

Today is the day of the drama festival. Arriving just before the show begins, I set up my Flip cam and iPad to document as much as I can. The event takes place on an open field behind an elementary school, with a raised stage and covered seating areas. Luckily, the weather plays along. The festival, with 10 performing groups of 10 or 15 women each, lasts a little over five hours, with an intermission during which lunch is served to the more than 250 spectators and participants. Performances run the gamut from plays and monologues to traditional dances. Every woman is wearing a yellow T-shirt with “Kikopo pa mon” emblazoned on the front, which means “creating a voice for women.” The event is covered on national television; the mixed crowd contains community leaders and politicians, husbands, sons and daughters.

All of the plays illustrate the theme of this year’s festival. The plots are similar to Amone’s play: A woman is thrown off her husband’s land when he dies and seeks redress from her family and the community. The moments of humor—many stemming from the outrageous performances of the women who play men—are met with delighted laughter. The women who specialize in playing men stay in character the entire day, creating mischief.

The festival was a mixture of plays, monologues and dance. This clip shows a traditional tribal dance featuring the hatchet and accompanied by drums and singing.

The dances, coupled with singing, are often accompanied by drums or other percussive instruments. Most of the dances are performed on the open ground between the six-foot-high stage and the audience, getting the spectators so excited that women often leave their seats to join in. This spirit of celebration turns the day into one big party.

A large group of children crowd in closely to watch. At the end of the day, as people are leaving and things are being dismantled, the deejay cranks up the music and the kids take over the stage, creating their own joyous after-party.

Watching these women enact their stories for their community affirms not only the empowering effect of self and group expression for the participants, but also the galvanizing power drama can have on those gathered to witness it. Using theatre as a civic sounding board goes back as far as the beginnings of theatre itself. The issue these women elected to champion, previously lurking in the wings, has now been pushed center stage in the public discourse.

“The power of theatre,” says Karen Sugar, after the festival has ended, “has given women a voice in northern Uganda—it has elevated the critical issues of inequality and the challenges they face to a community, regional and national level, allowing their voices to be heard loud and clear.”

September 27

I’m back in Kampala after an intense, eye-opening week in Gulu. I am struck by the many powerful women I have met on my trip, survivors all, who share the courage and fortitude of Mama Nadi in Ruined. Sugar strongly believes that women will always rise to the challenge when given the opportunity and support. I have to agree with her, given the example of Grace, who rose from the grim reality of the “internally displaced persons” camp to win local elected office, and perhaps will climb even higher. The festival itself may keep growing; in fact, plans are underway to build a permanent theatre in the town. The space would be available to the larger community, enabling the power of theatre and cultural celebration to reach deeper into the life of the region.

I’m thinking back to last July, when the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas held its annual meeting in Denver—I chaired a panel on local and international outreach based on four productions of Ruined. It was thrilling to learn about the types of public engagement Nottage’s play elicited—it challenges us to look beyond the walls of our theatres and become citizens of the world. The really interesting question is: Now that we’ve made some connections, what next?

Where might the Denver Center’s relationship with WGEF and the Gulu drama festival evolve from here? For one thing, Sugar is hoping to bring one of the Ugandan playwrights to the U.S. for the Denver Center’s annual New Play Summit, Feb. 10–12. What about bringing one of our commissioned playwrights or an actress from our production of Ruined to Gulu for next year’s festival? Or what about sending a director over to stage a play from our tradition with these women as performers—a play that would connect with their aesthetic and social impulses (something, say, by Brecht or Dario Fo)? It could be translated into Acholi and adapted by one of the festival’s playwrights to have increased local resonance.

What can we learn from the women of Gulu? Can we make our theatre connect in such a direct and dynamic way with our own communities? Can we interest our civic stakeholders and politicians in attending our performances? And what are the issues they need to hear about?

Douglas Langworthy is the literary manager and dramaturg of Denver Center Theatre Company. For more info about WGEF see www.wgefund.org.