What About Uganda?
My most recent travels led me to Uganda where we were greeted by the Musuke god (rainbow god) whose light reigned over us during our welcome dinner.
For two weeks, about 15 students ventured to Kampala to participate in a cultural dance exchange whereby we (Americans) would learn traditional Ugandan dances along with students from Kyambogo University. We would come together as teachers who would pair up to choreograph dances with children who would then perform with us at the National Theatre four days later.
I write this, as I eat mindlessly in front of my computer. And my first thought is: “Wow! I haven’t done this in over 20 days.” And immediately with that thought comes a sinking feeling of solitude.
The root of all problems is expectation, and to avoid feeling this way, I need to realize that not every day will be as rich and exciting as the time that I spent in Uganda – I may not have incredible conversations over lunch every day, dance beyond my mental limits, or be inspired by a country that is pulsing with peace and acceptance, but my daily life can be an embodiment of this experience.
As one of our professors, Jill Pribyl, mentioned, “All humans come from East Africa. History tells us that the first human was found to live here, so if you feel at home, there must be a reason why.”
I hope that some of my learnings and stories make you feel at home:
There are 56 tribes in Uganda – 1/2 of which speak Bantu languages — all tribes consider themselves different peoples
Acholi /Acoli people are people who live North of the Nile who are called Northerners
- For the Acholi, dance is life; they have the biggest number of dances that are still in circulation
- The classroom for one to learn Acholi dances is the community and the people served
- Northerners — when the British came – they made northerners soldiers and part of armed forces in Buganda (South) – since they didn’t speak Lugandan, they were not liked
- The Acholi had war for 20+ years when children were given guns and as such there was a power/authority shift amongst adults and children, people of the North and of the South
- Because of this turmoil, dances were lost and transformed
- Bugandans speak Lugandan
- Acholi speak Luo
- Banyankole people speak Banyankole
- 50+ languages spoken in all of Uganda, but the Bugandan language is widely communicated
When colonizers came, the British decided that the Acholi were warriors, but previously, they considered themselves human beings and not even distinctively Acholi
The British made individuals bring all of their valuables to a centralized location, so that they were able to distinguish what was cherished by the locals, ultimately curating that into the Ugandan National Museum, which is the largest museum in East Africa
Uganda is the country
Buganda is a region within the country
In the South is Lake Victoria, so there is no Southern region
1955 – is the year that the Buganda parliament was built, which sits 8 times a year
- Built after the King made a trip to Northern Ireland – Belfast inspired this architecture
- At meetings, attendees must wear traditional wear — Kanzu for men and Gomesi – traditional garb for women
The king in 1856 was the first to be photographed; he sent mail to the Queen of England, requesting “more white people” to teach Ugandans how to read and write and to propel Christianity. He had 86 wives – At the time, the king would ask any/all women to serve as his wife; men would happily give up their wives to serve their king. He built the kasubi tombs for the kings and their predecessors.
Another king came into power at the age of 1 — married one official wife in church; at the age of seven, he went to Europe. Ideas he thought of while in Europe: table tennis, and the ideas that women should be able to go to school, eat meat, eggs and fish. He made a school for kings – Kings College Buganda.
King – father to the current king refused to make East Africa one Country — he was exiled in England then son came and built parliament
People love the Kingdom — queen/king establishment!
The Buganda kingdom is the most famous/organized kingdom in East and Central Africa, so it serves as a model for all Kingdoms in the region, which consult this one for advice.
Elder son is never king, only the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th son etc. can be — eldest son serves as a consultant.
Kabaka – Title for a King in Uganda if s/he is living – otherwise called a Busekabaka — a dead king, but kings are never really “dead” to Ugandans, instead, they’re “disappeared”
A king is a king for life, even if the king is not well liked by the people
Ssekabaka — predecessor to the kabaka
Gaddafi mosque is the second largest in Africa, donated by Gaddafi, who was a good friend of Ugandan royalty
Uganda – Kenya – Tanzania is the old East Africa — now includes Burundi, and South Sudan as parts of the region
Uganda has had the same president since 1986
1890 – first Ugandans to travel abroad for school
Model T – 1925 — first car driven in Uganda was driven by British Governor
Olympics 1956 – British lost soccer game to Ugandans even if Ugandans were not wearing shoes
The British helped to build the Buganda palace in 1922
There are 56 clans in the Kingdom, and each clan has a specific role in the tribe. Members of the Cow Clan, can’t marry other clan ladies from that specific Clan and cannot eat that specific animal.
Legend of a father and his three sons:
Kahimina (cattle leader)
Still, the descendants of these individuals remain king, cattle herders, and servants, respectively!
Bahima vs. Bairu – Bahilma— because they have cattle, they are wealthy — they depend on milk, ghee and butter – women of this tribe believed to be lazy
Bairu— tilling lead = getting wealthy, but slowly; both still trade and exchange services with each other
Dance is cathartic for all human souls, but as it relates to Uganda, dance is an expression of worship, celebration, preparation for marriage, honoring life, and even complaining about death.
In a circle, men are always to the right of the women, as a symbol of protection
As compared to traditional American dance, which focuses on elevating the body i.e. ballet, Ugandans “keep it low” i.e. akel dances, which are grounded and really use the floor to accentuate movements
Ugandans don’t create dances, they are taught dances as children in a religious, traditional or social setting; dance is part of Ugandan culture, whereas in the US, the culture is mostly closed to paying students of dance
Dances are fading out, as only people in the villages are learning many of them; those in the cities may learn traditional dances if they are a part of a cultural center that teaches dance
Dance learning methods: just follow and repeat, “we” mentality, no singling anyone out, no mirrors
1. Ekituguriro Dance:
- Dance comes from Western Uganda
- When men go to the fields, women go to the gardens
- Dance comes in because of the cattle
- Trying to mimic the cattle because they are prized and praised, going up the hills and down the valleys drinking water
- Jumping, thumping, stomping, hands held high hip movement, is a resultant of the footwork
- Mostly men dancing
- Vocal accompaniment – talking about the day – often holding a hidden message / events of the day – doubt entendres – as well as direct meanings
- Men secretly talking about women, and not exactly about “cows”
- Performed during joyful occasions, not during deaths
- Put on cattle skin
- Eat butter, drink milk
- Fabric comes from arabs/indians that came to trade
- Now commercial to some are paid to dance this
- Form of cultural preservation
- People earned through school/community
- Form of social affirmation form
2. Matuput Dance:
- Ceremonial Acholi dance to resolve conflict – was to bring everyone back together, fighters and those affected – everyone in the community from both parties
- Men and women had particular pre-established roles
- Now, individualism is more and more accepted, which means that women don’t need to marry, shifting power dynamics and as such, dance dynamics
3. Akel dance:
- Acholi youth dance, a social dance for boys and girls who are ready for marriage; gendered dance
- Men stand on right side of women as this side is a symbol of power and strength
- Circular formation, like a hut, where they would first perform this dance, so they are very compact in a close group
- The dance is grounded in different rhythms — the torso is leaning forward, no solos (as this is a communal dance), gender specific, knees bent
- Accompaniment: voice, drums, whistle (pirini), calabash, cow bells, beads around waist, and other string instruments as they may
- In contrast with the Banyankole people who are conservative, Acholi people wear mini skirts to show off bodies — if you (as a man) can’t dance well, you do not get a wife! Dance proves how well you are able to take care of the women
- When Arab Traders arrived with their fabrics, the Acholis wore more clothing, but initially just covered some body parts/private parts with animal skins
- Acholi women always wear beads (virgins) – but also used for dance
- Men danced for discipline couldn’t be aroused while dancing – taught how to behave through dance
- Circular – partners chose each other on the ring, but there were suggestions from family members as far as whom one should marry
- Akel Song – U U We-e —> No, I don’t want you! When a man comes to pick a lady for marriage, this is her response. | Akel lamin ma-a —> admiring her to the extent that s/he will be like his mother
5 Dimensions of culture —
1. Relation to authority
2. Conception of self — individualism vs. community
3. Concepts of masculinity vs. femininity
4. Ways of dealing with conflict
5. Longterm orientation
1. Relation to authority — Ugandans have a high level of hierarchical authority
Working with Ugandan Children — “be aware of the quiet ones” — Ugandan saying because Ugandan children tend to be quiet and reserved – a product of colonialism and top-down approaches to teaching, which focuses on not challenging authority, and as such it stifles creativity.
In large power distance cultures like Uganda, parents treat children not as equals, but as subjects that must respect adults at all costs.
- 2. Conception of self — individualism vs. collectivism Ugandans primarily associate themselves as part of a collective culture – identifying with their immediate family, extended family, clan, tribe, and kingdom. They expect protection in exchange for loyalty in a symbiotic social coexistence.In a more individualistic culture like that of the United States, friendships and even family ties are voluntary, allowing children to speak their mind as a sign of honesty rather than as a sign of discord with the larger group.
In a collective culture like Uganda, children think of each other as “We” — with the goal of harmony being maintained. Resources are shared and socialized in outdoor settings.
Values shared by the culture are considerations of what is moral vs. immoral, feminine vs. masculine, and good vs. bad.
This idea of collectivism influences ideas, especially the ideas expressed in public, which may be synonymous, but different and more individualistic in the private sphere. Again, this is with the ultimate goal of maintaining harmony.
For this reason, as teachers, we were told to find language that allows the children to think for themselves.
3. Concepts of masculinity vs. femininity
Greetings — not greeting mom when husband is around, no greetings if girl’s outfits are too short, too tight, and/or she is not married; these ideas alone hint at the gendered characteristics of traditional Ugandan culture.
However, during my short stay in Kampala, I was shown the highest forms of respect and acceptance as a woman and as a foreigner.
Patrilineal society – dad is the head of the home and woman is the main planner, is to bear children or man will find someone else; children are highly valued
Patrilineal society – dad is the head of the home and woman is the main planner, is to bear children or man will find someone else; children are highly valued
4. Ways of dealing with conflict – communal, traditionally by bringing both dissenting parties together, often through dance
5. Longterm orientation – i.e. do you think of the future in terms of tomorrow, 5 years, or 10 years from now? – Ugandans normally live in the moment.
Fire places were traditional educational places at night, only taught by elders of the communities
The Aguara (calabash) is a primary representation of Ugandans’ resourcefulness. It was used: to fetch water, to shower, as a plate for food, as a cup for drinking, as an instrument, a chair, an umbrella, a cover baby for rain, a pillow, and an alarm clock as women come and play the calabash to wake up their husbands.
Primary sources of entertainment:
- Mankala – Mwebo Game
“For God and My Country” is the motto of the country, which speaks to the depths of religion (Christianity)
Uganda is primarily a Catholic nation, with traces of Anglican and Muslim religions
Despite statistical representations of official religions, Uganda is a highly tolerant nation of all religions, promotes freedom of worship, and as such even has a Bah’ai temple!
“Dead bodies are respected more than living bodies” — made out of bark from the birch tree Walloombe — God of Death
Bangalore people – believe in God – Nyamhuanga
In 2009, the King celebrated his birthday with the Catholics, and in 2010, he celebrated his birthday with the Muslims, which speaks to the cultural understanding and collaboration of the country at large
“We thank God, known by many names” – Professor Grace announced before one of our meals, speaking again to Ugandan’s religious understanding
Uganda is a nation with over 50 tribes and many more languages, which may add to its tolerance of diversity
There is an increasing duality between conventional medicine and homeopathic medicine, and traditional spirituality and post-colonial religions, which seem to coexist organically
Coffee beans are one of the first meals that connects you to ancestral spirits in Buganda
If you are impotent in Buganda – it is believed that your parents or grandparents have a curse behind your family, so they come to Sseswiba Falls with beer and pots to offer their ancestral spirits
Belief in life after death complements Christianity
Twin ceremony — twins are highly valued, as they are known to increase population, also from the legend of the twin born Rivers — Waswa and Kato — Waswa is the firstborn
— ceremony, Bolo Laputa must be performed, otherwise it is known to bring diseases for the kids
Nnalongo – mother of twins
Ssalongo – father of twins
Bark cloths used as blankets and cloths used for initiation of newborn twins
Children are highly valued as part of the family and as an addition to the labor force, complementing the work of the cows
Individuals are distinguished from either the west or north regions of Uganda according to their last names
Mixed babies, lighter skinned babies are generally not treated well and seen as “half breeds”
VI. Role of Performing Arts
Frank, the director of Tender Talents Performing Arts Center, was once part of the N’Dere Troupe, the youngest of his group at the time who was always asked to train the incoming youth, and as such learned how to teach others. He has now been giving workshops all over the world for the past 17 years. “I don’t think that there’s a stage in Kampala that I don’t know.”
He has since returned to the community where he hosts 350 children in his center. He uses the arts to train the children in other disciplines, from history to geography and cited one of his students who said that “if it wasn’t for the art program, he wouldn’t have made it as a lawyer.”
We had the honor of watching one of their performances, which had been entirely choreographed by children. The lights stopped working and nails on the stage often hurt the dancers, but they kept going, speaking to their unwavering resilience.
“Once you do good things, good things come socially and physically,” Frank mentioned in response to someone who offered to build him a space for the performing art’s center, after he was asked where the children danced (previously outdoors).
This speaks to the power of performing arts as a vehicle for growth and transformation of individuals and societies.
For many children, like those whom we visited at the Break Dance Project, dance is an outlet for communal expression and an escape from poverty, most importantly the psychological and physiological stresses that come with it – through dance, the body does not speak poverty, it speaks freedom and connection.
As previously mentioned, dances are fading out in Uganda outside of villages where dance still form part of daily life: organizations like the N’Dere Center and Sosolya Undugu Center are keeping souls and culture alive.
At – Sylivia’s house — “I have 10 different types of jack fruit trees in my backyard, and each tree’s fruits tastes differently; I have no need to pay for fruit, I just ask my neighbor, and she just asks me”
Ugandans have lunch at 1pm
Millet (Akaro) is a staple food cereal — it is still the food that people use to welcome guests and dignitaries into their homes
Realization: saw many women eating alone in public spaces – in the city anyway
Lots of Indian and Chinese immigrants i.e. business men, so lots of Indian/Chinese food establishments and influences in food like pilau rice, which I am a fan of!
People don’t fry foods in the north, so it is generally “healthier”
- It is good to bring $100 bills minted after 2003 to ensure that they will be exchanged
- Tip isn’t required but it is highly appreciated by all service workers
- “Ugandans respect dead bodies more than live ones”
- Birds are important, many songs about birds
- Boda boda — “border border” motorcycles, as a primary transport in Kampala – called this way because they were used to transport people from Uganda to Rwanda
- Taxis – are group transport vans; “private hires” are taxis as they are more commonly known
- Uganda sits right on the equator, so 12 hour days, 12 hour nights — pretty great weather!
- Horns were once used for blowing & communication — before, one’s grandfather decided what partner you took, and announced it through specific horn blowing
- Takes three months for something to go from end of Nile in Uganda to Egypt
- Every president of the US that is elected prompts people in Uganda to start naming their kids after that, including Trump
- Many British style bricks used – similar architecture throughout Kampala
- Roads/ infrastructure in Kampala generally good, compared to other similar GDP areas
- Covered up hygienic pads for my friend at supermarket with a separate bag, seems to be a taboo and a form of preserving secrecy
- Circumcision is highly valued — saw a booth across from the National Theatre: “get circumcised now!”
- Very little recycling in Uganda, garbage is burned
“Seeing the sons and daughters of their soil divided makes us quite perplexed,” Simon Ewasu said regarding how polarized our views were on the United States’ levels of freedom. This for me was the first moment that greatly materialized the importance of our being in Uganda. Many of the people that we interacted with were first exposed to Americans through us, which was a mutual blessing given the diversity of our group as first/second generation Americans, recent émigrés, and visiting students.
The next few weeks were a reminder that my identity as a minority in an increasingly intolerant State made me ever more connected to the individuals that I had the opportunity to work with, not as a colonizer of ideas but as a collaborator.
I was reminded of this through our many visits to performing arts centers, where dance was the source of life for many children whose talent could not be compared. Their talent alone spoke for the power of the arts, of opportunity, and of human collaboration, which is at the core of my belief that empathy trumps sympathy when trying to make a difference.
Empathy brews empowerment, and empowerment dissipates hierarchy, bureaucracy, and other top-down approaches to the thriving of human souls.
This approach allowed me to listen in different ways and to open myself up to a community of dancers who have the rigor of businessmen, paired with the creativity of the overarching artistic community.
As our professor, Deborah Damast mentioned, “Your identity is only up to you” — and as such, my ideas of myself as a “non-dancer”, whose memory would fail her until the very end, and who could not make a distinguishable difference on her own were blurred. The truth is that the power of this program is beyond me; it is beyond any single human and his identity as an individual. The power lies in the collective, and in the strength that this collaboration forges as part of human history.