Wednesday, April 25, 2012


BY BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI DECEMBER 9, 2011, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Uganda's best-known playwright and one of East and Central Africa's leading dramatists, John Ruganda - to the deadly cancer of the throat. In the early 1970s, Ruganda featured prominently on the East African theater scene not only as a playwright but also as a stage director, actor, and teacher of drama and theater arts at various institutions of learning. He published many plays, poems and short stories. Among his published plays, “The Burdens” (1972) and “The Floods” (1980) have been used regularly as required texts in the ordinary and advanced level syllabi of the Literature in English courses in Kenya and Uganda. Virtually all of his plays are studied in universities and other institutions of higher learning in East and Central Africa. His other literary works were “Black Mamba” (1972), “Covenant of Death’ (1973), ‘Echoes of Silence’ (1985), ‘Music Without Tears” (1981) and “Igereka and Other African Narratives” (2002). Ruganda’s television screenplays were: “The Secret of the Season,” (Voice of Kenya, March 1973), “The Floods,” (Voice of Kenya, April 1973), and “The Illegitimate,” (Voice of Kenya, August 1982). In much of his work, Ruganda came across as the voice of the voiceless. His plays satirised the oppressive and greedy tendencies of the political regimes against the common man. His plays "reflect the reality of the East African sociopolitical situation after independence." He was considered a shaping force of East African Theater with his works winning critical acclaim. Retaining a fine line between humour and hard-hitting sarcasm, he scoffed at corruption, selfishness and manipulation of the powers that be. As to what legacy that Ruganda left in the theatre industry not only in Uganda but the entire East African region, the folklorist and playwright, Dr. Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare says, “John Ruganda was dedicated to theatre – as literary art but also as an expressive/performing art. He didn’t go or stay in theatre for money but his genuine love of art. I respect him for this.” “I never met Ruganda physically as an artist – except briefly as he visited Uganda in the 1990s when I did my MA research and towards the end of his life, around 2005/2006. In other words, we never knew each other on personal terms. Even then he was keen to listen to me to find out what I had to say/write about him when I appraised some of his plays on my MA (Literature) course. That demonstrated his humility and a mark of scholarship that is very rare in artists who gain world fame,” Ntangaare, the deputy dean of the faculty of arts at Makerere University, adds. “When he fled Uganda in the late 1970s and went to Kenya, he took with him his love for theatre in the form of popularizing the Traveling Theatre. The traveling theatre is not your form of commercial theatre or even easy to organize. One goes into it for the purpose of “taking theatre” or education through theatre to the people. Indeed, his stock of writing leaves us with great points of reference for Uganda’s history and culture. Many of Ruganda’s writings/plays are of international standards, an indicative of the extent Uganda theatre has grown and of its potential,” Ntangaare observes. “I have not come across playwrights whom you would say are emulating Ruganda’s writing style. His books are outstanding and are still on the school syllabus in Uganda, “The Burdens” and “Black Mamba” for ‘O’ Level and “The Floods” for ‘A’ Level,” Dan Kisense, a lecturer at the Makerere University department of performing arts and film, says. As to Ruganda’s contribution as a playwright producing powerful plays in the difficult times in the history of Uganda, Ntangaare observes: “One could say he was simply the conscience of his own people, for instance, the Ugandans. He had a nationalist approach to issues in his plays – not forgetting his cultural origins/background but not being fanatic about it. The themes in his plays are easily universal. The experiences of his characters are easily appreciated because they touch the nerve of life.” As to Ruganda’s outstanding literary work, Ntangaare says, “I find The Burdens truly intriguing and very communicative across genders, age and at different levels as well. It’s eternally relevant as it deals with tragedy (tragedies) that is (are) human and common to all. All of us have at one time or another found ourselves in situations of Wamala, Tinka, Kaija or Nyakake. In the play, Ruganda also explores the family as the one single unit in society where one finds meaning and challenge all at once. Even when we have succeeded or failed elsewhere we always come back to our families where we may, ironically, meet our end!” As to how we should remember Ruganda, Ntangaare, the former head of the Makerere University music, dance and drama department notes “Remember him as a great playwright, dramatist, and philosopher. He was a nationalist i.e. with a heart for Uganda and Ugandans as a whole. He is an inspiration to many young writers and playwrights.” “Igereka and Other African Narratives,” is a unique rendition of the short story, combining the classical and the African way of story-telling. In this work, Ruganda fuses drama, narrative and poetry to present a tale of despotic futility in overcoming divine will. Using three epic stories – ‘Igereka,’ ‘The Invincible Hunter’ and ‘That Business about the Lambs’ – he takes the reader on a journey through a world that mirrors the realities of life. Contributing the Afterward, Teresa Chisanga sumarises the book as a collection of three short stories dealing with a unique blend of human relations among men and women, masters and servants and covers a range of emotions from love to hatred to greed and selfishness. “Although some of the aspects covered border on beliefs and the supernatural, the underlying message in all the stories is human and close enough to reality…,” she writes. ‘Igereka,’ the first story is about a powerful king, Isaza and the intricate issue of inheritance in the African society. He had only one daughter called Nyanunga – the beautiful and graceful one. He blinded her with many beautiful things. Once in a while he wished he had a son for his heir. According to Chisanga, the second story, “The Invincible Hunter,” is about Kahigi, the most powerful hunter in the neighbourhood. A megalomanic who is not satisfied with having subdued everyone around him, he had to go out to look for more to conquer and more power. It is about greed, male chauvinism and the ultimate in self-centredness. It is also a story about how the impossible can happen if you push these tendencies too far.” “..It is also a powerful story about a man who has an illusion, as many do, that they are not just powerful because of what they have achieved, but that they are in control of everything around them as their destiny. Kahigi’s fall is thunderous, more so that it comes at the hands of a helpless victim of his, a child slaughtered and apparently a helpless mother! He is brought down to the level of these individuals, by them. He is disgraced. It is a great story and the author should be commended for this different twist ending in “heroinism” rather than “heroism,” Chisanga argues. The last story, Akomunyana – or That Business About The Lambs – is perhaps the most intricate of the three stories. It begins with a curse spanning two generations, goes through the details of how the original chief Rutegaya lived and brought the curse upon his family and how his son Bahemuka had to carry the curse through to what should have been the third generation. “It is a story about the other extreme of how being too good and obliging can also prove to be costly unless you can discriminate between people, events and everything, and know when and why not to oblige,” Chisanga writes. Writing in the Postface of this anthology, Ruganda notes that: “If there is a unifying motif around which “Igereka and Other African Narratives” has been rehashed, it is the motif of women striving to define and articulate their role in an ever-changing environment that constantly denies them voice and presence.” “The successful attempts by the female characters in this anthology to define themselves by invading what was traditionally male space and be prerogative, should not taken for granted, nor should it surprise anyone at all…,” Ruganda argues. According to Ruganda, this anthology explores other concerns as well; concerns such as the arbitrary intrusion of fate in man’s life, as in Akomunyana; the ever enticing temptation to misuse power especially against one’s adversaries and the resultant tragic consequences that pursue the wielder and the victim of power alike, as in the invincible hunter, among others. Ruganda refashioned and transliterated these narratives from his mother’s oral performance. The folk-tales are from Toro kingdom in western Uganda. “It was also my wish to bring my “mother’s tales” as close as possible to our time without necessarily compromising their form and texture wherever possible. In short, at least in intention, I wanted the past of these tales to talk to our time with an immediate directness that excludes interpreters,” he adds. “…I took great liberties with these tales in the process of recreating and rehashing them. My major defence, if one is needed for this kind of creative liberty, is that there is no copyright on oral tales. Since through constant use, these tales have come to belong to everybody, there is no one who can boast of having an authentic version of them or, as some people would say, anyone who would boast of owning the mother version of all the narratives. Each performance of a tale generates its own dialectics and therefore has its own valid authenticity as any other before it and, indeed, after it,” he writes. “…I have not hesitated to embellish my creations with inter-textual referencing from other African traditions. Hence the justification and validity of the subtitle of this anthology. I have also had to fuse tales-within-tales to make the message clearer, or to broaden the scope of their vision,” he adds. Ruganda was one of the founding members of the Makerere Free Travelling Theatre and was elected its chief organizer in 1966. Ruganda was born on May 30, 1941 in Fort Portal. He attended Saint Leo’s College in Fort Portal before joining Makerere University, where he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1967. He joined the Oxford University Press of Eastern Africa, where he worked as editorial and sales representative in Uganda between 1968 and 1972. In 1973, Ruganda fled the political turbulence of the day settling in Kenya, where he eventually joined the Literature Department of the University of Nairobi after working briefly for the Oxford University Press. He worked in the Literature department until 1982. He worked with the University of Nairobi's Free Travelling Theatre Company and the Nairobi University Players. In 1983, Ruganda left Kenya for Canada, where he enrolled for a Master of Arts programme at the University of New Brunswick, majoring in English. In 1989, he obtained his doctorate from the same university. He left Canada for South Africa, where lectured at the University of North in South Africa until 2008. Ends.