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Saturday, November 1, 2008

The roadblocks of those days


Roadblock is a political play that draws from the sordid and unhappy reality of the past. The title suits it for the period in which this piece of drama is set for it was frightening to travel because of the danger associated with being stopped at the endless roadblocks. This is emphasised on the book cover showing a roadblock signpost with gunmen standing menacingly on either side of the road and two others dragging a man away from his car.

Looking at this, even before opening a book, a curious reader should ask: is the dragged man a criminal? What are gun-wielding army men doing in the place of traffic police officers? It is symbolic of the collapse of the rule of law which the author, Victor Byabamazima, graphically depicts in this five-act play.

As hopelessness reigns; as ordinary people grapple with terrible poverty that drives the pastor’s daughter into the house of prostitutes, as they die like flies, as corruption defies the odds, as uniformed “wolves” manning roadblocks steal and make the lives of others hell; will the protagonist retain his courage and spiritual leadership necessary to keep the village together in the midst of this “great depression”?

Roadblock is based on the historical incidences of the 1970s and early 1980s; particularly the bleak and desperate times prevalent then. When Nyeka is sent to Parliament to help change the deplorable status quo, the once promising and honest son of the soil quickly gets “swollen with the drug of power” and becomes worse than the man of the people in Chinua Achebe’s novel by that title.

In addition to forgetting his own folks, Nyeka is the play’s antagonist who after being corrupted absolutely by a ministerial post, finds the shameless gall to abuse the man he once looked up to, the old pastor: “You are not a citizen…you are a placenta!”

This satirical piece may be difficult to stage but you’ll like the writer’s sharp use of realism to typify an ugly period in the country’s lifeline thereby intuitively making the reader appreciate even the little moral or political sanity existing in contemporary Uganda.

Published by Baroque Publishers in 2006, Roadblock also interlaces witchery with the healing salvation that can only come from God. It is ironically captured through the juxtaposition of the pastor and the “Jajja of the Luweero Ancestral Spirits”, a self-professed protector of “Yoweri” – the liberation war leader.

In the end, the playwright seems to suggest both forces become victorious when an important announcement is heard on the national radio: “On this day, the 27th July 1985, the government has been overthrown by a military junta…wait for more news.”

The pastor reunites with his prodigal daughter; the prisoners are set free, signalling a new beginning and the end of roadblocks.

Although the play was one of the 2007 National Book Week literary award winners, it cannot be called a masterpiece of realistic drama (we leave that to works in the league of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People). But it’s up there among Uganda’s best modern plays alongside Alex Mukulu’s 30 Years of Bananas.

More than being an instructive read for those seeking to gain new insights into Uganda’s political history, it would be interesting to see how Roadblock can translate into live stage action.

--Sunday Monitor, October 26, 2008