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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dramatists fight HIV stigma through music, dance and drama


Under a big mango tree in the home of Cornelius Mwima in Butaleja, a small Eastern Uganda district, children shook decorated calabashes, men made guttural sounds, and with the cadence from the percussion instruments, everyone was soon dancing.

Sweat run down the faces of the performers and drenched their costumes. It was a taste of what lay ahead that day in a collaborative performance between members of Hatagote Development Association (HDA) and six visiting students from Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.
The six-year-old HDA is a non-commercial group that uses drama to find solutions for problems such as poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, HIV/Aids stigma and discrimination.

“Our vision is to sensitise people because society has got more salient matters political, social and economic that need to be addressed by a counsellor and that counsellor should be music, dance and drama,” says group director and coordinator Mwima.

Performers combine music, dance and drama to educate villagers.PHOTO BY DENNIS D. MUHUMUZA

He remembers how HIV/Aids patients used to be shunned in Butaleja, and the trauma it caused them.
“We developed a play on HIV/Aids to fight stigma and discrimination and we performed it in schools, churches and homes in the whole of Butaleja, and that helped change the attitudes of many people,” Mwima says.

The 35 member group was praised by Minister Without Portfolio, Dorothy Hyuha, and soon, they were being invited to perform in Pallisa and Masindi, and even took their educational drama to Bungoma in Kenya.
It was on such missions that this repertory group caught the eye of the East Africa Theatre Institute (EATI) that offered to add a professional touch to their performances by training its members. EATI also linked HDA to the Northwestern University students to put up a public health performance together.

The result, a play titled Obunghono (lunyore for cleanliness), was staged on Saturday at Busolwe Township Primary School in Butaleja.
It’s about a child who’s down with a bad case of vomiting and diarrhoea, forcing the parents to consult a witchdoctor.
They are told their child has been bewitched by a neighbour. The witchdoctor’s demands are unaffordable, and the parents turn their frustration on the neighbour.

A village meeting is convened to resolve the conflict, where it’s discovered the cause of the illness is actually poor hygiene.
This truth opens the eyes of the parents who share one room with goats, hens, dirty plates and cups.

It’s one of those performances that educates about the importance of proper sanitation and better hygiene in a very entertaining way.
“Theatre for development provokes the members of the community to dramatise the challenges they face and suggest solutions,” the executive office of EATI Uganda Chapter and the Director of House of Talent (HOT), Andrew Ssebaggala says. “There is closeness between the actors and the spectators because both formulate the performances and own them.”
The fact that the presentations are often in the open without a raised stage leaves no gulf between the performers and the audience.

As was the case during the performance of Obunghono, the people of Butaleja visibly getting a kick out of bazungu acting alongside their own (Case Martin was a witch doctor’s helping hand while Julie Kornfeld acted as one of the children in the play) and finding humour in the way the Americans seemed to fumble through their traditional dances, jumped onto the stage to show them a few ropes, adding that extemporaneous beauty.
“The performance was very good because it showed how theatre for development works in Uganda and how we can we can use it to further our education and performance,” Martin says.

“I had never really participated in a performance that had anything to do with public health so it was really interesting,” Irene Swanenberg says. “I liked that this form of theatre uses the community itself; like people talking to their own people, and I think it should be encouraged in all parts of the country.”
As such, community theatre groups like HDA have found the best cultural expression through which a number of lives in the rural communities have been transformed.
Unfortunately, they have to depend on good Samaritans for financial support which is in most cases not forthcoming.

--Saturday Monitor, May 16, 2009