Uneasy times for artists.

Author:Ojulu, Epajjar
Position:Around Africa: Uganda

Creative artists, including singers, playwrights and authors have always had an uneasy relationship with those in power in Uganda. Given their ability to influence large segments of the population through their work, they are both courted and hated by the powers that be. Report by Epajjar Ojulu in Kampala.

In Uganda like elsewhere in Africa, artists and politicians are never good bedfellows. This is because "artists dare say what other members of society are afraid to say," says Dan Kisense, a retired head of the Department of Dance, Music and Drama at Uganda's Makerere University.

Uganda's history shows that artists have been critical of their society and dared regimes of the day to respond, even brutal ones such as that of dictator Idi Amin (1971-79).

While some artists and writers, such as Robert Serumaga, John Ruganda and Okot p'Bitek fled to exile in neighbouring Kenya, one of them, Byron Kawadwa, a playwright and artistic director of the Uganda National Theatre, paid the ultimate price of death. He was murdered by Idi Amin in 1977 soon after returning from Lagos, Nigeria, where he led his team to the second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. The first was held in Dakar, Senegal in 1966.

There are conflicting theories about the reasons for Kawadwa's murder. One theory suggests that while in Lagos he visited Erisa Kironde, a prominent Ugandan politician opposed to Amin's regime. Amin's spies got wind of the visit and suspected Kawadwa to have been recruited by the opponents of the regime as a spy.

Another school of thought says Oluyimba Iwa Wankoko ('Song of the Cock'), a play written by Kawadwa and staged during the festival, was a satire on the regime. Whatever the reasons, Kawadwa's murder has left an indelible scar in the hearts of Ugandans in general and artists in particular.

"We were meeting at the Arts Club within the National Theatre to review our performance in Lagos, when someone beckoned Kawadwa that some people wanted to see him outside," recalls Sarah Birungi, a retired secondary school teacher, who was part of the drama group, Kampala City Players, which performed in Lagos.

"Shortly after, there was wailing and a stampede outside the Eternises. Eyewitnesses said Byron ad been bundled into the boot of a salon car and taken away. We never saw him alive again," she says.

Kawadwa's body was dumped in Namanve forest near Kampala. While the majority were afraid to do so, a handful of mourners were brave enough to attend...

To continue reading