Uganda's Ndere Troupe mixes cultures

November 2007 -

Will it rain? That is the big question at the Ndere cultural center, in Uganda's capital Kampala. Staff members are preparing the Wednesday evening performance, which will start in two hours. Ndere's own amphitheatre is the venue of the performance. A visit to the center guarantees an evening of quality entertainment, at the highest level found in Uganda. The Ndere troupe, as traditional Ugandan dance/theatre groups are called, is the most prestigious one of the country. Stunning female dancers wearing traditional fashion welcome the guests by offering them a snack and a drink. After that the audience is brought to the amphitheatre, accompanied by the dancers and the sound of drums.

Drums (Ngoma) are an essential part in Ugandan music

The difference between the current professional Ndere center and the way Ndere started in 1984 is remarkable. During its first performance there were only three attendees: the director of the troupe, the ambassador of Burundi who was invited as the main guest, and his wife. Despite them, not a single soul considered the performance worth a visit. The troupe then performed free of charge at schools, which slowly made Ndere more known around the country. The repertoire was extended and during the beginning of the 1990's things started to change: the troupe got more respect and the performances attracted more visitors. A Dutchman invited the troupe to come to Europe for the first time, where they performed in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. One of the performances was at the renowned Festival Mundial in the southern Dutch city of Tilburg. This Europe-tour also resulted in some more respect in Uganda itself. Moving to the prestigious National Theatre in Kampala and the support of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni also contributed to the rise of the Ndere troupe.

Today's audience is a group of US embassy staff, from around Africa. The expected rain did not come, fortunately. The audience gets a warm welcome in the theatre: right away the drums are played, and the dancers dance together with the enthusiastic audience. Especially the Africans are quick to join in dancing, but after hesitating also the Muzungu's (white people) start moving their hips. Ndere's founder and director Stephen Rwangyezi participates in the dancing, while he also narrates the show. In a smooth and humorous way he tells his audience facts about the Ugandan culture, while he also points out the shady edges of the Western society to the Americans.

The secret of Ndere's success might be simple but effective: bringing people together. The concept has not changed in 23 years: entertaining the audience while trying to tell them stories with a message. It does not matter if Ndere gives advice on hygiene to rural communities in northern Uganda or they educate American visitors: it simply works. The show is being performed in a very professional way, building up to a Grande final dance in which Africa and America put away their differences, and dance side-by-side.

Stephen Rwangyezi: 'Be proud of your own culture'

During serious national functions in Uganda there was always a brass band performing. Music from the West was considered modern, while Ugandan music was looked at by the elite as something backwards and primitive.' It is still bothering Stephen Rwangyezi (52), director of the Ndere troupe. The elite has disrespected the music he loves so much for many years. Music plays an important role in Rwangyezi's life, who grew up with the flute but without going to primary school. "Only at the age of fifteen I had earned some money to pay for the school fees. Generally there was not enough money, but every time they kicked me out of class they realized they did not have someone to play the flute during the next official function, so they let me go back to school," Rwangyezi recalls with a smile on his face. It is not a coincidence that Ndere means flute. read more

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The Power of Culture