Stephen Rwangyezi: 'Be proud of your own culture'

November 2007 -

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.

Stephen Rwangyeze, photo (c) Arne Doornebal

"Of course it was a huge disappointment when only three people attended our first performance in 1987," says Rwangyezi. The turning point came some years later tells the actor, who played a role in the Hollywood film The Last King of Scotland (2007). "During the end of the 1980's I wrote theater plays about serious topics. One of them was about the division between the north and the south of Uganda. All Ministers and members of parliament were forced to attend it." During that period, Ndere also performed at schools for free. "We combined aspects of different tribes in Uganda. If we performed in the south and we used musical instruments from the north, the audience used to walk out. But now, we combine the best of Uganda and it is being accepted." The fifty-four dancers of the troupe originate from all parts of the country. That is clearly noticeable when looking at their faces; they vary from slightly tinted to rather dark.

"We cannot afford the luxury of doing art for art sake only," the director answers to the question whether he would choose to have an incredible troupe or some more prosperity in his country. "Our main goal is education through theatre and increasing the quality of life. We can only reach that when we are delivering a high quality of education and dance. Making poor performances would insult the communities."

The Ndere troupe used to travel the entire country to perform theater plays with a message in rural areas. There is not much need for that anymore, because now there are over two thousand local troupes. Rwangyezi has brought them under one umbrella organization. "Non Governmental Organizations have realized that performances by a cultural troupe are the best way to communicate important messages to the people of Uganda. Recently there was a project about the importance of washing your hands and hygiene. Now I am working on a project called 'breaking the silence'. Uganda is a quiet society, and we want to waken up the people. Development is not a favor, they must demand their rights and speak up for themselves. People should not sit back and hope their leadership is good; they should go out and demand that. After all, the song people sang for Idi Amin was the same as they sang for his predecessor Milton Obote, and is the same as people now sing for president Museveni."

Uganda's Ndere Troupe mixes cultures

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. read more...

The Power of Culture