13 November 2012

Uganda: Artistes Fight for the National Theatre's Glory

At 3pm on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, the National Theatre's foyer is busier than usual. People from different walks of life converge for Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) stakeholders' meeting.

The meeting, which came five weeks after Joseph Walugembe was interdicted and suspended as UNCC's Executive Director, was long overdue - many people were boiling over with grievances - and three hours were too short.

However, the conveners, Dr Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare, UNCC's board chairperson, flanked by board members Fagil Musa Mandy and Pamela Irene Batenga; and Jacqueline Ampaire, the acting UNCC Executive Director, had sensed that a prolonged meeting would take them on a path of confrontation, accusations and counter accusations.

They, therefore, opted for a short meeting guided by four questions that had been handed to each participant. The questions were; How can we utilize the structures at UNCC maximally?

How can the artistes as key stakeholders play a more active role? How can UNCC increase its revenue base without compromising its role and work? How can we make UNCC truly a national cultural centre as well as a one-stop centre in Uganda?

However, these guidelines fell on deaf ears as participants were bent on digging out the root causes of the current state of the theatre, something that dragged the meeting to well past 6pm. It was agreed that a think tank be instituted to come up with a report on what has led to the downfall of the national theatre.

The ten-member team comprises Jack Serunkuuma, a man credited for authoring the dossier that moved government to take action against Walugembe. Others include Noah Nyanzi (representing visual artists), Moses Serugo (media), Dr Patrick Mangeni (MDD, Makerere University), Julie Ssesanga (musicians), Andrew Benon Kibuuka (theatre), Julius Lugaya (arts NGOs), Sam Ibanda (resident groups at UNCC), Ali Mutaka (filmmakers) and Abbas Hassan (youths).

According to Bakayimbira Dramactors' Kibuuka - also president of the Federation of Performing Artistes in Uganda - the worst thing that happened to the cultural centre was the artistes' departure.

"The artistes were physically chased from this place," Kibuuka said.

According to Kibuuka, artistes used to throng the National Theatre; however, once the management sent signals that they no longer needed the artistes, they left.

"Artistes used to sit on that concrete [slab] outside. Oil was smeared there and the palm tree which used to provide the shade was cut to chase [them] away," Kibuuka said.

Kibuuka says the final blow came when management moved to close the Musicians' Club '89, an association that used to unite musicians every Monday with a popular jam session.

For Kiyimba Musisi, the board secretary to the artistes' Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization (SACCO), the centre's woes stem from government's failure to appoint competent people to run the institution.

"The board has people from all over. How can someone from the brewery or water and sewerage corporation think on the same page as the artistes?" Kiyimba asked amidst ululation. "This place needs people who love the arts."

The UNCC board comprises nine members including Nile Breweries' Onapito Ekomoloit, Jonathan Nsubuga, Nambooze Mariam Mutumba, Nancy Oloro Robarts and Alfred Okot Okidi.

Serunkuuma said the structural problem has also seen poor staffing at management level.

"What we have seen in the last 10 years are people walking into National Theatre like it is a toilet. People who come here don't care about what theatre and art [are]," Serunkuuma said.

Andrew Lwanga Ssebaggala attributed the failure of the cultural centre to attract competent employees to poor remuneration. Government allocates Shs 27m annually to UNCC, according to Batenga, who works with the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, the line ministry.

This is an equivalent of Shs 2.2m per month, yet the centre spends about Shs 100m monthly on running the theatre and Nommo gallery - that includes salaries for 38 employees.

Adinani Senkumba, a sound engineer with Theatre Factory said: "We have the resource and education department but the people there are always facebooking instead of using this department as a tool to reestablish the centre's ties with schools."

Ashraf Ssemwogerere, a popular actor who first performed on the theatre's stage in 1981, said the cultural centre deserves a facelift.

"This theatre has been looking the same since 1959 when it was constructed," he said.

Dick Matovu of Uganda Performing Rights Society (UPRS) suggested that the theatre be turned into a museum to pave way for the construction of an ultramodern theatre that suits today's standards.

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