Stephen Rwangyezi is the founder of Ndere Troupe which has metamorphosed into the Ndere Cultural Centre, today referred to as an African Dance Encyclopedia. I had the honour of witnessing a performance when I visited the Uganda in 2017 as part of a hosted media group for the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE 2017). Later on, I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Rwangyezi about several things…
My names are Rwangyezi Stephen and I’m the one who started the Ndere Troupe that has resulted into the Ndere Cultural Centre, Ndere Foundation, the Ndere Uganda Theatre Development Association. I started the Ndere Troupe in 1984. I am Ugandan and now marking my sixty-second year; married with beautiful children and I’ve spent all my life in the cultural revitalisation, cultural revival and rebuilding the pride and confidence of the Ugandan, of the African person to know that we are a great people. We have wonderful arts. We have wonderful culture that is not inferior to any other, and it is not satanic or devilish, but as holy as any other culture in the world.
Ndere Troupe which I started in 1984 is inspired by the history of Uganda, and indeed the history of Africa, because when I was born in the mid ‘50s Uganda had been experiencing a cultural erosion because of the colonial impact. When the Europeans took over the administration of Uganda, I think as a means of making sure that they could be able to get what they want – they could be able to get the Ugandans to serve them – they used three weapons to change the thinking of the Ugandans.
One was religion. The Christian religion preached that everything Ugandan was evil, backward; and if you wanted to go to heaven, you’ll have to sing the Alleluia chorus and play a piano or a violin. But if you danced African dance, if you spoke African language, if you ate African food, drank alcohol, if you married the African way, if you build a house the African way, you were sure to have booked your one-way ticket to hell.
The schools which were the second weapon did – and you know the schools were actually established by churches… You were not admitted in school unless you had been baptised in church, and if you went to school you had to follow strictly everything that was western, and you had to hate everything that was African. The churches preached being born-again – the old person had to die and the new one had to be born. And the old one was the African; the new one had to be the European.
To be in church, or rather in school you had to be baptised. So, you’d be born in a home, you’d be given a name – for example I was given Rwangyezi. Then six months later, you’d be taken to church and be baptised and I was called Stephen. Now, when you entered school they’d ask you “What was your Christian name?” And you’d say “Stephen” And they’ll say “What is your Kafir name?” Meaning the non-believer’s name and I’d say “Rwangyezi.”
So, the school was the second weapon, and the third one was the law. The government enacted laws that made sure that African culture was banned. For example, there was the anti-witchcraft law banned everything that was seen to be used by witches. Every African traditional medicine man was seen as a witch. And since in the traditional worship they use the music and dance and drums, all these were banned as tools of the witch. If you were found dancing during the day, you’d be arrested. That was under another law of idle and disorderliness. If you were found dancing during the day, you’d be arrested because you are being seen to be idle. That meant that the only time you could dance was at night, and yet there was no electricity. There was no light; therefore no one was looking at you.
So I grew up in this dichotomy where on the one side my family was very talented in music and dance, but in the Ugandan type of music; and on the other side if you wanted to be civilised, if you wanted to go to heaven you are not allowed to do these cultural acts. For me, when I eventually became a teacher I felt so bad that we were teaching children to hate themselves and teaching them to learn to love who they were not. Therefore I decided to start the Ndere troupe. One, to make these arts that had been relegated to the devil and to the darkness – make them beautiful and bring them to the light and have people be proud of them. Once you are proud of your culture, then you’ll gain the confidence and you can be able to get into the marketplace and negotiate as an equal to whoever you meet.
So, the motivation is: the revitalisation of cultural confidence and making our arts compete the other arts from the rest of the world. For, there is nothing biologically, philosophically or religiously wrong with being an African. If anything, by not having this cultural colour contributed to the international rainbow, the world was becoming poorer because we’re risking being uniformised and ending up with a monotony of one particular culture. So that’s the motivating factor.
SUSTAINING THE CENTRE
Sustenance, I think is a matter of conviction. If you are as I am convinced that what you’re doing is of paramount importance you would do everything possible to make sure that it survives. First of all, I am convinced that this art, this culture – whether government support it or not – is important. It’s important for Uganda. It’s important for Africa. It’s important for the world. So I dedicated my life to it. It’s extremely difficult. It’s extremely expensive but I’m not going to be doing anything else with my life. It’s only to be in committing all the resources, all my intellectual capacity to the sustenance of this. So I look for money. I look for means left and right.
The second thing that I do is that all the artists that you see in this group are people that would otherwise never have had an opportunity to fulfil their passion or ambition, because they come from rather difficult backgrounds. Some don’t have parents. Others are from very poor families. So taking them to school, looking after their health, their food, their accommodation is another daunting task besides looking after the cultural centre which has many buildings, which has nine acres of land to tame and look after. And besides this, the research, the training, the documentation – all these are extremely expensive, but somehow we keep managing.
So from the performances that we do… in my other life, I am an agriculturist; therefore I do research – paid research. I use the performing arts and develop theatre, and I use that for agricultural extension and dissemination of information in the rural areas – and some of those projects are paid (for) by organisations that are interested in breaking down the complicated botanical terms to understandable language for the rural peasant farmer to understand that coriander tree is a nitrogen fixing plant that will improve the soil holding capacity of a piece of land where you don’t have chemical fertilizers, for example. So this approach helps to attract funders that fund me for that work, and there I raise money to sustain the centre and the troupe.
…to be continued…