Stephen Rwangyezi is the founder of Ndere Cultural Centre which he started in 1984 as Ndere Troupe. Over the years, Ndere has grown to become an important feature of the Uganda arts, heritage and cultural experience. Here, we bring you the second part of our chat with Mr. Rwangyezi…
In terms of the future, I mean for the last thirty-four years, Ndere has been surviving on me. That’s not really sustainable. So, I’m looking at the possibility of turning this cultural centre into a teaching institute, a research and teaching institute of indigenous civilisations and creative industries. So that if we get in the mainstream of teaching and research: one, the students that should be coming here will then be the artists that will be presenting the art. The teachers that will be teaching will be the directors. So, my roles will go to the teachers and researchers. The roles of the troupe will go to the students, and probably we shall be able to get both local and international students who should be paying a fee and probably attract some funding from different bodies. So that when I eventually get out for – whether I want or not, I’m not growing any younger and I’ll not live forever – the system now goes into the academic field, and the research that we have done, and the research that will be done can be formalised into both written and digital books.
For me, the performing arts of Africa are the great books of this continent, but they have not been captured. They have not been recorded. They have not been formalised. And the teaching that I went through where I learnt the dancing and the singing around the fireplace in the evenings is no longer there. Children are going to kindergarten when they are three and that’s the last time they are with their parents. Their parents are busy chasing money all over the place. So the only way we can get this knowledge transmitted to posterity is if we actually teach in a structured and formal way. Unfortunately, the Ugandan school curriculum like many other curriculum in Africa are not embedding this cultural knowledge in what the children are learning at school. They are struggling with mathematics and science and geography of the Rhineland and North America, and Iceland; and this knowledge is not being taught. So I’m looking at this place being a place that people can come and learn it, and this place being a reference point for all the people that may want, that may be looking for this treasure before it actually finally disappears.
UGANDAN ARTS & CULTURE
Uganda’s position, geographical location at the equator, on top of the African plateau made it the attractive point for all the peoples of Africa. I do divide the peoples of Africa into three: one, are the original Africans – some people call them pygmies, others call them bushmen. I don’t know who is not a bushman in Africa, because we all a lot of bush around our homes. But those living in the tropical rainforest, living with nature – now because they have this difficult forest conditions, they do not keep bulky musical instruments, because they are always moving. You can’t start carrying heavy things, heavy drums, heavy xylophones and things. They have developed their arts to use their own bodies – they clap, they play and they yodel and they produce the music using their own bodies.
The other categories of Africans are the agriculturists – the first people that from the forests settled and cultivated crops. When you grow crops, you have to stay in that place for a long time waiting for them to mature. And so, to be able to stay there, you build a house and when you do the first harvest the soil is still good; so you plant again. So you live in the same place for a long time. These were the first people, besides growing crops, that built permanent houses. Now, when they built houses – and because their music is very physical, they had storage for bulky and delicate musical instruments – musical instruments that can get spoilt by rain. For example, drums which have membrane – you need good shelter – musical instruments that don’t have to be moved up and down because they are very heavy. And then, because the work is very physical the music is very deeply rhythmic to provoke the body to dance – which is the way to do exercises. Instead of going to the gym and lifting weights, they dance and build their physique.
The third category of Africans are the cattle-keepers who are always moving around with their cows, and once you sent the cows out grazing, you don’t have to do anything really. The cows do the eating and so you sit and talk. Their music therefore is light and delicate with a lot of coherent lyrics. Now, Uganda has the tropical rainforest for the forest dwellers; has good soil and good climate and reliable rain for agriculturists; has good pastures and fresh water for the cattle-keepers – all these people converged here. Therefore they brought all these different cultural arts and when they inter-married they produced even other hybrid cultures. So you have the richest array of culture of arts and that has influenced the modern music and the modern dancing. The cultural life is vibrant and it goes beyond music and dance into the different varieties of food, to the different languages, to different dressing – everything. And therefore, for any tourist who comes to Uganda, they really have come to the whole of Africa because all the African cultures are represented in Uganda. The reason we say that if you come to Ndere Cultural Centre you get the ultimate experience and we call Ndere Centre the home of cultures is we capture all these different genres and different cultural expressions and Ndere Troupe does presenting
So, it’s to me the window through which a visitor can understand the Ugandan animals, the Ugandan rivers and the Ugandan mountains because the people who live around these natural endowments have got a culture that has been influenced by the physical features, by the wildlife, by the flora and fauna. For example, if you look at the dances of the mountainous areas – for example the people of Kasese, Mount Rwenzori, have got a dance that uses the torso. But the history of it is that they carried weight on the back and as they climb the mountain, they keep shifting the torso and the way they walk is not by alternately taking the feet one after another – because if you are going up the mountain and you lift this foot, if this one slides you’ll fall. So they walk in a way that this foot stays, this one also stays, and you keep shifting each one – but the weight is on your back, you keep shifting. So the dance developed from the way they climb the mountain. If you go to Kabale in the southwest of Uganda where you have the mountain gorillas – so beautifully mountainous – the dancing is really strong and physical. But that’s because these fellows have to climb the mountains – you need the energy. So to understand the mountains, to understand the rivers, to understand the animals, you go through the window of the cultures. So the cultural life is the gateway into understanding the life in Uganda.
…to be continued…