This article is about our work as part of a larger AHRC-funded project called INTERSECTION. The wider project works across Uganda, the UK and China, investigating how urban populations understand environmental change, sustainability and responsibility across the generations. Here, we focus on our work in Walukuba, a working class area of Jinja, Uganda’s former industrial centre by the source of the Nile.
Katie McQuaid and I represent a, we think, fairly unusual partnership between theatre and anthropology. Our focus here is twofold; to discuss how an inter-disciplinary approach can enhance understandings of research questions and of partner communities, and how embodying the research in theatre can allow the work to move beyond the realm of the academic, towards a focus on community activism. We will be writing about what we have learned from each other through this cross-cutting process of research and performance, and how this has, from our particular perspectives, enhanced our project. We shall be reflecting on how it was the meeting of making ethnographic knowledge and theatre that fuelled our journey from research to activism, and, later, allowed our shift in position from patrons to partners as our participants took ownership of the project after our departure.
We both had previous experience, in our separate disciplines, of working in Uganda. I had conducted community theatre training at Makerere University in the early 2000s, and had run a women-only intergenerational theatre project among Buganda women in 2010 (Plastow 2014), besides teaching a number of Ugandan postgraduate theatre students in the UK. Katie had conducted two years’ ethnographic fieldwork in Uganda (2011-12) for her PhD, working with urban refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate refugees’ perspectives on human rights and humanitarianism, and conducting participant observation with a Ugandan humanitarian agency. Neither of us had previously worked in Jinja or with the predominant Busoga community in the area. We had obviously conducted historical and social research on the area before we went there, but arrived well aware that we could not know in anything but the broadest terms what the concerns and the positions of the community we would seek to interest in our work would be.
Our contributions have varied in intensity as well as discipline. Katie lived in Jinja for ten months and conducted over two hundred interviews and focus groups with a wide cross-section of Jinja’s population. These interviews, and the ethnographic knowledge they represent, have formed the bedrock of our understanding of environmental perceptions in Jinja. I visited three times; firstly, to establish the work, and, then, for two month-long trips to make two very different intergenerational theatre interventions. A major focus of our work has been to consider questions from intergenerational perspectives, building on a previous intergenerational project I had run with women’s groups in Buganda in 2010 (Kiguli and Plastow 2015).
Our theatre work was focused on Walukuba, one of the poorest areas of the town. Built as a housing estate in the colonial period by the British and other factory owners to provide rented accommodation for industrial workers, in the post-colonial period the housing was not well maintained by the council while the population grew hugely as families moved into blocks originally built for single men. Both houses and infrastructure have been decaying.
In the early 2000s, the council began a process of privatization, which is continuing to the present day. Many people in Walukuba work for very low wages in the surrounding factories, while others are involved in a wide range of informal working. Most live in one or two room dwellings. The population is linguistically and ethnically mixed. Basoga predominate but one finds people from all over Uganda, drawn by the often-illusory prospect of work and frequently fleeing difficult personal situations. Many families are headed by single women and some by children, and nearly all struggle to find school fees, so that most young people have their schooling either interrupted or foreshortened for lack of funds (Byerley 2005).
Katie: An Anthropologist Encounters Theatre
We arrived in Jinja in January 2015, and, over the next ten months, I employed a number of conventional social-science techniques, including participant observation and ethnographic group and narrative interviews amongst a cross-section of residents. It was out of the richness of the individual and collective stories, the revelations and surprises encountered along the way, and the urgency of daily social injustices, that our community theatre work has emerged, shifted and gained momentum as it moved into the realm of action research.
Community theatre—ethnographically informed—offered a means for pushing beyond documentation and analysis, to directly engaging in the collective social struggles of our participants. We have been able to generate embodied writings that can be performed, inscribing our research in time and space, as part of an overtly engaged project speaking out against social, economic and gendered inequalities, and giving voice and importance to the everyday urban struggles of the Walukuba community. We reflect here upon a journey from engaging theatre as a research tool to critically examine, understand and collaboratively build local knowledge about inequalities and social issues affecting the community, to engaging theatre in performing against inequality and injustice.
Theatre as Research Tool
Our work was not always an activist endeavour, but rather arts-based methods were employed as a creative mode of knowledge production, neatly spliced into the strictly defined research framework of a large interdisciplinary, comparative grant. I worked alongside Baron Oron, an experienced Ugandan theatre for development practitioner. Together we conducted over fifty theatre workshops in five months with a disparate group of over sixty residents of Walukuba. We employed arts-based methods as research tools, carefully documenting activities and the discussions they prompted for what they revealed of the environmental worlds of participants.
At a preliminary community meeting, we offered the opportunity for men and women to work separately, as prior experience highlighted challenges Ugandan women face in speaking openly in front of men. The Walukuba community elected to work in separate groups for younger men and women, and an integrated group of older people. Each group met weekly for approximately two hours and engaged with arts-based exercises to facilitate discussion of issues. We conducted the same activities across all three generational workshops each week for comparative purposes. The variety of activities such as image theatre, role-play, devised drama, song, poetry, drawing and song, provided participants with the space and means for identifying a wide spectrum of key social and environmental concerns which included, but were not limited to: gender inequality; poor working conditions; lack of access to quality or free education; domestic violence; abandonment of women; the dangers of polygamy; a widening gap between older and younger generations; corruption; insecurity of land; rising living costs; absent politicians who issue empty promises; disintegrating infrastructures, such as degraded roads and drainage, sanitation, health; and rampant deforestation and degradation of wetlands.
Theatre as Tool of Transformation
Working in the field of theatre for development, Baron was used to projects that had a single narrow focus of concern. However, embedding arts-based methodologies within the scope of ethnographic research necessitated an open approach and wide understanding of social, physical and natural environments. Yet, it was as a result of this collaboration, and the meeting of our two different worlds—mine, of open enquiry, observation, and investigating the world through the eyes of my informants, and his, a tradition of largely message-based theatre for development project work– that my mode of engagement first began to shift. Baron constantly pushed participants to consider how to reflect upon how they might have, and could still, transform their situations of struggle.
A key dimension of this was recognizing local inequalities and the varied effects these had across the community. Were women seen as inferior to men? Were young peoples’ opinions valued? Did the poor have reasonable access to information and resources? Whilst using theatre techniques to generate ideas, we also worked alongside participants to examine their own positions—how they had arrived where they were, and how they could have acted differently to attain preferable outcomes. I became increasingly aware that we were generating new forms of engagement within these groups, as participants were not only exchanging information and ideas and learning from each other, but also discovering and gaining access to new ways of discussing their problems and potential interventions. The very act of participating in these workshops was the beginning of a process of transformation for some, not least through activities we led in group-building and confidence in communication, as we encouraged the group to reflect critically, and to complicate their own understandings of what happened around them.
Key for many of our participants, particularly for the women (regardless of age), was our grounding principle of inclusivity. We achieved this, firstly, through working in many different languages; Luganda, Lusoga, Kiswahili and English, with the group translating for each other as we went along, and, most importantly, through the use of theatre in which people could use their bodies and the anonymity of performance to enact their concerns. We also made concerted efforts to maintain a non-hierarchical space in which members all had equal time and space to contribute.
Democratizing the space and emphasizing that everyone had something of value to say, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or educational background, was extremely confronting for some and cautiously liberating for others. Those in the group who were less eloquent, less educated, who struggled with language or had little confidence in sharing opinions in front of a group, could here tentatively experiment with new ways to express themselves and contribute. All were encouraged to participate, to steer discussion in new directions and to (respectfully) challenge each other. For an anthropologist, these spaces opened up new and interesting lines of enquiry and access to communal and individual perspectives that would have been almost impossible to attain through group discussion.
Challenging entrenched hierarchies and the traditional power of the patriarchal voice in this way was a laborious and, at times, maddening process. To echo Malkki (1996: 398), this was not a simple, romantic argument about “giving the people a voice”; it was about uncovering and recognizing historical layers of (particularly gendered) silencing and subjugation, and using theatre as a tool to work alongside people in their struggles to be able to identify, name and confront present-day forms of oppression. Two key factors were paramount; the long-term nature and the ethnographic terms of the engagement. These ensured that we fostered high levels of mutual trust within meaningful relationships that pushed beyond the classical researcher/facilitator–participant connection.
Jane: Making Theatre Informed by Ethnography
In June 2015, I returned to make the first piece of community based performance, “We Are Walukuba,” which was devised by the group, now comprising some sixty members, over a month long period. I began by making a long list of the issues raised by each group, drawing on transcriptions of discussions which took place in the weekly sessions, as well as recordings of sketches and material as varied as letters the groups had written to each other, poems and songs they had composed, and drawings they had made. I also made a list of possible interventions the community had suggested to address some of their problems. We, then, held a democratic voting process with each group where they decided on the most pressing issues. These would be what we took forward into the play-making process. We would make some work reflecting the ideas of the groups separately, but we also began to bring groups together to discuss and devise theatre that reflected common concerns. We did not attempt to bring the work together into one play; instead, we created a number of scenes that we hoped would provoke discussion and cross-group interest and interaction. Our aim was never to give a message, but to allow people space to enact their most pressing concerns and to promote critical thinking among members and our audience.
So, our youngest group of schoolgirls made a group poem about their aspirations and problems at home, where they have to undertake endless domestic tasks–from which their brothers are largely excused—and which preclude sufficient time for homework. Older members of the younger women’s group made a piece of physical theatre showing the huge and contradictory demands made on young women who want to be both good members of the traditional community and take their full place as professionals in the modern world. The young men devised a rap and breakdance sequence about the problem of swamp degradation. Our older group chose to have a scene looking at the problems for women in relation to child spacing and birth control, while the men focussed on getting their peers to test for and declare their HIV status. The common problems identified by all were poverty, corruption, tree cutting and poor working conditions, hence, to address these, we chose to make several scenes that brought members of different groups together.
Our first performance was about and for the local community, and, after it, we both left Walukuba for a short time. It was interesting that, despite our repeated promises that we were going to return, many people obviously thought these were empty words. As a result, when first Katie and then I did reappear, we found a new quality of engagement amongst a core group of around thirty people. This speaks to the common experience of communities of the poor and marginalized across the political South, where, all too often, wazungu (white people) appear, for a few weeks or months, either in the guise of researchers or of “doing good,” and then vanish into the ether of western comfort, never to be heard of again.
When I returned, in August 2015, I could not help noticing the increased commitment of people to come—with no material inducements whatsoever—to weekly meetings and, increasingly, to daily rehearsals, in a prompt and well prepared manner. I also noticed a marked change of tone in which people were far more open about their hopes for real action and their expectation that we could work with them to achieve some of their aims. It was in this atmosphere that we elected, as a group, to move from community engagement to a more activist stance of “speaking to power.”
Building on the momentum of our first event, and securing new levels of support and commitment from government officials and other stakeholders whom Katie had come to know during her fieldwork, we worked to develop a dissemination and knowledge exchange event, in which the people of Walukuba could speak to those in power regarding three key issues facing the community: gender inequality, insecurity of land and intergenerational environmental knowledge-sharing. The format of the day was that we showed each of our short plays in turn and then got people to sit in mixed interest groups of around ten to a table, alongside representatives from Walukuba, to discuss the work and suggest ideas for future change. Discussion was vociferous and impassioned.
We attracted some eighty stakeholders from local government, NGOs, CBOs, Jinja Municipal Council, Makerere University, the media, the police, religious and educational institutions. One such stakeholder, the Principal Environment Officer, was so touched by the performance of Precious Women—a verbatim piece of theatre I compiled based on research conducted with women across Jinja—that he invited the group to subsequently perform for senior members of Jinja Municipal Council.
The play highlighted critical issues facing women in Uganda today, including forced early marriages, defilement, lack of access to family planning, domestic violence, abandonment, lack of employment opportunities and sexual harassment. In early October, the cast of women performed for the Mayor, Deputy-Mayor, Town Clerk, Deputy-Town Clerk and Principal Environment Officer. Inspired by this performance, the Town Clerk immediately insisted on them returning to perform both this and the land corruption play, This Land is Ours, but Not Ours, for further members of Jinja Municipal Council’s Management Committee. Here, thirty-five senior policy-makers were invited to reflect on and confront the issues raised, as well as answer questions posed by the theatre participants. A vociferous discussion ensued, during which politicians and technocrats butted heads, and leaders pledged to serve their communities better. The land play evoked a particularly explosive response, with the Town Clerk insisting on further performances during which all stakeholders, from the Minister of Lands to the associated banks, were to come together to solve the issues raised by the community. Repeatedly, in these two latter performances, stakeholders explicitly commented on the power of performance, on how “the true suffering and pain” embodied in performance made the work hard to ignore.
Katie: Reflections of an Anthropologist on Performing against Inequality
There is a long tradition of “engaged” anthropology under many guises, including applied, critical, activist, participatory action and collaborative approaches (Hale 2001; Sanford 2006; Lamphere. 2004; Fluehr-Lobban. 2008). In Jinja, I was not part of a social movement or interacting with radical activists. Instead, I was immersed in the struggles of an urban population, within a community working hard to survive, pay school fees, feed their families and confront everyday oppressions. I had been busy navigating the messy, interconnecting and competing narratives of my research participants; yet, in my encounter with Jane, two things occurred: my ethnographic process became grounded in the work of activist community theatre, and her theatre emerged from embedded ethnography.
As anthropologists, we focus on the holistic; in an interview, we listen to the words, but we also read the body, the face, the tone; we read the space, layering our observations in field notes. And, then, we inscribe these embodied utterances, re-narrativizing them as we capture them in text, pinning them to the page. We reorder and reassemble narratives, imposing a degree of coherence to the ways in which stories were told to us.
For a long time now, I have, as do others, grappled with the quandaries of text, of fixing words and moments to the page, imbuing them with meaning, framing them with analysis, locating them within wider comparative literatures. For such an immersive and relationship-dependent data collection methodology, it seems ironic to then lock oneself away in a room to anonymize data and cut up stories, splicing them alongside those of others to make critical analytical points subject to review by one’s peers.
In Uganda, we were working in a country where theatre is a culturally accepted form for community engagement with social issues (Breitinger and Mbowa 1999). It, thus, provides the anthropologist and theatre academic with an ideal vehicle for disseminating ideas and for provocation, for praxis. It offers the opportunity to move our ethnographic texts from page to stage as the products of our work are performed, demanding attention to inspire interventions against inequality. Our audience members frequently expressed their shock at how performances “evoked what our people have suffered,” citing how they could truly realise “the pain” on the ground. The Town Clerk told me how, “when people act they expect reactions,” and told the cast, “when you act we were really touched, we are all pledging to work for you, we watch this without bad blood. We cannot look away.”
As Jane reassembled the stories I had been told into performances, crafting them into powerful devised dramas, image theatre and verbatim plays, I saw the products of my time-intensive research come alive as embodied and living texts. Here, we saw stories and experiences spoken and acted not by their authors, or by the researcher, but by community members. In the process, these living texts could begin to work in ways the entextualized could not. The text comes alive in embodied performance, and, whilst words are spoken or experiences acted by another, they hold onto the sensory, tactile, gestural, emotional and visual communication of physical delivery. We could also continue to engage with our participants in the articulation of their concerns, bringing them fully into the dissemination process. Our participants could critically comment on a piece of theatre, or significantly shape it, whereas the ethics of sharing an academic paper with a semi-literate group can be problematic.
Paulo Freire speaks of praxis, where action and reflection interact in an ongoing process (Friere 1968). Here, in the developing scenes, particularly in the devised dramas of our first “We Are Walukuba” event, group members became true co-authors. At each stage, in producing creative performances—in identifying issues, working out how to present them, shaping the plots of devised dramas or the key provocations of raps and poems—our members engaged in a dynamic exchange of ideas, drawing on the mutual support of a shared project and developing a culture of learning and knowledge-sharing.
We held discussions as we continued the work of making performance for our participants to generate and communicate knowledge, to critically reflect on power structures and acquire from Jane new transferrable theatre and communication skills; and, ultimately, it was the community who themselves presented their knowledge. Relationships with, and within, the community were in the process enriched, as we experienced a growing trust and belief in the project at hand.
This was not an unproblematic process. The shift in power, as the theatre moved from process to product, was certainly challenging for me. Ethnographers wield narrative authority over their texts, rather than their participants; yet, in our process here, narrative authority was wielded by Jane over the creative performance as, on occasion, choices had to be made over the writing of a script, or the casting of a skit. In a quest for aesthetic power, detail and nuance—the food of anthropologists—can be reduced. And yet, it is precisely these decisions, and the crafting of performance—in the course of producing eleven different scenes with a cast of nearly sixty over two events, that has allowed our research to push the transformative agendas of our participants forward, and to ensure their stake in ownership of the project is meaningful. As Bruner (1986: 148) notes of ethnographic texts, our ethnographies are co-authored, not simply because informants contribute data to the text, but because ethnographer and informant come to share the same narrative. So it has been for us in engaging theatre as both process and product.
Jane: Just What Might Make a Difference?
Working over the kind of sustained period of time I always advocate for community arts initiatives (Plastow 2014), working with an increasingly strongly invested and bonded community group, and having the privilege and luxury of being able to draw on a large bank of ethnographic interviews and transcriptions of the discussions at the weekly arts group meetings have been enormously enriching in enabling powerful theatre making that the group truly saw as reflecting their communities concerns and views, and which has resonated with all our audiences.
An example of how this immeasurably strengthened our work would be the script of the play Precious Women. I put this script together, but, apart from the elements which link it in play form, all the experiences and nearly all the words have been lifted verbatim from transcriptions of interviews and focus groups. These are not my words; they are the words of the women of Walukuba. And, of course, those words were then modified and translated by the performers to fit their own sense of voicing; thus, the character playing Constance gave her part in Luganda, and, throughout, the sentence structures—though not the stories themselves—were modified by the actresses so that they felt comfortable in the speaking.
In the discussion event that followed, no-one could challenge the veracity of the play or claim it was in any way exaggerated or unrepresentative, because it drew on the experiences of over a hundred women and was endorsed by the actresses who were of that very space and place. This immediately silenced the kind of patriarchal voice that I have so often heard claiming that women’s issues are not particularly important, or that men suffer equally from abusive women, or that only “immoral” women are abandoned or abused and that they must, in some way, have deserved their fate. The power of the stories drove a deeply serious discussion from all involved and has led to further interest in the plays and in working with the community.
Moreover, I strongly doubt if all those powerful people in Jinja would have come to the dissemination event if they had not been aware of our long-term engagement. Katie had interviewed many of the people involved, so they already knew something of our undertaking, and awareness of the work was widespread both because of the first show and because our members were talking about it to all their relevant contacts. In the lead up to the event, a number of people said that we would never get senior council officials and members of the District Land Board to come along and listen to criticisms from the people, but, with a handful of notable omissions, they did come and they did engage in debate. The embedded discursive nature of our work, I am convinced, was what made this possible.
The process has been equally important in developing critical engagement and a sense of possible agency among the participants in “We Are Walukuba.” A lengthy process of on-going discussion, first between peers, then across gender and generation and finally, across communities of power, has significantly changed members of all the constituent groups of We Are Walukuba. Just after the first show, Katie emailed me to say that she had seen on the wall of one of our youth members written up in large letters “Critical Thinking.” When she asked him about it, he said that was what the weekly sessions and play rehearsals had made him realize he wanted to help develop among his fellow youth. Similarly, in the early weeks, I am aware that both Baron and Katie had found it really difficult to get the younger women’s group to voice any opinions, especially about matters outside their immediate day-to-day lives. Yet, those same young women wrote and performed poetry, and made physical theatre critiquing their oppressions and voicing their aspirations, and, then, went on to claim a full place in discussions; speaking respectfully but firmly to older men in the group when they felt they needed challenging.
I have been repeatedly and deeply touched by some of our older women who have spoken about how important the sessions are to them because, otherwise, they spend much time sitting at home, feeling useless and irrelevant. They often spoke of the fun of the work and, like all the groups, they spoke of the new friends they had made and how they felt more supported in the community they live in. Even some of more authoritarian older men have said that they realize that “it is important to listen to the youth.”
Of course, not all aspects of the project worked for everyone. Some people dropped out and others have remained relatively quiet, even while they keep attending. We have recently got the Mayor and the Town Clerk on side, but none of the Jinja factory owners want to talk to us. But, as we link with other activist CSOs in and around Jinja, our members are hugely keen to carry on working and, increasingly—if, like us, somewhat amazedly—realizing that ethnography and theatre, academic research and the energy and insights of a community, can come together to make both social and political change.
Our journey continues. In November 2015, “We Are Walukuba” was formally registered at both Divisional and District levels in Jinja. Sitting together in their intergenerational group, they decided their aim was to use creative arts to promote sustainable development and environmental conservation in their local community and beyond. They continue meeting bi-weekly to share ideas, identify key concerns and use theatre to generate interventions. One member has built an impressive website, another sourced a local lawyer to freely help craft the constitution, whilst others agreed principles for guarding egalitarianism via a revolving management committee which each month elects four people, an older man and woman and a younger man and woman, to lead the group—with no immediate re-election allowed. We have been transformed from patrons to partners as the group has taken power. In their first month of solo work, the group took the initiative to make the project their own over the course of ten meetings; they have moved into the realm of community service by cleaning the local market and sensitizing the vendors about sanitation and the danger of inadequately disposing of polythene bags; performed a new play about HIV stigma and disclosure to a Church congregation; and begun to conceptualize new outreach workshops using drama to provoke community discussion around the Domestic Violence Act.
 This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [grant number AH/K006215/1], as part of the wider INTERSECTION team led by PI Gill Valentine, and including Robert Vanderbeck, Lily Chen, Mei Zhang, Kristina Diprose and Chen Liu.
 Jane Plastow has been working on community arts project, predominantly in East Africa, over the past thirty years. Katie McQuaid is an anthropologist who worked in Uganda for her doctoral research.
 Research data will be made publically available according to the Research Councils UK Common Principles on Data Policy (2011).
 This expression is adopted from a 1955 Quaker publication advocating non-violent resistance to the enmity embodied in the Cold War, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence authored by the American Friends Service Committee.
American Friends Service Committee. Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. 1955.
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*Katie McQuaid is an anthropologist, working as a Research Fellow in the Schools of Geography and English at the University of Leeds. Her work focuses on gender, climate and environmental change, intergenerationality, human rights, urban Africa, and the intersection of ethnographic and creative methodologies.
**Jane Plastow is Professor of African Theatre at the University of Leeds. She has worked widely across East Africa, teaching, making theatre, training and writing. She is currently working on a history of theatre in East Africa.