Transitions

A play shines light on a deepening divide inside Uganda

Silent Voices, a new play at the National Theatre in Kampala, questions the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation in Northern Uganda. The rhetoric in the last couple of years about Northern Uganda has focused on the forgiving nature of the people — and thus on how reconciliation will successfully remove the stench of the long ...

Alfajiri Productions
Alfajiri Productions

Silent Voices, a new play at the National Theatre in Kampala, questions the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation in Northern Uganda. The rhetoric in the last couple of years about Northern Uganda has focused on the forgiving nature of the people — and thus on how reconciliation will successfully remove the stench of the long and terrible war against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Written by Judith Adong, Silent Voices deftly captures the experiences of the people affected by the conflict. Adong was inspired by the research she carried out in 2006, looking at the use of drama therapy for former child soldiers, at the World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Centre and at the Gulu Support the Children Organization.

But the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation were only negotiated at the political level; the Amnesty Act forgave perpetrators who surrendered, and in cases protected them from future litigation. Adong’s meetings with community members led her to realize that, "there was a feeling of betrayal, bitterness, a need for revenge and a feeling of having been neglected, while crime perpetrators were instead being rewarded and victims being ‘forced’ to forgive."

In an email interview with me, Adong posits the question: Who forgives whom? Where is the notion of justice in our so-called civilized nation? One must keep in mind all the actors: the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the government, and the victims. Above all, it is vital to remember that the victims feel betrayed that their leaders proclaimed forgiveness on their behalf without consulting them.

So she decided to write a play to grapple with all these questions, and entered it in the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab. The play was selected for the 2010 July lab session, where she was able to work with her mentors to polish the play.

Weaving together acting, singing, and dance, Silent Voices focuses on the story of the protagonist, Mother, who is a symbol of Life and Death. Adong describes the play as "a woman’s cry for justice. The woman is a victim of the conflict not just because she was abducted by the LRA, but was also victimized by government soldiers."  This is expressed in the protagonist’s monologue:

Nothing but hell surrounds us. We are pursued in all corners. We have no escape. We are like punch[ing] bags, like the grass that suffers when two elephants fight. We are like little balls. Tossed left and right. Back and forth. Center. No matter how far we run, we get picked up and back and tossed again. We have no voices of our own. No directions of our own. We don’t know who to trust, who to be loyal to. Either way, we always lose. We are but a bunch of miserable losers. We have nothing of our own. No heaven. No hell. Yes, we get cheated. Cheated even out of our hell. (In a trance) Yes. I was happily hopeless with my full mist day. But the sun sneaked in with promises, and disappeared almost immediately.

The play has been a success in Kampala. Yet Adong was shocked at how the audience reacted with laughter during the play’s gruesome scenes. Hilda Twongyeirwe, coordinator of the Uganda Women Writers Association, asks: "Have gunshots become so familiar to us Ugandans that we just laugh at it?" Audience members explained to Adong that laughter could be a defense or survival mechanism to escape the harsh realities of their lives.

But Adong is confused whether the audience was able to laugh because they are mainly from the south, and do not care about the north — a reaction informed by the longstanding tensions between the north and south that have influenced Uganda’s political landscape since independence. A journalist she spoke to about the audience reactions explained them like this: "When you are watching the play, depending on where you come from, north or south, you react differently. I guess if you are from the south, you go: What the heck? (and shrug); and if you are from the north, it really affects you."

This prompted Adong to ponder: Is Uganda even a nation? What about the basic instinct to care about fellow human beings, no matter our differences?

Seeking to open a critical debate about the notion of forgiveness, the play has a discussion panel at the end of each performance, led by political and social leaders from northern Uganda, civil society members, and officials from the government. Speaking on reconciliation, Bishop Ochola Baker, one of the panelists, said: "Among the Acholi people, there can be no reconciliation without both parties taking responsibility. So both the government and LRA have to take responsibility first, before we talk of reconciliation. Mato Oput [a bitter drink used by the northern Acholi during tribal reconciliation ceremonies after murders] comes with compensation and reparation before drinking of the bitterness of the herb, and is concluded by a shared meal."

The Mato Oput ceremony was among the agenda items debated during the peace talks in Juba between the LRA and the Government of Uganda in 2006. It was a way to seek the use of alternative traditional justice mechanisms recognized by the affected communities of Northern Uganda.

Lindsay McClain of the Justice and Reconciliation Project in Gulu, added: "Something that struck me in this piece of theater is that it was almost like a warning. I feel like [it foreshadows] what could happen in the future if the justice implemented in Uganda is not relevant to the war-affected communities."

Many audience members did express their fear that Uganda is a time bomb waiting to explode, and that the gap between the north and south seems to widen every day.

If she is able to procure additional funding, Adong plans to take the play to northern Uganda and elsewhere. But thus far, she has opened the discussion about the tensions between north and south.

Follow Jackee on twitter @jackeebatanda

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