white & black in africa: postcolonial director of the national theater

John Otim

In the days of empire most Whites were believers in the myth of White superiority. In many African countries bitterly fought wars of liberation preceded independence. In the Congo while invited guests were still in the banquet hall celebrating the new Africa a bloody war broke out for control of the fat of the land.

Even in countries where the transition had been mild with not a single shot fired in anger, there were problems. In a continent grown accustom to rule from the outside independence was a strange thing. Whites in Africa were use to having it their way. Even liberal minded folks like Baroness Blixen or the famous Leaky family of Kenya, took White prerogative for granted. Many Blacks had resigned themselves to what they saw as this stupid life. For everyone caught in the colonial situation the need to end it was real. The challenge to end it was merely the beginning. The period of transition and adjustment were difficult and sometimes hillarious times.

Two years after independence the Uganda Government appointed its first Director of the National Theater. It was an act of faith and belief in a new Africa. As independence approached, the British built a magnificent structure in downtown Kampala, the colonial capital and still the capital today of independent Uganda. On Independence Day October 9th 1962, the British handed over the brand new edifice to the new Nation as a parting gift. No one who knew them could accuse the British of lacking in matters of manners or style.

Built of marbles, steel and glass the new National Theater looked like a work of art. Its interior was just as lovely. A grand theater hall with all the amenities of a modern stage, conference hall, workshop areas, and choice office suits, all were there. The later was quickly taken, mostly by British business and commercial concerns that still commanded the heights of the economy in the new nation. It was for them a great place from which to operate. It was right next door to the country’s Parliament and seat of government. It underscored for them the sense of continued influence over the affairs of the new State. We are still here independence regardless.

Before and throughout the colonial period Uganda was known for its colorful dances that brought in tourists just as much as its game parks did. Even the young Queen Elizabeth gave it a node when she and Prince Philip arrived in the country in 1954 and were treated to the incomparable Itole war dance of the Acholi people. You have to see it to believe it. But no institutions existed in the country to promote and to take care of theater and the arts. The new National Theater and its Director would see to that. Faith can move mountains.

The day after his appointment was announced on Radio, the new Director of the National Theater, Okot p’Bitek, arrived at the Theater ready to take control and set the ball rolling. In a new country where new appointments are sometimes guesswork, Okot’s appointment was singularly suited. Okot was a poet, writer and composer. As a high school teacher he had organized successful interschool musicals. He was a footballer of note and played with the Ugandan side. And not least he had a college degree in anthropology from Oxford University.

On this his first day on the job Okot found the new National Theater occupied. On stage was running the acclaimed English play, School for Scandal. In a room that looked like what should be the office of the new Director, situated at a corner of the top floor and commanding a terrific view of the still colonial city, sat a bearded fierce looking pipe smoking White man who filled the corridors with smoke and distained to talk to Blacks. In the workshop area various groups of young Whites were at rehearsal. One group was rehearsing the play, The American Dream.

Okot returned the next day and gave notice for the various groups and individuals now occupying space at the National Theater to vacate. He planned a week long program of activities to announce in style the arrival of the National Theater. Dancers, musicians, dramatists and poets would converge on the city from all parts of the country in a truly national festival of the arts for the first time in Uganda. For Okot, in culture and in the arts was to be found the salvation of the new Africa. I think and therefore I am.

The dateline to vacate came and went but at the edifice that was called Uganda National Theater not a soul stirred. We hired this place! Didn’t we? Let him come! The British were getting really angry.

Okot was a man well versed in the art of pitch-battles and had fought many intellectual battles with his Oxford professors and his Makerere University colleagues during the brief time he spent there. Now Okot went to a Kampala market and bought himself a huge African drum. The royal type they used in the past to announce the arrival of the Kabaka of Buganda.

The following morning Okot returned to the Theater with the young troupe of dancers and musicians that he had put together. The group did not bother to enter the Theater Hall or to go upstairs to the rehearsal chambers. They assembled at the Reception lounge. To the consternation of the Receptionist, a young and pretty Indian woman, Okot and his troupe commenced their act right there and then.

Kampala was still the colonial city it had always been. The sound of African drumming and merry making was not a feature of City life. Now Okot and his players exploded with one of the most exquisite of his own composition, the musical Can naa. It was heralded by the sounds of drums in the true manner of a royal arrival.

The fierce pipe smoking fellow and the Bosses from the upstairs rushed down to see what the hell was going on. But it was late. Okot and his performers had already won the heart of the swelling crowd of mostly Africans who cheered and applauded.

In a colonial situation, noise, any noise, is the one thing Whites instinctively recoil from. Whites saw the energy, the jubilation and the ecstasy that the early morning show had released and they quietly withdrew. That evening on the radio and on television their leaders denounced the New Director as a thug in camouflage. The next morning’s paper carried further criticism of the Director and his actions.

Over a glass of beer in a city bar overlooking Parliament and the Theater, Okot and a group of his friends laughed and enjoyed themselves. He knew the battle was won. He and his troupe returned to the National Theater the following morning and continued with their show. Even the Indian girl at Reception was now smiling. In less than a week the National Theater had been vacated.

Okot gave the name: Heartbeat of Africa, to his young and talented group of players that had in his words liberated the National Theater. Within a year, the Heartbeat of Africa dance troupe would tour Europe and North America to great acclaim.

It was while in this celebrant mood that in the coming weeks, Okot wrote Song of Lawino. In the early months of 1966 Song of Lawino was published from Nairobi and became an instant success story. It went on to achieve translation in 22 major world languages, and to secure a place in the anthology of Great World Literatures.