Friday, May 27, 2011

Motokas, cows and wives

Having only recently finished Twelfth Night, I had promised myself that I would take a 12-month break from matters theatrical..... But, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I find myself in another play starting next week at Uganda's National Theatre in Kampala. We will be doing four performances of the comedy The Cow Needs A Wife, written by Angie Emurwon and a prize winner in last year's BBC World Service African playwriting competition.

Without giving away too much of the story, the plot of this hilarious play revolves around the efforts of a poor young man (Mamboleo) to pay the bride price for his chosen woman, assisted by his over-bearing uncle (Motoka) and the cunning jack-of-all-trades (Kuyiya). I will be playing the role of Motoka, so named as the first owner of a motor car (motoka in Luganda) in his village.

The central themes of the play are bride price and fund-raising, both of which have considerable significance in Ugandan life. The logic of bride price is simple: it represents compensation paid to a family for the loss of a daughter. In an environment lacking an external welfare state, the extended family is the only approximation to a social safety net for the disadvantaged. But in recent years, some non-governmental organisations in Uganda have campaigned against bride price, on the grounds that it encourages society to regard women as chattels that can be bought and sold. It is hard to know to what extent this campaign has attracted popular support, either among women or men, in a society where the Kwanjula (betrothal ceremony) is deeply rooted in traditional culture. My own theory is that, as Uganda becomes wealthier and more urbanised, the Kwanjula - where the bride price is paid in the form of gifts of livestock and other commodities - will become increasingly celebratory and ceremonial, and that the transactional element will wither away.

One consequence of bride price is the need for would-be grooms to fund-raise among their families and friends in order to raise the necessary cash to meet the huge costs of betrothal and marriage. Next week, when we stage The Cow Needs A Wife, I know that in the tranquil lawns surrounding the theatre, there will be at least three or four tables each evening where meetings of wedding committees will be held, to organise functions and raise money to finance the event. Complicated budgets are drawn up and pledges from friends and family carefully recorded. Very few men in Uganda can afford to meet the costs from their own resources, especially in a country where extended families are large and where it is not unusual for weddings to have more than 500 guests.

And this is the cultural backdrop to this excellent comedy. If you are able to come and see it next week, don't miss it!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I went to Nazareth last week. Not the Nazareth in the Holy Land where Jesus served his apprenticeship as a carpenter, but the Nazareth that lies about 100 km south of Addis Ababa in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, its name a reminder of Christianity's long history in highland Ethiopia. (Or so I thought, until my host pointed out that the city's Oromo name is Adama, and that it had only been renamed by the last Emperor Haile Selassie some years ago.)

It was four years since I had last visited Addis. As with so many African cities, the pace of economic growth (at least if construction work is any sort of proxy) is rapid: yet the country remains in visible poverty. My journey took me south, to the Southern Nations and People's region. Shortly after the town of Butajira, we branched off the main road and continued along an excellent all-weather road en route to a farm in the Hlaba district. There were hardly any motorised vehicles on the way: most people travel on foot or, for a lucky few, on donkey carts. I saw very few shops on the way: the exchange of goods appeared to be reliant on weekly open-air markets in village centres. The rains had recently started and farmers were busy using ox-ploughs to prepare their fields for planting. In such a region, households are dependent on wood and farming waste for their energy source, yet there were almost no trees visible standing more than about head-high.

After reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse last year, this visit was a timely reminder to me of the vulnerability of rural communities like this to any adverse shock - for example, failure in rainfall. No rainfall, no crops. No crops, no food. No safety net, and no incentive to traders to transport food into the district, because there would be no money to pay for it. The same could be said of the long term impact of annual farming on soil fertility: diminishing farm yields feeding an ever-increasing population. It is a sobering thought.

On the way back into Addis, I saw a sign for Bobmarley Square (sic), a reminder of the strong connection between the Rastafarian movement and its spiritual home in Ethiopia. Tafari was, in fact, Emperor Haile Selassie's real name: according to Rastafarian beliefs, the embodiment of God on earth and the opponent of western Babylon. It is almost exactly 30 years to the day since Bob Marley's untimely death from cancer, and 36 years since Haile Selassie was executed by Mengistu's Derg, but the Rastafarian movement lives on.