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!