Ugandan Writers: Meet Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare
Jane interviews Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare.
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First published: March 26, 2006
At the young age of 41, author, dramatist, playwright, and teacher Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare is undisputedly one of the finest and most accomplished dramatists in Uganda. She teaches Drama and Folklore at the Music Dance and Drama (MDD) Department, Makerere University, Kampala, in Uganda. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D) from Makerere University, with professional training in theatre marketing, folklore, dramaturgy, and criticism. She loves to do research, creative writing in particular dramatic writing, folklore (ethnic art), photography, and computer design.
In the areas of pedagogy, she has worked with community theatre artists and young people in Kampala to produce a documentary film, Dustbin Nations (2000), also published in play form in 2002. A play, The Chief of Shumankuzi (or The Corrupt Chief of the Village), that came out in 2001, was a result of a theatre awareness and circus theatre exchange between Uganda and Ethiopia involving children with disabilities the blind, lame, deaf and dumb - organized under UNC, the Uganda National Chapter of EATI (Eastern Africa Theatre Institute). EATI is a regional body bringing together theatre artists and organisations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
The staging of her political play, Lady, Will You Marry Me? (2002) in March 2002 at the National Theatre, Kampala, coincided with the terse campaign of the country's then Vice President, Dr. Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, against domestic violence. Dr. Wandira Kazibwe testified publicly to having suffered the abuse from her husband for many years. Domestic violence forms the sub-plot of Lady, Will You Marry Me?
She is among the founders of the Uganda Theatre Network (UTN) that hosts UNC. She was the first Chairperson of the Board of UNC and EATI in 2000-2002. She is also involved with other community service clubs and organizations like the Lions Club of Kampala Central where she is the Volunteer Editor of the Club Bulletin and Club Secretary for the Lionistic Year 2005/2006; and the Youth and Women Clubs Network (YWCN), an association where they use theatre for sensitization towards poverty alleviation and economic sustainability among the youth and women especially those outside formal/regular employment. Her stated hobbies are writing, research, photography, singing, gardening, and cooking.
She is happily married to Mr. John Bosco Ntangaare.
Mercy and John during their honeymoon in 1995.
Jane: Theatre holds a special place in my heart. I remember going to the National Theatre with my father to watch plays as a child. I also remember being actively involved with plays when I was at Namasagali College, a school which was known for its theatrical prowess. What drives you as a playwright?
Mercy: My interest in theatre basically comes out of my love for drama. My first inspirations in creative writing came from my parents, who were always reading or writing something in the evenings, even in their retirement-they are former primary school teachers. I tend to visualize more than I talk. In nearly every situation or setting there is something 'unique', something funny that would comment on life and make it fresh. Instinctively, I have great love for cartoons. I am yet to try this out.
How early in your life were you interested in playwriting and folklore?
I started to notice my dream to become a writer somewhere in Senior One/Senior Two, after reading the abridged versions of Charles Dickens' novel, Great Expectations. My interest in playwriting came much later, and was conditioned by circumstances. This was after I joined the Makerere University in 1984, and enrolled to study Music Dance and Drama at the Music Dance and Drama (MDD) Department. The late Assoc. Prof. Rose Mbowa was then the Head of Department, and a very good and loving teacher of Drama.
How did she affect your decision?
In my Senior Six, when I applied to join Makerere University, I only wanted to do Music, French and German. I loved Music but my interest in French particularly was cultivated at secondary school as a result of the very good teacher we had, who was also a friend, Ms. Dora Mucookori (now Mrs. Kibende). For all my six subject choices on the BA programme, I filled in either Music or French, combining with another language German, English Language Studies, and Literature. Unfortunately, there was no French or German for beginners at the time. So, I ended up with Literature, English Language Studies, and Music Dance and Drama. At Makerere University, I also interacted with many other acclaimed dramatists and theatre artists during and after my course. The plays of Byron Kawadwa and Robert Serumaga, like The Song of Wankoko, A Play, and Majangwa, George Owell's Animal Farm, and (Ugandan) Folklore, have all had a big influence on my current dramatic style.
During registration, I was told that one had to have done Music at Advanced Level (A' Level) to major in the subject. I did not want to change from MDD so I went back to Rose. She sent me to Dance; most likely because of my size (I was so tiny at the time and very shy). Fr. Grimes kept me in his class for two days and sent me out because I was not picking the strokes. It was a Modern Dance Class. You have to note that I was meeting Modern Dance for the very first time in my life. Naturally, too, I had never ever seen or won leotards that I was now supposed to put on. Remember, too, that for all the six years of my secondary school education, I was at Bweranyagi Girls' in Bushenyi District by all standards a good but 'village' school.
You should have been in Namasagali College. Leotards were commonplace there. What did you do next?
Grace and Susan.
(Laughs) I went back to Rose, and explained my dilemma. Then she said, "Maybe, you can try Drama."
As for folklore, I must have loved it right from childhood. I am not particularly a good storyteller but I love stories and used to enjoy the story-telling sessions in lower primary school. To-date, I find a lot of wisdom and sensible humour in the stories; mostly the folk narratives-folktales, fairytales, fables, legends, and myths. Local parables enchant me.
I read that at an early age, you picked great interest in musical instruments, especially the xylophone and the tube-fiddle at the encouragement of your father....
My father is a retired primary school head teacher and my mother a retired primary school teacher. By village standards at the time-I was born in 1964-they were middle class. It may have been because of this or because I was the first born in the family and a girl that we, as children, did not have much freedom to move about as we liked. Consequently, we always felt cheated as we could not attend village ceremonies as we liked. But the drumming, the flute, the singing and the dancing in folk song and dance were all enchanting, and almost irresistible. The melodies also always sounded funny and enjoyable. The more we were restricted the more I longed to be part. Then one of my paternal uncles, Yowasi Baryakagamba, is a great dancer and flutist. He used to perform the local dance, Ekitaguriro, with such energy and enjoyment it was such a pleasure to see him dance and sweat but still dance on!
You make it sound so magical. I can almost visualize those scenes. What musical wealth Uganda has! So performance and music are very much a part of your family...
Yes. My freedom came in Primary Five when I was allowed to join the school choir. My school, Kyeizooba Girls' Primary School, was very good at Music and Dance, and it won many competitions. I also learnt to play the flute and the tube fiddle.
Parents who support children's interest in the arts are very rare. What do you think made your father different in this aspect?
Cat and Lady Mouse from Lady, Will You Marry Me?
My father's support of my involvement in the performing arts must have been more out of respect for my choice than his love of it. Being the first born, I noticed quite early in life that my parents, especially my father, tended to give me a little more trust and independence than they did my sisters and brothers. We were nine children in all. One boy, the 4th borne, died in a motor accident in 1999. The first three are all girls. The other benefit I enjoyed, most likely because of my position in the family, was to get a bedroom to myself and free time in the holidays once we came back from the gardens in the mid-morning. Much of this time I used for creative writing and experimentation with my musical instruments.
It's a good thing he supported you. Look where you are now!
You are among the founders of the Uganda Theatre Network (UTN). How did that come about?
In 1996, an official of Sida (the Swedish International Development Agency) Mr. Pelle Knutsson, visited Uganda together with Mr. Godwin Z. Kaduma, then an official in the Ministry of Culture in Tanzania, looking for an institution that would host the Theatre Fund for artists in East Africa. The visit also brought them to MDD Department, Makerere University, which was eventually selected to host the Theatre Fund. Rose Mbowa became the first Administrator of the Fund.
At about the same time, I was selected alongside another member of staff at MDD Department, to attend a play directing workshop at the Bagamoyo College of Arts in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. I had joined the department in 1995. While at Bagamoyo, we came up with a resolution to build stronger collaborations among ourselves and with other theatre institutions and artists in the eastern Africa region (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda). Thus EATI (Eastern Africa Theatre Institute) was born although it did not get formalized until 1999. The four member countries were to organize activities under national chapters. Then EATI-Uganda National Chapter came into existence. Unfortunately, Rose Mbowa died about the same time the young institution was being formed in February 1999. When I came back from my studies in 2000, the department invited me to coordinate the activities of the chapter. Consequently, I became the first Chairperson of EATI Board and EATI-UNC in 2000-2002.
How challenging of a role was that?
Well as we implemented the EATI programme, it became apparent that there were gaps or needs in Uganda's theatre industry that were not covered sufficiently by the EATI programme. For example, there are high incidences of break up of theatre groups due to 'small' disagreements that could easily be avoided or ironed out amicably once the artists are aware of basic leadership and business skills. We were also very much disturbed and still are to see that artists who are very instrumental in many fields of life remain some of the poorest in the country and much elsewhere. We called a stakeholders meeting and the Uganda Theatre Network was born. Currently, UTN represents EATI in Uganda but has leave to carry out its programmes alongside. UTN mainly works to empower community theatre artists, youth and children in and out of school with life skills as well as theatre skills. EATI exists to build a strong theatre movement in the region and promote regional cooperation and networking among artists.
I have noticed that you have an affinity for working with young people interested in theatre...
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First published: March 26, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.