Ugandan Voices of Change: Adong Judith Lucy

The current blowing across the arts scene of late is of activism that stands to leave a potent and rich plume that will affect generations to come. Adong Judith Lucy is an artist that stands tall in the rain and tells it like it is. Her recently concluded production, Silent Voices was presented at the National Theatre in Kampala to full houses for most of the twelve showings.

Interview by Samuel Lutaaya

Adong Judith Lucy

She takes no prisoners in a play which provides a snapshot of the effect the atrocities in Northern Uganda have affected the victims of the protracted conflict between the Government of Uganda and rebel leader Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

I spoke with her about the process of creation and the reaction her audience had when they watched the play.

What is the central theme of the play and why the particular choice?

I don’t know about central, I wouldn’t want to box up the play like so. I believe everything that the play portrays and every single question that the play asks is crucial. The play deals with the experiences and emotions of the victims of the Northern Uganda conflict both pre, during and post-conflict.

It raises questions about present transitional justice approaches and what they mean for the future. As Lindsay McClain, the Communications Team Leader at Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) put it during the panel discussion interaction after the play on 24th July 2012:

“Something that struck me in this piece of theatre is that it was almost like a warning. I feel it could happen in the future if the justice implemented in Uganda is not relevant to the war affected communities.”

The play also asks questions such as: Who should forgive who? Who has the right to forgive on behalf of another? Why amnesty? And why focus on compensation for perpetrators while the victims are ignored? Are victims consulted enough or at all during these processes? How about the larger picture of Uganda? The question of the supremacy of one ethnic group over the other.

How effective is transitional justice in addressing issues of the victims?

Judging from my interviews with victims, from which I write this play, the processes need to be revisited as victims complain they are perpetrator-centred. Some victims also maintain it is not enough to just say ‘forgive them’.  As forgiveness is pursued, let compensation and reparation also be embraced.

There is also the concern of adapting only certain aspect of traditional reconciliation-aspect easier for stakeholders, e.g only embracing the symbolic reconciliation of ‘Mato Oput’.  McClain also says that JRP has found symbolic reconciliation (Mato Oput without the compensation and reparation aspects) helpful.

My own opinion on this is that this can be very deceptive. Most victims pretend to have accepted such symbolic reconciliation only because they want to conform to public expectations. Like the Acholi people say, ‘dongo wang ogwal’. (Acceptance of something because of the fear of powers above us.)

A number of victims I interviewed would say, if saying that we forgive them can bring about peace for now, then no problem, we shall say so. But once everything settles down then we shall deal with them.

When it comes to the Acholi reconciliation ceremony of ‘Mato Oput’, I think Bishop Ochola Baker of the Anglican Church put it clearly during the panel discussion after the show of the 26th July 2012:

“Among the Acholi people, there can be no reconciliation without both parties taking responsibility, both the government and LRA. Mato Oput comes with compensation and reparation (known among the Acholi people as ‘culo kwor’) before the drinking of the bitterness of the herb and is concluded by a shared meal.”

From the Alfajiri Productions premiere of "Silent Voices" at National Theatre in Kampala 2012.

Do you feel the play’s theme is relevant to Uganda today and why?

Absolutely! Like most audience members seem to suggest during the panel discussion in July, Uganda is a time bomb waiting to explode. The south-north divide only gets worse by the day.  An audience member asked:

“How is national reconciliation achievable if the post-conflict environment doesn’t favour such reconciliation? When the people who were in IDPs (Internally Displaced People) are released to go home discover they have no homes because their land has been given to “investors.”

It is also a question of what foundation we are building the Northern Uganda peace on if victims feel denied of justice?  I think Uganda must move away from the culture of “if we do not talk about it, it will go away”. It never goes away. It goes to sleep only to wake up some time in the future in the endless wars/rebel activities we have.

How long has the play been in development, the writing process?

I wrote the first draft in 2007. But it stalled between 2008-2009 until I entered it for the Sundance Theatre Lab 2010 and it was selected as the project to represent Uganda.

It went through this development lab with scriptwriting mentors, director and actors. Then it received a public reading of an excerpt in New York in April 2011 at the WYNC, the national radio again through the support of Sundance Institute-Theater Program and 651 Arts, an arts support organization that supports cultural collaboration of works of the African diaspora.

During this collaboration, I interacted with renowned African-American playwrights like Tracey Scott Wilson and Lynn Nottage among others. I also watched a number of plays both Off and On-Broadway and all these experiences enriched the play big time.

This is the kind of support we lack back at home. Writers/creators workshops are endless abroad and this explains a number of new works that come out of these countries.

The challenge now was the finances to put the play up for production. This was a long struggle but thanks to DOEN Foundation, a Netherland based arts support organization who believed in the project, we have now been able to produce the play with their funding support.

A number of Ugandan based organizations have also given us in-kind support, like Makerere University (Department of Performing Arts and Film), Uganda National Theatre, House of Talent, East Africa, Hilder Nursery School and Day Care in Gulu, Taibah International School, and many others that we cannot exhaust.

From the Alfajiri Productions premiere of "Silent Voices" at National Theatre in Kampala 2012.

During the production process, what has the play taught you?

(Judith smiles) In the future I should write plays with fewer characters. Human resource management is tough, especially in a country where the industry cannot boost of professionalism.

I felt like the whole process was turning me into a demon of some sort having to chase after people to commit and focus. Theatre is a dying institution because it has not provided the audience with a lasting experience. Film is taking over because it provides that.

The National Theatre needs to rebrand and I didn’t want to do a production that wouldn’t prove this theory of mine.

This production also taught me that once artists can reach that point where they forget themselves and commit to a project, the result is always fantastic.

Did any of the reactions from the audience surprise you?

I have been puzzled and concerned as to why the audience laughs at scenes intended to shock them. This has also been the concern of the cast and crew.

The lead actress was for instance really bothered when during the ‘court’ session in the play, her character Mother narrates the ordeal she and her family went through in the hands of the government soldier during which her father was sodomized. She then calls out to other people to break the silence and tell the stories too and someone in the audience shouted back at her: “We have no stories!”

Really? As Ugandans we have no stories? As Hilda Twongyeirwe, the coordinator of Uganda Women’s Writers Association (FEMRITE) said: Where is our basic human instinct of empathy? We don’t have to have experienced something for us to be able to empathize.

So many theories have been advanced about the reaction of the audience: They believe it is a defence mechanism. They are apathetic. The reaction from an audience member who is from the south is very different from that of an audience member who is from the north. It is simply funny for some audience members. And so on…

The question for me therefore, “Is Uganda a nation if empathy is portioned regionally?” I lament together with Hilda, “Has the sound of gunshots become this familiar to us that we laugh at it?”

From the Alfajiri Productions premiere of "Silent Voices" at National Theatre in Kampala 2012.

What kind of answers could a play like Silent Voices give?

Well, what has bothered me is the question of the play not providing solutions. Artists are not solution providers. We are mirrors to reflect what the image of our society is like, so policymakers and implementers can bring about redress.

I honestly believe this is an escapism expectation from artists by decisionmakers and policymakers. How can you ask me for solutions when the voices in the play are very clear: We want our justice! Why ‘compensate’/’reward’ perpetrators while their victims are ignored? Develop a civic education system for the community to understand amnesty better. Develop a national reconciliation and peace building act to address these concerns.

Artists do not make laws but can mirror a need for a law, as Silent Voices does.

In this same way I was puzzled by a review of the play in the Monitor Publication that implies the play should have been a political analysis of the war or south-north divide.

Art is different from history. Art deals with people’s experiences.  It humanizes, not politicizes. So we go for human experiences. If as artists we start giving in-depth political analysis then what will historians do? What will political scientists do?

What do you intend for the audience to take home with them?

The cry for justice. The pain of the victims. The destruction of love and humanity. The vicious circle of the human weakness for revenge both as individuals and groups. Ironically Mother’s revenge on Man’s family is no different from the act of revenge she decries of the revenge from the government soldiers on her community.  How as human beings, as a nation can we stop this? How can we become a true nation?

With such a topic, you probably have plans to have a dialogue with the audiences who watch it. Is there a provision for this feedback?

Yes. “Silent Voices” has an advocacy element attached to it that is pro-victims. We therefore have a one hour panel discussions on different transitional justice topics after every show. Panellists include victims, lawmakers, CSOs, Human Rights organizations, academia etc.

Do you think the public dialogue will generate the right responses to your questions?

I think the public dialogues have generated quite some interested responses from the audience as well as the panellists.

There are so many issues coming up that are hard to exhaust in a one sitting answer session. Many audience members expressed their fear for Uganda as a time bomb waiting to explode and the gap between the south and north that seems to widen every single day.

From our conversations, you have told me the performances were free to the public. Any particular reason?

The reason is simple. Southern Uganda and the rest of the world have seemed either very detached from the Northern Uganda conflict or misled by stories that have told either half-truths or packaged to sell to the western market. Since it is based on interviews with victims, our goal is not to limit access to the stories by imposing a financial limitation so as many people as possible access these disturbing issues that the play deals with.

We hope that when people access these issues, they can in their own capacities also do something about it. But also, for the victims it is a therapy knowing that Uganda and the world has heard their stories.

A lot of people ardently criticized Invisible Children’s (IC) Kony 2012 video, but in my opinion, the only thing that video got wrong was to say Uganda is located in Central Africa. Most people were just busy protecting the new-found Ugandan oil by their criticism of IC, looking at it as America’s ploy to rob Uganda of its oil while others were suddenly concerned about the tainted image of Uganda. It became a Ugandan image as opposed to how most Ugandans have been viewing it as a Northern Uganda image.

Like a writer friend of mine said, he doesn’t wish to write about Northern Uganda because most people accuse art of exaggeration, but in his opinion, no art can ever exaggerate the Northern Uganda conflict. No matter how it is treated, it would always be an understatement of what actually happened.

From the Alfajiri Productions premiere of "Silent Voices" at National Theatre in Kampala 2012.

Finally, what are your future plans for the production?

Our future plan as Alfajiri Productions Ltd, the company that has produced the play, is to solicit for more financial support to take the play to the north. Only a few people from the north have managed to watch the play. This hinders meaningful national conversation as all parties need to watch the play to enhance a more meaningful dialogue as we continue to lobby for solutions to the issues raised in the play.

We look forward to a time when every sector is doing something in their capacity to lend a hand to this challenge. For instance, the Ministry of Education and Sports could lend a hand by adopting transitional justice as a theme for the national schools’ Music, Dance and Drama festivals for the next couple of years, Law makers can pass the National Reconciliation and Peace Building Act, and Ministry of Finance can support the budget for compensation and reparation. This way, we can all do something about our nation building.

We also wish to stage the play in Kenya, Rwanda and Southern Sudan with the necessary support to do so. This is because the issues raised in the play are issues of concern to these East African countries as well putting into perspective the Kenyan Post-Election Violence of 2007, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and the Southern Sudan Civil War.

Samuel Lutaaya is a freelance writer with a varying range of interests namely; dance, film, theatre, music, photography, fashion.

All photos by courtesy of Silent Voices Facebook-page.