This past week I had the privilege of attending the annual “Liftoff to Literacy” day at a primary school in Kampala, Uganda. The final event in a week of literacy-themed activities, the school had organized a giant celebration for the students and guests. As a volunteer with Uganda Hands for Hope, an education-based NGO that makes its library of books available to schools in the community, I was lucky enough tag along. The highlight of the event, judging by the reactions of the students, was a skit put on by their teachers, who played newly elected government officials all trying, and mostly failing, to read their oath of office. It was a classic morality play but, more than that, it was classic comedy at its best, with the words often hard to hear over the laughs of the students, all jostling to get the best view of the show.
If reading about Bond Street Theatre is an exercise in hope, then going out into the world and seeing their principles in action is an exercise in truth. The other day, watching students get up in front of the class one by one to talk about their weekend plans, I couldn’t help but notice who the natural performers were, and which children’s self-confidence would improve by light years with a bit of theatre training. Being taught letters and numbers is no longer enough to succeed within a modern framework; imagination and empowerment are equally important.
What we at Bond Street do so well is bring creativity to an increasingly interconnected world with a rapidly rising demand for outside-the-box thinkers to solve ages-old problems. Talking to a friend about the recent terrorist threats in Kampala, we both came to the conclusion that conventional methods of countering violent extremism simply won’t cut it. No matter how many people we fight and jail, a new generation willing to use illegitimate means to deal with legitimate grievances will rise to take their place. The only way the cycle of violent extremism will ever be broken is if future generations are given an alternate means of self-empowerment. In fact, as long as any group in any country is excluded from the opportunity to tell their own stories and is silenced instead, discord will always be close behind. As we talked, all I kept thinking was, “wait until you see Bond Street’s latest project. It’ll knock your socks off”.
Yesterday I travelled to the neighborhood of Old Kampala to visit the Pride Theatre, one of only three in the city. When I got there however, I found that it was no longer opened and the building had been repurposed. In such a rapidly modernizing and evolving city, situated in a country with skyrocketing urbanization, it is sad that no one has thought to invest in opening more theatres. As more and more people move to the city from all walks of life, they will not just need food from NGOs; they will need somewhere to tell their stories.
Then in November and December, Emma gave us a great update on her workshops with the children:
We did our first workshop with the kids! It went well, with the biggest problem being that kids here really like to hit each other when something doesn't go their way. Overall the workshops went really well and the kids seemed to have a great time. I was particularly impressed with how well they settled down and paid attention, particularly considering that the majority of their relationships with foreigners are aid-focused, and therefore they have been taught to literally fight for the attention of foreigners. I feel like their willingness to try something so totally new and different (and their enjoyment of it) was really great proof of how effective theatre is as a method of cultural exchange (…but of course, you already know that).
Four workshops were conducted with 80 pupils ranging in age from 7-13 at St. Charles Luwanga P.S., St. Barnabas P.S., and Uganda Hands for Hope in Kampala, Uganda. All spoke English as a second language and all workshops were mixed-gender.
1. The culture of hitting (or “beating”) those with whom you are angry is extremely prevalent in Uganda; a prevalence that extended to the children taking the workshops. This mostly meant that children would push each other out of the way when volunteers were being chosen, and that, if one child got in another’s way, the natural reaction was for one to hit the other (which ended in tears 99% of the time). This was the most prevalent during the first workshop, and was countered during the other two in two ways:
To begin with, following the first workshop (of 30 or so students), class sizes were limited to 20. The second solution was to begin each workshop with a short speech explaining that the students would learn a little bit about how to be clowns (which they thought was hilarious. When I tried saying actors instead of clowns, I got blank reactions), and explaining that, to be a good clown, certain rules must be followed. The rules I used were, “1. Have fun, 2. Be brave, and 3. Be kind to each other (no beating)”. By the end of the last workshop I actually had children shouting the rules they had learned at the start back at me.
2. Despite the fact that English is the official language of Uganda, the language barrier was greater than anticipated (most children from the slums speak Luganda at home and only know English in the context of school). While the teachers did not stay for the entire workshop, it was helpful to have at least one waiting somewhere in the wings in case a particularly difficult concept required translation. Choosing exercises that could be easily demonstrated as opposed to just explained verbally was also key!
Areas of Success:
1. Using the “name game” as an opening activity and “calling your name over the mountain” at the end of the workshops was a great way to see the change in the confidence level of the students.
2. In the final workshop, I personally knew many of the students I was teaching. There was a marked increase in confidence from some of the shyest students when they were given the chance to be lifted during partner lifts (acrobalance moves).
3. By the end of the trust walks, most of the children were turning to their partners and asking whether they had felt safe (without any prompting).
4. The warmup unintentionally ended up being one of the favorite parts of the workshop and the children wanted to show it to me days after the fact (to show how well they remembered I think).
Feedback from the headmaster of St. Charles Luwanga Primary School:
“It was my first time to see such workshops and, I was inspired with the performance you did. It stimulates the mind and set your mood and the sense of humor. It did wonders on the side of kids… wow! They were motivated, excited, and now they are asking me when you are coming back again! Now those whose classes you didn't visit are yearning to do workshops with you, because the pupils in P.4 &5 (grades 4 and 5) shared the happiness they enjoyed in your workshops with them.
Surprisingly, the following day some parents came to my office thanking me for the workshops you did with their kids. I was happy to hear such feedback! To tell you the truth, my kids miss you big time!“
All in all the workshops seemed to be a great success. While the children are exposed to dancing and some degree of visual art at school, there is always a huge emphasis (even from the teachers) on competition (getting the dance moves right, etc.). While I’m sure that most of the children didn’t entirely retain the idea presented in the workshops of not having an end product or “winner” (how could they after so little workshop time?), there was a marked difference during the workshop time and space in their confidence levels and readiness to take risks.