Lango Culture Resurgent at the National Theater in Kampala

John Otim


John Otim, author of Dream Campus, and of The Ups and Downs of an African Campus, Editor of Nile Journal




The countryside bursts into songs and dance. The happy-go-lucky holiday rider takes in the view through the bus window as one colorful village scene gives way to another. It is market day in most of Northern Uganda. And she 's got a ticket to ride. And she don't care.

Despite the bravo of market day the performing arts, especially drama and theater remain in Northern Uganda a neglected art form. With the exception of Okot p’ Bitek and Tom Omara, the King’s College Budo boy, whose award-winning play The Exodus was anthologized in David Cook’s Short East African Plays, Northern Uganda has really not arrived on the national theater stage where the leading player has always been Buganda and its rich cultural heritage.

The situation in Lango land in the midst of Northern Uganda is probably worse than anywhere else in the Region. In Acholi land, boosted by such old classical Acholi form as the dingi dingi, things are much better and prospects are good. Very few plays either in performance or writing have come out of Lango although there has been a resurgence of culture following the return of peace to the old district.

Okaka Dokotum, the Kyambogo University literature lecturer, is one of the few playwrights active in Lango today. What make Dokotum of interest are not just his talents as a playwright, nor his skills as an actor, but the fact that he writes performs and directs plays in Leblango, a language that is under threat of disappearance. Over the last two hundred years the Langi are said to have lost fully eighty percent of the original words in their language. A few days ago a group of elite Langi even demanded that a document in the language be first translated into English before they could get its gist.

How reassuring it was then to see Dokotum’s full length play Ojok Tye Kampala, in which the playwright acted directed and produced, take over the national stage at the National Theater in Kampala; a venue for long dominated by English and Luganda language theater. A simple but iconic structure, built in the early sixties, located in central Kampala close by Parliament Building, the National Theater, whose first Director was Okot p’ Bitek, was a gift of the departing British to the country it had ruled and culturally dominated for some sixty years plus. When its doors first opened its first Director had to fight for the privilege to air African plays, especially those that employed the use of the drum, that most universal African instrument.

Captain Obic is recently discharged from the Uganda army. The story plays out in the late nineteen eighties. He flees the poverty and the insecurity raging in Northern Uganda to the capital city in Kampala where there is peace and the donor economy is booming. In Kampala the ex soldier seeks shelter and refuge with a kinsman working in some low paying job and living precariously in a small room with one chair, one mattress and one bed.

The late nineteen eighties was a period when the present government first fought its way into power in the country. There followed a period of massive disengagement of Ugandans of Northern origin form their jobs in the civil service in the armed forces and in the other sectors of the national economy. The resulting joblessness, the insecurity, the destruction of the local economy through armed theft of millions of heads of cattle, the mainstay of local economy, combined to create in the region conditions of abject poverty.

Throughout the play we are reminded of poverty and social dislocation in the north; the appalling conditions at schools, the lack of worthwhile employment for northern youth no matter how qualified, the inability of parents to pay school fees and let alone feed their families. The title of the play Ojok Tye Kampala means: Ojok is there in Kampala. To the desperate ex soldier and main character in the play this means: don’t worry, all shall be well, you go to Kampala; Ojok will take care of you.

So the ex soldier, a tall fellow with a strong and huge physic in the manner of Idi Amin, arrives in Kampala in his old shabby army fatigues. With a bit of luck Obic manages to locate his kinsman’s residence in the crowded slums of the city. But when he turns up at the doorstep, Ojok is not at all delighted to see his kinsman. Politely at first and soon pointedly, Ojok does everything to encourage Obic to return home to the north but to no avail. Obic swears he will never return to that hell they call Northern Uganda. Instead Obic proceeds to behave as though Ojok’s home were his own, using the advantage of his threatening physic, and believing in the philosophy of My brother’s Mercedes is mine.

Ojok, the well educated and urbane man in a city suit, is totally taken by surprise. Cushioned in Kampala, cut off from the chaos in the north, Ojok was not aware of the collapse of norms and culture back home, where traditional northern courtesies has given way to thuggish behavior and the me first mentality. Out of nowhere Obic plays a quick one on the unsuspecting Ojok. He frames Ojok for assault and for theft of the newly discovered oil or black gold of the country. In anticipation of inheriting all that belonged to Ojok in the city. In the event the bumbling police arrest both men. The play hilariously ends with guest and host behind bars lying down side by side on the cold floor in the same cell, still quarrelling.

The success on the stage of Dokotum’s play, obvious by the prolonged clapping and applause in the audience, is driven by three things; a good story, great acting, and the ingenious way in which the actors co-opt the audience and make it part of the action. This is of course an old Shakespearian trick. But this play makes it, its very own.  The actors in turn each talk to the audience; they appeal to the audience to take their side.  With varying degrees of success all three actors who appear onstage do this; Ogwal Martin who plays the part of the barber, Bala Dick who plays the title role of Ojok, and Okaka Dokotum himself who plays the lead charter of Captain Obic.  

If there are regrets about the play it is the total absence of women characters onstage. And it is the often flippant manner in which women are referred to onstage by one or two characters, not necessarily as part of a carefully calculated storyline of women bashing. Perhaps for the Langi as with many African communities, it is hard to get away from the idea of dako-adaka, just a woman. Although as Dokotum other plays confirm, this old attitude is changing.