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At 85, Wycliffe Kiyingi still pulls packed theatre auditoria

There’s something queer about old architecture – the innocent designs, well-laid boundaries and that never-fading feel of happiness.

The moment you get to legendary playwright and author Wycliffe Kiyingi’s home in Mutundwe, you will be hit by all the above; his well-kept house is probably more than fifty years old, with a neat compound and trees that provide the shade, especially on a very hot day like the one on which I visit.

His house is organized the old-fashioned way; different portraits of family members on the walls – most of them depicting landmarks such as graduations and weddings.

As Kiyingi, now 85, sits in his living room, it is clear he gives it the presence that profoundly proves the statement that a house is not a home, unless there are people living in it.

Even though confined to a wheelchair, he still got the charisma to talk, interact and receive visitors, but on more than one occasion, it was visible that the difficulty in hearing and talking are failing him as a host, but his presence cannot be underestimated.

But before the health problems, Kiyingi was a buoyant optimistic playwright who was willing to utilize his talent even when he turned 80. He is the undisputed doyen of Ugandan theatre, working even during the turbulent times, yet his plays remained non-partisan.

Kiyingi has written more than ten books that have been widely translated and many directed into plays and others adopted into the Makerere University syllabus; it is no surprise he was labelled “the encyclopaedia of drama.”

While talking to The East African in 2010, Kiyingi wasn’t happy with Ugandan playwrights over what he termed as their thirst for quick money with hastily-mounted productions that usually do not carry strong stories and messages.

“They don’t want to research, let alone put thought into the plays. All they want is their audiences to laugh, in the process killing theatre,” he’s quoted to have said.

During his active days, Kiyingi penned plays such as Muka Sempala, W’okulira, Gw’osussa Emmwanyi, Olugendo lw’e Gologoosa, Omwana w’Omuntu (his personal favourite, penned in 1969) and Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe, among others.

He also did many plays for both radio and TV, which makes him one of the few multimedia playwrights the country has had.

W’okulira, for example, for many years was a popular drama on Radio Uganda (now UBC radio). In the 1980s when most homes did not own a TV set but at least had a small transistor radio, Kiyingi’s characters such as Kadiidi and Lugejja kept smiles on many faces during turbulent political times.

Muduuma kwe Kwaffe, is based on a real life village in Mityana, where Kiyingi was born on December 30, 1929. Kiyingi today leads a simple life and on many occasions when I visited, it seemed like he had forgotted the magnitude of his contribution to the arts and literary world.

But at least he remembers that Muduuma kwe Kwaffe’s genesis was in a simple text book that he kept for many years. His memory is still sharp and during my stay, he looks like he wants to say more but lacks the strength to.

He refers to himself as “a simple man and Muduuma is a simple village.”

Last weekend, a group of Uganda’s top artistes honoured Kiyingi by re-enacting his Muduuma play at National Theatre. The two-hour-and–half-hour play directed by Kaya Kagimu Mukasa, showed on February 14 and 15.

With the help of stars including Phillip Luswata, Sophie Matovu, Joanita Bewulira Wandera, Edwin Mukalazi, Charles Bwanika Ssensuwa and Tony Muwangala, Kaya evoked Kiyingi nostalgia.

The play excellently executed by the younger cast, rotates around the residents of Muduuma that are basically farmers but since they lack the means and facilitation, they only sell to Murji Patel, an exploitative Indian trader in the area.

When the World War II veterans such as Mudiima (Mukalazi) return, they influence residents to push for independence so as to manage their finances like the western countries they had fought in, did.

This leads to a boycott of Indian businesses and dealings; residents declare it an abomination for any Ugandan to deal with any foreigner. However, during the boycott, some residents start illegal dealings that see them sell Indians’ products disguised as their own; even more residents start taking up jobs as cooks, housemaids and butlers in Indian homes. Corrupt officials start taking bribes and thus declaring a good number of Indians citizens.

As more events unfold, it is clear that Kiyingi, even before Uganda got independence from Britain, had prophesied in script that we would get independence, then mismanage our country so badly and end up giving it back to those we fought so hard to wring it from.

While independent, the rich residents of Muduuma make life difficult for the poor ones. Even when the Indians are expelled, their shops and property only go to the relatives and friends of those in power, thus leaving out the likes of Mudiima who had engineered the struggle. Strange that such a play was written decades before Idi Amin’s 1972 expulsion of the Asians.

According to Kaya, Kiyingi writes with such brilliance that even while most of his plays were written before our 1962 independence, they reflect the current situation in Uganda.

“He is a timeless writer whose products can be understood by all generations,” says Kaya, whose father Kagimu Mukasa was friends with Kiyingi and part of the original cast.

Although Kaya had been to Kiyingi’s home with her father several times, the aging Kiyingi now does not remember the play director, with whom I visited last week. But he points to Bakayimbira Dramactors’ Andrew Benon Kibuuka and remarks in a barely coherent voice: “You, I remember. You were such a short boy.”

Sylvia Namukasa, one of the people in the audience on Friday, said: “This play depicts the current situation, where most of us are working for foreign companies and the local ones are grassing.”

Not only that, the country’s dependence on foreign aid and the Asian dominance of the economy, were again spot-on revelations from a play written in 1945. When the play was first staged in the 1950s, Kiyingi became one of the first Africans to have a play showcased at the National Theatre, then managed by the British.

It is no surprise he is seen as the moving force behind modern Ugandan theatre; he founded the African Artiste Association, the first all-Ugandan theatre company to promote local drama.

“I would class Wycliffe as Uganda’s Shakespeare. It is interesting that a play he wrote [almost 70 years ago] has stood the test of time,” says Mukalazi, one of the actors at the weekend shows.

During the celebrations to mark 50 years of the existence of the Uganda National Cultural Centre, Kiyingi was recognized with a Golden Artiste (1954-2009) award and his play Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe, was re-published by Angelina Books.

He also received the Golden Drama Award in 2007 for the most Prolific Multimedia Playwright, from the Golden Drama Foundation. His other book Gw’osusa Emmwanyi is among the books on the O-level examination syllabus.

Yet even as Kiyingi’s work receives recognition, besides using his books in high school and university syllabi, the old man has not gained much from the work of his hands and brain. He has no idea that his work is being re-published and is thus making money for other people; no one has given him royalties due a prolific writer like him.

And according his wife, Joan Kiyingi, with whom he has four children, they have never received a thing; not even from the education ministry or the various drama groups that have staged her husband’s plays.

“It should not be a one-way traffic; people invest time and money, the ministry should look into compensating people for their works and respect copyright,” says Francis Peter Ojede, the Executive Director, Uganda National Cultural Centre.

Andrew Benon Kibuuka says Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe was not only a masterpiece but it also influenced figure of speech. It is because of the play that many ‘nkuba kyeyos’ (Ugandans working in the diaspora) refer to Uganda as Muduuma.

Kiyingi picked interest in theatre when he was still young. His playwright skills took off even before the Music, Dance and Drama department was introduced at Makerere University. During pre-independence Uganda, colonial governor Andrew Cohen granted him a scholarship to study drama at Bristol University from where he further polished his skills at Oxford University in London.

Born to Ernest Kaggwe in 1929, Kiyingi is also a King’s College Budo alumnus. As the curtains fell at National Theatre one last time on Saturday for the play Kiyingi wrote in 1945, one of the stage characters swore he was not leaving; he would not run or be intimidated, since “ku Muduuma kwe Kwaffe! (Muduuma is our home)”.

How powerful. How timely, still.

kaggwandre@gmail.com

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