Kolo Village, Mali; 1988

March, the dry season. Darkness has fallen, evening prayers are over and members of the village youth group are warming their drum-skins over fires of twigs in the square before the mud-brick mosque. Although they have only recently taken it up, they are already giving weekly performances of kote-ba theatre, the traditional Bambara form of improvised, and often satirical, theatre sketches. Much of the village has gathered to watch. Chief Mamutu and many of the village elders are there, sitting in state among the other men, women and children who have gathered in anticipation of the bari drumming and dancing (fig 1) which will be followed by the kote-ba.

World Neighbors (WN) work with Kolo and some twenty villages in the area, in an Integrated Development Programme encouraging small village-based self-help activities including market gardening and small trading schemes. These are underpinned by nutrition education and literacy training. With the support of OXFAM I was here to initiate a Theatre For Development (TFD) programme.

The village of Kolo is about forty miles south of Segou, nearly three miles north of the Bani River. The Bani itself has not been reaching its expected flood heights recently. Parts of it dry up completely in the hungry season and it's the only drinking place for the cattle - once a day - for most of the year.

The women of Kolo's twenty-eight families draw water either from the single water pump that stands prominently just outside the village or from the river. There are a number of shallow wells within and without the village precincts, but they tend to run dry by February or March, when the entire village has to rely on the communal pump. People have dug new wells, but as the kote-ba illustrates, the earth has become too sandy, and the wells collapse:

The actors have dressed up in the same clothing that the elders wear. One of the actors, a particularly talented mimic, has donned a smock identical to that worn by Chief Mamutu, and he carries a very similar stick. We see these youths, who have not the license to express their opinions in the ordinary village meetings, begin to address the water crisis.

An old man and his family regale (the acted) Chief Mamutu with their tale of woe. Their newly dug well has collapsed. It is March and most of the other wells in the village have already run dry. There is much mirth as the husband complains that his food is always late and there is never any water to wash with - all because his wife spends her entire day queuing for a pot or two of water at the only village pump. Silent smiles at the wife's repartee.

The real chief has a functioning well in his own compound and may not have been so concerned with these problems. A murmur from around the spectators indicates that they too have realized this.

In response to these supplications (the acted) Chief Mamutu summons his elders and they determine to ask WN to donate a tube-well. Moving out of the acting area, they make directly for the actual field-worker in question, who was sitting in the audience next to me. They proceed, effectively, to hold the meeting that they believed the elders ought to have held - and with complete artistic license. The field-worker responds, suggesting that they consider rebuilding some of the wells that are closer to the river. He takes care to point out that if they make a first move, then WN will respond in their turn with technical and some material support. The chief takes the message back to his elders.

The performance ends amid cheers and laughter. The 'real' elders, charmed by the humor of Adama Diarra's superb acting, are also hooting with laughter and appreciation.

During the subsequent week meetings are held in the village, and some more realistic plans drawn up. In the weeks thereafter, their performances portray a variety of themes, from matrimonial difficulties, perennial fights between Bambara farmers and Fulani herdsmen, individual laziness in communal work, selfishness, fishing rights and famine. Every performance evening contains a sequel to the water play. A kind of soap: self-contained episodes revisit the same family's plight, showing their progress towards the digging of a community well.

The final performance is an exhortation to the able-bodied to turn out and dig. A performer, now playing the WN co-ordinator, gave assurance of technical support and materials to shore up the sides of the well.

The Cultural Component

The idea of a living culture refers to that point where a community's history of events and beliefs, and ways of behaving formed by those beliefs, meets the changing face of contemporary reality. Cultural or artistic expression is the outward reflection of that community's evolution in the face of changing social and physical realities.

In the context of any community as deeply religious as the Bambara, or indeed any community bound by homogeneous (traditional) beliefs and religion, it would be a mistake to view 'development' as an issue apart. Outsiders' efforts to affect traditional farming practices, for example, may be futile unless a more holistic approach is adopted which takes into account cultural practices, beliefs and knowledge.

Any conscious attempt to influence behavior or attitude must engage with the culture. Development workers, faced with climatic and even political anomalies, often expect people to consider new ideas and practices radically different from those they have grown up with. These are easily rejected and performers and field-workers alike, whether they be foreigners or not, can be hastily dismissed as purveyors of unwanted or even heretical notions. Theatre for Development should exist, as a lubricant, at the interface between social circumstances and technical (project) activity.

Monologue or dialogue?

By 'monologue' I refer to any one way or vertical communication, be it a lecture, speech or play, that reflects only one point of view and does not cater for any response from its 'target'. TFD practitioners have long eschewed the 'monologue', although hidden agendas often lurk in the wings. However, the practice of didactic skits is still widespread, especially among development workers not familiar with the discourse of participatory theatre.1 While there is a place for performance with a message (as in AIDS education), if new information is to be absorbed and practices altered then emphasis should be on 'dialogue' not 'monologue'.

In fact the greatest theatre has never been overtly didactic, but rather the work of artists (community representatives) struggling for an understanding of the society around them. If, using participatory theatre as a language, the village is able collectively to express and analyse its own social reality, then it can also collectively address the problems and participate in their solution.

I seek dialogical forms that ensure mutual listening, learning and communication. In TFD that dialogue occurs horizontally between performers and NGO or field-worker audience, as well as horizontally between performers and their peer audience. In Kolo WN took up the dialogue started by the youth in their performances. This led to an entire sequence of plays, based on a device of their own invention. When the time came the plays exhorted the able-bodied to turn out and dig in the days that followed. All this was made possible by dialogue using the cultural language of the kote-ba - with the meetings and resources of the NGO.

Moreover, association with a Development NGO or CBO (Community Based Organization), such as with World Neighbors in Kolo, is fundamental to my perception of TFD, as distinct from Popular Theatre or Community Theatre. The NGO has material and technical resources, as well as access to the development network. We have seen how WN was able to respond directly to the Kolo youths. If this had not been possible, they could have put the community in touch with an NGO specializing in village hydraulics. WN was listening, and responding. That is the nature of dialogue.

It is no coincidence that development practitioners no longer refer to 'target communities', preferring now the term 'partners'. It is with the same participatory approach in mind that they have begun to turn to theatre as a communications tool. To be effective, however, it must be built on an existing cultural base. I do not, of course, imply a cynical standpoint which pays lip service to cultural practices in the hope somehow of seducing people into a collaboration they would rather not have.

Ownership and empowerment

Within the parameters of their own culture, and using its forms (kote-ba), Kolo's youth found the power to express dissident views without offending tradition. Since the plays were created spontaneously through improvisation, each individual performer owned the play's content. The kote-ba, already a culturally sanctioned feedback system (satire), was intact. Although it was well known to Kolo villagers, they had not themselves previously used kote-ba. This made the form all the more malleable and it was the actors' innovations that adapted the form to their own TFD purposes. So they owned the form as well.

Any palpable results of the performance - such as progress towards a communal well in Kolo - were the result of their own initiatives. Since a new well had not been on WN's agenda beforehand, they had also succeeded in creating the project. The act of speaking out was empowering and the result endorsed that empowerment.

The issue of empowerment sits on the bottom line of the (community) development process. One of its major constraints is that mendicant attitude, created by the 'donors', that sees foreign handouts as the only way out of poverty and ill-health. The first step to development is a change of attitude, both individual and collective - and in that order - from declared helplessness to empowerment. This is culture in action, and theatre is a cultural tool.

Tana Village, Mali; 1990.

A hundred and fifty miles away from Kolo, to the east, across the same Savannah plain, a group of Bobo youths sits on the dusty floor of a mud-brick hut listening to their story-teller Nazu as he strums his oro2 and weaves his way through his tale of a boy child who has strayed into another world.

We have heard several of Nazu's stories, during the harvest evenings. The following day we agree to move into the first drama session, through collectively made stories into acted improvisations.

I have been in the community as participant observer for several months. SOS Sahel3 has recently set up its Community Environment Project in the region, and I am setting up a Drama Unit (DU) within that programme whose function it will be to improve and develop communications between the project and its village partners.

Already the culture of music and dance is evident. When the griots4 join the farmers in their fields for the harvest, though sadly this is no longer so frequent, the cut millet flies as the youths respond to the rhythm of the drums and the songs that praise their labors. When the masked dancers sweep through the village to the sound of flute and drum, swathed in leaves from head to toe so that you cannot and must not know or even be aware of the person inside, they are a cleansing force, they appease the ancestors who may or may not send rain. They are an integral part of life and (agri)culture.

I visit and chat with all the community from griot, to 'noble' farmer to chiefs. The elders, particularly, agree that culture is not separate from farming practices, and are pleased at our holistic approach to development. People talk of the disappearance from marriage ceremonies of the Oni-yô dance, and of the worksongs the farmers used to sing, in proper costume, while preparing their fields. Like many other cultures, the Bobos' older artistic traditions are breaking down in the face of contemporary realities.

The rope of sand

The Bobo have no traditional theatre as we, or the Bambara, know it, so that when I broach the subject of theatrical performance the day before Nazu's story about another world, Chief Séé replies with a proverb: "If someone asks you to make a rope out of sand, you had better ask to see the old one first."

Our first session comes as a (culture) shock. In the quest for a cultural base and a point of entry, we have decided to use narrative games. They worked well in Kolo and elsewhere and the group took so much pleasure in Nazu's stories. We agree to tell a collective story. "But which story?" The response is blank. Stories, I learn, are handed down, you cannot just invent them.

We do find the key, in a musical guessing game known as obori which is something like our 'Charades'. A mime version of this leads to simple images of farming, hunting, courtship and marriage. These soon give way to much more complex scenarios on similar subjects, always furnishing useful insight into Bobo character and custom. Characters are added as necessary for entire scenes of spontaneous invention, people are co-opted from the audience and the action moves across the whole yard, both within the circle of audience and without.

Tana had invented theatre, just like that. Now it was a question of shaping that invention into a form appropriate both to themselves and to the notion of a Theatre for Development.

Although we continued to experiment and develop through a variety of forms, it was the marriage between the outmoded Oni-yô5 dance and our improvisations that set the style when the dance (yô) replaced the warm-up games that opened our initial TFD sessions. The village of Tana where we were to be working used to be well known for its Oni-yô dancers and, once established, our group of young performers were keen to acquire a set of costumes and resume the dance. As a cultural form that had lost its original (marriage dance) function, it had the potential to be the basis of our local TFD style. When it worked well, the performance evenings would move from the Oni-yô dance, with its sometimes mimetic character, straight into improvised sketch with dialogue: Teatri-yô.

Is this 'cultural engineering'?

One of the evaluators6 of the Drama Unit was Noel Kwéné, himself a Bobo. He believes we should never have mentioned the word theatre. I think he is right, although I am not sure how we could have done without it. Either way, we were bringing in an outside idea. It was fine in Kolo, where they had their own brand of theatre that fitted perfectly into TFD. In Tana we had to evolve our own and in so doing, hopefully, revalorize a custom whose practice no longer reflected its original purpose.

Only time will tell whether the process sustains itself, and whether it has been worth while. According to Bianivo Munkoro7, my then counterpart in the Drama Unit, the performances still continue. It can be no bad indication. Perhaps the imposition has been absorbed. Indeed, sustainability may be an eventual indicator of success.

However, at the time of the process, sustainability cannot be measured; we must be guided by the principle that the performers ( and the community) should be the creators and hence owners, not only of the content, but also of the forms they use to express themselves. Ownership again, fundamental to dignity and empowerment.

TFD is a shared pursuit, a partnership, intended for mutual exploration. But the NGO as initiator clearly has its own expectations. Just as with the Kolo kote-ba/TFD, each performance evening saw four or five scenarios, one or two of which deliberately addressed local issues. Now, in Tana, we introduced post-performance discussions and occasional audience interventions (drawing loosely on Boal's Forum Theatre8), which opened up the play for scrutiny. Without this you have only the views of the performers rather than the rest of the community and no immediate analysis. In Tana the TFD was more visibly exploited as a utility, although I believe for the benefit of both partners and without compromise to the cultural base.

With the kote-ba we had plugged directly into a traditional form. Issues raised by the plays were digested by the neighbourly network of chance encounters and village meetings, and fed back to the community through the content of the subsequent plays. This was a cultural expression of their developing readiness to take action on the water problem.

With the Tana players we evolved our own theatre form and we had the freedom to shape it to development needs; the dialogical process of response to the cultural expression became more transparent. Is it a utility then, for the development worker? Can it ever really belong to the community? I believe the ideal to be somewhere in between, on a moving scale that will vary with every community.

Light between the lines.

The plays added nuances of opinion and behaviour that amplified base-line data collected in more conventional ways. The Tana hunting plays, for instance, showed us the weight attached to ritual and fetishism in the life of this conservative village (fig 2). Other plays revealed their relationship with the contemporary world. One such was a hilarious and poignant play about the isolation of the (minority) Bobo people:

A Bobo man, impoverished and desperate to sell his bicycle, is locked in impossible conversation with a Bambara foot-traveller, who speaks no Bobo. The man is exhausted, and desperate for the use of a bicycle for he has so far to go, and couldn't he please buy the bike? Voices mount as the Bobo in his turn is desperate to communicate, articulating ever so clearly now in Bobo: "Won't you please help me out and buy this bike from me?" Finally a passing stranger, bilingual, brokers the deal.9

Another play ostensibly about the rural exodus also revealed attitudes to literacy and education in its treatment of The Prodigal Son:

A village youth comes back from town resplendent in his city clothes and prop sunglasses made from millet stalks. He has nothing to offer his poor parents after his protracted stay away from the village. The father blames the mother for letting the child go away at all. "Whenever I wanted to beat him," he says, "you stopped me. That's why he went off and never sent us anything from town." "No," she retorts, "it's you who let him go to school, not me." (fig 3).

As with many of the plays, these sketches created openings for public discussion of issues that did not emerge during the formal meetings. The rural exodus is a significant constraint to the development efforts of the NGO/community partnership. Scholarity is around ten per cent in the area.

In the Granary Play they turned more consciously to development issues:

The sand of the compound is 'planted' with millet stalks. It is looking like a good harvest, and the actors are talking of a comfortable year. Then the rains fail: they lay the parched stalks to rest on the ground. Hunger. They don't know what to do to fill the empty granaries. So they ask the audience, who complete the scenario for them, telling them to go to the local Commandant and apply for food aid. This they do, and the play ends as they divide up the emergency millet sacks.

Between the lines was valuable information. These actors were the same youths who by day were sweating under the tropical sun digging the half-moon shaped trenches that were to harvest the minimal rainwater and nourish their dry land - so that they could grow their own millet to put in the granaries. They made no mention of this. So they seemed not to have taken the diggings on board as part of the solution to the question the play had posed. They did not yet 'own' the solution, so they did not consider it.

Plays on apparently frivolous topics still continued, and most of the performances afforded new insights into the Tana community. This augmented the field-workers' understanding of Bobo society and influenced their implementation of project activities.

The theme of courtship was ever popular and frequently told tales of betrayal between friends - and the richest suitor always won. In one play:

A jealous lover feeds her rival a magic potion that causes the couple's sexual organs to drop off. Anyone who approaches meets the same fate, and the scene is filled with figures bent double as they search for their pudenda in the dust. Another potion is required to restore normality, after a public scourging of the vengeful woman.

Sensitive issues

Further evidence of perennial conflict continued to surface, as well as the ubiquitous courtship dilemmas. In the village of Embere'ui, where women had not the right to voice their opinions in any public meeting, a courtship play performed by the men so angered the women by characterising them as money-hungry and fickle, that they determined to present their own account of life and marriage. Previously women had not been (able to be) part of the TFD programme. We were confronted with the spectacle of women playing men - while still clutching a suckling infant to their breasts - being dragged home drunk from the beer-yard. We saw co-wife difficulties and the heavy-handed way in which husbands would resolve these 'squabbles'.

That performance led to heated public debate on these most intimate of issues, and the event signalled a change not so much in deep-rooted marital habits, but rather in the licence to speak and act, of which these women had little previous experience. The women continued to claim the stage on alternate weeks. Needless to say this glimmer of a change in women's status opened doors for SOS Sahel's project activity. Without this cultural emphasis in our TFD programme, the subject of chasing after women might never have been performed, and its implications for women never amplified into debate.

The criticism has been levelled that SOS Sahel - or I - had somehow tampered with community traditions here. But it was their own men who portrayed the women as fickle. They made the gesture that prompted their women to speak out. We facilitated the resultant debate, and perhaps provided the forum. Initial groundwork may have been laid by project workers and the Church. Working within their own cultural parameters, the women knew the rules. If they stepped over a new boundary, they knew what they were doing. Clearly it was already an issue for them. If the culture of women's silence and oppression in that village had still been strong enough to repress their actions, they would not have felt ready to make their statement. This was a living culture.

Similarly, in Kolo, artistic licence allowed people to be more outspoken than otherwise they might have been. However we can go further. In keeping with traditional performance forms the performances were always improvised. Oral tradition had never sought to freeze the living word in a fixed text. Roles were constantly swapped around, bringing alternative attitudes to bear on the behaviour of this or that character in a particular situation. The process of improvisation means that a topic is under constant review. And every performer is author of their own work, within a collective statement and governed by cultural parameters.

Palpable results

During the second project year, volunteers digging the half-moon water catchments had dropped to almost zero. There were more griots drumming than diggers digging. Since the volunteers still pledged their support verbally, we asked them to show us, in performance, what could be holding them back. The Half-moon Play took us through the whole history of the SOS Sahel project, pointing out both cultural constraints ("only beasts go round scratching holes in that fruitless ground") and time constraints, such as the need to make tools and hats and mats to be sold in the market so as to pay their taxes and the heavy fines imposed by the forestry service.

As it happened, the agents of the forestry had been in the village that very day, and imposed a huge blanket fine on the community, to cover supposed misdemeanours. The village had to comply, surrendering the collection they had made for their taxes. They were furious. Inspired by their own emotion, the actors' improvisation had surpassed the bounds that a prepared play would have allowed. Afterwards, they wondered if they had taken frankness too far but once reassured their plays became bolder and bolder.

Perhaps empowered by this precedent, Embere'ui village took up the theme in a play which showed forestry agents deliberately lighting forest fires so as to reap false fines from the community. SOS Sahel was able to use these plays to negotiate a dispensation from the Forestry Department who agreed to stay clear of the project villages, giving a chance to gauge the success of a more people-centred approach, without repression.10

The poetry of protest.

Each performance evening now held at least one play expressing a community issue. Some of the elders also contributed, especially with dramatisations of proverbs and allegories of encouragement.

Since proverb and allegory are a fundamental part of African speech and culture, we had hoped that the Teatri-yô would introduce a further cultural dimension by producing images reflecting reality, rather than the literal 'enactments' we had been seeing. For a long time the performers had presented only existing proverbs and allegories. Then they did a play about a local family with a new-born baby:

Visitors from outside come regularly to cuddle the child and bring gifts. When the child falls ill however, the visitors pass them by, preferring the neighbours whose own new-born is being fèted that day with merriment and song. When the child recovers from his diarrhoea, the visitors are back, as if nothing has been amiss.

At first discussion focused on mother and child health, until the performers spoke up, pointing out that the ailing child was their village, which had been so exemplary the previous year as to prompt SOS Sahel to bring even its foreign visitors to Tana. This year had been difficult and now the project vehicles sped past Tana without even stopping. The project checked its records and found that Tana had indeed missed out on a number of scheduled visits.

Tools and Utilities

All these performances were useful to the project. Base-line information was enriched by the early plays, and specific issues addressed by the later ones. When occasion demanded we were able even to solicit plays on specific topics, like the Half -moon Play, which yielded palpable results. That the work can serve as a communications tool, is not under question. But is it legitimate to regard TFD as a utility? Or does that somehow diminish its potential?

Qualitative work takes time. Field-workers are notoriously overworked, and the more technically minded may have little inclination to put in extra effort setting up performance activities. A simple role-play in the occasional meeting plus some regular ice-breaking theatre games may be as much of a tool as some have time to utilize. Role-plays can be set up in moments, they create no cultural waves nor do they aim grandly at any cultural relevance. They simply resolve a particular question. The next step along a continuum which leads to the supremacy of cultural activity, would be the plays with a message - monological public performances. These require considerably more of the facilitator's time and there is questionable cultural engagement. Results of both of these are measured in terms of project objectives. Primarily they are for the project.

Further along the continuum comes dialogical communication with performers in creation of a play, and with audience in its performance. Social attitudes and constraints are revealed by the plays. The work begins to be of immediate benefit to both partners in a process. It demands still more energy from the facilitator, but you have now engaged with cultural concerns. Until you have a mutual engagement with the culture, you are using the tool to your own ends.

The Town of Gibeon, Namibia; 1993.

A dusty church hall, iron-roof shelter from the afternoon sun. Outside, through its broken windows, you can see the heat haze shimmer over the tin shacks on the desert hillside. Indoors a young group of unemployed farmers, the Gibeon youth group, perform an improvised scenario:

With their hands they are clearing ground for a vegetable garden. One of their group has gone off to ask the town council for the use of tools that have been set aside supposedly for community use. When Sentimub their leader comes back, he is empty handed; he says, "You should all have come with me." "No," retorts the group, "they don't listen to us. We are invisible."

With OXFAM's support, I spent two years with the Rural Institute for Social Empowerment (RISE)11 in Namibia. As its name suggests, social empowerment is a primary aim. Its director even characterises the actual projects that form the daily work of the organisation as tools towards the ultimate end of empowerment. Ironically, I was to train existing facilitators to use TFD as a tool in their field-work, without any particular reference to culture.

The Nama people of Southern Namibia share some 200 years of contact with Europeans, from German missionaries through to apartheid South Africa. In response to this history, the Nama culture has accommodated familiar expressive forms. Theatre in these deeply Christian rural communities was clearly shaped by Sunday School and Nativity plays. This may have parallel in the admittedly urban South American condition whence Boal developed his Forum Theatre. Our dialogical participatory theatre was not dissimilar, but to import the Forum Theatre package by name would have worked against the community's ownership of the TFD form.. It was rendered appropriate by the cultural history of the Nama people, and was evolved together with the community groups.

We made initial use of the once popular konsert aande or song soirées, but their polythematic review format turned out to be inappropriate for the issue-based theatre utility sought by RISE. Instead we evolved a workshop process that operated alongside the group's community activities and produced occasional interactive performances which, although prepared, were always evolving through further improvisation. We continued to make constant use of their prodigious talent for song.

It was the actors in the workshop described above who identified their own feelings of inferiority. We went on to explore this passing comment. Further plays articulated a certain nepotism and discrimination on clan lines in Gibeon. Was this why the town councillor had withheld the tools?

Subsequent workshops devised the Self-oppression play. This piece of Forum Theatre was later performed at a congress of young people from all over the South, unemployed farmers, drawn together by RISE and subsequently named the Youth Enterprise Support Scheme (YES).

The oppression within Gibeon was real; RISE had already encountered it in 1989 when the Kaptein of Gibeon expelled their field worker and his pick-axes from Gibeon for responding to requests for a pit-latrine programme - to replace the stinking bucket toilets. The Kaptein of Gibeon is also a highly placed Cabinet Minister. He and his family are powerful in Gibeon. They are holding out for a system of flush toilets inappropriate in that desert town. The shanty dwellers cannot afford porcelain and plumbing. Many have privately welcomed the toilet programme, but they are afraid to defy their Kaptein.

The 'Plunge'.

The group were clearly empowered by their performance and the audience's interventions at the youth conference. Back in Gibeon they determined to demonstrate their budding emancipation. In defiance of the powers, they began to dig pit latrines for themselves and for any family that had not the manpower and they managed to negotiate the loan of a government jackhammer, to help them penetrate the rocky ground. RISE was to provide building materials for the completion of the job.

To mark the arrival of the jackhammer, itself a kind of victory, and to inform people that they could make use of it, RISE and the youth group prepared a two day celebration, The Plunge. There was a procession (fig 4) through the streets of Gibeon sporting banners held by horse-riders which urged: "Gibeon, fight for your health, today", while songs and placards broadcast similar messages. Collecting people as they marched, they would perform plays at specified points in the town: Pots and Pits. Pots was about the horrors of the bucket toilets (fig 5). It was a raucous and funny play, spiced with scatological references, but ending in the illness and tragic death of a child.

The lively audience discussion looked forward to the performance of Pits the next day, which takes up from the mother's distress:

She searches for a way to avoid the same fate for her other children. She considers flush toilets but finally calls for the jackhammer while her son sets about preparing her toilet site.

Just then, an unexpected intrusion. Instead of the jackhammer, the (actual) secretary to the Town Clerk's office comes in. She tells the (real) story of how two of Gibeon's ruling family, alarmed by the enthusiastic procession the previous day, had sped to the capital, Windhoek, to lobby the government Minister responsible for the jackhammer. They persuaded her to have it withdrawn immediately.

Harsh reality had fused with the drama; the resultant uproar cleared into a heated discussion which led to the 100-strong petition that was drawn up, on the spot, for presentation to the Minister. 12

The rise of the YES group:

Shortly afterwards I was approached by the National Youth Council wanting me to "bring my group" to a drama competition of Youth groups from the South of Namibia in April 1994. Of course we had no theatre group as such, but rather three loose community activity groups. So we invited each partner community to provide three volunteers: that was to be the first YES group.

The nine gathered for two days, working together for the first time, creating and rehearsing a play for the competition. On the third day we travelled to Karasburg, and at midnight on the fourth day we performed Lie Still, or What?. The play won the first prize, and the lead performers swept away the prizes for best actor and actress. To their credit, the group decided to pool their prize money and contribute to the YES fund.

The group began to be seen, and to see themselves, as a cultural troupe. Culture was back on the agenda. There was some debate among the RISE staff as to whether it was quite within our remit to be taking part in (frivolous) competitions. However the group had gained self-confidence and empowerment, while YES had a profile well ahead of its programme. When we had a further invitation to a National competition whose play theme was supposed to be Development, the group was determined to go.

Meanwhile, RISE had been invited by the organisers of a National People's Land Conference to run regional workshops on land distribution, in preparation for the national conference. Members of the community groups set about researching the topic, and twelve YES volunteers gathered in Keetmanshoop for two days to prepare a play for eight performers, called Must We Trek Again?.

The surplus of performers devising the play was deliberate. In this way the play did not belong only to the (s)elected few who took it to the competition. The play was later to be shared - recast and reworked by themselves - with their local activity groups. The reworked versions were then performed at the various regional Land Issue seminars that were organised by RISE as precursors to the National People's Land Conference, where the original version was used to stimulate debate.

Must we trek, again? won the second prize at the National Community Drama Competition at Uis in June 1994.

The following year YES defended their title in another Regional Competition. This time they spent four days preparing a Forum play about a domineering youth worker turned prostitute, called The Fall of a Queen. Again, they won.

The cultural utility: reaching a wider audience

Since Kolo it had struck me that, within a small community, TFD works on the principle of 'home movies'. You are happy to see your brother or sister on the platform, especially if they are exploring the problems that you share. However, outsiders may not be so enthusiastic. They demand quality of performance or product. The utility of the work may pass them by, they may have come for a cultural entertainment. Sooner or later the best actors emerge, and begin to hone their skills. For a troupe working beyond its own community, the acquisition of performance skills is as important as the ability to pinpoint and analyse development issues. Even family get bored with poor home movies.

Most of the public performances by YES or by the local activity groups have been for NGO seminars (the Sanitation plays) or serious meetings ('Farmers' Days', AGMs, Land Conferences, the National Youth Council's seminar on project creation etc.). Most, but not all, have been to do with RISE. These are not small communities. The Ministry of Health asked the YES group to prepare a play for their Regional Seminar on Sanitation in 1995; for the National Youth Council Seminar on job creation in the same year, the Gibeon group prepared a performance. Members of YES have recently worked alongside the RISE facilitators on a trip to the East of the country, charged with exploring the possibility of introducing a TFD programme with the Xhoi-San community resident there. These are not even neighbours. Home movies are irrelevant.

The group has become adept at shaping plays and (re)writing lyrics for traditional songs within the context of their plays. Performances often include the traditional Namastap dance, as well as the forum interventions of the audiences that form the second part of any of their performances. Their reputation as a cultural troupe has grown; they have been lauded in competitions, and they performed one of their plays at an international community theatre festival in Zimbabwe in 1995.

In Conclusion

Kolo's kote-ba/TFD had been an inherently cultural process. When he questioned whether the SOS Sahel TFD programme was Rural Theatre for Development, or the Development of rural theatre, Peter Gubbels (1993)13 identified the intertwined but perhaps too loosely laid strands of our rope of sand in Tana.

It was YES that laid the strands more comfortably side by side, by bringing the cultural component back into a context that allowed for drama competitions to co-exist with interactive public performances. Each location will dictate its own methods and emphases, but there was a workable principle in the RISE formula, where the cultural component worked side by side with the development utility.

1In 1996 facilitators arriving to work with an Indian NGO, PREPARE, found themselves expected to continue the practice of creating didactic skits for the 'monological' transfer of messages. The facilitators (Ruth O'Connell, Kirsty Smith and Susanna Wilford) were MA Students from King Alfred's College on project placement towards their degree - MA Community Drama for Development (Southampton). As part of their course students design and carry out a three month TFD project.

2A gourd harp similar to the oni (see below).

3SOS Sahel was starting to work with the isolated Bobo people of eastern Mali. Field-workers were stationed in the villages, in direct and constant communication wit the community. The areas of expertise offered by the staff were soil and water conservation (SWC) and agro-forestry, while support was offered for women's labour-saving and income generating activities.

A fuller account of the Drama Unit's work may be found in

Mavrocordatos, A. & Martin, P. (1995) Theatre for Development: Listening to the Community. In Power and Participatory Development, edited by Nelson, N & Wright, S. London: ITP.

and in

Mavrocordatos, A. (1992) Development Theatre: A Way to Listen (video) London: SOS Sahel

4The griots are the village musicians or praise -singers. A caste apart, they used to be attached to a specific family or village as near slaves, their basic needs (including taxes) were looked after. This is no longer the case. Leather craft and weaving used to supplement their cash income, now it is a meagre livelihood. The praises they sing are not mere flatteries but are regarded as a necessary spiritual food.

5The Oni-yô was the traditional marriage dance of the Bobo. The ONI is the gourd harp (kora) on the bell of which the drummer taps his rhythm, while the player calls out his words of guidance for the newlyweds. The player should be an initiate, and they are few these days. Christian missionaries campaigned actively against the use of sacrificial ONI and the Oni-yô (a men's dance) has now almost disappeared in favor of the imported balafon (xylophone) dance-music. The balafon musicians, who are griots, have to be paid and this is taxing the farmers' families, while providing vital income for the griots themselves.

6Gubbels, P & Kwené, N. (1993) Evaluation of the Drama Unit of the Community Environment Project. SOS Sahel.

7Munkoro, M. (1996) Thèatre et Communication pour le Developpement. Dissertation, Faculté Ouverte de Politique Economique et Sociale, Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium).

8'Forum Theatre' is a term coined by Augusto Boal in his Theatre of the Oppressed. Audience members - 'spectactors' - replace the protagonist on the stage, replaying the action as they believe it should have been: either as a more accurate representation of reality, or a rehearsal for change that has to come.

9The 'theatrical' bicycle was about six inches high and constructed from slivers of millet stalk, similar to the wire toys one sees all over Africa. This unusual approach to theatrical 'props' was another of their own innovations that gave the teatri-yo its unique flavour.

10This was before the revolution of 1991. Burdened with lack of time and money, the Forestry Service had generally resorted to punitive measures, rather than taking the care to ensure understanding among the communities of the forestry code and practices. The agent would get a percentage commission on each fine he collected.

11The Rural-people's Institute for Social Empowerment (RISE) is a Namibian NGO working with the mostly Nama communities who live in the South of the country on the vast and often empty tracts of land between the Rehoboth plains and the mountains of the Karas region that give way to the Orange River and the border with South Africa, some 700 kilometers away to the South. RISE works with the Communal farmers and their families on a variety of project activities based on savings and loans schemes and range from pig-farming groups to village bakery and sewing co-operatives. Programmes also cover sanitation and the digging of pit latrines. They also run seminars and workshops on a regional level, and have established such unifying structures as the South Namibian Farmers' Union, the Good Hope Women's League, and the Youth Enterprise Support Scheme.

12A full account of this is given in

Mavrocordatos, A. (1996) The Gibeon Story: A Tale of Empowerment. In Development In Practice, OXFAM (forthcoming issue).

13Gubbels, P. & Kwené, N. (1993) op.cit.

Paper commissioned for the Contemporary Theatre Review's issue on Development Theatre in Africa (Harwood Academic Publishers).

Centre for Development Communications [cdcArts]

School of Community and Performing Arts

King Alfred's College

Winchester SO22 4NR


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