Story by Steven Tendo
Three children ‘ Kuch, Acan and Oto’ tell their story in an IDP camp. Young and as playful as other children elsewhere in the world, they play pranks on one another and express their dreams and ambitions just the same. They also express their uncertainty about the future in the way they jump every time gunshots interrupt their play. Even with all the pure love they carry in their young hearts, experience has taught them that there are bad people out there who don’t believe in peace. The interruptions are frequent; there are abductions to dodge and bad men to run from.
One realises that the children look innocent on the outside but that sweet exterior is only a faÃ§ade. They are living in the middle of a senseless war that targets them without reason. They know that for some reason, if the rebels catch them, they will take them away and force them to fight the government forces.
The children of the north have been going through a phenomenon that has gained world attention in recent months: Night Crawling. This is the term that has been pegged to the practice of the children leaving their villages in the evenings and walking for miles to the city centre of Gulu, Kitgum, and Lira, to sleep in bus stations, parks and courtyards in the hope of escaping the LRA dragnet and securing protection from government soldiers in urban centres.
From all corners of the northern frontier these thousands of barefoot night commuters come with their bedding. They then lie down on the pavements to sleep. Some of them walk with their books and will be seen trying to do their homework in the dying light, with other children all around them.
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The dialogue and the play routines can seem almost comical. That is in keeping with what children are about. The children in the audience at the Uganda national Theatre couldn’t keep down their mirth. It was all so funny for them, probably because they lost the wider message. But it is comical because, for the adults, this is not what they expected. They thought they would see a heart-wrenching tale full of sobs and pain.
What they see on stage is a self deprecating tale told by people brave enough to show their warts to the world. As the children try to solve the puzzle of their situation, they offer some really funny thoughts. Like Acan, who is the youngest of the three who asks things like, “Why were the men cutting your father’s head?” or “Did they cut off your mother’s choochoo (breast) because they wanted to give it to her baby?”
The audience may laugh at some of these lines but they at the same time feel their blood curdling at the thought of what these children will grow up to become.
The opera makes good use of the background screen where pictures of children in the IDPs keep flashing, keeping the audience aware of the gravity of the tale. There is also good use of lighting. The sudden sombre moods are helped on well by the drop in lighting and as the lights drop, the soundtrack will reflect the mood. There is a sorrowful lone adungu (traditional Ugandan acoustic instrument) which is married to great effect with the congas and the big talking drum. The music always stays under the surface under the experienced hands of Roger Masaba who leads a contemporary dance group, The Footsteps.
The various songs are from Uganda and other East African countries like Rwanda. The songs are done in Dholuo, Kiswahili, English, Runyankole and others. It is an effort to reach as many hearts as possible. The songs will appeal to the different people in the audience, reminding them that the tragedy up north can happen to any peoples. There are some songs that are designed to remind the audience that the people in the north are dealing with the situation so the rest of us should also deal with it, hard as it may be.
The song, Dodo (colloquialism for mango) is an almost virginal throwback to the days when everything was clean and good and peaceful. It is significant in that the mangoes these children are so happy about have been thrown to them by the murderous rebels. That makes them think twice about eating them. It reminds us to value the sanctity of life. It is probably the refrain that remains in the minds of the audience as they walk away at the end.
This was the second time the opera had run at the Uganda National Theatre. The first time was 2005 and it received rave reviews from organisations involved in the affairs of the children of the north.
“Last year, the opera had a definite ending,” Suzanne Kerumen, the producer of SOA, explains to ArtMatters.Info. “Then, the war was raging and the problem was clear-cut. Now, there are indications that the war might actually be ending. That is why the end is uncertain.”
The sisters of SOA have been very busy, each pursuing a different career line but they have made time to see that the opera succeeds. They are recording artistes in their own right and soon, Suzanne Kerumen is launching her self-titled album.
“I have been very busy. In addition to having to think about my music, I have had to prepare for the opera,” Susan Kerumen says. “But the good thing is that this year we prepared for only four months. Last year, we spent six months preparing.”
Kerumen says, “Amani means peace in Kiswahili. The children are crying out because they are the most seriously affected in this war.”