By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published August 30, 2010
Playwright Wycliffe Kiyingi, whose Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe play has just ended at the Uganda National Theatre (July 3-24, 2010), is seen by many as the moving spirit behind modern Ugandan theatre with his works revolving around ordinary everyday life.
Kiyingi says he is dissatisfied over today’s playwrights in Uganda who are after quick money with fast productions that usually do not carry strong stories.
“Today’s playwrights are only interested in money. They don’t want to research, let alone put a lot of thought in the plays. A play must be a great story before going on stage. All they want is their audiences to laugh, in the process killing theatre. They are not serious.”
Edwin Mukalazi (who played the part of Mudiima in Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe) concurs: “What sets Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe apart from the other plays is that it is not improvised to evoke cheap laughter.”
Kaya Kagimu Mukasa, who has just directed Mudduma Kwe Kaffe, desribes the playwright’s writings as ‘very expressive’ and ‘easy to understand.’
“Kiyingi is the most outstanding playwright Uganda has ever produced because he has written for radio, stage and television for more than 40 years and is still active. I am really honoured to be directing Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe, my favourite of Kiyingi’s plays,” she says.
Mukasa adds, “Kiyingi is a very intelligent, witty and charming writer. He has got a very sophisticated rhythm to his dialogue. He is a scholar and that is why he writes plays with such finesse. Nothing is there by accident as he puts a lot of thought in it. He writes timeless plays and people can relate to them anywhere in the world.”
No wonder Kiyingi was in 2009, during the celebrations to mark 50 years of the existence of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), recognised with A Golden Artist (1954 – 2009) award and his play Mudduma Kwe Kaffe, published by Angelina Books in 2009, launched.
Kiyingi also received The Golden Drama Award to toast 50 years of drama in Uganda in 2007 as ‘The Most Prolific Multimedia Playwright,’ from the Golden Drama Foundation.
Some critics have described Kiyingi’s theatrical style as essentially farcical, with topical satire which he employs for social commentary in the style of George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey, whose influence he readily acknowledges. His plays have remained popular, especially his television plays, which have been seen by a wider Ugandan audience. His plays influenced the free travelling theatre movement at Makerere University in the mid 1960s.
Kiyingi, who was born on December 30, 1929 in Kyagwe, central Uganda, has written several plays for the stage, radio and television mainly in Luganda that were very popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
After Makerere University in the early 1950s, Kiyingi worked with shell Uganda Limited where he started writing plays. In 1966, Kiyingi went to Bristol University in England to study drama and upon his return home continued doing what he loved most: writing and producing dramas of enviable quality.
In 1954 Kiyingi founded African Artists Association, the first all-Ugandan theatre company purposely to promote indigenous drama at the time when Europeans, Indians, Goans and Ugandans each had their own separate cultural and theatrical productions.
“The British through their KADS drama group, the Goans with the Goan Institute and the Indians with their own outfit dominated the theatrical scene at the National Theatre. We feared going to the National Theatre because of the language barrier as the foreigners acted plays in their own languages,” Kiyingi says. “We staged our plays at the Mengo Social Centre in Kampala then. I started the African Artists Association to perform plays for Ugandans and Africans as well.”
Writing in his paper, “Popular Urban Theatre In Uganda”: Between Self-Help and Self-Enrichment, Eckhard Breitinger says of Kiyingi: “His African Artists Association was the first African cultural group to be allowed into the National Theatre in Kampala, though only on Saturday afternoons when the white expatriate audience was still out at the shores of Lake Victoria in one of the clubs; and only too often their performances were cut short to make room for the Asian or white theatrical groups.”
Kiyingi’s major plays and productions include the television series Buli Enkya, Buli Ekiro (Day In, Day Out, begun in 1962), Obwavu Musolo, Nebuba enkya nebuba eggulo and Mwami Kyeswa.
His stage plays include, among others: Gwosussa Emwanyi (The Ignored Guest becomes the Saviour, 1962), Ssempala Bba Mukyala Sempala, and Olugendo lwe Gologoosa. His 1972 first full-length play, Lozio Bba Ssesiria (Lozio, Cecilia’s Husband) became a literature set book while Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe established him as playwright of indisputable distinction.
“During the 1970s,” David Kerr writes in his paper, Theater: African Popular Theater, “playwrights like Wycliffe Kiyingi and Byron Kawadwa built up a strong Luganda popular theater, based on a mixture of school drama techniques and popular paradramatic performance, until the movement was crushed by Idi Amin’s reign of terror.”
The National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) and the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB) in early 2010 changed the ‘O’ Level examination syllabus for literature in English and Luganda. Among the new Luganda books is Kiyingi’s ‘Gwossussa Emwanyi.’
Kiyingi’s radio series Wokulira (By the Time You Grow Up), began in 1961. In 1966, President Milton Obote took offence about the episode (prophesying the attack on the Kabaka’s palace) that was broadcast on the day he removed the Kabaka of Buganda as the constitutional Head of State.
Though it is claimed that Kiyingi and his entire cast were arrested and detained after the airibng of the episode, he denies it only saying, “We only received threats because this particular episode turned out to be political and both sides to the conflict thought the play portrayed their own side in good light. I was very careful with my words. As a result I had to spend two to three nights in the bush fearing Obote’s men attacking me at my hone, luckily they didn’t.”
However, Kiyingi adds: “The threats were not a real threat to me. All I did was to continue writing with hidden meanings.”
These threats introduced censorship and political reprisals in the industry. Later Byron Kawadwa, the author of Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko (Song of the Cock), a satirical play about empty nationalism and gullibility of the masses, was arrested and murdered by Idi Amin’s henchmen in 1977.
Wokulira, which Kiyingi says is his best production, was re-instated in 1986. His other radio plays are: Muto nnyo Okufa, and Tanafuna Amutwala.
Saying he is determined to continue writing and singling out lack finances as a limiting factor, Kiyingi says, “Writing is my trade and if I don’t write I fee lonely and I need finances to facilitate my work.”
Kiyingi’s contemporaries are among others Robert Serumaga, Rose Mbowa, and Byron Kawadwa. These dramatists became famous for powerfully constructed topical plays that provided rich entertainment as well as biting social satire.
The Uganda National Theatre has appealed to government to recognise artists whose works impart change in society, and wants the Parliament of Uganda to recognise Kiyingi as an icon of Ugandan theatre in the same spirit the legislators honoured the late Elly Wamala as an icon of Uganda’s pop music industry.
Joseph Walugembe, director of the National Theatre, says Kiyingi is respected by many in the theatre sector as “an intelligent, non-partisan man of integrity.”