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The Sun Does Not Dance on Africa

The Sundance Institute's African initiative means well, but a little enlightenment about our cultures would be nice.

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The Sundance Institute recently embarked upon a five-year commitment toward "developing" East African theatre, in the hopes of doing what they have achieved with American Indie Film. I was among those invited to participate in the initial East African workshops, held last spring.

The program, according to Sundance, seeks to expand the scope of American theatre and simultaneously foster "the growth of the East African theatre artist and field through international exposure and exchange."

As a Uganda-based arts worker, I was mildly optimistic because of Robert Redford's involvement. I had come to like all things Redford after seeing The Hot Rock, a 1972 film about African diplomats in the United States who hire a team of bungling burglars to retrieve a diamond that belonged to their country. The portrayal of the Africans was appealing. Years later, his brilliantly directed, low-key film, The Milagro Beanfield War, sensitively touched on the contemporary Native-American experience.

Despite the positive Redford vibe, I was very reluctant to get involved in the East African Sundance Institute. From my time as the director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (and National Theatre), I had become wary of the procession, from somewhere in the white, Judeo-Christian universe, of experts coming to see how to "develop" our arts scene.

Influential outsiders tend to impose a kind of "sameness" that leads Ugandan artists to pursue four types of approaches—all of them trite. There's "parade art" (basically, writing and performing for the powerful and exalted). Others specialize in "airport art" (primarily doing it for the tourist trade). Yet others have resorted to pandering to every perceived whim of moneyed audiences in a desperate (and increasingly faltering) attempt to hold their attention and loyalty. Another set of artists started off deadly serious (people were killed or nearly killed for making it) and have remained so. Such is life. "Nothing tastes the same to all tongues," goes one Ganda proverb.

Then there is the patronizing attitude toward us. Several years ago, I was approached by a well-known, private American organization that asked me to write an extensive analytical report for them—for free. Their rules prevented them from giving money to public bodies like mine. Nevertheless, I felt that we should be compensated in some form and suggested that they donate just one laptop computer to the National Cultural Centre. This surprised the (white) program officer who asked: "What do you need a laptop computer for?"

My parents had a highly refined strain of sarcasm that infected all of their offspring. So, I replied that it would take an object exactly the thickness of a closed laptop computer to fit the gap under the shorter leg of my office desk to stop it from rocking.

We stopped dealing with each other after that.

The idea of discussing Uganda's theatre challenges with yet another set of non-Africans was uninspiring. But Sundance, with their wonderful track record (in film at least) promised to be different. Great aspirations. Nice people.

So why did I sneak out on the Sundance meetings, never to return, early on the morning of the second day, weighed down with the same weary feeling I have had so many times before?