Street Theater and Slums in Kampala


February 11, 2008

By David Elcott

The drum beats began in an open space between the shacks, the rivulets of clay, the open sewers and the intensely hot sun. It was a call to all those in hearing that the show was about to begin. The crowd gathered, tough and preening young men, clusters of teenage girls, older folks, half naked children and then the dancing began. A traditional Ugandan dance with costumes of animal skins wrapped around the waist and a skirt. There was some confusion in the crowd because a young man was dancing with the women. This was street theater with a purpose, to show that men can still be men even if they join in with women, if they respect women, if they are not violent in their homes. There was some heckling by the young men in the crowd as the actors began their show about a woman who wants to open her restaurant and an irate and hurt husband who wants her to stay home. The girls in the crowd responded immediately, cheering the woman on.

We are an American Jewish World Service contingent in the tropical heart of Africa, here to serve as witness to and advocates for the 22 projects that AJWS nurtures and supports in Uganda. This street performance was created by The Center For Domestic Violence Prevention, an indigenous group that promotes respect for women and an end to violence against them. It takes strength and courage to change a culture, to challenge the expected norms. That young guy dancing a traditional women's dance in the back alleys of a poverty area, drums beating, in front of other men – yes, that takes courage.

And the people who run another AJWS project in Kamwokya, a slum neighborhood in Kampala where many of them grew up, now teachers and mental health workers and medical staff along with the team that runs the whole works in a community built on swamp lands that feel like the sewers of Kampala. These men and women have made it – they are educated and accomplished – yet they choose to live in the community with their clients, to bear the stench and the flooding that would lead to hopelessness and despair were it not for the schools they have built, the health clinics they sustain, the HIV/AIDS housing for those thrown out of their homes, the foster care houses, the conviction that they are every day saving some lives. We felt brave just walking the streets – we can't imagine the courage of living this 24/7.

Our second day ended with the story of Beatrice Were, a university educated woman who only found out that she was HIV positive when her husband was on his deathbed. She told of her isolation, of the rejection and stigma she experienced in 1991, of visualizing her slow death and her abandoned daughters. In her loneliness she reached out to other infected women and they shared their secret – and when the room could no longer contain the group they created the National Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda. It now has over 40,000 members with chapters and spin-offs throughout the country. We listened in silent awe at bravery beyond our comprehension and with gratitude that AJWS found her, promotes her advocacy and supports her work.