Self engineered playwright and community mobiliser
The Internet search giant Google turns up some 5000 entries for Kiyimba Musisi. His name is mostly and correctly associated with theatre and drama in Uganda.
Although his may not be a first page name among the stars of Uganda’s showbiz industry, very few people have impacted the growth of the arts industry and the well being of the artists more than Musisi.
He is currently known for his role as the Chairman of the Uganda Artists’ SACCO, a 300-member strong savings and cooperative group that seeks to promote the culture of saving and investing among Ugandan artists.
But it could be said that his prior work as a playwright, trainer and mobiliser of grass roots artists and in schools are the reasons he was chosen to sit on the board of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (popularly known as the National Theatre).
Musisi shot to Uganda’s art scene during the tricky war-time period of the early 1980s when the country was transiting from he terrible dictatorship of Idi Amin through NRM’s guerilla war and into relative calm of post Obote NRM regime.
He juggled his duties as a clerical officer in several ministries alongside part-time acting with Kampala Dramatic Actors. His passion for art later had the better of him when he devoted his energies to acting as well as mobilising fellow artists.
He is proud for example to point out that he helped to discover the popular Ganda traditional dance queen Annet Nandujja way back in the 1980s.
“I wrote her first song Obugumba. By the time we met around 1983, she was working in Moon Pencil company owned by former Electoral Commission chairman Hajj. Aziz Kasujja. She had never sung or performed on any stage outside school,” Musisi recalls.
In the early 1980s, Kiyimba was elected as the Secretary General of the Uganda Theatrical Group Association (UTGA) an umbrella body that brought together all performing groups in the country.
His work made him a silent force behind the rise of many of Uganda’s top artists/groups including dancers, comedians and stage artists.
As Secretary General of UTGA, he organised what he refers to as Uganda’s first festival of music dance and drama at the National Theatre.
The festival was a renaissance of dance and theatre in many ways following the suppressive effect of Idi Amin’s regime on freedom of expression and the arts in the previous years and the effects of other wars at the time.
Working with Nandujja, the duo formed an indivisible bond that changed the face and meaning of traditional music.
They later formed The Planets and promoted it as traditional dance group with smart, creative singers and dancers, as opposed to other groups that were loathed for excessive drinking and use of vulgar language.
“In the first festival, Nandujja staged a superb performance when she sung Engo ya Kuno – a song that referred to soldiers – but was performed in a traditional tune. Every body was amazed at her voice and creativity.
But she didn’t know how to dance. So I went to Katwe and brought dance experts who trained our group how to dance.”
Thanks to his organisational abilities, Musisi, “In 1984, organised a comeback festival that brought to light many drama groups such as Bakayimbira, Mulago Theatre kings, Black Pearls. Many of the groups as well as individuals were scattered but we managed to bring them together.”
The end of the NRM guerilla war in 1986 gave further impetus to Musisi and his colleagues in UTGA to organise another festival. It was hugely successful as it marked the emergence of several top performers, some of whom still dominate the stage today.
Musisi recalls for example that Andrew Benon Kibuuka popularly known today as Dube, and his colleagues in Bakayimbira got their big break when they staged an outstanding play – Olusozi lw’
Abatulege that captured the attention of Ugandans including Education Ministry officials who decided to add it on the school curriculum.
It was thanks to Musisi’s collaboration with Nandujja that helped to transform traditional music when they introduced new compositions that set them apart from most other groups that had performed traditional folk songs.
“My biggest role in that festival wasn’t in singing or acting but to train these groups so that they could produce good material. Remember most of the plays at the time would last several hours. But we had to train the actors to compress their plays into 45 minutes.”
UTGA solicited the professional skills of renowned Makerere University Prof. Rose Mbowa (RIP) who taught the groups on how to summarise the plays.
The training they received from Prof. Mbowa along with other writing skills from renowned novelists such as Cranimer Kalinda, catapulted Musisi into a superb playwright who went ahead to put together some of the most influential school drama pieces as well as community theatre.
There is a silver lining to every dark cloud as they say because the spread of HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s gave Musisi a life-changing opportunity to put his skills to work in the war against the disease.
He was hired by the UN children agency UNICEF to train health officers in integrate drama into HIV/AIDS health messages
“Around 1988-1990, when HIV was raging, the ministry of health contracted me to produce the first TV spot which sensitised people about the dangers of the disease,” recalls Musisi.
Having gained fame and contacts in top organs such as UNICEF, Musisi never looked back. He started moving around the country with senior drama teachers like Prof. Mbowa, Sarah Birungi from Makerere University as well, to train women groups in villages on how to integrate health messages in their drama and music.
From working with village women, he moved to schools to teach school drama teachers on how to integrate HIV/AIDs messages in drama.
“UNICEF knew that children were powerful change agents not only in the communities when they grow up but also to their parents if they passed over messages pertaining to HIV such as myths and need to end stigmatisation of patients,” recalls Musisi.
His services were in high demand that he was hired by UNICEF to replicate the same experience in Zambia. Again, working with UNICEF and MUK professors, they organised national competitions that brought different local drama groups to Kampala to show their plays about the disease.
They also wrote a play titled Hydra that was taken to all schools around the country to warn children and parents about the dangers of sugar dadies engaging in relationships with young girls.
In 1996, Musisi signed a contract with the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) to train local village groups on how to integrate drama into health messages across greater Masaka, which was the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS outbreak.
His efforts in trying to curb the spread of the disease however had a negative impact on UTGA and perhaps on regular theatre. No more festivals were organised during the years he was crusading about HIV/AIDS.
But as he taught drama and mobilised local groups and teachers to fight the AIDS scourge, his mobilisation skills proved useful as he taught groups how to use their collaborative power to pull resources but also initiate income generating activities that would ensure the sustainability of the projects the moment donor support ceased.
“I convinced the donors to buy these groups traditional music instruments such as drums as a way to ensure their self sustainability. I told them that the groups would use the drums to perform at weddings and other functions,” says Musisi.
At the end of his contract in Masaka, Musisi continued his anti-Aids crusade when he wrote another Play titled Rachel, that was sponsored by Kampala City Council to sensitise youth in Kampala on HIV.
His other plays such as Birabwa, Sika Beere, Ofiisi ya Minister helped to fight other social ills such as Corruption, and teachers who molest their students and the tendency by people to impose personal burdens on their leaders, respectively.
Perhaps from experience, Musisi had witnessed how his peers had succumbed to poverty despite their apparent popularity. Many of those that shot to the scene in the late 80s and 90s had gone to Europe for Kyeyo while those who stayed were languishing in Poverty.
With the advent of saccos in combination with financial literacy skills he had employed with rural groups, Musisi mobilised fellow artists to form a SACCO. It has not been easy however owing to the fact that art or music is largely an individualistic enterprise.
“You can write and perform a song without the help of other artists. Many do not see the reason for collaboration. But I tell them that fame doesn’t last forever. Today you’re topping the chats, tomorrow it will be someone else. But you need to plan for tomorrow today by saving, investing and learning new skills,” warns Musisi.
Without targeting government donations, helping musicians, performers secure their future has been the main vocation of Musisi over the past few years. Using a piece of land bought by the Planets 20 years ago in Makerere Kikoni, Musisi has also introduced a vocational school which he says will help artists and other community members to learn life skills such as soap making, carpentry.
But as he likes to say; someone shouldn’t depend on a single job or enterprise. A look at the ups and downs of Uganda’s different art genres perhaps proves Musisi right when he says; You are more than that.