When they came for the arts

By Joel Muhumuza:

The media council of Uganda recently put a stop to a play going on at the National Theatre called State Of The Nation. I haven’t had a chance to see it myself but I can take a shot in the dark about what it could be about, given its subtle title. The news, apparently, is that the script had been reviewed by the council and they found something wrong and hence decided to put a halt to it.

Now, there are many things wrong with this picture but first of all (for me) is the fact that a playwright has to submit his work to some sort of council to read through before the work can be presented to the masses. Since when is art the purview of the civil service?  What’s next, will Chameleon have to submit the lyrics of his latest song to said council before we are allowed to shake our behinds to it?  Will the next episode of the Hostel require for its set to not have any blue material lest it be deemed support for the opposition? How are we not weeping yet?

Perhaps you may think I’m blowing things out of proportion but as the old saying goes, “It’s the little foxes that spoil the vineyard”. It’s because this seems to be nothing. The heavy handed manner in which the governors of our state continue to encroach in  all areas of  its citizen’s lives – like an overbearing parent that searches through their teenage child’s room and monitors every conversation, every inch of said teen’s life to the point of stifling any individuality or healthy independence.

Just a few months ago, the playwright of another controversial play (The River and the Mountain) was detained, perhaps due to the melanin deficiency in his/her skin. Due to the international beating the play might receive from holding a person simply for exercising his right to free speech, the man was later released. I went to see this play and it wasn’t anything earth-shattering in any way – except for the fact that it involved a man coming out as gay and later being killed.

A few years ago, the  oft- less than honourable Nsaba Buturo,  who in my opinion has made a career out of being a professional whinny baby, self imposed defender of morality for the country and  the country  hall monitor denounced the staging of a production called the Vagina monologues*. To hear him (Ethics minister) talk about this production, you’d think giant female body parts were going to present the show before having a full on orgy and then eat our children for fun in the parking lot. At the time, I felt that it was the right thing. But I was a kid and believed in blasphemy as a legitimate crime too.

Since then my ideas have changed; I have learned that in a nation that holds itself up to be independent, it stands to reason that independence in thought and expression be an automatic right bestowed upon its people. To stifle that is to show just how phony any ideas of freedom and control are.

As someone who regularly speaks, writes and makes music about all kinds of issues ranging from the ridiculous to the deadly serious, I hold fast to the freedom to spell out my ideas and to have them challenged not with force or coercion or censorship but with other ideas, with criticism and that’s how the best ideas get to hold their place in society, but outlasting and taking on all comers. The truth has nothing to fear. If anything, these differing and dissenting voices serve to lend credibility to the right ideas by illustrating just how far off the mark they are.  Only bad ideas and weak ones require the use of armies, boots, jail cells and whatever else you may choose to pick of the Orwellian template for a totalitarian government.

This morning I heard news of a student who was arrested for writing an unflattering book about the president (Anti-Museveni). We as Ugandans, have been numbed by the issues of a flailing economy, corruption tsunamis and encouraging of fevers from Ebola to Marburg, and focus more on silly issues at times. We may awake one day to find even our twitter accounts and other social media networks under the controlling eyes of those we entrust with shepherding us in the next great jubilee. 2012 is written as 1984!!

I hope that we won’t go quietly into the night; that we will forsake the rhetoric about our generation being apathetic about our times and instead speak louder. We may not be able to walk to work, our backs pampered by cushions and soft pillows unable to bear up against the policeman’s baton, our eyes too sensitive to take a dousing of tear gas. But by gosh, we can talk, we can tweet, text and blog. We can sing and shout and recite our words forever, we can ignite a fire that will lead us to not allow this idiocy to continue. We want our freedoms; we are going to have to fight for them.

*(The production” vagina monologues” is about women talking about experiences they have had where they’ve been abused, used and have used their sexuality in the modern world. It sounds painful as hell to watch but certainly no claim to being the moral Bane it was presented as. Perhaps the word vagina just makes men go crazy and stupid instead of crazy and happy).

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