On May 27th we visited a women’s group in Unyama and a male role model group in Gwendiya, both small villages in the countryside of Gulu district. Driving up the bumpy dirt road, we saw a tiny patch of flat land surrounded by lush grass stalks. Tiny round huts with grass roofs dotted the land. A small gathering of women –including a handful of men– was waiting for us under the shade of a mango tree. As we drove by, the women immediately stood up and began singing, clapping, and swaying in unison. Women in the back of the crowd began yelling shrilly, in what Pam told us was the African women’s jubilation. The chorus of dancing, singing, and energetic yelling was the most extravagant and warm welcome I’d ever seen. Even the children greeted us with smiles—later, when we drove away, they chased after us and even tried to climb on the car!
When things settled down, I was surprised to see that not only were a handful of the women’s group members men, but the chairperson was a man as well. David and I interviewed one of the members, called Onencan George. He speaks with a low, soft-spoken voice and pauses frequently to collect his thoughts, though he seems to have his story prepared for us from the start.
George is 53, lives with one wife (though he has had a total of three in the past), and has four children in school. While he currently merges other men into the system, he was first trained in women’s rights violations and empowerment. Surrounding his training, George finds that “love is really important among the men and women.” Through interviewing him, we found out that there still exist tremendous challenges in gaining acceptance from men because of transport. They don’t come at the “right point and the right period.” In concluding, George stresses the importance of furthering education to “increase society to be in a good manner.”
The centrality of education in mobilizing these groups is also emphasized in the male role models of Gwendiya, aptly named “Think for Tomorrow.” We interviewed the group’s chairperson, Okwera George. As he recounts his story, he gesticulates fervently and speaks with an emphatic, undulating voice with eyes wide open and alert. He’s 45 years old, a farmer, and has two wives. His education ended after primary school and he’s currently staying with his paternal uncles. After becoming a role model or “upright man” as the community calls it, he still finds that they don’t always talk, share ideas, or teach in every homestead. He believes that “learning ends when somebody dies, otherwise you’re supposed to continuously educate each other.” As an orphan, he gained most of his knowledge by listening to the teachings through the granary walls where orphans are kept. Even with such limited access to education, he still ended up viewing knowledge as a crucial element of community empowerment. In his words, the experience “molded [him] and made [him] grow with that empowerment in [him].” As he gained more knowledge, he realized that those experiences “shaped [him] the way [he is] right now.”
But one of the greatest struggles faced by these male role model groups still lies in gaining acceptance and recognition from the rest of their communities. To combat this, many of the groups spread their message through acting in dramas, which is tremendously effective in attracting attention from the community. Acting in dramas is the best technique for spreading awareness of “Think for Tomorrow” male role models, particularly because George plays the role of a woman. In his act, George “develops breasts,” carries a child, and depicts a poverty-stricken woman with children in times of hardship. Spectators persistently wonder, “Can a man truly play the role of a woman and show how a woman feels when she is in hardship?” In Uganda, dramas are the predominant form of entertainment, as evidenced by the Spanish soap operas that continuously play in some of the shops in town and also in Pam’s home. George says that “if we were to stage right now, everybody would be observing here.”
The stories depicted by the dramas poignantly reflect the cultural reality of the community. “Think for Tomorrow” shows dramas capturing a kind of household common in Uganda. It depicts a family in hardship, where the husband is an alcoholic. For a long time, the woman seeks assistance from a wealthy family. According to George, “that is how she survives, doing pity-pity activities for the family.” Always, the man comes back home drunk, soiling himself, fighting with the woman. The woman in the poor family asks her husband “why can’t you emulate the rich family, how they stay happy, how they stay humble, how they share, how they grow, how they acquire their wealth, etc. if you stop taking alcohol.” The woman goes to further her case to the local leader who refers to counselors, “upright men,” to come and help the husband and other issues. Whenever issues are taken to the leader, the husband is called to set up a meeting between the community’s wealthy family and his own. They’re educated on how to live humbly, and the husband is taught on the disadvantages of alcohol consumption, causing him to leave alcohol. The mediator ensures that the alcoholic man changes to enable him to grieve the wife and allow her to live a new life. The husband might also be abusing a girl who is already mature. In the drama, the family is sensitized and educated on how to respond to and respect the child. The drunkard husband then seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. The husband of the wealthy, loving family that mediates the poor family then compares his life to that of his poor counterparts. The stark contrast between the two disparate lives is then highlighted to the audience.
This story isn’t just for entertainment. Whenever he acts, George always ensures that he informs his audience. He told us “even if it doesn’t affect you, still it affects everybody because whatever we’re going to stage will have to instill some impact on every person.” Needless to say, the dramas are a fundamental player in relaying human rights messages to the community. Even through simply speaking to us, he managed to capture our complete attention through his vigorous gestures and animated expressions.
Perhaps the message to take away is George’s confidence that the drama is not only a play, but a teaching. In his closing statements, he says that the dramas represent the kind of teaching that “will always be instilled in each and every person’s heart.” It’s incredibly moving to witness how so many Ugandan men have found ways to engage their communities in remedying gender-based violence through creative outlets like dramas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to see their drama, but in the future we hope to return to the male role models and be able to capture and spread their message. Keep checking back for when we do!