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In all of these programs the work was conducted as a dialogue
between these:

The PPP methodology aims to reach existing community performers who may not have come across these issues at all. As a training guideline, PPP would introduce them to the notion of this direct, ongoing intervention that characterised tmy own early work in Mali and Namibia. Here the work was directly with the community on a long-term basis and there were no outside 'artists' at all. Facilitation was by members of the NGO as resource providers, myself included.

Performances were not created for the community - they did that themselves. But on a shorter time-scale, or a one off commissioned play performance, it would be difficult to achieve the same levels of engagement with the people and the culture.

Whatever the philosophy of its practitioners, outside perceptions of TFD still need to change - especially among those holders of the purse's strings. NGOs are continually under the same pressures to produce measurable results or they simply don't get the cash.

Arguing for the qualitative and longer-term benefits of cultural action is a delicate task, and may or may not be subscribed to by the financiers in the furthest offices of the larger financing institutions. Donors may also face the risk of recrimination by those from whom they collect the money - be they taxpayers or individuals in the community. There is safety in provable figures - numbers of trees, quantities of condoms taken away from the clinics. So even those who are committed to culture and development are hard pressed to engage in long term integrated TFD activities like the ones in Mali and Namibia. Quite rightly the look to existing performing troupes, where these are available. These can be hired and fired, while employing a cultural worker would be far more risky. PPP grew out of this dilemma.



- and a basic assumption

All this theatre-AS-research assumes that improvisation in workshop and performance too is at the heart of the process.

The work in Mali and Namibia was guided by these four goals:


They are further explored over in the 'body' pages.

1.plenty of time:

My own involvement in these programmes, as trainer and initiator of TFD activities lasted for two or more years each.

Thanks to Comic Relief and the European Union, I was with SOS Sahel in Mali for two years setting up and developing the Drama Unit with my colleague, Bianivo Mounkoro who continued with the project after my departure. With RISE in Namibia, thanks in this case to OXFAM UK&I, there was a similar set-up, though here i was training different members of RISE field-working staff.

In Mali I was living in the community, in Namibia I lived with the project staff in close proximity to the community with whom they were working. Huge distances between villages did not allow a base in one or another of these small settlements. Only Gibeon was large enough to consider such a base but it was on the outer reaches of the catchment area. Clearly it would have been ideal to be able to be based within a community, though there may have been other factors militating against this in the local cultural reality.

Passing the days alongside our community partners allowed friendships to grow and ensured a maximum of trust and a degree of social ease that would not have been possible with one off visits for workshops and performances. As an outsider - from another continent at that - clearly there were and always will be cultural areas and nuances that escape the immigrant.


2. engagement with local culture

As an outsider - from another continent at that - clearly there were and always will be cultural areas and nuances that escape the immigrant. Towards the end of the dry season, when the masked dancers swept through the Bobo villages swathed in leaves from head to toe and crowned with mysterious masks, purging the village of its errors and appeasing the ancestors, they were a preparation and a prayer for rain. But I was not allowed to look on them.

And after all, I was there to initiate an activity. In both programmes I was training local cultural and field-workers. These were the ones who actually did the work, increasingly as the two years rolled on, and well beyond my time in the community. Hopefully then, my own distance from the intimacies of local cultural realities would be covered by the local knowledge of my partner and future initiator of TFD in other communities.

In an earlier article comparing cultural and technical perspectives on TFD, I defined culture like this:

The idea of a living culture refers to that point where a community's history of events and beliefs, and ways of behaving formed by those beliefs, meets the changing face of contemporary reality. Cultural or artistic expression is the outward reflection of that community's evolution in the face of changing social and physical realities.

Now I would add a most important aspect, that:

Art, life and the process of change (or development) move together and it would be a mistake to approach a community and its Development without engaging with its own ways of expressing, celebrating and evolving its own culture. It is a mistake frequently made by Development agencies for a number of mostly logistical and economic reasons.

Again, from Tied up in a Rope of Sand:

The SOS Sahel drama unit in Mali was based on three cultural foundations, with three separate objectives. The first stumbled badly due to [cultural] ineptitude on my own part at the time. The second lasted well into its eighth year and the third took a couple of years to get going.

Any conscious attempt to influence behaviour or attitude must engage with the culture. Development workers, faced with climatic and even political anomalies, often expect people to consider new ideas and ways of living radically different from those they have grown up with. These are easily rejected. Performers and field-workers alike, can be hastily dismissed as purveyors of unwanted or even heretical notions, whether they be foreigners or not. Theatre for Development should exist, as a lubricant, at the interface between social circumstances and technical (project) activity.


a: the Griot Project

This is the one that stumbled. And it stumbled through lack of deep affinity with local cultural etiquette. This too will be described more fully later on - in the body text.

For now suffice it to say that some four months were spent in and around the community, talking, observing and gaining familiarity with the community. This peaked during the harvest time - watching the griots sing the praises of the young lads whose scythes swept through the millet stalks at a ferocious pace - less fast when there was no music! Sadly the griots are called to the fields less and less frequently these days.

So we figured it would be culturally appropriate and useful to project and people alike if we were to bring griot music to the soil and water conservation work. Their songs could explain the unfamiliar digging activities - for all to hear, including passing folk en route to other places. Their songs of praise would encourage the youths toiling in the sun and the griots - as keepers of the knowledge (trainers?) - would regain some of their declining status.

That is what we did. By and large it worked well, with some pitfalls as I have said - stemming largely from the fact that this was our idea , the outsiders, and people were happy to carry it out, but the terms were not always as we expected.

Here's a résumé.


b: Artist Farmers


Joseph Beuys' dictum that "everybody is an artist" doesn't mean (as he was at great pains to point out) that "everybody is a good painter". Rather it means that we are all capable of our own creative contribution to the 'social sculpture' and that we all should take on that responsibility for shaping our own future. Collectively. So the community, who have their own traditional art forms anyway, are perfectly capable of articulating and expressing issues that affect their lives. Let them be the artists.

In the search for indigenous and therefore appropriate cultural forms, the ONI-yô dance was proposed by the youth of Tana village, in Mali. It was particularly appropriate in that it was no longer much used as a marriage dance, though the young men were keen to keep the dance alive. Perhaps the drama would give it a contemporary meaning? We adopted it and ONI-yō became TEATRI- yō.

c: local pop musicians

Yes, there is need for information, by performed delivery or not, although the process cannot end there. The griots were singing not only praises but also passing knowledge and information and all of our hopes for a greener future.

Furthermore, from the start of the programme we had been making overtures to griots and others who were making something of a living from traditional and pop music gigs and recordings. Although negotiations and logistics meant that these plans took two years to materialise, materialise they did. The cassettes in circulation contain information and advice. Top down they may be, indigenously performed they are and they no doubt serve a useful adjunct to the initiative to change farming habits to suit the changing climate and environment.

Wan Smolbag who branched also into video and now radio soaps along with Te Itibwerere also have an excellent set of rock/pop cassettes on development themes.


3. participation and local ownership

The dialogue and broader analysis comes in with the exploration of outside knowledge and perceptions - the existence of AIDS is an obvious example. Information is taken in when the community wants it - the dramatic debate is at the interface of information and existing ways of life: what to do with the information. Once again the most appropriate actors (in every sense of the word) will be the community themselves.

And even if initial acting skills are rusty or unsophisticated - as I will argue later - what does it matter, when it is your sister on the stage voicing thoughts that others have kept to themselves but are feeling no less strongly?

It takes more than a workshop to digest the information, and we know that we learn mostly through our own analysis, not through listening to others, even if couched in the right cultural terms and language. Let the people dance.

4. aiming for critical understanding

Information is the purpose of the plays of Wan Smolbag, the Nepali partners and many other TFD programs.

Of course all TFD work is going to be passing information as one part at least of its work - whether as dialogical exchange, or information from community to project partners, or the more usual messages from NGO to target group. and you only have to think about the medical details of AIDS to realise that 'transmission' of information is necessary. And there are also very important 'messages' from one part of the community to the other, or even to an individual, that could be communicated through drama.

The question has to be how to digest that meal of pure information, how to make it into usable knowledge, knowledge that can form the basis for action and change.

According to Freire and Kidd amongst many others, the key point is the achievement of a critical understanding at the grass roots level. That means the generation of an informed debate, or theatrical exploration, among community partners regarding the issues they had chosen to address. To some extent I targeted this in my subsequent work of the next ten years in the field and, since then, from the academic and consultants' perspective.

But I was never fully satisfied. Society doesn't change from the intellect alone. People don't rise up and change from intellectual comprehension but from loss of property, hunger, gut-feelings. The performances of the Living theatre that caused riots were not their intellectual explorations of the Talmud or the storming of the Winter Palace, but the presence of revolution itself on the stage, spilling out into the streets. Even their Legacy of Cain which left them languishing in a Brazilian jail, did little to change the world. At least not in itself.

The uproar that met Ngugi Wa Thiongo's Kamiriithu Community play was not an intellectual argument about dignity, civil rights and the ownership of language, but the gut feeling that here was a freedom hitherto suppressed; a flash of light born of reason, and of the community's physical involvement in building both play and theatre to house it, but also a product appealing to the imagination. The use of the words themselves, not their content, was both medium and message.

Now I'm not trying to debunk 'critical understanding', but I am wondering whether, in the field of Development, the arts have not been subordinated in the quest for it. After all, imagination is the very stuff of art and without imagination, real change will be 'unimaginable'.

In the search for a TFD that allows reasoned analysis - even in cultures that do not necessarily feel comfortable with our imported logic - I have moved far from my early work with the Bambara and later Bobo farmers in Western and central Mali. They had the freedom to speak. Every community member may or may not have gained a great critical understanding of what they were saying or doing. That must be my own failing in part. But the Bobo youth created a form of theatre that was their own, built on the basis of their own oni-yō.


The Women of Embere'ui:

And when the women of Embere'ui were so riled by the performance of their men-folk that described them as lazy and fickle, they stood up and performed their own play to set the record straight. Women were not free to speak in these communities, and the performance was more than just an answer to the men's allegations. This was the dangerous and terrible act, where the process of speaking was more than the words being said, or the actual argument debated. It was the process of becoming changed; the women's voice was out and once out would not be shut away again. This is the liminal theatre of change and 'becoming'. The women brought themselves to action through gut response, not intellectual discourse, though clearly they will not have been blind to the impact their unprecedented expression might have had.



Artistic expression is the fruit of the imagination. Without imagination as well as intellect, new solutions to perennial blockages would never take shape. So it was with those women in Embere'ui. Those women in Embere'ui had taken a bold step in speaking out and it had been accepted. Without the performance they may well have waited longer for the seeds of their emancipation to germinate - clearly the time had been right and they knew that, but had been unable to take the advice of the field-workers who had been urging them for some time to take a stand. They were aware of the need but not the means. It was an act of imagination that opened the door, not of intellect.

It's a reality all too often ingored. And raw information is still cooked up into delightful plays that tell us things. Wan Smolbag:

"these [STD] sketches are like walking biological diagrams and show how STDs spread and what they do to the body."

This is not far from the Kote'ba group 'Nyogolon' in Mali with their ''théâtre utile' of the late eighties. They too dressed up as microbes to show the passage of germs and STDs. The plays are informative, useful and indeed dramatic as we watch the microbes doing battle with the antibodies.

But this is still essentially a presentation of biological facts. It is not an exploration of what to do with them in the context of local habits and social preferences. That is left to the field-workers.

It ought to be the other way around: let the facts be handled by those who are their keepers and let the cultural implications be explored with the cultural tools.

If we are to work through outside agent-artists, then they need a high degree of commitment to their work. Community actors, we assume, will have their own community issues at heart.

So let the actors in the plays be as close as possible to the truth (referred to as artistic integrity in other 'art' circles) as well as the culture they are engaging with. In Namibia I was invited by a group of teenagers to help them with their 'safer sex' play. They had been commissioned by the National Youthy Council to perform at a local hostel for migrant diamond mine workers - all men. When I asked them whether they used condoms themselves they were energetic in their refusal even to countenance the idea. "No-one climbs on me with one of those things on", one of them said. And yet they were prepared to create a play preaching safer sex for others. I'll return to the issue of 'truth' and the life revolution later.

Another performance group was notorious for its own drinking habits - yet they regularly put up plays on alcohol abuse. Mixed messages and even hypocrisy are far from the commitment required for community activists, TFD performers or the life-theatre revolution of the Living Theatre, who didn't carry the name lightly.




These groups and those who commission them hope that their one-off performances are likely to generate enough concern and critical understanding amongst the sexually eager teenagers in their audiences, that they will alter their sexual habits then and there.

Of course it needs more than that. It needs some process of 'becoming', some dangerous and terrible act, a liminal rite of change that has irreversible effects on those who take part.

Most obviously, the liminal state is encountered in any culture's rites of passage - taken more or sometimes less seriously by the community in question - be it the passing of a wedding ring, the eating woman pays respects to the Vibusa healerof a Christian host, or falling into a trance during a healing ceremony, as happened during the Vibusa healer's dance that the Zambian workshop participants attended during the most recent PPP workshops in Lusaka.

In most cases TFD practitioners may not have access to traditional rites and rituals whether current or obsolete. In Mali we tried with limited but palpable success to revalorise a fading custom with the oni-yô and teatri-yô. More often than not we will be looking at more conscious ('liminoid' in Victor Turner's terms) cultural actions, including performance and the processes leading up to it; actions and moments that embody change, rather than merely pointing to it.

It may happen in a moment, or it may be embedded in the form of a performance itself - as in conventional rite and ritual.

The women of Embere'ui came out changed, as did the men in the audience - for they had been there, they had allowed the breach of cultural etiquette, and they were implicated by their participation in the debate which followed it. It is a crossing of the border between art and life.

Moments of Becoming: Kolo village, Mali

Like those Bobo women in Embere'ui, the Bambara youth of Kolo village had no right to voice their views in public meetings. They were luckier however, as their Kote'ba theatre did allow them to perform with satirical commentary to life, and led to a significant moment of 'becoming' when the actors stepped beyond the boundaries of theatrical reality into the reality of the audience and addressing directly the NGO agents who were watching the 'play'. They responded to this public meeting just as if it had been a meeting with the Chief. And so the meeting was held, the NGO agreed to participate, while explaining the self-help terms on which a partnership could be founded.

(Here is a little more on that event in Kolo.)

The outcome had not been predicted. The improvisation had been built upon a simple situation and its implications had led to the natural solution. Imagination and truth had created a transformational exploration of a local reality, and generated an event that could not be reneged or denied. Change had taken place and the 'well project' initiated.

Clearly intellect and understanding have to work hand in hand with the imagination and the free expression of 'gut-feeling' and random fantasy. If you use a cultural tool and proceed to strip it of its cultural context and frequently instinctive approach, then you will neutralise its effect and deny the very purpose of implementing it.

Moments of Becoming: the 'Plunge' in Gibeon, Namibia:

Two days of demonstration and performances. These were to celebrate the triumph of the Gibeon youth group in gaining access to a jackhammer on loan from the government. The jackhammer was to help them to dig pit-latrines for older members of the shantytown community, who had no family to do it for them. Sanitation was limited to buckets (in a tin shack in the yard) that were emptied in the small hours of every morning by council workers.

For a variety of local political and allegedly clan-based reasons, town council members and the Chief, or Captain (Kapteijn), had vetoed a well funded pit-latrine programme. The youth (and their NGO partners) knew that something had to be done and they had determined to dig the pits themselves - hence the jackhammer.

This was an informed decision, born out of critical understanding. These youth group members knew all too well that they were flouting the wishes of their Chief (Kapteijn) who was also a prominent member of Cabinet.

The performances were there to open up the debate on the issue and announce the readiness of the youth group to dig the pits for those who were unable. The NGO would follow with materials for the construction of a shelter to cover it.

Members of the Chief's clan saw the interest generated by the first day of action and banned the use of the jackhammer. No reasons were given.

The news came just prior to the second day's procession and performance. The group withheld the information until that point in the play at which one woman, who had lost a child to diarrhoea, was hooking up the hammer.

The announcement was made by the town council's secretary, stepping into the play, and stepping way out of line onto the side of the pro-latrine lobby. All the audience knew who she was, and once they realised that the play had become real a shudder of anger spread through the crowd. They ordered all the kids in the audience away - saying that we now had to get down to some hard talking.

The power of the event was augmented by this crossover reality, just as it had been when the Kolo actor addressed the NGO officers in the theatrical stead of the chief, who should have done it himself.

The Plunge will be described fully in The Gibeon Story, over in the body pages.


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