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"Theatre for Development - Listening to the Community"



All these aspects [peasants' knowledge of erosion, reforestation, farming, religion, death, etc.] are contained within a cultural totality. As a structure this cultural totality reacts as a whole. If one of its parts is affected, an automatic reflex occurs on the others
(Freire 1976).

In early 1989, a new development project began work with the Bobo people in the Tominian District in the east of Mali. The Bobo are a minority group (constituting about 1 percent of Mali's population) and relatively disadvantaged. In addition to the shortage of schools, clinics and other modern facilities, they are threatened by declining crop yields in the face of a growing population. Long-term use of new tools and chemical fertilizer has damaged soil fertility and extension of the area under cultivation has aggravated erosion by wind and rain. The Community Environment Project was set up by SOS Sahel to offer technical support to farmers in an area suffering from land degradation and falling yields.

SOS Sahel is a UK based non-governmental organisation with particular expertise in the areas of soil and water conservation and agroforestry. It has also experimented with a variety of methods for making its approach in the field as participatory as possible; one of these was the creation of the Drama Unit.

Since at least the 1970s, when development agencies began to experiment with what they then referred to as the 'folk media', theatre has been recognized as a powerful medium of communication for education and community development alike. Dramatic sketches have transmitted messages, particularly around health and family planning, or on the benefits of literacy. The performers were often community workers or actors from outside. Less frequently, but more interestingly, the people themselves may have performed plays which they had created together with the community activists. These plays aimed to portray the problems facing the community, and explore relevant solutions. Sometimes, as in Zimbabwe, 'popular theatre' was used by the liberation struggle as a means of raising awareness among rural and urban people. In Latin America Augusto Boal drew on Freire's pedagogy to design a Theatre of the Oppressed in which scenarios of oppression are replayed by members of the audience - repeating the actions of the protagonist - either as a more accurate representation of reality, or as a 'rehearsal for revolution'. Our own aim was to leave behind any didactic pretension, and without any dominant ideology to give a voice to those in the village communities who had not the power, or the habit, of speaking out. The task of the Drama Unit was to 'tune in' to the mood and views expressed by the community. Working from traditional performance forms - dance, drama, story-telling, song - villagers and Drama Unit together would develop a style of improvised theatre. This was intended to improve and develop communications between the project and the villagers with whom it worked, while also supporting existing cultural forms. Linking a theatre programme to the Community Environment Project would provide an ongoing internal evaluation and feedback system: 'a way to listen'.

The first phase of the Community Environment Project (hereafter the project) ran from 1989 to 1992. A field staff of ten men and ten women was recruited, most of whom originated from the Tominian district and were native Bwa (Bobo language) speakers. The project was headed by a Malian national from outside the area but three middle level staff were also Bwa speakers. Three expatriates worked in Tominian for the first two years of the project, one of whom had skills in 'theatre for development'. He and his local counterpart formed the Drama Unit. While the project headquarters were in the village of Tominian itself, the field staff lived and worked in outlying villages at distances of between 25 and 80 kilometres from the project base. The number of villages working with the project rose to 40 after four years.


Establishing a base



Our first task was to find out how it would be possible to open a channel for communication using and supporting local traditions of artistic expression. There is very little written research on the Bobo and our understanding was formed through contacts with the communities themselves, or with the field workers and emigrants from the villages now living in Tominian.

The Bobos' older traditions had begun to break down along with the overall social and climactic shifts. In the dry season, masked dancers used formerly to sweep through the villages to the sound of flute and drum, swathed in leaves from head to toe so that those present were no longer aware of the person inside. They were a cleansing force, purging the village of its errors and appeasing the ancestors; they were a preparation and a prayer for rain. The festival could last for days, and was indeed that 'exercise of a dangerous and terrible act' that Antonin Artaud (1965) wanted all theatre to be, for these dances were an integral part of life and (agri)culture. While the ceremonies might have become briefer, there were still days when strangers were unwelcome in the villages. The arts and the villagers' lives in general continued to form a continuum between sacred and profane.

Aside from the necessary animal sacrifices, the festivities of marriage and baptism were at the other end of the continuum. There, as in the weekly drinking parties, the singing and dancing were clearly secular. And to the regret of many, the ONI-yô dance had disappeared from the marriage ceremony.

Between the sacred and secular extremities were the worksongs. Many farmers had begun to till their own fields, alone, using donkey ploughs; communal songs had disappeared along with teamwork. While harvesting remained a group activity, only some farmers could still afford to call out the griots, who are the village musicians or praise singers. When the griots did bring their drums to the harvest, the pace would surge with the rhythm and the songs that praised the labourers. Far from being mere flatteries, the praises the griots sang were regarded as a necessary spiritual food which visibly improved the execution of collective work.

It appeared that the Bobo had no traditional form of 'theatre' as such and that the Drama Unit would have to work from music, story and dance. If it was appropriate, theatre would come later.


Among the first villages invited to work with the project was Tana, a village of some 500 people which appeared to be a close-knit community and keen to work with the project. Tana also boasted a particularly strong griot presence. We were pleased when the village elders welcomed our cultural initiative, and agreed to host the opening experiments in development theatre.


The griot project


By the start of the rainy season in mid-1989, ten Community Environment Project workers were ready to move into their village posts in five host villages. With farming in full swing the villagers had little or no spare time. Meetings were rushed, tired affairs between evening food and bed. We were able to proceed quietly, watching and chatting. Much of our time was taken up with observing the work in the fields, and recording some of the griots harvest songs.

We saw that this musical encouragement during the harvest could be applied to the collective soil and water conservation work that the project planned to initiate and the griots looked like promising partners. A caste apart, these families were once supported by the community, but this was no longer the case. Leather craft and weaving, once just a supplementary income, now provided a meagre livelihood. The griots had to farm what unused land they could solicit and they were not farmers by tradition. Many older griots advised their sons to seek their fortune elsewhere.

This faltering tradition was an ideal base for us, seeking to nourish the custom just as it was breaking down. The songs praised and exhorted speed and skill, but they carried an implicit understanding of the work in hand. If the griots learnt about new techniques such as water-harvesting, their (improvised) songs could expand to include both technical encouragement and talk of a greener future. Their songs would reach farmers who never attended meetings or trainings.

The griots were happy to co-operate the following year. The singer, Ennemo, began by casting his new songs in the traditional mould but week by week, they become more specific. He sang of the flowing rainwater trapped in catchment pits, the soil that would no longer be washed away in the flooding and the vision of trees and millet sprouting in abandoned fields.

Some villages no longer had resident griots as the young men had left their villages in search of city money and their old fathers no longer sang. Once Tana had completed its anti-erosion work, Ennemo was available for work elsewhere. The Drama Unit provided him with a bicycle to carry him (and his partner) to Ba'assi to animate the conservation work there. In So'ura we invited the griot from a neighbouring hamlet, and he came regularly to sing for the diggers.


Ba'assi and So'ura both reported substantial increases in output when the griots were there in March and April. Given time and more training we had hoped that these two griots, and others like him, could become the holders of a basic technical knowledge, sought by their own community or even neighbouring villages.


By the end of 1990, the project had contacted a dozen or so new villages and the Drama Unit planned to extend the griot project accordingly. But poor rains had driven many young men off in the quest for cash; many of the original singers were travelling from village to village with their balafons (a type of xylophone), playing for tax money. It also became apparent that we had made an important mistake in the first season. Since the griots had sung at our invitation, they were seen as our financial responsibility and in 1991 they barely sang in the first villages. Elsewhere we were more circumspect. The villagers of Tierakui themselves arranged for their griot to accompany their diggings and he quickly adapted his lyrics. The griots of Yabara also turned out but kept to the traditional style. It was planned that the field-workers themselves would take part in monitoring and developing the content of the songs. Meanwhile, griots from a number of villages were brought together to produce an audio cassette of songs on erosion control which have now been heard many miles from the project site.



Theatre is a language

Theatre for development is often expected to be a mechanism for transmitting a message, but it does not have to be didactic, nor directly polemic. By expressing everyday realities, or even mythical ones, the performers can invite the audience to look into a mirror - perhaps for amusement, perhaps for instruction and perhaps in the attempt to find a way through difficult times. If villagers were to use the language of theatre to express their circumstances and explore their problems they could together decide on a course of action. The role of the project in this was to listen, rather than merely trying to transmit a point of view.

When we sought to introduce the idea of theatre, the Chief of Tana replied with a proverb: 'If someone asks you to make a rope out of sand, you'd better ask to see the old one first.' The villagers were perfectly willing but, having no experience of theatre, they would first need to see for themselves what it was. With the 1989 harvest complete, and many granaries filled, they were free to turn to other activities. There is always plenty of work during the dry season - brickmaking, building and repairs, as well as straw mats and baskets to be sold at market to complete the village tax. One evening a week was set aside to reach for this 'theatre', this rope of sand.

It was mostly young men who volunteered as performers; women were said to be too shy. On their suggestion, early rehearsals with warming up exercises were replaced by the ONI-yô dance which led seamlessly into improvised sketches. Simple images of farming, hunting, courtship and marriage soon gave way to more complex scenarios on similar subjects which told us much about village life and customs. Under Tana's harmonious surface, there were many currents of duplicity and distrust which later surfaced in problems with collective working.

Plays depicting the soil and water conservation work also showed us that it had been undertaken more in the hope of other rewards than as a means by which the villagers could improve their situation. While formal meetings (and the field workers' reports) had given a different picture of the villagers' collaboration with the project, the plays made it clear that they were far from feeling that they 'owned' these works.

he following year, attendance at the collective works dropped off significantly and we asked the theatre group to show us the problem. After two wooden performances which lectured the audience on the benefits of soil and water conservation, they finally produced a complete history of their involvement with the project - from their perspective.

From the first visits of project representatives, the scene shifts to volunteers labouring over catchment-pits. In spite of subsequent visits from the management, we see their numbers soon diminish. There are those who mock the volunteers, proclaiming that only beasts go round scratching holes in that fruitless ground. Some of these prefer to weave grass mats for sale in the markets and they gloat later when the volunteers, still penniless, are arrested and beaten by the militia for non-payment of taxes and impossible fines. They say the fieldworkers should have protected them and warn that work with the project could eventually peter out.

Even old men get up from the audience and joined in the play, which was received with boisterous attention. Inspired by their own emotion, the actors had surpassed the bounds that a prepared play would have allowed. This was the strength of improvised work. Afterwards, they wondered if they had taken frankness too far but once reassured their plays became bolder. There may have been other underlying causes of the apathy, but these plays opened a dialogue. Subsequent meetings with the project staff and the village authorities yielded a plan of action which was seen to improve attendance at the water catchment site.

In the meantime work had begun in the village of Embere'ui, a community quite different in character, its readiness to embrace change and new ideas was in strong contrast with Tana's conservatism. The village was largely converted from traditional religions to Christianity and it may be that the work with the Church had helped to provoke reflection. Before too long, these performances also turned their attention to the Forestry Department in a play that signalled their (real) fear about a (hypothetical) danger.

Some village women are in the forest gathering wood when they catch sight of a pair of forestry agents coming their way. They hide behind a baobab tree, and watch as the agents deliberately set fire to the dry grasses. Later the agents turn up in the village, feigning anger, to fine the protesting villagers for the fire damage. Since there are witnesses, the unusually courageous villagers refuse to pay and are taken before the Forestry Chief. The agents are fired and the Chief exhorts the villagers to report any such cases.

Since the project's official partner was the Malian forestry service, the manager decided to discuss the issue with the local Chief Forester before rumour beat him to it. Following these two plays, a formal agreement was negotiated with the Forestry Department to leave the 'project villages' out of their circuit, allowing time for the slower approach to conservation to take effect, uncompromised by punitive measures. The Chief Forester made a visit to Embere'ui in support of the new agreement. This in its turn made an impression on the villagers who said that previously they had never had anything but aggressive visits from the Forestry Department.

There were more plays about corruption and we began to see the characters standing firm against extortionate demands, citing their rights, and succeeding. This revealed a new courage, and a refreshing willingness to act way beyond the mendicant attitude of the earlier plays. Now both villages had had a glimpse of the empowering possibilities which the theatre work might open up for them.

Meanwhile, the village women had yet to perform, although they were a regular attendance. But when the Embere'ui men put on a play showing how hard it is to find a good wife and how they are jilted by their fiancées for any man with more money, it proved too much for the women. At last they mounted a play showing us the hardships of their life, especially having to share a husband and drag him home from the beer-yard all the time. The play generated active public debate between men and women. This was unheard of in the past, especially since the subject was intimate and personal. This departure from Bobo mores sprang from the women's anger and resentment at the allegations made against them by the men; now women began to attend meetings, and the women's plays continued.


nitially Tana's women could not be persuaded into the arena. Most of the village's young unmarried women (the likeliest actresses) were away in town in the quest for cash, and perhaps adventure. The many plays concerning the exodus decried it as undesirable and unnecessary for women - resulting in degeneracy, misadventure and the spread of venereal diseases back in the village. Offstage, the men performers (mostly married) insisted that married women would not perform in public - out of modesty. Nevertheless when forward thinking Embere'ui showed the way, the women of Tana, married or not, were quick to respond; they portrayed marital problems, making much of the jealousy between co-wives, and we saw plays from both villages about drunken and negligent husbands, the rural exodus, child ill-health and the massive workload that women must support. In Tana first and later in Embere'ui women began to play together with the men; if their scenario depicted a man, they would solicit a man to play the part.

The Tana performers also produced a play which commented critically on the project's relations with them. They did this using allegory.

A child has been born. Everybody is cuddling the baby, and when visitors arrive they too make much of it, taking lots of pictures and showering gifts as they leave. Back for a second visit, the three find the mother sitting alone, with her child now ravaged by diarrhoea and much less cute. Hastily they pass on by to see the neighbours who are celebrating their own newborn with dance and merriment. Later when the first child gets better, the visitors come smiling back and the play ends when they carry the baby home with them.

Initial discussion after the play centred on child health, an important enough issue, but there was more to it than that. Unprompted the players themselves explained that the sick baby represented Tana; that in the first project year they had been healthy, producing 204 ditches and a tree nursery, and received visitors from Bamako and London too. But after a less healthy season, no-one wanted to know about the mere 59 ditches dug. Project delegations sped by en route to healthier places, abandoning Tana.

Theatre had been used to express a sentiment, very frankly - with just a hint of recrimination - that the villagers could not have expressed in a meeting or a conversation. However, the topic was delicate, and they were wary of exploring it too actively.

The language of theatre had been assimilated by the two villages, and learned by fieldworkers and project management. So far, it was the communities who used the language and the project which listened. From time to time the audience would get involved in the performances, entering and perhaps replaying the action, or dictating its flow. However dialogue between villagers and fieldworkers largely remained conventional, using after-show discussions and meetings.



Integration of the drama unit within the community environment project


Funded by Comic Relief and the European Commission, the Drama Unit only came into being after the main project proposal had been written. Although its function was to support the technical side of the project's work, the Drama Unit's objective of encouraging free and open expression by the villagers had the potential to cause political embarrassment; it seemed prudent that it should be autonomous.

Until 1990, there was frequent consultation between project management and the Drama Unit on policy and practice but the scale of activities increased, this level of consultation was not sustained. With changes in project management and priorities, and a shift in later years towards a higher rate of practical achievements in the field, the importance attributed to theatre work within the project fluctuated. In this project, as in most others, the slow and intangible benefits of participatory practices had to be weighed against the project's need to justify its presence to local officials and ordinary people, as well as to far-away funders.

Field staff in general appreciated the revival of the ONI-yô and the valorization of their own (minority) culture, but continued to prefer the concept of didactic rather than listening theatre. Compared with agroforestry or soil and water conservation activities, the objectives of the Drama Unit were abstract and the search for an evolving, locally appropriate form left some fieldworkers uncertain of the role of the Drama Unit within the main project. To combat this, formal training of all field staff was planned but never took place because of the full schedule of technical training.

Those staff directly concerned displayed mixed reactions towards the Drama Unit's work. In Tana they tended to interpret the theatre's exposure of problems as policing of their own work, rather than as a tool for broadening their understanding. They reciprocated by swift criticism of our mistakes. Conversely, in Embere'ui the Drama Unit was actively solicited and the fieldworkers themselves ran the rehearsals, demonstrating their enthusiasm for this work and awareness of its utility.


Some difficulties encountered



The obvious and major brake on my own activity was ignorance of the Bobo language. Working through an interpreter was viable while setting things up and even in early rehearsals but to pick up nuances one needs increasingly to be tuned to the subtleties of speech and metaphor. My Bobo colleague would translate, but we lost the advantage of two minds, and were often slow to pick things up. Customs can vary from village to village, and unfamiliarity led to one or two errors of protocol.

When we gave the griots a bicycle to facilitate work outside their own villages, we offended some of the other villagers. The social situation of the griots was fraught: still marked as members of a dependent caste, and yet no longer given the economic security which was their right. For the Drama Unit a close association with the traditional custodians of music and story telling was logical and we aimed to include them in the benefits the project was bringing to the area. But in the villages, where griots occasionally return from the cities richer than their former patrons,any hint of favouritism was bitterly resented.

The problem of dependency was a recurring stumbling-block. While the project was committed to fostering autonomous development, the villagers often took another view, as Tana's play on aid graphically depicted:

The scene opens with a group of project workers meeting in a village. They propose rearing a new breed of pigs, and hand out clothing and a preliminary 5000 FCFA (about £10) towards the fodder. The villagers say this is not enough and the project doubles the sum, but it is agreed that the amount will diminish with each contribution. They are making bricks to build sites, when there is a visit from another prospective project - grain banks this time. Unconditionally, as an 'encouragement', a large advance of money is given, plus stocks of maize, millet and even rice. When the original man comes back, his grant now down to 250 FCFA (about 50p),the villagers tell him to keep his money, as they are with someone who looks after them properly.

Neither drama nor soil and water conservation work was paid, but there were benefits such as subsidized tools and credit schemes and in Tana the actors repeatedly asked for financial support of various kinds.

Tana's material emphasis was symptomatic of their declared powerlessness in the face of failing rains, and the express view that only we, the outsiders, could do anything. It also provided an escape from difficult issues, such as the distribution of land or power in the village, or the sensitive details of community collaboration. Both villages were willing to deal with problems in their relations with the outside, be it government, the project, or other organizations. But apart from the generalities of family or marital life, the actors usually slid way from exploring the internal tensions within their village - which may have been the most significant factors affecting their work with the project. Embere'ui was more courageous in this respect but may have expected too much; after two years, the evaluators found the performers disillusioned by the lack of change in response to their plays.

Lack of response was a perennial problem. Sometimes the players made concrete requests which the project was unable or unwilling to satisfy. The 'aid' scenario just described may have been a request for more lavish assistance, or a warning that the villagers could look elsewhere for collaborators. This is a subtle paradox: the villagers' reluctance to accept responsibility could actually become a tool for negotiating a better deal. In the context of the development industry within which non-governmental organizations sometimes compete to extend their spheres of influence, this suggests that self-declared beggars can sometimes be choosers.





The utility of the first two years of the Drama Unit's work in Tana were summed up by one elder with a Bobo proverb: 'The hyena says: Good news makes the night pass quickly in a termite heap'. Our interpreter explained that if something is worthwhile, one agrees to do things that otherwise one would not do. Initially a number of Tana elders came along to support the actors (and probably to keep an ear on the proceedings) but by the end of the second season they were regularly taking part in the action, either by proxy or with direct interventions. Their readiness to perform suggests that they saw some value in this new forum. Similarly, the theatre evenings eventually gave women an opportunity to speak up in public about some of their problems. The type of themes treated overall - as well as their presentation - made the theatre evenings qualitatively different from most village meetings.


The first years showed promise of laying the foundations for a constructive dialogue between project and villagers, and of stimulating discussion as a first stage of praxis within the villages. It would be dangerous to claim that any lasting empowerment could be achieved by this means in the short space of four years. However, the Drama Unit's experience does suggest that theatre allows - even occasionally obliges - people to speak more boldly than they will in more conventional exchanges. For this frankness to have a lasting effect, both goodwill and constructive response are essential. While theatre can strike some sparks, sustained participatory practice is need to fan them into a flame.

SOS Sahel can be contacted at: 1 Tolpuddle Street, London N1 0XT

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