December 9, 2011, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Uganda’s best-known playwright and one of East and Central Africa’s leading dramatists, John Ruganda - to the deadly cancer of the throat.
In the early 1970s, Ruganda featured prominently on the East African theater scene not only as a playwright but also as a stage director, actor, and teacher of drama and theater arts at various institutions of learning. He published many plays, poems and short stories.
Among his published plays, The Burdens (1972) and The Floods (1980) have been used regularly as required texts in the ordinary and advanced level syllabi of the Literature in English courses in Kenya and Uganda. Virtually all of his plays are studied in universities and other institutions of higher learning in East and Central Africa.
His other literary works were Black Mamba (1972), Covenant of Death’ (1973), Echoes of Silence (1985), Music Without Tears (1981) and Igereka and Other African Narratives (2002).
Ruganda’s television screenplays were: The Secret of the Season, (Voice of Kenya, March 1973), The Floods, (Voice of Kenya, April 1973), and The Illegitimate, (Voice of Kenya, August 1982).
In much of his work, Ruganda came across as the voice of the voiceless. His plays satirised the oppressive and greedy tendencies of the political regimes against the common man. His plays “reflect the reality of the East African sociopolitical situation after independence.”
Shaping East African literature
He was considered a shaping force of East African Theater with his works winning critical acclaim. Retaining a fine line between humour and hard-hitting sarcasm, he scoffed at corruption, selfishness and manipulation of the powers that be.
As to Ruganda’s legacy, the folklorist and playwright, Dr Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare says, “John Ruganda was dedicated to theatre – as literary art but also as an expressive/performing art. He didn’t go or stay in theatre for money but his genuine love of art. I respect him for this.”
“I never met Ruganda physically as an artist – except briefly as he visited Uganda in the 1990s when I did my MA research and towards the end of his life, around 2005/2006. In other words, we never knew each other on personal terms. Even then he was keen to listen to me to find out what I had to say/write about him when I appraised some of his plays on my MA (Literature) course. That demonstrated his humility and a mark of scholarship that is very rare in artists who gain world fame,” Ntangaare, the deputy dean of the faculty of arts at Makerere University, adds.
“When he fled Uganda in the late 1970s and went to Kenya, he took with him his love for theatre in the form of popularising the Traveling Theatre. The traveling theatre is not your form of commercial theatre or even easy to organise. One goes into it for the purpose of “taking theatre” or education through theatre to the people. Indeed, his stock of writing leaves us with great points of reference for Uganda’s history and culture. Many of Ruganda’s writings/plays are of international standards, an indicative of the extent Uganda theatre has grown and of its potential,” Ntangaare observes.
“I have not come across playwrights whom you would say are emulating Ruganda’s writing style. His books are outstanding and are still on the school syllabus in Uganda, “The Burdens” and “Black Mamba” for ‘O’ Level and “The Floods” for ‘A’ Level,” Dan Kisense, a lecturer at the Makerere University department of performing arts and film, says.
Conscience of a people
As to Ruganda’s contribution as a playwright producing powerful plays in the difficult times in the history of Uganda, Ntangaare observes: “One could say he was simply the conscience of his own people, for instance, the Ugandans. He had a nationalist approach to issues in his plays – not forgetting his cultural origins/background but not being fanatic about it. The themes in his plays are easily universal. The experiences of his characters are easily appreciated because they touch the nerve of life.”
As to Ruganda’s outstanding literary work, Ntangaare says, “I find The Burdens truly intriguing and very communicative across genders, age and at different levels as well. It’s eternally relevant as it deals with tragedy (tragedies) that is (are) human and common to all. All of us have at one time or another found ourselves in situations of Wamala, Tinka, Kaija or Nyakake. In the play, Ruganda also explores the family as the one single unit in society where one finds meaning and challenge all at once. Even when we have succeeded or failed elsewhere we always come back to our families where we may, ironically, meet our end!”
Uniques short stories
“Igereka and Other African Narratives,” is a unique rendition of the short story, combining the classical and the African way of story-telling. In this work, Ruganda fuses drama, narrative and poetry to present a tale of despotic futility in overcoming divine will. Using three epic stories – ‘Igereka,’ ‘The Invincible Hunter’ and ‘That Business about the Lambs’ – he takes the reader on a journey through a world that mirrors the realities of life.
Contributing the Afterward, Teresa Chisanga sumarises the book as a collection of three short stories dealing with a unique blend of human relations among men and women, masters and servants and covers a range of emotions from love to hatred to greed and selfishness. “Although some of the aspects covered border on beliefs and the supernatural, the underlying message in all the stories is human and close enough to reality…,” she writes.