On January 11, the strains of Osibire bubi muwala we buyodi adokho, a song from the Samia ethnic group, wafted down the hallways of Fang Fang Hotel in Nakasero.
The singer was Ian Collense, a gregarious Australian student, who is on a Study Abroad programme, which has brought students from New York University (NYU) to Uganda every January since 2007.
Two days later, he performed the Owaro dance alongside students of Keenote Centre in Mukono, almost upstaging them with how confidently he sang songs like Adokho, Orado, Auma wunyekele, Tula erwanyi, and Sesa alambe.
Collense had spent five days learning six Samia songs, and another four from the Ankore’s ekitaguriro dance, during the workshop phase of the cultural exchange with dance students from Makerere University’s Department of Performing Arts and Film (DPAF).
It shares a formula with like-themed projects in which they collaborate in workshops and the product is part of a showcase performance, which usually free to the public. In between, the Ugandans play host, tour guide, translator, and chaperone.
Gray areas are many. For example, is it really fair exchange when one side is giving authentic traditional dance and another is offering personalised choreography? If the hosts are not the chief sponsors, who exercises control over the programme funds?
But despite such inherent challenges, the experience is largely mutually beneficial to all who participate in the exchange programmes.
A case in point is Mabingo AlfDaniels, currently a Fulbright Scholar doing a Master’s degree in Dance Education at New York University.
“Yes, I had lobbied and applied several times, but I believe when I added the experience of the NYU-DPAF collaboration to my submission, it greatly helped my chances of winning the scholarship.
On a personal note, I can say this is how advantageous such programmes are,” he testified.
His equivalent on the NYU side is Yoko Sasaki, who first came to Uganda in 2009 as a “study abroad” student. This year, she returned as a Programme Assistant. Sasaki recognises the competitive edge she attained after participating in the exchange.
“Right after leaving in 2009, I applied both the positive and challenging feedback that I either observed or was told, and out of that learned to be a better programme coordinator. Google is definitely no substitute for living and earning such an experience,” she noted.
The bigger picture
Professor Jill Pribyl, the Programme Director of the NYU-DPAF collaboration in Uganda, likens the aspect of teaching Ugandan dance to exchange students to a pilgrimage: “It is like the difference between praying in church, and attending mass in Rome with the Pope giving the sermon.”
She also believes in the value of such interactions countering the stereotype image of a desolate Africa whose war-ravaged and hunger-stricken children have flies and tears on their faces.
“Foreign students who experience the various identities of Africa through the Ugandans they collaborate with can never again oversimplify the African situation,” she added.