How playwright Byron Kawadwa met his death

Playwright Byron Kawadwa (2nd R) with some of his colleagues in the 1970s.

What you need to know:

Attack on the theatre. In 1977, Uganda was one of the African countries represented at the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos and Kaduna in Nigeria from January 15 to February 12, 1977. Drama Group Kampala City Players, headed by playwright and actor Byron Kawadwa, represented the country. This week in Witness, Sarah K Birungi takes us back to the events of 1977 leading to the disappearance and death of Kawadwa, one of Uganda’s leading playwright and actor at the time.

Sarah K Birungi, a retired secondary school head teacher and actress with the Kampala City Players was part of the cast of the famous Oluyimba lwa Wankoko, (Song of the Cock), which was staged in Nigeria at the Festac Festival in 1977.
Birungi was drafted into the group from Nabisunsa Girls School where she was teaching and had produced a number of plays staged by her students. In Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko, she acted as one of the many wives of King Wankoko in his palace.

“I was brought on board to act with Kampala City Players by Elephania Zirimu, who was teaching at the National Teacher’s College, Kyambogo. When I joined the group, we were to do rehearsals for the play from the National Theatre’s Greenroom, from 5pm to 7pm. However, as the festival got closer, the rehearsal intensified, forcing us to rehearse from 6pm-10pm, this time on the stage to get used to the lights, stage exits and entries.”
Having joined the group from her teaching job, Birungi was not privy to the selection process to know how Oluyimba Lwa wankoko was selected. Four dress rehearsals were organised for the public and government officials to watch the play before it was staged at the Festac in Nigeria.

“The government facilitated our trip right from procuring passports, paid the transport and upkeep during our stay in Nigeria. Though it was a Luganda play, the audience in Lagos understood the message in the play.”
Oluyimba Lwa wankoko was believed to be a critic of politics at the time, a thing that may have cost Kawadwa his life. “At first I thought the play was a social satire, but after some time and listening to what people were saying about it, I realised it was a political satire. The leader and the led were being represented by Wankoko and Wankwale. Wankwale, with his many tricks, was often trying to outwit Wankoko.”

Last days

Sara K Birungi, the narrator, and who worked with the playwright. Photo by Henry Lubega

There have been reports that Kawadwa was picked from the National Theatre during rehearsals, however, according to Birungi, it was not the case. “A few days after our return from Lagos, we met at the Arts Club within the National Theatre to review the trip and the performance while in Lagos. It was during the review meeting that someone came and beckoned Kawadwa that someone wanted to see him outside. Shortly afterwards, we heard people wailing. When we went to find out what was happening, we were told that Kawadwa had been put in a car boot and driven away. Shock and grief filled the National Theatre. We did not know what to do. The meeting ended there. We walked away in fear- both for our lives and Kawadwa’s.

A few days later, his body was discovered in Namanve, from where it was picked and buried in Kisasi, a Kampala suburb, his home area.
Given the manner of his death, only a few people attended his burial. Only those who could be reached by word of mouth attended the burial. There was so much fear that some mourners failed to go to his home
After Kawadwa’s death, the group never met again. Personally, I returned to my teaching job.
For the time I interacted with him, he was a very humorous person, dedicated to his work.