Ivan Ssegawa did not get a chance to study. His parents could not afford to support him in school owing to joblessness. At 14, he left his home village, Kikyuusa in Luweero for Kampala to fend for himself.
He has been trading in fish. He buys it from St. Balikuddembe Market, formerly known as Owino Market, and sells it for a profit in Jjuuko zone in Katwe, where he also resides.
Ssegawa is one of 10 youth selected from many to participate in a drama showcase by Theatre Factory, an arts outfit.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) made a call for theatre groups and Theatre Factory won the contract to train youth between the age of 15 and 25, in drama as a way of sensitising them on key issues of violence and radicalisation.
The programme is dubbed ‘Strengthening social cohesion and stability in slum populations’. For two days, on Tuesday and Wednesday, young people entertained audiences at Uganda National Cultural Centre, formerly National Theatre, through music, dance and drama on the issues.
The stage presentation were a fruition of six weeks of rehearsals.
According to Philip Luswata, the director of Theatre Factory, it has been a long journey. By his admission, Ssegawa says when he enrolled for the training, he was still abusing drugs.
“I liked the new beginnings I had started as a singer and actor but owing to abuse of drugs, I could not concentrate under the influence. We were warned that discipline was key for anyone to continue with the project so I decided to quit drugs as I feared it would cost me an opportunity to live a better life,” the 20-year-old Ssegawa explains.
He is happy that for the last two months, he has been clean.
In drama, Elizabeth Lukwago is seeing a saviour from alcoholism, which severally led her to sleeping with different men in a drunken stupor.
The 21-year-old is a resident of Bwaise where she plans to become a music, dance and drama trainer through which she would like to carry on the message of crime prevention.
Owing to unemployment, Lukwago shares that on many occasions, peer pressure has led her into regrettable circumstances.
“We would drink alcohol and it would turn me into a nuisance. We would drink so much that I was used, sexually. I would wake up in strangers’ houses,” the Senior Four drop-out further narrates.
She dropped out of school because her parents could not afford to raise school fees to let her continue her ambition of becoming a graduate performer. One of her uncles is a veteran actor.
She now stays alone and is perplexed at the same time on how to raise rent, which she says could push her into prostitution. Part of the frustration, she says that drove her from home was the domestic violence she witnessed first-hand as his father battered her mother on a nearly daily basis.
To her, joining drama and getting further training and sharper skills, she is hopeful she will sketch a future as an actress.
She gives me an interview in presence of her mother, Agnes Ntabadde Lukwago. “From the messages in the plays and songs, I have also shared with my mother on ways she can avoid being a victim of domestic violence by coming to watch me act on stage and take messages that the play carries,” Lukwago further explains.
“Drama is entertaining but with something to learn from. For me, it is history repeating itself because her [daughter’s] uncle is an actor. I wish her well in her journey as an actress. I could identify with the play in which she acted,” Lukwago’s mother, observes.
Luswata says the lack of hope is what has turns youth in slums into committing crime or being recruited in breaking the law.
“When we went in for audition for actors and actresses, there was interest after we convinced them. Many saw this as a chance to turn away from crime. Drama got them to see possibility for a change,” the veteran actors explains.
Meddie Ssenyonjo, 29, attests to this, explaining that the project has given him a platform to showcase his singing ability. In the past, he has tried his hands at fashion design in Kabalagala, a city suburb, but only been fair at it.
Much of his time has been spent with his idol, artiste Jose Chameleone, who he occasionally escorts to music concerts.
“I needed something that could occupy me. I have been given a chance to sing my first song titled Beera Clear, which communicates to parents about the need to educate their children or benefactors,” he explains.
He is a former drug addict but says he has since quit.
“I am now using my experiences as a lesson for young people, who I implore to quit by telling them the ills drugs can lead them to. I have shared with students of Tropical High School in Kabalagala and the response is positive. I would like to concentrate on furthering my singing and acting career with Theatre Factory. My dream is to sing so well like my music star, Jose Chameleone,” Ssenyonjo further explains.
Faridah Nakiyingi is a teacher at Tropical High School, which participated in the music, dance and drama showcase at National Theatre. She commends the initiative for getting community members to exhibit their talents.
“This is important in boosting the confidence of young people because many do not have mentors. When they are allowed to act, sing and dance, they also get to register the messages against child abuse and violence,” she says.
Like larger society, slum dwellers are exposed to moral decay, though for them, it is first hand, for example in places such as Kimombasa in Bwaise where prostitutes operate openly.
They sit by their brothel doors, sometimes holding out condoms, uttering out obscene words to lure customers much to the detriment of young people whose moral fibre is damaged at an early age.
Luswata says his interaction with the young people, who have participated in the the project, has opened his eyes to the fact that they need direction and are glad to be part of the solution to problems they face and communities within which they live.
For example, police’s community policing commissioner Hadijah Namutebi observes that international extremist groups always use money to recruite young people from slums because they are young and desperate, owing to poverty levels in such areas.
To that end, Senior Commissioner of Police David Wasswa warms young people to beware of who they connect with on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, hinging his call on the fact that terrorism groups also lure young people on such platforms.
This was one of the highlighted messages by young Somalis actors and actress through songs and drama. To fortify the point, Luswata argues that many appreciate the social cohesion that the arts have drawn among them.
As such, they are inquiring about when a similar artistic project would bring them together, again. Luswata is in talks with OIM to find ways of continuity with avenues where young people can find purpose, observing that radicalisation or violence extremists is common in slum areas.
Citations of gang settlements, prostitution, diminished appreciation for life are linked to slums and as Luswata adds, experiences young people go through affects them, leaving them ready to explode at any one time thus the criminal activities. He cites the rampant reports of kidnaps and self-kidnaps as some of the criminal acts that have emanated in society, explained by unemployment of young people in particular.
“We are radicalised daily. Bombers are from within. We are not safe from violent extremism. If we can further professionalise the slum youth in artistic engagement, we can play a role on cubing crime,” Mr Wasswa suggests.
Life in the future
Going forward, Luswata says the journey has started on rough but promising note where lives are changing. He would like to open opportunities for some of the actors and actresses from the slum for future projects Theatre Factory will get for television series and dramas so that they can get fame and boost confidence of fellow young people.
There are results to show. Sharifa Ndagire, a lodge attendant and waitress from Kabalagala, says exposure to drama and acting gives her hope of escaping from the life of being undermined owing to the job she does. She always yearned to do something which would not draw ridicule from society.
“I have gained confidence. Before the project, I was shy. I would like to continue working in theatre because I am not happy working in a bar area. It gives me a promising future,” she says. Ndagire did not go far in school.
Like some of her peers in the waiting business in bars and lodges, she dropped out of school in Primary Six. Theatre largely requires talent over qualification and it could be their alternative source of livelihood.