Operation Mulungusi…a review

An analysis of Operation Mulungusi by Patrick Mangeni wa’Ndeda.

By Joan M Kivanda

Patrick Mangeni wa’Ndeda is an engaging, accomplished and celebrated writer, poet and playwright from present-day Uganda1.  He has written a number of community theatre plays including At all costs, Sando, Cold Potatoes, The Kiss, The Virgin, The prince and Operation Mulungusi. He is currently a Senior Lecturer at Makerere’s department of Music, Dance and Drama, the same school he received his initial training in theatre. He earned his MA in theatre studies at the University of Leeds, where he wrote Operation Mulungusi in 1990. Later he finished his PhD in Applied Theatre from Griffith University, Australia where Jane Musoke-Nteyafas caught up with him for an interview that I will draw from for my discussion of Operation Mulungusi. Dr. Mangeni, as known by his Peers, has hosted a series of programs as well as written plays for both radio and television. He has directed more than seven theatrical productions in Uganda, Kenya, and Norway. His play Operation Mulungusi won the National Book Trust of Uganda Award (NABOTU) in 2000 and he was nominated for the Uganda Literature Prize 20012. Some of his influences include Shakespeare, Tawfik Alhakim, Francis Imbuga, Anton Chekhov, John Ruganda, Ibsen and Rose Mbowa to whom this play is dedicated.

Operation Mulungusi.

Operation mulungusi was a code name for the invasion of Tanzania by the Ugandan ruler Idi Amini in the 1980’s. Martin Banham of Leeds University writes in his review of Dr. Mangeni’s Operation Mulungusi that he, Mangeni used “this act of aggression and immorality [referring to operation mulungusi] to stand as a symbol for a wider moral corruption in Ugandas society” (Benham, et all. 259).  In Mangeni’s play, operation Mulungusi is blamed as the cause for the cacophony that enveloped the play’s world. Ejoni, a character in the play explains to Bure that operation mulungusi is where all “troubles started” (47); the trouble that has trickled down generations to befall on an “innocent” Pastor with dreams of going abroad. In the play, operation mulungusi is tagged as the source for superstation witchcraft that fated Uganda’s soldiers who went to Tanzania and “returned from [this] battlefield having looted whatever they lay their hands on”(Bure 47) ; The soldiers are said to have eaten stolen cows from a Tanzania Muziba: “the godfather of mischief” (Ejoni, 48) and were cursed in return to die a terrible death with symptoms much like those of HIV/AIDS. Bure, a more educated catholic priest in the play who we are supposed to listen to, explains to Ejoni and the audience that the curse was not a curse at all, it was the spreading of HIV/AIDS, which leads me to wonder, is Dr. Mangeni suggesting that the spread of AIDS in Uganda is the results of operation mulungusi? Or is it perhaps the results of the culture of war and rape? Either way, it’s an interesting phenomenal worth considering.

Operation Mulungusi is at its core a morality play:

A morality play is one that has a strong message for its audience. In this play it’s mostly the character Hope that carries the message: “the future must live beyond us” (91), she says, suggesting that the people of Uganda needs to put the past behind and focus on the future. Hope, appropriately named, carries the message of hope for the play: a hope for the characters in the play and hope for the People of Uganda. At the end of the play Hope says “a positive attitude towards our life will benefit those to come, and in this way we would have lived our future” (91); and that is essentially the message that Dr. Mangeni wants to put out to his audience as he re-illiterates it in an interview that: “Operation Mulungusi, apart from exploring the myth of Aids in the context of faith, gender and Idi Amin’s military expeditions, it is partly intended as a metaphor of human fragility and the triumph of hope” (Interview with Musoke-Nteyafas)

Most Morality plays tend to have moments of “instructions” – moments where one can hear the author’s voice speak quite clearly on what is wrong and what is right and this play is no exceptions:  On page 13 Mama says: “ very often people without principles are less ambitious and are therefore likely to cause less problem” which comes out as a moral instruction rather than a line in conversation. Western dramaturgy and playwrights, particularly in Canada calls these instructions expository – a cheap way of passing information to the audience. In fact I have no doubt that if this play was edited within the Canadian context, all these instructional lines would’ve been cut, making Operation Mulungusi a completely different kind of play.

Of course in order for a morality play to be effective, the setting and discussions of the topic needs to be relatable and familiar to the audiences since these plays are very much community plays for the community. It is not surprising then that Dr. Mangeni whose research and publications focuses on gender & theatre and community theatre/theatre for development addressing issues about health, human rights and development, and education and drama3 has written this morality play setting it within the realm of Uganda’s culture with subjects that are easily identifiable by its intended audience.  He has set the play within the church intrigue realm as most of the Ugandan community has a Christian background; and are also familiar with the setting and the politics of the church, creating a common play ground for discussing AIDS.

Dr. Mangeni extends the setting of the play to include domestic drama, following the life of the Pastor from the church to his house. At his house we meet Mama, the head of the family’s runnings and Hope, his wife who acts as Mama’s second lady in command; together Mama and Hope essentially run the “church business”. The women are painted as the unsung hero’s of this community – the ones taking care of everything behind the scene while the Pastor and his team lead the “face” of the church. The play opens with the Pastor and his assistant tattering for mother’s presence and approval – all this setting should be familiar to the average Uganda audience. However, there is a very strong undertone that seems to place the blame of the spread of HIV/AIDS to the women of the play, and inherently the women of Uganda, which I suspect is deeply imbedded in the playwrights psyche that even he is not conscious of.  In this play, the playwright tries to give women a strong voice and a strong role in society and goes into lengths to defend Hope’s responsibility for giving the HIV/AIDS to the pastor. However, I don’t feel that knowing Hope’s back-story (a whole play on its own) redeemed her. At the end of the day it’s Hope who is said to have brought HIV/AIDS to the Pastor’s life. The Pastor is otherwise painted as a very innocent and a good standing Christian who has been victimized by Hope: “a sister in Christ has killed me” (37), the Pastor grieves, supporting society’s and the church’s ideologies that places the blame for the spread of HIV/AIDS on women. I would like to believe however, that it was not Dr. Mangeni’s intention to support this ideology. He tried to share the blame of the spread of HIV/AIDS with the church and Western missionaries who preached the cure HIV/AIDS through prayer, but he unfortunately brings up Mama, who because of her desperation and being easily manipulated – as many women are supposed to be, ends up sleeping with a false, deceiving witchdoctor and getting HIV/AIDS – further pushing the negative legacy of women and HIV/AIDS.

Moving forward, there is also a murder mystery element in the play that comments on the idea of hypocrisy, corruption and general post-colonial maladies in Uganda’s society. There is also an element of witchcraft, the use of the Swahili language and the use of cultural idioms and proverbs that makes this play uniquely East African and accessible to Ugandan audiences. Dr. Mangeni’s use of cultural poetry, mixing it with proverbs and other cultural references as demonstrated on page 42 with the exchange of pleasantries between Bure, Rose and Ejoni, suggests that this play is intended for the average Ugandan audience. Furthermore this complexity of the language goes unexplained at times thus creating an alienation effect for non-East African audiences, not so much to exclude other cultures from accessing this universal story, but perhaps to deter critics and scholars from making generalizations about the African culture. I too have used this effect in my work: stori ya for the same reasons. After all, Dr. Mangeni describes “theatre [as] the ability to draw directly on the emotions, culture and politics and social life of people and its ability to recreate and represent life” (Somers. 160), so it makes sense that the story reflects the people it speaks to.

Critics have called this play “very interesting… [with] a number of facts/aspects make[ing] this play a unique work of art” (MK Publishers.) “It’s important” Dr Mangeni says to “provide a stage for entertainment and space to explore our history and aspirations as a people” (Interview with Musoke-Nteyafas); and to this extend, Operation Mulugusi is a success. However, from my artistic point of view this the play is way too long, not well structured and tries to tackle too many issues at once, but then Mangeni admits and “agrees with most people” that poetry, not plays is his strength. However he chooses to write plays because “ Theatre with its versatility, mobilizational and cross- cultural communicative powers” (Somers 260) attracts him.  He says in the Independent newspaper that “Ugandan writers don’t have all that liberty [to access editors] due to limited resources… [but] the fact that Ugandan authored books are accepted pieces of literature on the school syllabus is a testimony of great writing in the country”. However, others argues with him in that article that even though more “Ugandan authors [are] coming up… questions on quality remain”. I await therefore, to read more Ugandan’s play and literature so I can join this discussion of quality vs quantity, as it’s my strong belief that comparing this play to our western theatre aesthetics would be setting unrealistic standards for this Ugandan play. As it is, I would conclude that this play was indeed a success as it serves its purpose of entertaining and enlightening its intended audiences, which is what every playwright aims to do with a play.

References:

1 Ugandan Writers: Meet Patrick Mangeni by Musoke-Nteyafas, Jane.

2,3 Dr. Patrick Mangeni wa’Ndeda. [biography] Makerere University: faculty of arts department of Music, Dance and Drama.

Bibliography

Banham martin, et al. African theatre: Women. Guest ed. By Plastow, Jane. United Kingdom. James Currey LTD., 2002.

Habati, Mubatsi Asinja. “ authors coming up but questions on quality remain.” The independent: 29 September 2009 <http://www.independent.co.ug/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1853:ugandan-authors-coming-up-but-questions-on-quality-remain&catid=37:society&Itemid=154>

Makerere University: faculty of arts department of Music, Dance and Drama. Dr. Patrick Mangeni wa’Ndeda.  Online Biography.  21 Feb. 2011 <http://www.mdd.mak.ac.ug/patrick%20mangeniprofile.html>

Mangeni wa’Ndeda, Patrick. Operation Mulungusi and The Prince. Uganda: MK Publisher (U) LTD., 2000.

Musoke-Nteyafas, Jane. Ugandan Writers: Meet Patrick Mangeni. Online Interview. June 17, 2006. <http://www.ugpulse.com/articles/daily/Literature.asp?about=Ugandan+Writers%3A+Meet+Patrick+Mangeni&ID=427>

Somers, John, ed. Drama and theatre in education: contemporary research. North York: Captus Press Inc. 1996.

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2 Responses to Operation Mulungusi…a review

  1. Kiiza Martin says:

    Describe and account for the different theatrical productions in Uganda Sir? Am Kiiza Martin Martin Makerere University: School of Performing Arts and Film.

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