KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)– In the middle of a small street flanked by fragrant jacaranda trees blooming with purple flowers, a group of actors jostles for space with passersby and a succession of big, white government vehicles outside the Uganda Museum.
It could be just another street theater rehearsal in the capital. But it’s not. This one includes two women among the performers, a rarity in a society where women are often discouraged from seeking public attention.
When the Bayimba Cultural Foundation sent out calls for a street theater workshop, the two women–Moreen Duudu Hazel and Rehema Nanfuka–showed up. They didn’t know they had become pioneers in a challenging art form. It was just something they wanted to do.
Hazel and Nanfuka say sexual harassment is a problem when they perform on the streets of Kampala as well as in other towns.
"Guys were pulling my hand, saying, ‘I want this one, and I want that one,’" Hazel said, recalling a recent performance.
Both women said the other actors in their troop have helped contain the situations.
In 1990, Makerere University, the country’s leading academic institution, located in Kampala, introduced an affirmative action plan to increase women’s access to public universities.
Five years later, the country’s constitution was amended to say, "Women shall have the right to affirmative action for the purposes of redressing the imbalances created by history, tradition or custom."
Twenty years later, female students had closed the gap with male counterparts in the humanities, especially in arts studies. At Makerere University’s January 2012 graduation, young women were 55 percent of those earning arts degrees.
But there’s still a gap outside school.
With the exception of church choirs, women in the arts are still pushing for wider recognition. Positive signs exist that they are making progress.
One big one breakthrough came recently when the country’s curriculum-setting agency added "A Season of Mirth" by Ugandan writer Regina Amollo to the list of books for studying literature in English. It’s still listed among the non-examinable texts, which are meant for leisure and not for obligatory study in school.
Even so, women see it as a breakthrough in the male domination of Ugandan literature.
Creative writing has also spurred political discussion of gender issues in Uganda. Most notable was "Beyond the Dance," a 2009 anthology of short fiction and poetry about female genital mutilation.
Artist Sarah Tshila fuses spoken word poetry, African traditional music and hip-hop.
In 2007, the BBC World Service’s talent search program, "The Next Big Thing," named her as one of the 20 best unsigned artists in the world. In August of the same year, she recorded her first album, "Sipping From The Nile."
"This was great positive feedback," she says. "It opened doors for me internationally."
Tshila says that the low number of women in the performing arts is not always a deliberate exclusion.
"Sometimes it is about the way we’ve been raised and the lack of courage to pursue our dreams," she says.
‘What makes us strong is our culture’
Tshila works to change that through mentoring with the Bavubuka Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to transform the lives of youths by connecting them with music and the arts.
"We are moving forward, but what makes us strong is our culture," she says. "Therefore, we need to be dynamic in promoting our beautiful musical heritage and not only working with hip-hop styles from abroad."
Adong Lucy Judith, an acclaimed Ugandan playwright and filmmaker, attributes some of the challenges to women’s arts participation to a "culture of impossibilities as opposed to possibilities" for young women.
For example, she said a number of senior members in the theater industry in both Kenya and Uganda told her that her play, "Just Me, You and the Silence" couldn’t be directed because of her writing style. But Broadway and West End directors took on the play, which showed in New York in September and is in production in the Royal Court Theatre in London.
"When I received feedback about the impossibility of my play being directable, I felt sorry for all those eager Ugandan and East African playwrights who’ve not been privileged to have the kind of exposure that I’ve been blessed to have through experiencing Broadway and the West End," she said. "Theater is first and foremost to entertain, so we can’t afford to box ourselves up and, in effect, bore our audiences."
Nonetheless, Judith, who currently lectures in the Makerere University Department of Performing Arts and Film, is upbeat about women’s current prospects in drama.
"I believe women playwrights and screenwriters in East Africa are doing great," she said.
Three examples of that: Ugandan playwrights Deborah Asiimwe, Angela Emurwon and Pamela Otali won the BBC African Performance playwriting competition in recent years.
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Sophie Alal is a correspondent for the Global Press Institute’s Uganda News Desk. She covers topics ranging from politics to the arts.