During breakfast on the second day, Nick surprised us by encouraging us to attend the school competition that day. He already had arranged transport to the local school where the event was taking place – so it was really easy to say yes. We didn’t know at all what to expect, but one should simply always say “yes” if opportunities like this arise.
We arrived really early for the event — actually, we might have been the first ones there. Sunday, who accompanied us that day, introduced us to the school teachers and got permission for us to attend the competition and make pictures and video. We watched some older students were building a simple fence around the area where the competition would be held; the fence was held together using ropes and rusty nails — and would turn out to be no match against the huge crowd of spectators that would watch the proceedings later that day.
We arrived early because we were not yet accustomed to African time. While we were waiting and entertained the children by showing them pictures of themselves, the competing schools arrived and stored their instruments, clothing, and accessories in various class rooms. Two hours after our arrival, the competition started. We spent the entire day, not really knowing what to expect but greatly enjoying watching the students perform their music, drama, and dancing.
Let me explain what the competition was all about (something which we didn’t really understand at that time). In Uganda, music is considered a vital part of the educational system; in many schools, it is integrated into a curriculum called Music, Drama, and Dance (MDD) that is being taught in many primary schools. The trimester during which MDD is taught culminates in a multi-round competition; in each round, five or six schools compete against each other and the winning team proceeds to the next round. The national competition is the fifth round, where the best teams from all over Uganda compete to be the best Uganda MDD school for that year (the winning school receives a cow). We attended a first competition round, where participating schools were mostly local.
The MDD competition usually has underlying themes. In 2016, the competition focused on teenage pregnancy, early marriages, and violence against children — raising awareness for the reason why many girls drop out of school early. It was mandatory that the participating teams would address these themes during the competition.
The competition kicked off with the “set piece,” which is the same for all competitors: a solemn hymn with moralizing lyrics (in English!) and some counter-melodies. One of the schools was not able to participate in this part of the contest, which almost immediately put them out of the running for the first place.
The formal set piece is not exactly the most entertaining part of the competition, so only a few children watched from behind the fence. This quickly changed; the masses arrived when the second item on the agenda, the original composition, started. This really entertaining part is an original piece of music (a call-and-answer chant) that accompanies a short dramatic play that addresses one of the prescribed competition themes. I suspect that the plays contained some funny lines as the audience occasionally was roaring with laughter – unfortunately, no English was spoken here, but everyone obviously had a blast!
We were very fortunate that we brought all our camera gear with plenty of batteries and a way to recharge them, as we were shooting video constantly. I was using my D500 camera to record HD video of the contest, while shooting the occasional photo with the D800 camera; Denise was busy shooting video and pictures using the Sony camera.
The next competition item was the traditional folk song — which to our eyes looked very similar to the original composition. Again, most performances consisted of a call-and-answer musical chant accompanied by a sketch depicting suffering — but usually having a happy ending.
The fourth item on the agenda was the poem. Each of the schools had prepared a poem that needed to be recited – either by one student or by a group of students. Again, the poems needed to address the MDD themes, which was really, really obvious during their recitals.
I was getting low on batteries and skipped recording of most of the poems, but here are two performances if you’re interested.
Meanwhile, the fence had lost its battle against the crowd of additional spectators that had arrived to witness the fifth item on the agenda: Drama. The teachers had resorted to threatening the mob with sticks — rather ironic, considering the competition themes, but it was the only way to keep the children from invading the “stage.” Out of nowhere, a rope and some pieces of cloth appeared, which were rapidly assembled into a primitive curtain. Each school put forward their best actors to enact a story about child abuse, the inability of female students to go to school, heavy drinking of the father — or all of them in the same sketch. Students really enjoyed playing adults — especially grandparents with white beards or a bent back….
We unfortunately did not manage to capture good video from the drama performances. The built-in microphone of the camera was not good enough to pick up dialogue from 30 feet away, certainly not with the rowdy crowd that was surrounding us. I (Mr. Gizmo) did have an external microphone in my luggage, so I recorded some drama footage of the second competition round that I attended two days later.
Some schools prepared their sketches in English which made it much easier for us to follow. It was pretty obvious that the students (or, more accurately, their teachers) had paid close attention to the required themes — most of the actors were put through tremendous suffering because of abusive teachers and drunk fathers. Fortunately, the good laws of Uganda (or the intervention of wise and benevolent grandparents) usually managed to remedy their pain, eventually resulting in graduation and a successful career — all sketches invariably ended with a party with good food, alcohol and happy dancing. The audience was absolutely spellbound by the great acting of their fellow students.
Each dramatization was at least 12 minutes long, so by the time this segment had finished, we were really tired. It was mid-afternoon and we still had three items on the agenda. The girls (Denise, Amy, and Michela) had taken a break, but I was on a mission: to record as much as I could. The next competition would be “Musical Performance,” and as a music lover, I was curious to hear what the schools would offer. Well, it certainly was different from what I was used to.
Uganda is a poor country, so schools basically don’t have any money to buy instruments. Instead, they build the instruments themselves. Different regions build different instruments. These wooden instruments are usually fairly simple; the focus is on rhythmic patterns rather than melody. It is the competition’s goal to have the school create a composition that brings out the best of the students’ skills and instruments. Performances often appeared to be partly improvised, with the teacher directing the students in tempo, volume, and intensity. Most students seemed to really enjoy making music together; they were focused on their playing, their faces had big smiles, and they carefully watched their teacher for instructions. One teacher completely lost himself in the performance and at some point the jury terminated the performance because it just went on too long.
I have to be honest: the musical performance was not easy for me to listen to, but I really enjoyed the energy of the performances and the big smiling faces of the participants.
The seventh item on the agenda was “sight reading.” Basically, the students were given a minute to study a piece of music (for example, “do mi fa so”) and then had to sing it. That is actually really hard to do! Imagine, you are part of the school’s team (usually about twenty students); you start singing and you notice that your neighbor is singing a different note. What are you going to do? Sing your note louder or follow your neighbor’s lead? Suffice to say, it seemed that all teams were struggling with this challenge.
Finally, it was time for the Big Finale: the Traditional Dance. This was clearly the favorite part of the competition; in spite of the fact that it was getting dark (which usually means close to dinner time), virtually nobody had left. We also had been looking forward to this; we already got a taste of the dance from the rehearsals at St. Joseph’s the day before. It would be great to see what they would do at the competition.
As the name suggests, the traditional dance requires the students to perform dances that should be part of their heritage — in this case, dances from the Bwindi region involving lots of jumping (in later competition rounds, there would be dances from other parts of Uganda that were completely different). The MDD competition is therefore a great way to help to preserve the cultural heritage of Uganda.
Meanwhile, dusk had arrived; that certainly didn’t stop the teams from dancing their hearts out. It was getting really hard to record good video, but the six teams finished their dances just before complete darkness settled in.
Finally, the first competition was over; after tallying the results, Ruguburi’s St. Peter’s –the local favorite — was declared the winner. Upon hearing the results, its students walked home celebrating their win by chanting victory songs.
I was tired; I had been sitting on my butt shooting video the entire day virtually non-stop. We were among the first to arrive and among the last ones to leave. This certainly didn’t go unnoticed with the locals, who complimented us on our real interest in Uganda culture and really appreciated the fact that we stayed so long.
It had been a good day!This entry was posted in Our life, Uganda, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa