The person of William Chewe Musonda stands gapingly far from the “most wretched of the Earth” in the stage reading of his play that we have just watched. He has a calm demeanour, his freshly shaven face has a black and white mingle of hair that shows age which in Africa stands for wisdom. His views are straight but he doesn’t force them down anyone’s throat.
His play, “The Most Wretched of the Earth” tackles a distinct (African?) problem. It is the question of Africa’s educated elites who perpetuate the evil of corruption. Set in Lusaka, it is being performed as a stage reading for the first time in Kampala. He allowed the production team to make it their own, Ugandanise it if they wanted.
If you’re curious to know, the play is not based on the premise of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”. When asked about the title, Musonda responds that it is not dealing with Fanon’s issues of neo colonialism, rather Africa’s self governance problems after independence. “The Most Wretched of the Earth”, is a term used in the play to refer to the perpetrators of the crime as opposed to the victims as it is in Fanon’s book.
The perpetrator is embodied in a central character named Minga whose animated nature makes you love him. He’s rich in anecdotes, laughs often and is very endearing. He is a picture of very many corrupt individuals in governments. Likeable.
In many African countries, corruption is the norm. In fact in the play, it seems that the three graduates returning to Lusaka to fight it are the ones who cause the conflict in the story. Chuku, Robert and Thomas.
At the beginning of the play, they start off like three musketeers with a mission. There is an important exchange at the start. Thomas states “Our continent is cursed” to which Chuku responds “By who?” Laying ground to the idea that Africa’s problems cannot truly be attributed to an outside system.
They agree on a common need to stop lamenting and start acting. Chuku, Robert and Thomas will be the different ones. They have studied the ills of corruption, the misappropriation of funds by NGOs, the broken system back home and declare “The entire economy must be cleaned.”
However, things do not turn out that obvious. Thomas is Minga’s nephew; and on returning home eases into life after he’s offered a juicy job courtesy of his uncle’s connections. He reminded me of the term in Francis Imbuga’s “Betrayal in the City” – tall relatives.
Chuku fails to move forward in life because of his ideals. His knowledge cannot help his grandmother from being evicted from her land by, interestingly enough, Minga. She is bitter and asks him, “My son, are we going to eat your vows?”
Robert on the other hand gives in and enters the NGO system which he had vowed to fight.
What is interesting is that despite being written from a Zambian premise, the play fits very well in a Ugandan context. Everything can be transported to Kampala, all except the ending.
I could see Minga very clearly. Loud, brash, proud and unapologetic, not to mention nepotic. He’s a business man trying to become an MP and justifies it by saying “We can take care of the poor because we are not poor”. His words play out his craftiness. When Chuku refuses to accept his help he tells him “The length of the monkey’s tail does not determine its wisdom”.
He is played by Nuwamanya Amon who shifts easily between the overbearing Minga and phlegmatic Robert. It is the way he reads his lines that makes him very entertaining. He laughs, widens his eyes, changes the range of his voice where it needs. When he’s begging for clemency from the judge after he’s taken to court for his crimes, he makes a plea that makes you almost feel sorry for him while laughing at him.
The story ends unexpectedly, at least from Ugandan standards. Securing a sentencing for powerful corrupt individuals is not the norm in Uganda. In fact one person in the audience notes that he was expecting Minga to escape jail.
In the post-stage reading conversation, one thing that stands out is the different attitude towards corruption in Uganda and Zambia. In Zambia, the anti-corruption spirit is rich and vivacious while in Uganda it is more passive. In fact, someone asks Musonda about how he deals with fear in writing such scripts. His response is a straight “I write without fear or favour”. He seems to be surprised there would be fear in addressing corruption.
Privately, Musonda and I talk about the lacklustre approach to corruption in Uganda. He asks me if there is a possibility of a wave of anti corruption as it is in Zambia and I tell him that unfortunately at the moment, his play has the answer. If the characters were to stand for countries, Chuku might be Zambian; but Robert, Thomas, Minga are all Ugandan. I feel Musonda clearly represents Chuku, whose views are unadulterated. In Uganda, those people, at least in terms of public faces, are few and far in between.