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July 6, 2014

Theatre and peace building in Africa: The Al - mashish Street Theatre’s panacea to conflict resolution in Darfur


Written by Emmanuel Ebere Uzoji

Africa has had its fair share of conflicts arising from a range of factors – political, ethnic, religious, social, economic, etc. In most cases these conflicts have snowballed into full blown war with gruesome casualties. This paper takes a look at the role of theatre in mediating these conflicts by using the experience of the Al-mashish Theatre troupe in Darfur, Western Sudan.

Theatre is a creative and expressive area of human activity which provides a powerful source of peace-building energy and passion that is not always apparent in the formalized processes of political conflict resolution.[i] This paper interrogates this exclusive powerful source of peace-building (street theatre particularly) in fostering peace among the Darfuris and how this can be replicated in other parts of Africa currently facing the challenges of conflicts and peace-building.

All across the African landscape, one can easily find traces of conflicts if not an ongoing full-scale war. No other region of the world has seen the level of devastation brought about by war and its attendant consequences than Africa. Almost every country in Africa has stories of one conflict engraved in its history and as we write this piece; countries like Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Somalia, Congo, Egypt, Nigeria and Sudan are either presently engulfed in internal crisis or are recovering from a recent one.


Needless to say, these conflicts have greatly impinged on human life and further underdeveloped the African continent. Many countries such as Rwanda are busy repairing the damage caused by the ethnic genocide of the nineties rather than charting a new course for development and growth. Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world and remained under the clutches of long-drawn war spanning over three decades. In recent times Darfur has been a theatre of one of the worst human catastrophes the world has ever known or seen; a theatre of state-backed ethnic cleansing and violence.

To many people, Darfur means terror, accusations of genocide and war. Since 2003, as many as a 100,000 people have been killed with over two million made refugees by the bewildering many-sided conflicts in the remote deserts of Western Sudan. On one side are several competing rebel groups drawn from Darfur’s black African tribes, on the other Sudanese government forces and Arab’s Janjaweed militias on their horses and camels. It is a conflict that has polarized the outside world. Western countries and celebrity campaigners have sided with the accusations of genocide against the black Africans but Arab countries have generally seen this as yet another example of post-colonial Western interference in a developing nation.

Meanwhile the people of Darfur appear on television screens either as faceless gunmen or as helpless victims tended by foreign aid organizations. However, amidst all these is the need to negotiate peace. Conflict resolution – especially that of Darfur – has been at the centre of issues discussed at various international fora and diplomatic missions. Theatre in Africa has been on the vanguard of mediating these conflicts as it affects the continent of Africa with the aim of engendering the atmosphere for peace. This is more so, as its potency in bringing all sides of a conflict to one common arena of laughter, spectacle and emotion far surpasses the threat posed by the arena of bloodletting and war.



Theatre and Conflict Resolution in the 21st Century

In a continent replete with a retinue of conflicts, several attempts and organizations have sprung up to quell them even before it escalates into full-blown war. Both internal and international organizations are set up, foreign emissaries are sent and several peace ambassadors come into play whenever crisis looms in any nation. There has also been a proliferation of ‘non-official’ conflict resolution organizations in the last twenty years or so whose work in areas of conflict throughout the world has been built upon principles of non-violent peace-making. Street theatre is one of such phenomenon that has used non-violent forms and communication skills to intervene in all facets of crises plaguing communities all across Africa. This practice of non-violent conflict resolution provides the basis for a global ‘peace praxis, that is, the development of skills, processes and resources necessary to sustain and develop cultures of peace.[ii]

Theatre provides a powerful source of peace-building energy and passion that is not always apparent in the formalized processes of political conflict resolution. As a form of creative conflict resolution, it has within its bowels the energy that both nourishes and defines the emergence of a culture of peace, which has been defined by the United Nations as “a set of values, attitudes, modes of behaviour and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes, to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations.[iii] Street theatre rather than stepping into the heat of the conflict by neutralizing the fire power of contending parties as in the case of military interventions, it rather engages the communities in an atmosphere of play and fosters dialogue that addresses the root causes of the conflict.

Another important factor of theatre in peace making is that it creates ‘a global civic culture’. According to Boon and Plastow “theatre, in a variety of forms and contexts, can make, and indeed has made positive political and social interventions in a range of developing cultures across the world”.[iv] The most vital forms of theatre for development, or theatre for peace, is that which represents real lives – theatre ‘from below’, as they describe it – echoing the values of peace building from below, familiar in the literature of conflict resolution. While acknowledging that theory is important in analyzing the uses, forms and impacts of theatre, avoidance of dogma is also crucial when the main aim is to produce learning and insight that genuinely comes from the communities, cultures and contexts which the theatres serve. In this sphere of conflict resolution, the most potent adventures are not those coming from professional theatre troupes in the big cities or foreign lands but usually and most likely a self-taught troupe that is home-grown and understands the underlying issues, the historiography and culture of the contending communities. This is a theatre of the people, for the people and by the people – a “democratized performance”.[v]


In many places we can see the contributions of the playwright and the play text to conflict resolution and peace building. To bring this dramatic medium closer to contemporary realities, Osofisan’s Yungba Yungba and the Dance Contest engages us in a sweet dream of successfully living together equally as it interrogates contemporary politics of ethnic conflict and power – addressing the questions related to, for example, “Hutu and Tutsi, democratic struggles in African states, gender politics, the overthrowing of dictatorial regimes, the aspiration of new leaders – for example, in Congo Brazzaville, diplomatic interventions and its effects on politics, and the sycophancy syndrome in Nigeria.[vi] They and many others show us how every genre of theatre in Africa can be relevant in conflict resolution and peace building.

The crisis in Darfur

The origins of the conflict in Darfur are accounted for by numerous factors that include historical violence in the region, ethnic divisions, social, political and economic marginalization. The structural causes of the conflict are rooted in two major elements: the legacy of colonialism in the Sudan and the formation of a post-colonial ‘predatory’ state. The crisis is hence not simply a ‘humanitarian crisis’ but an explosion of structural violence rooted in constant struggles for control of national wealth and power between Sudan’s central government and its peripherals. Since violence erupted in early 2003, the Sudanese government’s indiscriminate aerial bombings, military attacks and raids by the government backed militias have claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced millions internally and internationally. The situation is termed “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” or “genocide” by the United Nations and the United States respectively.

Sudan is the largest country in the African continent with a vast territory that is rich in natural resources including oil, gold and various minerals. The fertile soil along the Nile is the key hub for agricultural development that has made Sudan the ‘breakfast’ of the continent. However, the central administrative government based in the North recruited labour and exploited resources from the Southern and Western regions. The government became dependent on the exploitation of its regional resources in both human and natural terms to maintain its political and military power.[vii]


Since independence in 1956, political skirmishes borne out of the resistance to the exploitative and discriminatory practices became the order of the day. The Darfur violence was triggered by a rebellious movement but was precipitated and is exacerbated by the predatory State’s policy to expand and exert absolute power over the peripherals. That policy paved the way for Arab militia’s to begin the genocidal campaign against African opposition in Sudan and in Darfur in particular.[viii]


The central government's discrimination along ethnic lines, marginalization of the African tribes, and uneven distribution of national wealth has a long history and produced overt violence in Sudan – the protracted north-south civil war is an example. Pervasive resistance has been a constant threat to Khartoum’s authority over the country. Therefore, “whether in the interest of security, access to resources, ideology, race or religion and sometimes all of the above – Sudan’s government is willing to destroy lives and livelihoods of millions of its own citizens to maintain its grip on power".[ix] Such is the sorry state of most African states that still travail under dictatorial regimes whose claim to legitimacy is the perpetual subjugation of its citizens to eternal servitude.


In the 18th and 19th century Darfur, governments and elite alike have never treated the people of Darfur kindly.[x] Injustice, including slavery and high taxations or dues was common feature of 18th and 19th century state-society relations in Darfur.[xi] Others trace the origin of the conflict to a strong culture of domination, the imposition of Islamic law as national legal instruments, especially after the abrogation of Addis Ababa Treaty in 1983, together with unequal regional development combined to provide the impetus for rebellion and secessionist struggles from marginalised Sudanese.[xii]


The Al-mashish Street Theatre’s inquest into the Darfur Crisis.

Against this background, it is clear that the domestic conflict has been a key feature of Sudan since independence. The Al-mashish Theatre Troupe is a group that sprang up in response to the challenges of peaceful co-existence in Darfur. Filmmaker Mya Bitaar discovered this group of young people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, who seemed determined to defy the stereotypes of war. This is a troupe of self-taught actors, singers and dancers taking street theatre into the markets and refugee camps of Nyala. The troupe led by Haythum Djalladien and his friends have their own idea on how to help their country and thereby prove that art can really make a difference in a region overwhelmed with troubles. They are ordinary young people from the heart of the war zone, a town that found itself surrounded by aid camps, crowded with 300,000 refugees. Haythum is 30 and unemployed, some of the other members are Selwa, a student, Adam, a 25 year-old law student, Taghreed, unemployed, and Shomo, a psychology student. Each of the 24 member troupe is either a self-taught actor or a singer. Their medicine for Darfur is theatre – drama, song and dance. According to Haythum; “street theatre reaches ordinary people where they are”.[xiii] Their stage is usually the busiest part of Nyala – the market. The town is a mix of all Darfuris from all sides in the war and it is a base for African Union, United Nations and international aid organisations in South Darfur.

Usually the troupe starts the play without any knowledge of how the audience would react, especially while touring new sites. This is a major challenge in such projects as the group confronts unfamiliar terrains still groaning in the pain, ashes and ruins of war. The thematic concerns of their plays surround land issues, the catalyst that sparked the conflict. The aim of their plays is to spark dialogue as can be seen in the following excerpts:


Woman: Good day!

Man: Welcome

Woman: Hajj Ibrahim

Man: Yes, what is it?

Woman: I’ve come about what we discussed.

Man: What was that?

Woman: About my land.

Man: Land? What land?

Woman: I asked you to take care of my land while I was away and then you’d give it back.

Man: No! No!! No!!! This is my land. I inherited it from my father. (They both begin to fight and chase it each other round the stage while the audience bursts in laughter)


The play is usually left open-ended so the audience can propose solutions. The troupe believes the way to heal Darfur is through education and awareness. They turn the problems they see in their society into human sketches dealing with everything from AIDS, to war and peace. They travel all over town going by the Al-mashish – local word that means “water hole,” a place where people divided by ethnicity, fear and suspicion are drawn together through art.

As the war closed-in on their home town, each member of Al-mashish was affected differently but they found common ground in theatre. In the words of Haythum: “The mashish in the valley produces water. Our mashish produces art. None of us studied drama or graduated in music or theatre. We just learnt from each other”. Taghreed on the other hand says; “Darfur needs cultural aid more than it needs material aid. It’s better to give ideas rather than money. Money runs but ideas last. The government can’t go into people’s homes, but we can.” For Shomo; Politics has divided people. I’ve found being an artist is a way to forget my sadness”. Selwa also bears her mind on Darfur saying:


We feel the problems because they are part of us. We are in the centre of the town, the middle of Nyala, [whereas] the problems are on the outskirts (...). But we are still affected even if not physically. Everything has changed because of the war, so of course we have been affected. We talk about war and peace but not just about that. We talk about what’s happening in our society. We see problems inside people’s homes and try to address them.


For Adam, his scenario was quite dramatic as he suddenly found himself caught on both sides of the conflict.


The message I want to give is peaceful co-existence. My father is Fur (black African) and my mother is Arab. Today my father’s family are in the camps and my mother’s are still in their village. What is brown skin and black skin? There is no difference. This needs to reach the people, to change society.


This represents the metaphor for Al-mashish as they move from house to house, market to camps spreading the message of oneness, peace and hope among all Darfuris. The story of Adam whose parents are caught on opposite ends of the war yet sharing a phenomenon common of all humanity – love with a son that shares their blood – is a sublime truth that drama can reveal as a soothing balm to conflicts in Africa.

As the African continent continues to tackle the challenges posed by war, ethno-religious, political and social conflicts, theatre – and particularly street theatre – is a tool of inestimable value in mediation. The Al-mashish’s engagement in the conflicts in Darfur has proven that theatre can indeed provide the much sought panacea to a society polarised by ethno-religious and political crises.

Therefore, we are strongly of the view that street theatre be taken as a tool of engagement in the various conflicts ravaging, for example, the Nigerian landscape, as well as other African societies. Given its cultural relevance and ability to address the root causes of crises through community or audience participation, much concerted effort needs to be carried by policy makers in ensuring that cultural education involves the use of theatre and drama. The Jos crises, the Tiv-Jukun clashes, the incessant clashes between the Fulani herdsmen and local farmers as well as the other crises rocking the Nigerian nation could be resisted, and the battle for a more peaceful co-existence would receive a much needed and different form of support, through street theatre's rare capability of communication and reconciliation.


Emmanuel Ebere Uzoji is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Theatre and Film Arts, University of Jos, Nigeria.

[i] Ramsbotham, Woodhouse & Miall, p. 347.

[ii] Woodhouse & Ramsbotham 10

[iii] Ibid., p. 347.

[iv] Boon and Plastow, Theatre and empowerment: community drama on the world stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[v] Kershaw, p. 20

[vi] Losambe & Sarinjeive, p. 76

[vii] See Khalid, p. 39-62

[viii] See Quach, p. 14

[ix] Lefkow, p. 4

[x] See Salih, p. 10

[xi] See O’Fahey, p. 92

[xii] See Tar, p. 410


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