Ongoing war in Darfur since 2003 has impacted on all aspects of life. Yet the various forms of culture still effectively present productions. But the sound of guns and aerial bombardments, as well as killings, rape and displacement of civilians are heard more often of than the voices of art.
The theatre in Darfur is one of these hushed artistic voices. However, it is trying hard to come out to reflect people’s past and present, in diverse forms that bring hope, heal wounds, and let people laugh and smile and look to the future with some optimism, despite the carnage around them.
Today, a number of Darfuri theatre groups offer various performances, which mostly focus on addressing the issues of coexistence, reconciliation, peace and renunciation of war. These groups present their works only in Darfur’s big cities such as Nyala, El Fasher, and El Geneina. In Nyala, capital of South Darfur, there are seven theatre groups, including Dawkat El Hawakeer which performs in the camps for the displaced.
Play of Dawkat El Hawakeer theatre group for displaced people (Courtesy of Dawkat)
In an interview with Radio Dabanga, Shazliya Ishag, chairwoman of El Mesheesh theatre group, says that the group is shaped by seven teams, with a membership of 103, and 50 theatrical artists. Half of the membership of El Mesheesh group are residents of the Takali camp for the displaced in Nyala.
Ishag explained that the last play presented by the group, in February this year was entitled ‘The deceased should rest / Sleep you deceased'. She informed this station that the new play titled The Omda is presented on 27 March, in conjunction with the World Theatre Day.
Lack of support
Ishag said that the challenges El Mesheesh faces include the security situation in Darfur. “It prevented us from communicating with provincial communities, but nevertheless we were able to communicate with each other to succeed eventually.”
She explained that one of the challenges are that the government officers in Darfur don’t put theatre development as a priority. The group relies on the support of some organisations, and its members, sometimes, put their personal belongings on sale to boost theatre projects. (Photo on the right: El Mesheesh performing 'People of the Cave')
“Security agents have been watching our theatre and sometimes prevent us from presenting our works” said Ishag. She added that the lack of theatre venues is also one of the challenges the group faces in the city of Nyala, which has only one theatre. “Such a situation leads us to present our works in some other popular arena,” Ishag said.
Ishag pointed out that that because of the lack of societal support, theatre groups depend on the assistance of foreign organisations, such as the World Food Organisation and the World Health Organisation who are interested in social mobilisation and in addressing some of the negative phenomena that have swept South Darfur society.
Ishag said that the displaced in the camps reacted positively to their theatrical performances, to an extent in which they became more open to talk about and change the culture of hatred that has been generated by the conflict in Darfur.
'Our new work tackles the problems in Darfur and encourages people to find solutions themselves.'
El Mesheesh's new play The Omda, presented on Monday, addresses the politicisation of the Native Administration officials in Darfur, and how to resolve the conflicts the Darfuri society is facing. Ishag said that the play will first be presented in Nyala, in camps for the displaced, other Darfur towns, and lastly other towns in Sudan.
This season, the group plans a travelling production for theatrical works in three stages, starting in May. “The first stage deals with life in Darfur before the war, the second with Darfur during the war, and the third with Darfur after the war. The purpose of these stages is to tackle the problems that have occurred in Darfur, and to encourage the people to find solutions themselves,” Ishag explained.
Radio Dabanga met with Yasir Yagoub Adam, the secretary of the group, said that they also established evening plays in camps, including Naivasha and Shadad camps in Shangil Tobaya. He pointed out that their actors won the first prize in a theatre festival competition in Khartoum once.
North and West Darfur
“There are no associations or any institutions linking the theatre groups in North Darfur,” said Dr Yousef Suleiman, a professor of drama at the Faculty of Arts at the University of El Fasher and artistic supervisor of the North Darfur theatre groups in an interview with Radio Dabanga.
He indicated that there are seven theatre teams that are able to offer performances, with the support of partners, donors, and organisations working in the social field. “These teams present their work in the various camps for the displaced around the state, but mainly focus their creative presentations in the camps of Zamzam, Naivasha, and El Salam. They also performed in the localities of Kalimendo, Mellit and Dar El Salam,” Suleiman added.
El Mesheesh during a play in one of the camps in Darfur (Courtesy of El Mesheesh)
He said that the most famous teams are the Theatrical Group of El Fasher, Mogai, Ashwag El Salam, Nujoum Darfur, Darfur Drama, and Marrafee, adding that three of the groups participated in the El Obeid Theatre Festival. Mogai won the best acting and the best script awards at the Basheesh Festival in 2015.
There are more than four theatrical teams in West Darfur, including Dar Andoka, Ajaweed, Sada El Funoun, and the Cultural Diversity Group. But there is no coordination among them, Mohamed Ali Andoka, the chairman of Cultural Diversity in West Darfur, said in an interview with Radio Dabanga. The theatre in the state did not find support, he said, except from social organisations to present their work for displaced in the camps.
'Give the theatre a chance… please.'
Andoka explained that they produced a play titled ‘Not accepting the other’, which tells the story about two lovers from different tribes who were not allowed to marry. “We presented the play in the camps for the displaced with the aim to promote peaceful coexistence, and to get rid of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage”.
“Give the theatre a chance … please,” cries Dr Yousef Suleiman, the professor of drama at the University of El Fasher, when asked about the theatre and its potential role in Darfur.
Suleiman said that many attempts by politicians to resolve the crisis, have failed. It is time for theatre to save Darfur by contributing to the resolution of the crisis at a time Darfuri artists are more effective and playing major roles in national efforts. “The country’s priority is not the boosting of a cultural agenda, and therefore there is a need for new ideas to face the big challenges in Darfur.”
New ideas and economic resources
According to Mohamed Yousef Abushari, secretary of El Musheesh group, one of the biggest challenges facing theatrical work in Darfur is “the weakness of potential and material resources, which have caused a major obstacle to the progress of theatre shows”.
Ibrahim Abakar Saad, a media expert and one of the cultural leaders in Darfur, said that the theatre crisis in Darfur is associated with the failure of the governments in the region. He told Radio Dabanga that administrative policies and the absence of cultural planning are responsible of the deterioration of theatrical productions, asserting that there is no chance for theatre with all these governmental failures.
Dawkat El Hawakeer theatre group in a Darfur camp for displaced people
The first theatre in Darfur dates back to 1916, where El Muzdaweja Elementary School was opened in El Fasher. Mohamed Fadul, the first director of El Muzdaweja, created a platform for theatre in the school, for the students and teachers to use during the morning assemblies.
Jibril Abdallah, a historian and the author of the book of 'The History of El Fasher' told Radio Dabanga that the first professional theatrical play was produced in 1927 at El Muzdaweja. The play was titled 'Barmaka Plight' and was presented every weekend for one month. “Every week the residents were longing to see the performance again,” he said.
The first theatre in the South Darfur capital Nyala, the Theatre of the Armed Forces was opened in 1962. It is known today as the Meiram Taja Theatre. Later, the Nyala El Beheir Theatre was established. The opening of the Theatre of El Fasher High School expanded the drama movements in the region, thanks to school students coming from all over the country. “This experiment enriched the diversity of the Darfuri community indeed,” Abdallah added.
Earlier in Features:
Old Darfur cinemas source of knowledge and enlightenment