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Three Decades of African Popular Theater

by Arlene Goldbard
Richmond, California

This is the text of a message I was invited to send to a conference to be held February 24th through March 1st at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria.

Dear Friends:

I am so sorry I am not able to join you at Ahmadu Bello University, to take part in your conference “3 Decades+ of Popular Theatre/Theatre For Development Practice.” I am grateful to Jenks Okwori for the honor and pleasure of sending these words of thanks for your courage and dedication, and for the inspiration you have spread around the globe.

Six years ago, when Don Adams and I wrote the introduction to Community, Culture and Globalization, an anthology of essays on community cultural development by practitioners and thinkers from fifteen countries, we looked back to material on African popular theater we had collected in the late seventies and early eighties. I want to quote from this material at some length, for reasons which will soon become clear. “In preparing this essay,” we wrote,

"[W]e retrieved from our archives a thick folder of documents from the Third World Popular Theatre Network, a now-defunct international alliance that published its first newsletter -- composed on an electric typewriter -- in January 1982. Some readers may not recall the difficulty of international networking in the years before the advent of the Internet. Some of these archival materials are tissue carbon copies or hand-written letters; still others are mimeographed. All were received by post operating at the snail-like pace of the international mails of two decades ago. The obstacles were formidable: it took a year to compose and circulate the newsletter’s first two issues. But around the globe -- most actively in Asia and Africa -- practitioners of Theater for Development struggled to document and share what they had experienced.

"Where conditions permitted work to develop, itinerant theater programs grew out of universities, community organizations and development agencies: Laedza Batanani in Botswana, programs directed at farmers emerging from Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria, the impressively ambitious programs of PETA (still going strong and represented in the present volume by Maribel Legarda), Sistren in Jamaica. Even in its earliest days, Theater for Development’s powerful ambitions emerged side-by-side with its populist critique:

"'Chikwakwa Theatre and Theatre-for-Development attempted to take theatre to the marginalized groups of Zambian society but they have not been able to convert theatre into a tool which popular groups and organizations can use in challenging oppression and victimization in Zambian society. Theatre for Development remains a means for imposing technocratic solutions on the rural and urban poor rather than a tool for analyzing the class contradictions in Zambian society and the real sources of urban and rural poverty.' (1)

"Holding their own work to this challenging standard, every accomplishment of the international network was matched by a painful setback. Partners from India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Zambia and the Philippines, aided by first-world partners, pulled off an 'Asia--Africa Popular Theatre Dialogue' in Bangladesh in February 1983. The statement adopted by participants called for many of the same elements of support that community cultural development practitioners still feel are needed to advance their work, including 'Popular theatre networks ... at national, regional, and inter-regional levels.' (2)

"Next to this statement in our file is a bright green flyer urging recipients to send cables to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to express concern at the disappearance of Karl Gaspar, a pioneering popular-theater worker. During the two years when Gaspar was held in military detention in the early ’80s, international attention was focused on his situation through the efforts of the network; in 1984, for example, he received the J. Roby Kidd Award of the Toronto-based International Council for Adult Education. Next in the file is a rumpled, fawn-colored paper dated 1983 addressed to President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya and other government officials; it exhorts them to release political prisoners and end repression against groups such as the theater of the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre, home base of the imprisoned and exiled playwright N’gugi Wa Thiongo, now Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages at New York University." (3)

Today, the sub-themes of your conference speak of a far less tenuous existence for Popular Theater and Theater for Development in Africa: it is good news that people are concerned with such topics as curriculum development, research and evaluation, because these are the problems of success, and not of the struggle for mere survival. I want to honor the uncountable hours, days and years of dedication and toil that have brought your work to this point. Even though sources of support and encouragement and social circumstances for your work are still far from ideal, it is important to pause and recognize progress, especially when it has been so hard-earned.

At the same time, many of the conditions that gave rise to the Third World Popular Theatre Alliance nearly 30 years ago have escalated in intensity and impact. In the late seventies and early eighties, it appeared that the era of colonization was waning, that the future would be about people regaining the capacity to say their own words in their own voices (to paraphrase Freire). But for many in the developing world, globalization has two heads, one that smiles with possibility, such as the possibility you and I have of communicating instantly via the internet today, and another that is insatiable, gorging itself on a region’s resources while its people go hungry.

Thus, while the challenge has intensified, it is still as was put almost 30 years ago by Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, former Director-General of UNESCO:

"The only pertinent question facing us today is not only of choosing between an outdated past and imitation of the foreign but of making original selections between cultural values which it is vital to safeguard and develop -- because they contain the deep-lying secrets of our collective dynamism -- and the elements which it is henceforth necessary to abandon -- because they put a brake on our facility for critical reflection and innovation. In the same way we must sort out the progressive elements offered by industrial societies, so as only to use those which are adapted to the society of our choice which we are capable of taking over and developing gradually by ourselves and for ourselves." (4)

While we are not always in control of the markets and mechanisms that drive globalization, there is one resource that is absolutely in our power: nothing can match the creativity, social imagination, and sheer healing sovereignty of an uncolonized mind. When we share stories, when we craft the narratives that claim our place in the world, when we see our past, no matter how painful, as preparation for the future we wish to help into being -- when we do these things, we are helping the one essential resource of self-directed development to thrive: the human capacity to enlarge compassion and act in the world to manifest justice. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that your work, when it is undertaken with this awareness, has the power to move mountains.

I send my fervent wish that as you explore “Theatre, Knowledge And Community Development,” this is the form of development you hold steadily in mind. There are countless techniques, practices, approaches available for any form of work for cultural democracy; the skillful practitioner has a full toolbox. But the one thing that is indispensable is to know why one does the work; everything else follows from that.

Let me close with another brief excerpt from Community, Culture and Globalization, wishing you every success, and the patience to persist:

Toward the end of our meeting, Prosper Kompaore shared a proverb from his home country of Burkina Faso: “How is it that sky-high termite mounds can be made by such tiny insects?” he asked. The answer, counseling determination, endurance, commitment and plenty of sustenance: “It takes earth and earth and earth...” (5)

with respect, awe and admiration,

Arlene Goldbard

(1) Dickson Mwansa, “Theatre for Community Animation in Zambia,” Third World Popular Theatre Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan. 1982, p. 35.

(2) Statement of the Popular Theatre Dialogue, International Workshop, Koitta, Khaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 4–16, 1983 (collection of the authors).

(3) This entire passage is from Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, Community, Culture and Globalization (New York: Rockefeller Foundation, 2002), pp. 12-13. The book is out of print, but can downloaded in PDF from

(4) Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, “Opening of Leo Frobenius Seminar,” Cultures, 6, No. 2, 1979, p. 144.

(5) Community, Culture and Globalization, p. 275

About the author: Arlene Goldbard ( is a writer and consultant. Access her writings and subscribe free to her blog at

Published in In Motion Magazine March 18, 2008

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