Inclusion on stage: A Zambian theatre case

From left to right:

Daniel L. Mpolomoka
Zambian Open University

Selina Banda
Zambian Open University

Abstract – Theatre for Development (TfD) initiates understanding and contributes towards transforming people’s lives by encouraging them to share ideas and act collectively. It is intended to be inclusive, regardless of race, age, colour and disability. Having said that, Theatre for De­velopment groups in Zambia tend to apply top-down approaches which compromise the prin­ciples on which TfD is based. The article looks at how TfD is conducted and offers suggestions as to how it could be refined, based on its founding principles.

African theatre serves a social function, given that it is used for awareness raising and to mobilise people (Eyoh 1987). Theatre for Development includes a process which achieves tremendous results if it is followed properly. To work well, it needs to start from the needs of the community; it must involve the audience, and it must initiate a dialogue.

How Theatre for Development is used in Zambian ­communities

Theatre for Development (TfD) plays a vital role in Zambia when it comes to enhancing development in communities. There are many theatre groups which bring across a variety of social messages to members of various communities through TfD. This explains its widespread use by various organisations (to which we will refer below as sponsors) ­aiming to reach out to people. TfD uses a variety of codes or ways to communicate with people through drama, songs, dance, poetry and sculpture. The groups either visit the communities or use the media to deliver their messages. Many governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Zambia employ TfD in development-orientated programmes and projects in communities. These organisations engage theatre groups in order to assist in delivering important messages to communities. A review of the related literature establishes a formidable synergy between TfD and improvements in the livelihoods of intended recipients in many communities (Akashoro, Kayode and Husseini 2010; Mwansa 2006; Mwansa & Bergman 2003). It has to be implemented properly in order to positively transform people’s lives.

The principles of Theatre for Development

Not all members of theatrical groups in Zambia have formal training in conducting TfD. Knowledge and skills are gained through trial and error, observation and experience. The participants in one focus group discussion which we held revealed different ways of conducting theatrical activities. Sometimes they used their imagination to come up with suitable plays, and at other times they assessed communities.

“We work according to what we are able to do. You see, there are some things we already know, and so we just imagine a situation and act it out. Sometimes, when none of us is familiar with the environment where we are supposed to go and conduct theatre, we survey the community to find out what to include and how to convey the messages.” (theatre group member)

Groups are frequently tasked to work around a given theme, using their imagination. They do not subsequently concern themselves with how the messages are received by the audience and used afterwards.

Some organisations also lack knowledge and skills – they look forward to training artists who can perform on a professional level. For example, having successfully launched a school of fine arts, the Zambian Open University is now well on the way towards establishing a theatrical troupe and a training centre.

It is common for theatrical plays in Zambia to be commissioned and directed by organisational sponsors such as governments and NGOs, but also by individual sponsors.

“As a group, we do what the organisations want. Our role is to make plays and perform them according to given guidelines.” (theatre group member)

“We work with the organisations, and sometimes go into the communities in question to survey their ways of life. We then go on to organise plays or songs to take along with us and perform.” (theatre group member)

“We are interested in carrying out the tasks given to us by the funding organisations. Our role is to deliver messages given to us to the people in these communities.” (theatre group member)

It is clear from these participants’ perceptions that what appears to be important to sponsors and theatre groups is the delivery of the messages. The themes are externally determined by organisations that have financial muscle.

Interestingly, some members of the theatre group communities do not know what TfD is.

“I don’t know what TfD is. What we have is a group which performs drama to deliver messages to people.” (theatre group member)

“Our group is for hire. We are told what to do by governmental or non-governmental organisations. We go round communities performing plays and dances as a way of communicating messages.” (theatre group member)

People do not know how to conduct TfD because they do not know the concept and do not fully understand it. They get ­involved because it is fun, captivating and passes the time.

Case studies: Theatre groups

We will present three theatre groups located in two areas: Two are based in an urban area, Lusaka, whilst one is from a rural setting, namely Mpongwe. In Lusaka we will concentrate on the Chipata Jungle Theatre and the Kamoto Theatre; in Mpongwe we will discuss the Cood Upraising Theatre.

Case 1: The Chipata Jungle Theatre

The Chipata Jungle Theatre was formed in 1984 by five young people from Chipata Township. Some of them were still in primary school at the time. The membership of the group has grown to ten, comprising three women and seven men at the time of the study. The group has been affiliated with the Zambia Popular Theatre Alliance (ZAPOTA) since 1990. As an affiliate, the Chipata Jungle theatre enjoys protection and help from ZAPOTA. Entertainment and education are the group’s core objectives.

The members of the theatre group were not initially formally trained in TfD. They acquired their skills through acting. The leader of the group guided the other members. Sometimes the group involves its audience in the last stage (discussion), allowing them to ask questions or contribute to the performance. However, the group is not overly concerned about whether the audience participate.

The members of the group complain of a lack of financial resources. In order to survive, the group has resorted to looking for support, and has provided theatrical services in return for money. Governmental and non-governmental organisations usually offer the group contract work. They mostly stage performances that are specified by sponsors, in which organisations identify issues that they want the theatre group to relay to communities. The messages cover HIV/AIDS, civic education, mother-to-child transmission and child abuse. The Chipata Jungle Theatre is on a one-year contract with the Centre for Infectious Diseases in Zambia. Other organisations with which the group has worked include the European Union, USAID, Zambian Breweries, the Family Health Trust and the Ministry of Health.

Case 2: The Kamoto Community Artists

The Kamoto Community Artists group is based in the Ngombe Township of Lusaka City. It started operating and performing in the late 1980s with five members, who later increased in number to sixteen. Three of the members were trained in South Africa in how to conduct TfD, and they went on to transfer their knowledge and skills to others.

The group is often sponsored by organisations to conduct TfD in communities. This serves as a source of income for the majority of the artists. They are engaged in TfD activ­ities on a full-time basis, and vigorously source sponsorship from organisations which would like to communicate messages to people.

Governmental and non-governmental organisations which use the group to disseminate information include the Ministry of Health through the local health clinics, Keppa Zambia, the Programme Against Malnutrition (PAM), USAID and the Society for Family Health (SFH). The group works so hard that it has earned itself a good reputation. Marketing its services in this manner has induced organisations to engage the ­Kamoto Community Artists whenever a need has arisen to reach out to people at the grassroots.

Interestingly, the theatrical group conducts TfD in any part of Zambia where its sponsors identify a need to disseminate messages. In order to suit the needs of a wide range of audiences, it includes members who are conversant with the ways of life of a variety of ethnic groups. Whenever the group has an activity in any part of the country, any member who knows more about the cultural practices of the people concerned takes responsibility for preparing the messages in that local “language” and everything that goes with the cultural aspects of the area. This enables the group to conduct TfD anywhere in Zambia.

Case 3: The Cood Upraising Drama Group

The Cood Upraising Drama Group was founded in Mpongwe in a rural district of the Copperbelt Province. It began in 2000 with ten members. The group is often hired by institutions which have information that they would like to communicate to the masses. In its initial stages, the group performed plays and dances on request from any institution that required its services. The Ministries of Health, Community Development and Social Services mainly hired the group to publicise significant messages to different communities.

The themes used in the performances staged are determined by the institutions. When it is told the theme, the group sets out to devise the contents of the activities without involving members of the community. They rarely encourage audience (community) participation.

The Africa Directions Theatre Group performing Shades of my Village, written and directed by Eric Kasomo Jr., Lusaka, April 2017, © Chanda Mwenya

The influence of sponsoring

TfD activities conducted by sponsored theatre groups do not always adhere to the core principles of audience participation and the use of local settings. Instead, the sponsorsoften singlehandedly control the activities as a way of safeguarding their own interests. This leaves little room for the disseminators of the messages, let alone the recipients, to participate in the process. Research confirms that such situations compel one party to take control and give orders to others as to what they are supposed to do (Kamlongera and Kalipeni 1996; Mwansa 2006; Butterwick and Selma 2006).

“When themes used in TfD activities are coined by people from outside communities, they bear an aspect of imposition.”

When themes used in TfD activities are coined by people from outside communities, they bear an aspect of imposition. Kasoma (1974) advocates involving local people in designing and executing TfD activities. This approach allows the creation of “theatre by the people”, as opposed to “theatre for the people”. The community often receives the messages that come from sponsors with mixed feelings, partly due to a lack of proper understanding, and partly because outsiders’ perception of the issues that affect communities’ affairs differs from that of the members themselves. Thus, outsiders cannot be in a better position to discern what really affects the people in the communities. This explains why sponsors should only fund TfD which addresses issues identified by a community.

Conducting TfD without considering people’s lived experiences alienates them. Since people are given nothing to identify themselves with, they fail to fully participate. This turns them into passive recipients of knowledge and skills. Butterwick and Selma (2006) agree that a lack of participation by people forces them to copy new ways of doing things that are not compatible with what prevails in real life. Communities stagnate when people are denied the knowledge and skills required to improve their livelihoods.

This top-down approach goes some way towards promoting a dependency syndrome, and it inhibits the transfer of knowledge and skills. Whenever an organisation goes to a community, the members of the community expect to receive handouts. TfD carried out in this manner is remote and does not stimulate the thinking processes required for achieving self-sustenance. When there is no shared feeling between the facilitators and addressees of TfD, no passion is developed for the exercise as a whole. Properly executed, TfD bonds with the community and acts as an advocate for a shift in approach to facilitate innovation.

The empowering factor

The whole essence of conducting TfD is to empower people with the knowledge (information), tools and skills required for improving their livelihoods (O’Connor, O’Connor and Welsh-Morris 2006; Osterland 2008; Chinyowa 2007). TfD prepares people for their own development by finding out from the addressees about the kind of development they want and how they feel about it.

Asking people to narrate their experiences is a starting point from which issues affecting their livelihoods are revealed. This evokes people’s interest in getting involved in finding solutions to the issues that affect their lives, and enables them to develop a sense of belonging and ownership of the TfD that is conducted in their communities.

It is time to challenge sponsors of TfD to engage theatre groups which possess the relevant knowledge and skills for carrying out the requisite process. Kidd (1984) stresses the need for people who are involved in theatrical works to be educated on how to apply the skills properly. To support those who do not have the skills, sponsors should partner with training institutions and facilitate the training of such theatre players before commissioning work from them. This will empower not only theatre groups, but also the communities for whom the exercise is intended. This empowering effect is what must be passed on to people whenever TfD is conducted in communities.

Issues of concern

TfD aims to identify and discuss issues that make life hard. Factors that affect people’s livelihoods are scrutinised with a view to exposing those that prevent constructive development taking place. This includes obstacles which prevent people from concentrating on signs and symptoms, so that they tend to blame the victim of the circumstances (Kidd 1984). TfD helps to avoid wasting resources by trying to deal with the real issues raised by the people themselves. This results in them taking action to solve their own problems with a vigour that leaves no stone unturned. Such is the empowering effect of TfD.

However, people’s lives cannot be uplifted when the process is not properly complied with. This happens when some stages receive more attention than others. It happens when the performance stage becomes more important than involving people in the whole process. It happens when top-down approaches are used coupled with externally-identified problems that have been perceived by outsiders. We also see it happen when theatre workers are more concerned with pleasing their sponsors than with taking the whole process of TfD to the people in order to help them find solutions to the issues affecting their lives. Butterwick and Selma (2006: 44) assert that “people must express their views which should be considered, and not just be given predetermined solutions to their issues”.

When TfD actors lack knowledge and skills, and fail to take the welfare of the people to heart, the whole activity is bound to be misdirected and used for selfish gain. As soon as development programmes fail to incorporate TfD properly, the dependence syndrome is perpetuated in people’s lives.

Possibilities and challenges

TfD entails having an in depth understanding of the communities in which the activities are carried out. It is enriching and involves research, education and action. Since the communities have different experiences, theatrical activities carried out by any one of them cannot be replicated and applied elsewhere. “One size fits all” is not applicable in TfD.

However, the situation in Zambia is different because there is a degree of sponsorship of TfD here. As a result, the focus is on entertainment and not on education. When resources are spent on the spectacle, TfD activities become less involving. For this reason, there is a need to shift attention to conducting TfD activities that benefit the people.


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About the authors

Daniel L. Mpolomoka is a lecturer in the School of Education at the Zambian Open University (ZAOU), and holds a PhD in literacy and development. His areas of research interest include literacy, early childhood education, special education, adult education, educational technology, HIV & AIDS and research.


Selina Banda is a lecturer in the Department of Adult Education at the Zambian Open University (ZAOU), lecturing in adult literacy, theatre for development and home economics. Before joining ZAOU in 2010, she taught for 19 years in government schools. She holds a PhD in literacy and development.



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