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A young woman lies on the ground, dressed as a boy to keep her safe in a time of war. Standing above her are soldiers in khaki uniforms and warriors wearing the beads of the Dinka and Nuer peoples, bark-cloth skirts made by the Bari tribe, and Lotuka battle helmets fashioned out of spent bullet cartridges. Their homeland has been ravaged by 50 years of civil war, and rape is commonly used as a weapon. The woman’s fate is uncertain; the tension unbearable. Then, one of the warriors recognizes her as his long-lost wife and lifts her in an embrace. The tension is broken, and the onlookers remember they are not watching events in battle-scarred South Sudan but a play at the Globe Theatre in London, the final scene in a production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
This event, held at the Globe in 2012, was not an average theatrical performance. The actors, members of the South Sudan Theatre Company, were representing their country at its first international event after it had declared independence from Sudan, less than a year before. The company was set up by translator Joseph Abuk and director Derik Alfred with the ambition of presenting a play for the Globe to Globe festival, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad that accompanied the London Olympics. As well as being an international debut for the country, the play was something more—a kind of genesis story for the new nation and a way of working through the age-old rivalries that had threatened to destroy South Sudan before it found its feet.
The play, Cymbeline, isn’t exactly Hamlet or King Lear; it might have seemed disappointingly obscure to many companies. But it was full of resonance for the fledgling nation. The play tells the story of a Roman invasion of Britain prompted by the island’s refusal to pay tribute, and the parallel attempt of an Italian courtier, Iachimo, to corrupt the innocent love between two Britons, Imogen and Posthumus. Both the British army and the loyal lovers triumph, but the play ends with reconciliation and a return to the Roman fold. Britain emerges victorious, but not defined by opposition to the continent.
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare had set himself the task of recrafting England’s image after the death of Elizabeth I; the rabble-rousing anti-European sentiments of Richard II and Henry V were no longer appropriate under her successor King James, who saw himself as the peacemaker between England and Catholic Europe. Similarly, the new citizens of South Sudan needed to present their nation as something more than just a wartime alliance. Their shared dislike of the government in the north was fading into the background, to be replaced by the competing interests of the tribes of the south.
The recent eruption of violence on the streets of the South Sudanese capital, Juba, demonstrates how delicate the process of nation building can be. Violence has been the norm since independence; the fledgling nation fought a civil war from 2013 to 2015 that killed an estimated 300,000 people across the country. Broadly, the conflict pits the Dinka ethnic group, with President Salva Kiir as their figurehead, against the Nuer ethnic group. The Nuer leader, Riek Machar, briefly served as vice president until the unity government broke down, inaugurating the civil war. Clashes in the capital in July, however, were the first time that tensions have flared so close to the seat of government.
The South Sudan Theatre Company, meanwhile, has continued to perform, providing an important totem of unity during dangerous times.
Compared with the scale of the challenges facing South Sudan, it is easy to see Shakespeare—and the arts more generally—as irrelevant. Juba, with a population just shy of 400,000, is a single-story town with one paved road and almost no infrastructure. Driving around the city, the contrast between the impoverished local population and the foreigners, largely aid workers and businessmen, can be astonishing. Not far from the shantytowns, which are in constant danger of being swept into the Nile, are supermarkets offering a wide range of Champagne magnums and imported delicacies in exchange for dollars. In these conditions, an interest in theater can feel almost perverse.
Yet Shakespeare has played a surprisingly prominent role in the twentieth-century history of East Africa. For instance, many of the independence leaders of Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda first met when studying English literature at Makerere University in Uganda. Founded by the British in 1922, Makerere was the first and most prestigious institute of higher education in the region. The Makerere English department’s annual Shakespeare production—begun by faculty member Margaret MacPherson in order to give her students the full experience of the Shakespearean text—was especially important, providing an opportunity for those of different tribal backgrounds to collaborate. This countered the divide-and-rule tactics of the colonial governments, who tried to maintain traditional tribal structures in order to prevent pan-tribal national political parties from developing. But the productions also gave young African leaders the chance to reflect on the conflict between national and personal interests—so central to Shakespeare’s plays—and to lay claim to the cultural authority of Shakespeare for themselves.
The Shakespeare productions at Makerere gave young East African intellectuals a chance to rehearse communal actions on a national and even pan-African scale, to enter into dialogue with those from different tribes, and to think about how their separate identities might share the same stage. Geoffrey Karithi, who in 1949 played the part of the weak king in Richard II, later rose to the head of the Kenyan civil service. David Rubadiri became a leader of the Malawian resistance after starring as the rebellious Falstaff in the 1952 production of Henry IV, Part 2. Most striking, a young Milton Obote, who would one day become the first president of Uganda, organized student riots against colonial rule at the same time as he was playing the title role in Julius Caesar, a situation that led to an exquisite reversal of life and art when the Makerere faculty had to use Roman costume armor from the play to defend themselves against the stone-throwing protestors.
The role of Shakespeare did not diminish after independence. Julius Nyerere, a Makerere graduate and the first president of independent Tanzania, spent evenings during the first eight years of his 25 years in office translating Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili. These milestone translations were not simply an escape from his daytime work on the Tanzanian constitution or on developing ujamaa, his philosophy of African socialism. Instead, they directly confronted the issues Nyerere was working through in constitutional committees and party conferences: in Caesar, the pitfalls of retribution and self-interest that could undermine the legacy of tyrranicide, and in the Merchant the personal and social ties that would need to triumph over economic relations in order for African socialism to work.
Nyerere attempted to use Shakespeare to help articulate the problems of modern Africa. Yet for some post-independence African intellectuals, the continued reliance on European literature was seen as evidence of colonialism’s resilience, working now through cultural rather than political dominance. The Martiniquan writer Aimé Césaire, for instance, rewrote Shakespeare’s The Tempest as Une Tempête, recasting the play as a struggle between European colonizers and African anticolonial insurgents. Others, such as Obi Wali in Nigeria, criticized Africans who continued to write in European languages. Wali influenced the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o—yet another graduate of the Makerere English department—to demand, during the later years of the Cold War, that the school curriculum in East Africa be reformed to focus less on Europeans and more on writers from Africa.
Shakespeare loomed large in the debates over cultural imperialism, especially since the decision by some to reject his work seemed to deny the possibility of a shared culture between the independent African nations and their former colonial masters. Although Ngugi liked Shakespeare well enough to take a volume of his work with him when he went to prison in 1977, the broader campaign against European culture was successful enough that in 1981, the Kenyan government banned Shakespeare from school syllabi. By the end of the Cold War, however, President Daniel Arap Moi (who was in office at the time of the ban) would reverse this policy—in 1989, he used an executive order to reintroduce Shakespeare to Kenyan schools in a grand gesture of openness to Western influence. His move came just as the flood of aid money, which had been a powerful influence on East African political and economic life for decades, had begun to dry up.
Those with knowledge of this past might have seen its echoes in the South Sudan Theatre Company’s performances at the Globe in London, or indeed back in Juba, where the company has continued to perform. Their repertoire has now expanded to include pieces explicitly aimed at reconciliation between the warring factions. To foreign audiences, the varied costumes of the actors in Cymbeline presented a visual spectacle, but they are also important symbols of unity among the Bari, Dinka, Lotuka, and Nuer peoples, between whom there is a long history of conflict. On stage, these varied peoples can all act together as one nation to perform Cymbeline, itself a story of a people trying to think through what they share.
The strange poignancy of this production was made stranger by the fact it was performed in Juba Arabic. Arabic is the language of Sudan, the northern enemy, and Juba Arabic is a dialect that is the lingua franca of Juba but was shunned as a symbol of oppression by the South Sudanese government, which made English the official language. Much like the early independence leaders in East Africa, who used the Shakespearian English of their colonial masters to carve out their own identities, the actors of the South Sudan Theatre Company were finding common ground in enemy territory by making the despised Arabic tongue their own. And once again, the unlikely trick seems to have worked: in the years since the performance at the Globe, the government has notably softened its stance on the use of Juba Arabic, resurrecting a common language that is spoken by most tribes but owned by none.
It will take time to build a stable and unified South Sudan. The task will be made even more difficult by outside factors, such as interference from neighbors and the uncontrolled flow of arms into the country. There are no guarantees of success—as recent violence testifies. (Although there is currently a cease-fire in effect between the warring factions, the chances of a durable peace seem slim, at least for now.) In such situations, art can only do so much. Despite all the reasons for pessimism, however, there are glimmers of hope. There is currently a plan (supported by the government and the British Council, and in talks with donors) to build a professional theater in Juba, and the director of Cymbeline was made minister of culture in the state of Western Bahr el Ghazal. Theater productions like Cymbeline reach toward a common form of identity, and show the possibility of establishing dialogue and cooperation among diverse peoples—just what South Sudan needs today.