Artist and activist Nicholas Bhekifa Mamba, president of the Association of Swazi Theatre Groups, uses theater to create awareness in AIDS-ridden Swazi communities. In his art, Mamba said he transforms performance into education, which can influence change within a culture. That culture is constantly struggling to reconcile long-rooted traditions with pressing health concerns and pressures from the West with local customs.
Mamba, who will be lecturing and participating in class conversations at the Yale Divinity School this month, talked to the News about the HIV epidemic, polygamy and religion in Swazi communities, and the role of performance art in dealing with these issues.
Q: Can you explain what your performances involve?
A: We have a theater company that deals mainly with African dance, both traditional and contemporary. We also perform plays about HIV/AIDS that are commissioned by NGOs for educational purposes. We workshop our plays in advance. We sit around and discuss the objective beforehand, but the actual performances are mostly spontaneous.
Q: Your performances deal with controversial issues in a nontraditional format. What is your ultimate goal?
A: We want to talk about the effects of HIV/AIDS and create awareness in the community. Right now we are focusing on living with HIV and dealing with the stigma around it. Our main audience is community members. We perform in Swazi villages and chiefdoms to educate the people.
Q: How would you describe the role of nongovernmental organizations in dealing with HIV? How do you, as a theater artist with a social purpose, collaborate or clash with them?
A: The NGOs — both international, like UNICEF, and local NGOs — are the main players. They get funding for the HIV awareness campaigns in Swaziland and use theater as one of their tools for the dissemination of information. Their work is important, but I should say that some of them are not open-minded and compromise our creativity for their objectives. When you tell a story, you don’t include every detail because then it sounds like a lecture. The NGOs want to see each and every fact about HIV in our plays.
Q: Can you discuss how the HIV problems has changed Swazi culture?
A: HIV/AIDS forces the country to speak openly about bedroom issues. That was never done before. Another shift is about polygamy. We believe in polygamy, but this belief is being challenged because it is seen as a factor in the spreading of HIV. Right now there is a campaign to engage men in dialogue about monogamy as a possibility. But older people argue that if the men are faithful to their wives, there should be no problem. These changes are positive if the issues are handled right, but the manner is important. As artists, if we sound like we don’t like Swazi culture, this would have bad repercussions. We have to handle it nicely.
Q: Now that you’re here in New Haven, can you tell me about your involvement with the Yale Divinity School?
A: We are exploring the role of belief systems in theater. Religion has a very strong influence in our culture. But Western culture often looks down upon our ancestral religion, although Christianity is also patriarchal. Here we are trying to show how the two religions engage each other and can collaborate in the fight against HIV/AIDS.