Cissy Muwanga has gone to be with her maker. She had an illustrious career entertaining the people of Uganda and being involved in the reinvention of contemporary TV. I count myself lucky for having gone out, at least once, to pick her brains. Here’s a piece I did for African Woman in 2009.
Cissy Muwanga showing them how it’s done
Sometime in the early 1990s, there was a strange apparition on a drama stage somewhere in Kampala. The dramatists and their trustees who were in a rehearsal for an upcoming production were momentarily thrown out of character when a traditional healer stormed the stage and scared them all witless.
The healer, who was clad in the stereotypical garb of all self-respecting witch doctors, had something really strange about them, for those present were not certain if this was a man or a woman or an otherworldly creature sent to torment them. It was the strange light from her eyes and the sheer madness she carried about her that gave all of them pause.
Later, after the rehearsal, the trustees of the drama group made it a point to go back stage and look for this new member they’d never seen. They failed in this quest.
Cissy Muwanga has come a long way since that time. Her debut on the big stage was momentous, just as her later characters on stage and on the TV screen have become in Uganda. Her complete transformation into anything her directors have required of her over the years has made her a force of nature on the Ugandan theatre and small screen scene.
She auditioned for the Ebonies way back when the late Jimmy Katumba had just left to go abroad. Then, it was widely thought that with the departure of the engine of the group, there was only one direction for them to go and there were no prizes for guessing what direction that would be.
But it was the likes of Muwanga who helped transform the image of the Ebonies from that of a musical group capitalizing on covers of international songs by musicians like Jim Reeves to an all-round acting, singing and dancing group.
Since she joined the group in the ‘90s, a lot has changed. She has accepted her fate and now brightly describes herself as an accomplished actress. She has to be nudged to add that this is not what she started out doing back when she was a student.
This trained nurse who also doubled as a nursery school teacher for the Ebonies’ kindergarten, Jim Kat when the acting bug had not over-powered her has carved a niche for herself. She is easily one of the most recognizable faces in the Uganda show business.
Jim Kat came later, however. This was after the group had snapped her up and they had to keep her in their fold. “Before that, I was teaching at Twin Age. One day, a lady friend suggested that we go for a Bakayimbira show,” she recalls with a far-away look. The actors knew Muwanga from the school as many had children there. So when they were looking for a temp for a minor role, they asked her to fill it. Little did they know that they were unleashing a brand.
Shortly after, Muwanga’s daughter, who was three years old then, was hit by a car and had to be admitted to hospital for six months. That spelt the end of her career at Twin Age as she had to nurse her baby.
Hospital bills and the search for work took her to the Ebonies school. Meanwhile, she was also an RC chairperson and she was involved in drama. In the early years of the Museveni regime, every village had a local council known as a resistance Council. Nowadays they are called Local Councils.
“This is when the drama germ actually started,” she recalls. Actually, it could have been there unbeknownst to her. Her first real role was as a man. Her brief was to portray a male character and for this, she had to speak in a deep voice and have her hair cut short.
“I was so convincing that there was acrimony. They resolved to check me to ascertain that I was not a man and therefore cheating. Some nuns then checked and we won.
Over the years, acting has brought her many admirers, friends and definitely, enemies. She has long graduated to that status of people who must watch whatever they say or do when they are in public.
“If I were to walk with you to the park from here,” she muses, we could probably reach our destination in two hours.” Mind that Theatre La Bonita, the home of the Ebonies, where the interview is held is just a few hundred meters from Kampala’s main taxi park.
She acknowledges that sometimes it can become quite ridiculous because one has to plan their movements with all these interruptions in mind. “The best way we can move around is in private vehicles with darkened glasses,” she admits.
But what is a matronly lady doing being so famous in a field dominated by nubile young women who have just cut their teeth?
Since her first production Daisy, a story about a blind girl who is in danger of being murdered but who gets the help of a quirky Inspector Oyet Otim, she has consistently portrayed the matron, mother, stepmother and anything else that could closely fall in with these categorizations for the Ebonies.
She has had to master different accents and given the TV audience the laughter, the outrage and the sorrow that come with having been in the game for long.
She first appeared on TV as the mother of the village girl, Nakawunde, played by another big name, Harriet Lubwama in That’s Life, Mwattu. Maama Naaka, as Muwanga came to be known by everyone, even in real life, will forever be remembered by those who watched the show religiously as the village woman who was overjoyed at having her daughter go to live in the city.
But it was in the TV soap, Bibaawo: These Things Happen where Muwanga was immortalized as “Matron.” There are people who grew up believing that she is a real disturbed matron who must be cursed for the way she treated the students in her school.
“There was a time when I met young children somewhere and on seeing me, they started taunting me, even threatening to stone me. To them, I was evil and deserved the worst treatment,” she narrates on the strength of her characters. She was too happy at that time because she realized that beyond reaching the adults, she had reached into the psyche of children and made such an impression. She went to their school and educated them. They parted company good friends.
Incidentally, Muwanga copied that character of a mean spirited matron from an actual person, a matron who mistreated children. “I thought that maybe if I portrayed her in my work, there was a chance of her and all those like her changing for the better.” Bibaawo: These things happen was evidently Muwanga’s most enjoyable production.
She acknowledges the difference between stagecraft and the small screen. “Of course there is a world of difference when you think about it,” she explains. “For instance, the fans really liked That’s Life, Mwattu and yet we had to keep the theatre audiences too.” The group had to find the delicate balance between the two media where they’d act differently on stage as opposed to what was shown on television. “This ensured that TV was used as a tool for us to educate the public on what we were doing in the theatre. More people started visiting the theatre after seeing the TV show.”
The time she has spent with the Ebonies is a treasure to her. She laughs when asked if she could ever consider a career elsewhere, with another group, perhaps. “The experience I have got in this outfit, I could never find anywhere else,” she laughs. “When I see what the others do and what we do here, it’s more than a confirmation that no group could ever handle me.”
Being in the TV business has given her a wealth of knowledge and one thing she thinks young actors should do is be patient. Like any seasoned expert in her field, she says she has learned that success cannot be forced. It comes after a spell of toiling. And she’s done enough of that.
“We could try to source our films on the old traditional stories,” she agrees, “but we have to keep it in mind that many of them were told in a very different setting and with very different objectives. Today, there is technology and it is up to the players to use it in whatever they are producing.
Muwanga is one of those rare actresses scriptwriters work with in mind. She has no understudy. “My roles are usually complex,” she says. “If a role has been written for me, chances are that no one else can do it because of my frame and even the age. There are few actresses like me around.”
But maybe the Ebonies need her in another important role. She is the group’s team doctor. Whoever has an ailment makes a beeline for her desk. “If there are big problems I cannot handle, I recommend them for hospitalization, of course.”
So it is must be strange for her now because she has to be the patient now more than she’s been in the past. When African Woman meets her, she is straight out of hospital and she’s preparing for a production in the evening but she is clearly uncomfortable.
“It’s my heart,” she says, stopping for breath between sentences. A short while ago, she was told she has a heart condition. This would probably have spooked the average run-of-the-mill actress and caused them to throw in the towel but not this war horse.
Her love for acting and the amount of herself that she pours into her work easily causes her to get highly excited. She is confident however and laughs off the concern that she might be overly exerting herself.