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Finding Understanding through Theater

November 2, 2011

Participatory theater contributes to finding solutions to land disputes.

In Burundi, SFCG runs several programs to help resolve conflicts around land disputes. As explained in the previous blog, many of the disputes revolve around land that the owners abandoned in 1972. In the early 70’s Burundi experienced an ethnically motivated rebellion mainly in the South. The government responded by killing hundreds of thousands and forcing an equal number to flee the country. They remained in exile for years, but started to return for the elections in 1992 and have been returning continuously. However, the land they left behind in 1972 was occupied or redistributed by local officials to those who remained. The returnees now claim their former land, but the land has been inhabited by others for decades. These land disputes pose a serious challenge to peace in Burundian society.

One of SFCG’s tools to help mitigate land disputes is Participatory Theater, which was developed by SFCG’s DRC office. The participatory approach starts before the actual performance. The actors start by interviewing the locals to learn more about their daily lives and the context of their conflicts. After these preliminary interviews the actors use this information to craft their performance and tailor it to the specific challenges the local audience faces. Their goal is to include and do justice to, all side’s perspectives.

The participation of the audience is crucial for the performance as the locals are invited to advise the characters what course of action to take. Members of the audience even step on stage and become part of the performance, inhabiting the characters themselves.

It is common for audience members to break into tears during the performances or offer money as a token of appreciation. There have been incidents where spectators became so involved in the performance that they try to physically assault the actors, only to be held back by other participants. The theatre troupe has even been accused of witchcraft on several occasions for its knowledge of the local peoples’ conflicts and feelings, as well as for the actors’ abilities to transform their personalities and so well represent the audience members’ stories.

According to a recent evaluation report, the participation rates varied significantly depending on the location, but the response from those who participated has been consistently positive.

Building off of these emotions, the participatory theater serves as a forum for communities to discuss their conflicts together in a cooperative manner. Furthermore, it serves to explain land dispute resolution mechanisms in practical terms, dispel rumors, and inform spectators of their rights and obligations in regard to land issues.

In the strongly male dominated Burundian society, SFCG often faces the challenge of how to include women and still have a substantial impact. In the participatory theater troupe, roughly 30% of the audience are female and they are more likely to appreciate the performance.

Participatory theater provides a way to speak about land disputes in a creative way, where the audience shapes the outcome of the conflict. Furthermore, the performances serve as a forum, where communities can discuss the issues in a cooperative manner. Additionally SFCG successfully attempts to include the otherwise under-represented voice: the women.

SFCG hopes to continue its meaningful and popular work in Burundi and strives to ensure funding to keep the participatory theater running. However, it is only one of SFCG’s efforts to contribute to a peaceful resolution of the land disputes. Another method SFCG employs is the radio program Icibare Cacu as well as mediation trainings for employees of the National Commission for Land and other Goods. These efforts will be described in the next blog.

Learn more about our work in Burundi here

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