Two young choreographers use dance to help change lives in their community
Walking by the Straight Talk Foundation youth centre in Gulu, Uganda, you can hear loud dynamic afrobeats blasting through speakers. As you enter the gate, a group of youngsters drenched in sweat from the northern Ugandan heat are having a breakdance battle while learning new choreographies and teaching newcomers. These dance lessons are free, offered everyday and open to the entire youth community of Gulu. Among this group are the founders of the Watwero Dance Company: Geoffrey Oryema, who is often referred to as “Message,” and Ojom Martin, known as “Beep.”
“Through dance, I got a family,” Oryema said. “My family is the people I dance with everyday. When people come in large groups to dance, I ask them, ‘Do you want to learn?’ And I teach them.”
Oryema’s life as a dancer began in 2007 in Kitgum, Uganda, when a workshop called Breakdance Project Uganda was held to campaign for peace. “In northern Uganda, we experienced war for over two decades. I had never heard of breakdancing before,” he said. “I had never seen it anywhere; I had no access to TV. Since the war started, it was the first time I saw people come in great numbers together.”
The dance workshop only lasted a day, but it had an everlasting impression on Oryema. “It was the greatest experience and feeling to see people happy because of those dance moves,” he said.
When the workshop was over, there were no longer any dance activities in Kitgum. “I kept pushing myself with those steps I learned … just to keep reminding myself of that day, because I felt peace. That is how I got to understand what peace is.”
When I am dancing, these memories from the war, they go away,”
When Oryema dances, he forgets about the war. “When I am dancing, these memories from the war, they go away,” he said.
During the war, Oryema was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) at the age of seven. “I was in the bush for almost two years, and then I found my way back home,” he said.
Upon his return, both his parents relocated to Gulu — without him. “None of them came to see me when I returned back home.” Oryema remained in Kitgum where he lived with his aunt. The arrangement was not well received by the community.
“They were calling me all sorts of names, like a war child, a killer, a rebel. Or sometimes they would say, ‘You need to be careful with this guy, he can kill you because he has been in the bush,’” Oryema recalled. He eventually left his aunt’s home to escape the torment, and ended up living on the streets. “I just started to live this wild life.”
In 2011, Oryema saw kids dancing once again at a playground in Kitgum. He asked them where they got their moves from, and they told him to go to the local Straight Talk Foundation youth centre. Oryema began attending dance classes there and never missed a day of training.
“It was as if I came back to life,” he said. “In a few months, I became a dance leader within the community because I gave it all my time. I wanted to be good so that I can make other people happy through my dance.”
Although Oryema quickly became known as a dance leader in his community, he faced challenges living in the small town of Kitgum. “I couldn’t support myself,” he said. “I couldn’t get 500 shillings in a day to buy myself any food.”
Oryema began searching for opportunities elsewhere. He went to Gulu for his first dance performance event, which was an outreach on malaria sensitization.
“It was a challenge when I was asked, ‘Can you do something that talks about malaria [through dance],’” Oryema said.
As he performed, people from Gulu noticed how good Oryema was. They began giving him more opportunities to host community dance workshops. The Gulu community began calling him “Kwena,” which means “message” in the northern Ugandan dialect of Acholi. When Oryema asked an audience member why they call him Kwena, “the woman said, ‘Because when you are dancing, we get the message. You are the message; you carry it within you,’” Oryema explained. Since then, everyone in the community calls him Kwena or Message.
In 2016, Oryema co-founded a community outreach organization called the Inspire Me Africa Initiative, where he would choreograph, teach and perform dance pieces in communities across northern Uganda. The organization presented dances that targeted the everyday challenges Ugandan youth face, such as malaria, early marriage, domestic violence and drug abuse. The organization was volunteer-based; they often visited local schools, hospitals and refugee camps to perform for the youth without compensation. “As much as we want to do things for free, we need to at least feed ourselves, maintain our health,” Oryema said.
Oryema began to dream about having his own dance company and saw it as an employment opportunity. In 2017, his childhood friend, Ojom, also a dancer from Kitgum, came to Gulu for the same reasons: to dance and make a living. “We want to live a life where you can always afford to pay rent and have a family. If dance can pay for all this, then it will be the best thing for us,” Ojom said.
“If one day I can at least be able to have land and feed myself daily, that would be the best thing I could ever have,” Oryema added. “It might sound crazy to many, but that has been my challenge.”
Ojom also said dance has changed his life. “I lost both of my parents; I lost my dad when I was seven years old and my mom in 2007,” he said. “My brother was the first one who began to dance. He stopped, but I continued. He was my inspiration, and now I inspire him.”
According to Oryema, they both realized they had been running away from challenges since childhood. “A lot of our youth and people in our community have these same challenges today. Why don’t we take a stand and face our challenges?” Oryema asked.
Together, they created Watwero Dance Company, which is the first of its kind in northern Uganda. Watwero is an Acholi name that translates to “We Can.”
“We have seen a lot of people dance, make money, travel. We looked at ourselves and thought, yes we can do this,” Ojom said. The name of the company is in the Acholi dialect because “we must start with our people first,” Oryema explained. “They need to understand that they can [do it]. Then, it will be easier for them to understand the reasons why we are running this company.”
Both Oryema and Ojom are artistic directors and choreographers who teach a wide variety of dance styles, such as the traditional African dances called Zulu, Gwara Gwara, Bakisimba and Durban Bhenga. They also teach afro-house, urban styles and contemporary.
This year, Watwero Dance Company participated at the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts, Krump UG and the Nyege Nyege Festival. They also featured a dance at the Kampala National Theatre. Oryema and Ojom won one of the battles at the Krump UG competition.
“We always had that sensitivity — a bond within us that we always wanted to share,” Ojom said. “Whenever we are together, we have that creativity to make art.”
Their focus is to offer an educative platform where they use dance to express the challenges faced in their communities in northern Uganda.
“Everywhere you go, they talk about youth unemployment, drug abuse, early marriage — but nothing is being done about it. We realized that if we create a company, it will be a platform, a more organized form of art where we can work on our challenges,” Oryema said.
According to Ojom, it has been difficult for their company to grow because of the community’s lack of support for the arts. Nonetheless, they refuse to give up on their dream to live a life through dance.
“As long as you are still alive, it’s not over yet. Giving up should not be something that a living human being should accept,” Oryema said. “You might try hard, but if you don’t win, it’s not a loss. If you don’t win, you learn. So next time you do it better and you don’t get to lose again,” he said.
Both Oryema and Ojom remain hopeful that they will be changing lives through dance, just as dance has changed theirs.
“Dance saved me from the other part of me that has been in the war zone,” Oryema said. “I fought in the war, I’ve killed a number of people. But that was not what I wanted. When I got back home [from the war], I tried to commit suicide twice. But after failing, I realized that there is a reason why I am still breathing now.”
“Everytime I perform, people say that I’m doing something great,” said Oryema. “I don’t know if that’s the reason why I am still alive, but as long as I live, I will be fighting hard to find out.”