The TED Talk Questionnaire: Ugandan Playwright Adong Judith on How She Became a Global TED Fellow

The TED Talk Questionnaire: Ugandan Playwright Adong Judith on How She Became a Global TED Fellow

The Ugandan playwright Adong Judith gives inspiring advice on how to achieve your dreams and on how she became a 2017 TED Fellow.

This August, Arusha, Tanzania will be the setting of TEDGlobal 2017 Conference where 21 innovators will come to spread worthy ideas. 10 are from Africa. As part of our focus on African Futures, this month we wrote to this year's African Fellows to ask them questions about themselves and their work. Today TED announced that applications to be a 2018 TED Fellow are now open. 

Find out more information about the program and how to apply, here.

The first TED fellow to take our questionaire is Ugandan director and playwright Adong Judith, known for creating theater that promotes social change and provokes dialogue on issues from LGBTQ rights to war crimes.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction when you found out you were selected as a global TED Fellow?

Before opening the email, I was nervous as the subject read: “Action Required/Response Requested”. I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, not another interview related task!’. But when I opened the email and read the first sentence—in fact, just a phrase, ‘We are thrilled to offer you’—I knew I was IN! I didn’t read the rest of the email then because I believe I have an OCD I called anti-procrastination OCD. Once I know about a task I am expected to do, I am pushed to do it there and then’; AND I wanted to first bask in the thrill of receiving probably the most amazing news I have ever received! Later, when I read the entire email, I discovered the action required and response requested had about 48 hours’ deadline for acceptance or decline of the offer. I laughed a little thinking, ‘who declines a TED Fellowship offer?” But then again, I have been obsessed with TED like that! I panicked a little about the deadline then I remembered I am 8 hours ahead of EST so I was good.

Was it difficult coming up with the concept for your talk/project?

In regards to my project, I have always wanted to give back to Uganda my country. It is the reason I joined and loved lecturing at Makerere University. But later, I realized that unless I was in a position of leadership, I couldn’t make any difference. I feared I would get more and more frustrated with not being able to share knowledge and skills the way I dreamed and long to do.

In 2015, during the production and tour of the Acholi language translation of my play Silent Voices, I came up with an idea to attach some aspiring theatre makers to the production. That is when it hit me that a Theatre Production Apprenticeship is the best way I could give back to Uganda meaningful. In a 2-tier approach, I could produce my social change plays and use the productions to train aspiring theatre makers in a hands-on on-the-job setting—the perfect way to bridge the practicum gap in our formal education system for art students and graduates while at the same time achieving my social change artivism dream and vision.

I continue to want to give back even more than what I can do now. There is unbelievable talent among disadvantaged young people like those who live in slums and have dropped out of school. What they need is someone to mentor them in the craft that would structure their talents in ways that would make humanity put value to them and give them the attention they deserve.

So, my Theatre Production Apprenticeship combines production of social change plays and training of aspiring theatre makers connecting them to renowned local and international theatre makers under the auspices of my non-profit company, Silent Voices Uganda. The project happens every summer (June-August) and is currently in session until 6th August 2017.

At what point did you finally say: "yes—i feel good about what i am about to present?"

It has been a struggle given that my ‘perfect’ TED-Talk (in my dreamy mind) was supposed to be 15 minutes! I have had to cut it down to 4 minutes and it is okay because after all, I am the one who always tells my friends, "the Universe always gives you what you dream of/want JUST NOT in the format and package you dreamed of/wanted it. Just grab it and roll with it."

What did you learn about yourself through the process?

I learned that I can write prose. I have always thought prose writing, fiction or non-fiction is not my strength unlike plays and poems that flow naturally with such ease in me. Of course, excepting academic essay writing, which although I find rather boring, I believe I am gifted in—as well as judging by how much my film school professors encouraged me to get my comprehensive exam essays published. Compared to my playwriting and poetry, prose writing is still a little tough but now unlike before, I feel that with more practice, it can become easier too.

I also learned that my structuring weakness has improved a lot. Usually the content of the first draft of any of my writing is powerful but the order in which it flows is a little disjointed. The first time I discovered this was in 2010 during my Sundance Theatre Residency when to my utter surprise, my mentor suggested that he thought all that my play needed was moving scenes around and not necessarily rewriting.

I remember us spreading index cards around labelled with scene numbers. And when this was done, it was like magic! The play gained fluidity and with that a powerful depth. I have since been conscious of my structuring challenge and consciously worked towards improving it. It is what I focus most on when in any writing residency-theatre or film. This process showed me that I am much improved.

Adong Judith circa 2014

Are you nervous about your presentation?

I would be lying if I said no. Courage as they say is not the lack of fear but that one carries on even when shaking with fear. Yes, I have dreamed of giving a TED-Talk for about 4 years now. Yes, I have even prepared a list of concepts I would give a TED-Talk about and kept updating the list for the last 4 years. And yes, I am nervous as hell to give a TED-Talk now that it is here!

It’s reminiscent of 2007-2009 all over, the years I used to be a solo performer/oral performer. As much as I had fun performing locally and touring my performances internationally, one thing was always a constant—the stage fright those few seconds before I stepped onto the stage right after my name had been so powerfully announced. The thought on my mind was always, ‘Would I leave keeping the powerfully announced name soaring or would I bring it down from grace to grass?’

However, I was lucky that with every show, I won more and more fans and people wanted more and more of me. But I made a decision to stop, partly because I thought the stage fright was unhealthy and partly because after my Sundance Theatre Residency, I realized writing is what I wanted to focus on and the solo performance, no matter how great I was at it, seemed like a distraction, especially as more and more performance opportunities started coming up. I thought, ‘now is the time to get out before you get lost in it, girl!’ So, I got out. But I am hoping that the luck that stayed by my side and won me more and more fans then will come a long with me to my TED-Talk and inspire the world to find my voice meaningful.


Any particular things you are doing by way of preparation?

I am currently conceptualizing the slides to enrich my talk. Something happened to me during film school. I got converted into the power of visuals. Before film school, I was not such an ardent promoter of visuals as a tool for communication or a way to enhance communication. In fact, I was as disinterested in pictures as a dog is disinterested in milk.

Once I am done with the slides, hopefully by then I would also be done with my summer 2017 theatre production apprenticeship, then I will rehearse and properly time my talk. I hope that rehearsing it will take away some of the stage fright pressure.

What do you anticipate the world's response will be?

Honestly, I don’t know. The world is currently very unpredictable. I mean, it is like world orders are being challenged. Many conventionalists are currently puzzled and confused as almost everything that would have, as recent as 5 years ago, been thought to be impossible, is happening. From last year’s election of Donald Trump as President of the USA and last month’s election of Ugandan pop star Bobi Wine as Member of Parliament of Uganda to macho sportsman Bruce Jenner and white German model, Martina Big transition to a woman and a black woman, respectively. While political scholars are at a loss for words; gender, race and sexuality scholars are outraged.

What would you want it to be?

I am myself moved by my talk, as short as it is. I am hoping it will have the same effect on the world. I am hoping that the world will find my voice fresh. I am hoping that the world will feel me sincerely from where every word comes because what I talk about are truly reflective of who I am without any pretense. I am hoping that it speaks to all who feel as ‘the other’ in every circumstance, even circumstances where individuals are ‘othered’ due to what is viewed as their privileged positions. I am hoping that it motives the world to give room to understanding one another and alternative views no matter their background, humble or rich and ‘privileged’.

During my studies in the USA, I quickly realized that privilege is relative. For instance, while all my fees and daily expenditures were covered, my so called privileged white classmates who were in reality from humble white family backgrounds, were struggling to cover their fees and upkeep. I then saw myself as privileged in that context and yet I had won my Fulbright Fellowship based on my ‘underprivileged’ status as a black woman from an undeveloped country. So, race, class and gender ‘privileges’ are complex issues.

What made you passionate about your subject?

Fairness! The question that always guides my work and life is, ‘Is what I am doing fair? So, I always prefer that people talk about issues disturbing them rather than gossip or complain behind each other’s back because talking provides information and with information fairness stands a better chance to flourish. This is what makes me passionate about my subject.

I am known to say what I believe people need to hear not what they want to hear. I am very vocal so quite often, you see comments like, ‘only Adong Judith would say this!’. My mother says I have been like that for as long as I could talk. I can’t vouch for what my mother says for the part of my childhood that I do not remember but I know that I am not one for parroting what is trending and/or what people want to hear. I have always been the person who will tell that Uncle everyone is afraid of what everyone wants to tell him (which comes down to, ‘He isn’t being fair!’). I do this because I always want people to talk about any issues and iron them out, if ironable.

What has changed is that I used to do it without tact, but as I mature, I have learned the importance of diplomacy and become more diplomatic about how I do it. I use to mistake diplomacy for PR, which in my view in Uganda has come to mean BIG LIES. Diplomacy I realized is about communicating, even difficult matters with respect for one another or mostly. I have come to learn that how a message is delivered sometimes helps the messenger not to be shot. But still, I express what I feel in my heart is what is fair. I view myself as ‘Fairist’ not Feminist like most people are quick to categorize me.

To the next generation of intellectuals who are reading about you and inspired by you right now—what would you say?

The first advice I would give them is to always remember we all have different callings in life. There is always a reason why you end up in the places you end up in and the people you end up with whether the experience turns out good or bad. My undergraduate studies years were such difficult times as both peers and community members made fun of me for what they described as ‘going the whole way to Makerere University to study music, dance and drama, something they do all the time in the communities’.

Students studying other fancy degrees, derogatorily called me "Musiru Dala Dala", a derogative reference coined from the initials of Music, Dance and Drama (MDD), which translates loosely in English as ‘Stupid Through and Through’. I would later be enlightened enough to understand, considering that I was born and raised in Uganda, that the Department of Music, Dance and Drama was the best place for me to start from to reach my dream of becoming a filmmaker; a dream they knew nothing of when they made fun of me because none of them took the chance to talk to me about my dreams.

Everybody assumed the fancy courses are law, medicine and engineering and we all dream of becoming lawyers, doctors and engineers. 14 years later, I would win the Fulbright Fellowship and go to film school making a little girl’s dream after watching her first African film, come true. Again, we all have different callings and dream. For some, it happens faster and for others slower for different reasons. In my case, in retrospective I know now that I needed to go to the USA to chase my filmmaking dream in my 30s when I was matured enough. Had I gone in my 20s, as many including myself, had thought would have been more realistic, I would have been broken beyond repair like many Africans I encountered in the USA.

Right now, the same people who laughed at me are the people who admire me and seek after me to either cast them, mentor their aspiring theatre and/or filmmaking children or give inspiration talks to the young people they work with.

My second advice is, if you are unhappy somewhere, it probably means you don’t belong in that place. Right from my first job after my undergrad studies—a teaching job—I wasn’t happy. I resigned from that teaching job after 2 months and my Mom was very sad. She couldn’t understand how I would resign from a job I hadn’t been fired from. But I understood that she was coming from the position of a single parent, who had struggled so much to educate her children with the hope that education would change all for the best so it was inconceivable for her that I had resigned from a job just 2 months after getting it and without an alternative lined up.

5 months later I got a writing job on an HIV campaign radio drama series from which I again resigned 6 months later when the job description changed from writing to translation due to challenges by a co-writer that made the producers of the show lose confidence in the scripts that were being written directly into the 3 local Ugandan languages.

I was a writer for my local language, Acholi language from the Luo language cluster. This move again sent shock waves not just to my Mom but my friends, when in their words, many would kill for a job. But my understanding with the producers was a writing not translation. Even though I am a professionally trained translator since I have a degree in my local language, my passion is writing. Secondly, I had also discovered that writing for an NGO campaign wasn’t what I had envisioned writing to be. I was disturbed by how much the creatives and entertainment values were sacrificed in favor of the messages.

I thought to myself, “There is no reason why social change art shouldn’t also be highly creative and hilariously entertaining”. When I and 2 or so of my colleagues raised this problem, the producer’s response was, ‘we do not pay you to think’. I KNEW then that was a job I wouldn’t last on. I later joined Makerere University as a Teaching Assistant, which I enjoyed immensely at the beginning. But I became more and more unhappy as the quality of students also kept dropping with every new government policy.

Luckily, I won the Fulbright Fellowship to graduate film school. Filmmaking has been my dream since I was 13 years old. In fact, I became a theatre maker by accident, while looking for filmmaking only to discover the Department of Music, Dance and Drama then did not offer film courses. After film school, of course the immediate safety net was to return to my job at Makerere University, which I did. But I realized I was even more unhappy than before. So, I decided not to renew my contract. I had been taken back on contract since there was no official available vacancy. Again, many were shocked that I would walk away from a stable salaried job not to mention with a prestigious University like Makerere University. But I am at a place where I feel so happy, enjoy my work and believe I am making more of a difference than I made in any of my earlier job.

You are the only one who knows, envisions and feels your dream. You are the only one who knows how you feel. Having a stable salaried job may appear fancy and admirable from the surface but that is just it, an appearance not reality. Inside, you may be dying until you find what gives you inner peace. That’s what matters. I feel at home and now the same people who believed I was making a mistake in the past, are the same people telling me I look so peaceful and calm unlike in the past when I was restless all the time. I tell them, how is it that then you never acknowledged that I was restless. You only thought of my decisions as mistakes instead of encouraging me to find what would cure my restlessness and give me peace?

My third advice, which I wanted to give after my second advice is, have or ask the Universe (or God or Ancestral Spirit to whatever it is that you believe in) for the wisdom to be yourself WISELY. I know this may be controversial to many since the most popular modern adage, almost a creed is, ‘be yourself’. I believe the world is biased and that is a reality. And with that reality comes many realities. One such reality is that strangers’ first impressive of you can make or break you. It is different when people know you and much easier to be yourself. For instance, I hadn’t wanted to go dreadlock hair style 5 years earlier than I went dreadlock because I was very aware of the negative impression people have of those who wear dreadlocks and especially so when it is a woman. So, I waited 5 years after my first job to go dreadlock. When I went dreadlock, people in my work-place had gotten to know the true Adong–the intelligent, talented, resourceful Adong that I believed had they met me with dreadlocks, they wouldn’t have given me the same chances they gave because they would have already been prejudiced.

In fact, I believe they wouldn’t have even met me then because I wouldn’t have got the job. But I wisely chose to go dreadlock when I was confident they knew me so well and could see beyond my dreadlock. So, my dreadlock, even though I knew bothered many of them quietly, paled compared to how much they knew I had to offer. To date dreadlock is not yet a widely acceptable hair style in Uganda and many parts of the world. But no one cares that my hair is dreadlocked. They simply want the power of my work!

Lastly, I say take the following things that seem like little things seriously.

ALWAYS BE PREPARED. That way opportunities find you ready. Even with no prospects of my plays getting produced considering where Ugandan theatre was, I just kept writing. When opportunities started coming, all I had to do was send them out and yielded some powerful results.

ALWAYS DELIVER EFFICIENTLY AND EFFECTIVELY. When you get an opportunity to get in (be it into a residency or job), aim to deliver on deadline as expected and not only deliver but also wow with an X-Factor. That way, people will always remember you when there is any other opportunity or even deal with your diva attitudes if any, unless they were Shonda Rhimes with zero tolerance for divas

ALWAYS GIVE BACK WHEN YOU CAN NO MATTER HOW SMALL. When you are given an opportunity to give back to those in less privileged position to access what you can offer. This is why I created my Theatre Production Apprenticeship – to give back to Ugandans knowledge and skills that I had to cross several borders uprooting myself from home in order to acquire – yet wished someone had been in position to provide it to me from the comfort of my home city, Kampala. If others didn’t give back, you would probably not have got the opportunities you got. But even more importantly, in one way or another, it all comes back to you in ways that will blow your mind.

Most recently I have embraced the mantra, ‘choose even just one good/positive thing from even what you consider the worst experience ever and let the others go so you can focus on moving forward’. Being a perfectionist, I used to not appreciate any opportunity that didn’t give at least 95 percent positives. But I have come to learn that the Universe doesn’t send any one opportunity your way to get 100 percent from it, but to get even just that one thing that it knows you need either at that point in time or will turn out very super for something in your future. So, I say the same to the young generation of intellectuals.

Personally, what does it mean to you to be selected as a TED fellow?

TED is a powerful platform for one’s voice to be heard. As a theatre/film maker, media that are both about one’s voice, words cannot even express what it means to be selected as a TED Fellow. TED Fellowship provides a great opportunity for its fellows’ voices to be heard beyond the medium of the professional work they do. I have a real opportunity for my voice to be heard beyond my theatre/filmmaking work contents through the TED Fellows platforms like TED-Talks, TED Blogs and contacts, partnerships and collaboration that I hope to make through the TED Fellowship, just as through my TED Fellowship, I have this chance to give an interview to OkayAfrica, a platform I have dreamed of being featured in. my name has in the past been mentioned in OkayAfrica, but in passing while talking about someone or something else. It is an honour to have the opportunity to give this interview to OkayAfrica.

Where do you hope to go to from here?

I hope to complete the drafts of my new plays/screenplays currently sitting on my computer.

I hope to venture into musical theatre but keeping it social change musical theatre. I have found a blend of different art forms attract more audience and the more people can access the critical issues in the stories I tell, the better.

I hope to continue the work that I am currently doing with my Theatre Production Apprenticeship Programme that combines training of aspiring theatre makers and productions of social change theatre by my non-profit company, Silent Voices Uganda; with the support of the partners that have since 2010 believed in my work and continue to do so such as DOEN Foundation, a Netherlands Art Funding Organization and new support partners that have come on-board either as a once off support provider or long term, among which are Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, The Harold and Mimi Charitable Trust in New York and the Sundance Institute Theatre Program.

I dream and hope to be able to initiate more of the theatre programmes, whose concepts are currently sitting on my computer.

I hope to be able to initiate all the film training progammes I dream of starting up and to make all the films and Television shows I dream of making.

I dream and hope that my TED Fellowship will create opportunities/open doors AND windows to meet and forge collaborative partnerships to strengthen the work I am already doing and support the initiations of works I dream of initiating and doing in the near and/or far future. Collaborative partnerships in providing theatre and filmmaking trainings in a country of limited and limiting theatre and filmmaking training institutions and support systems; in both local and international Co-Productions in Theatre and Film; in producing each other’s plays and screenplays to expose audiences to culturally diverse stories from around the world and to publish and distribute play books of the plays produced to enhance cultural exchanges and understandings through publication of theatre stories beyond the stage and in more portable formats to increase accessibility of diverse cultures across time, borders and space.

The internet has more than ever before opened the world wide, connected global citizens and created a powerful opportunity for co-productions and cross-cultural interactions to create deeper understandings of each other and hopefully curb cultural prejudices to forge human unity.

Check out the rest of our interviews with this year's TED Fellows here.