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ASHRAF SSIMWOGERERE:The drama in his life

By Vision Reporter

Added 23rd November 2006 03:00 AM

Whether by default or design, most movie directors and producers the world over are known to court controversy with the sole purpose of maximising sales. How successful they are entirely depends on how witty the scheme is.

Whether by default or design, most movie directors and producers the world over are known to court controversy with the sole purpose of maximising sales. How successful they are entirely depends on how witty the scheme is.

By Sebidde Kiryowa and Emmanuel Sejjengo

Whether by default or design, most movie directors and producers the world over are known to court controversy with the sole purpose of maximising sales. How successful they are entirely depends on how witty the scheme is.

Could that be the case in Ashraf Ssimwogerere’s kidnap ordeal? It depends on where you stand. The actor disappeared on the night of October 16 at the premiere of his new movie, Murder In the City at the National Theatre main auditorium.

Shortly after, a man calling from a public phone in Kampala claimed to be holding the artiste and demanded the film script or else Ssimwogerere would be killed.

Moses Ojomba, a pedestrian walking at 2:00am Monday morning found the actor tied up with ropes on the railway line in Kinawataka, Nakawa division. According to Police, Ojomba heard Ssimwogerere’s yells for help and responded. The two then walked to Kireka Police post about 600 metres away.

For the relatives and journalists who visited the bed-ridden actor in Ward 6C at Mulago Hospital earlier this week, it was a grim picture and a crude reminder of the perils artistes can go through.
Hajji Ssimwogerere cringed in apparent pain as he was wheeled away to the operating theatre. To see him, one had to negotiate their way past Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) officers who manned the entrance.

The film for which Ssimwogerere’s life was being threatened was not new to controversy. Last year, Australian-based cardiologist, Dr Aggrey Kiyingi, currently on trial in the High Court for allegedly murdering his wife, Robinah, took Ssimwogerere to court, seeking an injunction against the production of the film.

Court ordered Ssimwogerere to produce the script of the movie last November. The bemused actor was then quoted as saying, “I was actually devastated when I heard that I had been summoned to court over a movie I am writing.” He said the movie did not have anything to do with the Kiyingi case.
However, sources close to Ssimwogerere say he had made it clear that he wanted to write a movie script reflecting the goings-on of the Kiyingi murder trial. They said that the actor had not even started work on the script when he was dragged to court.

In the movie, Ssimwogerere plays Musoke, a businessman based in a foreign city. He owns a computer firm back home which is run by his wife Rhona, a lawyer, who also works on several government projects in which she is charged with bringing to book officials who
have supposedly misappropriated IMF funds.

Set up by a self-seeking pastor who is not eager to repay back the money Rhona lent him, the couple find themselves locked in a labyrinth of accusations and counter accusations of infidelity that culminate in simmering violence and talk of divorce. But there’s a catch: It’s either

done Rhona’s way or not at all. And Rhona’s way means Musoke forfeits 75% of their lucrative family business. Against that stand off, Rhona is brutally shot dead at her gate as she returns to her home one night. But with the aggrieved boyfriend to his daughter and the corrupt government agents she was investigating all baying for her blood, it is hard to tell who pulled the trigger.

If Murder In The City is a reflection of the realities in the Kiyingi murder case, it is interesting to know that the film exonerates Dr Kiyingi.
So, why in the first place was Dr Kiyingi hostile to the project?
The Kiyingi law suit aside, the movie was reportedly shunned by local actors like the plague. Film producer Ronnie Kyeyune says Ssimwogerere was not supposed to play the lead role.
“He was forced to take up the role when the person he had taken to London to shoot the foreign part disappeared into thin air.”

But those who take Ssimwogerere’s story with a pinch of salt might need a historical reality check. In 1976, Byron Kawaddwa was whisked away from the National Theatre premises shortly after showing his Oluyimba lwa Wankoko, a biting political satire that can be regarded as Uganda’s Animal Farm. He has not been found to this day.

Ssimwogerere himself is not new to hostility because of his work. In February this year, while playing Dubu, an elected Katikiiro, who usurps the king’s power, in Diamonds Ensemble’s latest tragicomedy, Okufa N'obutanywanga, a loyal traditionalist furiously hurled a bottle of mineral water at him when the actor’s character slapped the ‘Kabaka’ (played by Joseph Ssenabulya).

Shortly before that incident, the actor was pelted with bottles and stones by a furious audience in Rakai over the same play. He had to wear a helmet through the rest of the play.

Be it bearing the brunt of those that have been inflamed by his works or enjoying the sweet rewards of his acting and writing career, Ssimwogerere lives for acting.

A qualified dentist from Makerere University Medical School, Ssimwogerere swapped a potentially successful dental practice for the theatre at a time when acting in Uganda was frowned upon.

But with good reason. Perhaps the man was paying tribute to acting which is not only his first love, but also the trade that paid off his school fees in secondary school at a time when his father was exiled.

As a suspected National Resistance Movement collaborator, Mukiibi Budala Wakayima, Ssimwogere’s father was forced to flee his village in Namulonge for dear life. He settled in Busoga.

Consequently, Ssimwogerere had to fend for himself. As a young student in Old Kampala Senior Secondary School in 1982, Ssimwogerere joined Omugave Ndugwa’s Black Pearls.
Though described as “very brilliant through out his school years” by Ssemwogerere Katende, a cousin and childhood friend, juggling the school and theatre took a toll on his class work.

Following a lucklustre performance at his A’ Levels, Ssimwogerere decided to repeat his entire high school at Wairaka College (now Muljabhai Madhvani College) in Jinja. He joined Makerere University for a Bsc in medicine and dental surgery.
But even with the academic breakthrough, Ashraf Ssimwogerere, who once confessed he was at his creative peak when he worked with singer/actress Mariam Ndagire, never gave up on his theatre career.
If anything, he excelled, graduating from acting to writing plays. In 1991, still under Black Pearls, he co-wrote his first play, Engabo Yaddako (the next president) with Mariam Ndagire. The following year, the duo penned their second play Omuyaga Mumako.
It was around this time that Ssimwogerere met his wife Sharifa, then a student at Kibuli Teacher Training School doing teaching practice at Kaggwa Road Primary School.
“The Black Pearls were based at Riverside Theatre behind Kaggwa Road Primary School near Kisekka Market,” Sharifa narrates. “There was a shortcut from the school past the theatre which I always used. That’s how we met.”
Inspired by the phenomenal success of his premier plays, Ashraf decided it was time to set out on his own.
In 1994 together with Mariam Ndagire and Kato Lubwama they founded Diamonds Ensemble, a group in which Ssimwogerere is still artistic director.
Ssimwogerere and his colleagues were later joined by teenage actresses Ruth Wanyana and Sheila Nvannugi. Later in August 1994, Akafubutuko (The Rush) another Ssimwogerere-Ndagire collaboration was Diamond Ensemble’s first play to be staged. They later helped improve Abbey Mukiibi’s script for Order: Kiragiro. Mukiibi, a breakaway from Black Pearls had founded another theatre group, Afri-Talent.The two groups worked hand in hand, occasionally exchanging actors in the subsequent years.
At the height of this cooperation, they formed Afri-Diamonds in 1996. They staged such memorable plays as Perepetwa, and Maswanku both Ssimwogerere/Ndagire collaborations, the latter, Ssimwogerere says is his favourite play.
“The strength of the cooperation lay in the fact that all these actors recognised that each one of them had a strong point which they could bank on,” says Sharifa.
“Ashraf is a brilliant playwright. He would come up with a plot in no time. They would lock themselves up with Mariam Ndagire and come out with all the missing lines filled in.”
She says Abbey Mukiibi is a great producer, Mariam Ndagire good with costumes while Kato Lubwama is a musical genius.
Unfortunately, Afri-Diamonds was no more by the turn of the millennium. But even up to that stage, Ssimwogerere’s works spoke for themselves: Kikunta Ekungu; Emisanvu and Omuyaga Mumako (both re-makes from earlier plays by the Black Pearls); Safari; Enyota and Bakisimba
Mu Dwaniro among others.

Turn to page 34
from page 20

In between all this,
Ssimwogerere who had
been posted to Kibibi
Hospital in Ngomba, Butambala had since left and started a private clinic called Nabikolo Memorial Clinic in Nateete.
Juggling his dental practice with acting, he had enrolled for a diploma in Music Dance & Drama, majoring in drama. He convinced his wife, a Grade 3 teacher, to take up the same course. They completed together.
In the early 2000s, Ashraf started taking interest in television and scripted the TV series London Shock which run on WBS TV. Earlier this year, his second TV series Mutuze (The Inhabitant) premiered on UBC TV and has been running for a little over a month. Inspired by the Nigerian movie exodus, he opted for the silver screen with his first movie production, Feelings Struggle, released last year. Murder in the City was his second film.
But the love affair between Ssimwogerere and acting runs deeper than his need to survive as a secondary school student. Right from his primary days in Kabonge Primary School, Simwogerere was a keen actor not only at school but in a local group known as Kabonge Golden Singers. His father, Abdallah Mukiibi, swears that Ashraf will perfectly play any drum.
“As a child, he was a great talker and a wordsmith,” says Ssemwogerere Katende who teaches French at Kitante Hill School. But this boy must have turned these words into actions as he grew up.
Generally described as a comic character “who always makes me laugh” by his wife, Ssimwogerere’s private life is marked by quietness.
“He is so reserved it’s hard to get a word out of him sometimes,” says Sharifa.
She also says he is patient, slow-to-anger, respects his wife and loves his parents to death. “To date, he has never greeted me while seated on a chair yet he is a well respected man in society with a wife and children,” says Sarah Nankabirwa, his mother. Ssimwogerere’s character traits slightly contradict the image some of his professional colleagues have of him.
“He is a risk-taker, adventurous and obstinate when working,” says Ronnie Mayiga Kyeyune, the producer of Murder In The City. “You cannot believe that we shot on location in places we had not got permission to. We were once chased from Col. Semakula’s place by a guard with a gun.”
That stubbornness is what probably led him to this.
“In August, someone called him and warned him not to produce of Murder In The City. He told him that if he didn’t drop the project, his life and family would be in trouble but he ignored the warning,” Sharifa says.
Yet, with the exception of Sharifa, none of his other friends and relatives, parents inclusive, support the idea that Ssimwogerere back off the movie.

Ssimwogerere was born on August 24, 1963 at 4:00pm as the first born of Abdallah Mukiibi and Sarah Nankabirwa at Kakonge, Busukuma, Kyadondo in Wakiso District. He is a father of six , the eldest, a 26 year-old university student.

ASHRAF SSIMWOGERERE:The drama in his life

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