Ugandan playwright who's a coin collector

Friday October 21 2016

Deborah Kawe Asiimwe is an award-winning Ugandan playwright, performer and currently co-curator and producer of the Kampala International Theatre Festival. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI

Deborah Kawe Asiimwe was no stranger to the performing arts, having grown up in a typical rural African home where storytelling was not just an art but a way of life.

She says her career in the performing arts was influenced by “ grandmother’s folktales, and her insistence on me retelling them in subsequent nights, as well as the men in our village who used to perform Ebyevugo (epic poetry),” she told The EastAfrican.

“It was this unconventional education that actually drove me into studying performing arts.

Asiimwe was born in Kiruhura district, in southwestern Uganda, where she attended primary and secondary school. She went to Makerere University for a diploma course in Music, Dance and Drama, and later a Bachelor of Arts in Performing Arts. She later got a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Performance from the California Institute of the Arts, in the US.

She worked with the Sundance Institute Theatre Programme, leading the East African initiative for six years from 2009 to 2015. Later in 2015, she became a Writing Fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, and a guest lecturer/artist at Pomona College in California, US.

Her advice to young people who want to study and work in performing arts is: “To silence the doubting Thomases, just do it.”


Asiimwe’s recent plays include: Forgotten World, Cooking Oil and Un-entitled. Her play Will Smith Look Alike won the first prize in the 2010 BBC African Performance Play Writing Competition.

Her greatest professional achievement to date is “producing two editions and going on to the third one of the Kampala International Theatre Festival.” 

Asked about what she finds exciting in drama, she said: “I don’t know if the word is exciting, but I do find it fulfilling. You know something that you do, and it makes you whole? That’s exactly how I feel when I am engaged with my work.”

On professional challenges she has encountered Asiimwe observes that the biggest is society’s perception that performing arts cannot be a full time career.  

After a day’s work, you will find her either reading a book, swimming or watching reality television shows — which she, ironically considers very bad shows.


What’s your off-duty passion?

I love swimming and meeting with friends for African teas or coffee or watching really bad television shows by which I mean reality shows. I am also blessed with nieces and nephews, and it is always a joy to spend time with them, and learn from the honesty and bluntness of teenagers.

What would you have been if you were not an artist or musician today?

I had always thought that I would be a journalist. It is interesting that what I do now in many ways is not that far off from journalism.  

What signifies your personal style?

Since I have learnt to learn by listening, I know when to work alone and when to work in a team. Travelling gives me an opportunity to see another world beyond my street and neighbourhood, and helps me reflect on what my contribution could be to the communities to which I belong. It is not difficult for me to associate with people from different walks of life, but I am wary of politicians or people who consider themselves more importance than others.

How do you manage your wardrobe?

I wear whatever makes me comfortable. Depending on the occasion and the weather, I can wear a dress or tight fitting jeans with a blouse or a shirt-dress.

While in East Africa, where are you most likely to spend your Saturday afternoon?

I currently live in Kampala, and so for the past few months I have been spending a lot of time exploring the new cafes that have mushroomed all over the city. But I have found Pap Cafe at Shell Ntinda quite a conducive space to think and write.

Lately, I have also been spending time at Ndere Centre. Their gardens are among the few places left in Kampala where one can enjoy a cool breeze while sipping on a cup of spiced African tea. 

Describe your best destination in East Africa?

I think I have two. One would be Nungwi beach in northern Zanzibar. The other one would be Gisenyi in Rwanda, by Lake Kivu. 

Do you have a must-visit list?

I have not been anywhere in Southern of West Africa. I am interested in visiting countries in these regions.

What is East Africa’s greatest strength?  

I consider East Africans to be very friendly and hard working. The region is diverse in terms of culture and landscape. We also have a fantastic climate.

What is your best collection? This could be books or music or anything else of interest to you.

This is probably going to sound weird, but I collect coins and paper money from the different countries I have been fortunate enough to visit. I am now collecting books (regardless of language) by different African writers across generations. 

What is the most thoughtful gift you have received?

That would be a book published using Apple’s iBooks author app. My Sundance bosses put the book together with pictures of me and other East African and American artistes that I had had the opportunity to work with.

What’s the best gift you have been given?

The first cow my parents gave me on my graduation from Makerere University with my first degree. 

A big book you have read recently?

Moses, Citizen and Me by Delia Jarrett-Macauley.

Which film has impacted you the most?

In the recent past, it is an American biographical drama film about the death of Oscar Grant. I watched it in 2013. It is titled Fruitvale Station and is directed by Ryan Coogler.

What is your favourite music?

When it comes to music, I am all over the place from R&B country, reggae to gospel. Mary Mary and the Winans are my favourite gospel artistes to date.

What is a constant in your fridge?