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Upholding Art, Reliving Tradition, and Touching the Future

By: Uchechukwu Oguike, SJ

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A certain elderly Jesuit once told me that "It is impossible to talk about the history of Europe without mentioning the Jesuits". Indeed, as a lover of history, I have occasionally been left awestruck by the influence of the Jesuits in Europe, particularly as regards education. From the very moment the Jesuits began teaching "publicly" in 1546, thanks to the eagerness of the then duke of Gandia - Francisco de Borja - to get the sons of his Morisco subjects educated; the work of the Jesuits in education has been nothing short of splendid and effective. As John W. O'Malley puts it in The First Jesuits, "once the Jesuits undertook this ministry, they did not falter".

However, one question that readily comes to mind is, "what disciplines did they teach"? Leonor Osorio, who was Viceroy of Sicily in 1547, was also eager to have Jesuits found a college in his domain. Thus, when he and the officials of the city of Messina finally convinced Father Ignatius to send five Jesuit scholastics and five teachers to found a college, they agreed that the Jesuits would give instructions in all disciplines of the time - theology, cases of conscience, "arts", rhetoric, and grammar – with the exclusion of medicine and law.

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From the 16th century to our current 21st century, Jesuit schools have consistently influenced the various societies in which they were and are founded. Apart from the academic excellence which characterize most Jesuit schools, plays and other performance arts, through which students display their talents and skills to a wider public, have become an important aspect that have formed the backbone of several Jesuit schools. O'Malley explains that numerous studies have been done in "Jesuit Theatre', and has been cultivated to an especially high degree over a long period of time in a vast network of Jesuit schools almost around the globe. Jesuits have often written their own plays and produced those written by others – ancients and contemporaries. One of the first recorded plays written by a Jesuit was Jephthah Sacrificing His Daughter. It was written by the scholastic, José de Acosta, and was produced at Medina del Campo in 1555. Acosta wrote several more, including his best-known and most celebrated – Historia natural y moral de las Indias- in 1590. These foundational works and more permit me to say that there is a strong tradition of arts in Jesuit schools, particularly in writing, theatre, and other performing arts.

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It was on this foundational ground that Dr. Evaristus Ekwueme SJ, the Dean of Studies at Arrupe College and the Academic Council saw it fit to include a course on Theatre Arts in the school's curriculum. Nine students accepted the challenge, and embarked on an adventure not only to display their talents and skills, but to embrace an opportunity to appropriate some of the skills learned in the classroom. These students, representing six different countries, which reflect the multinational and multicultural nature of Arrupe College; comprised Micas Zandamela SJ, Vitalis Ugochukwu SJ, Reagan Chengamali SJ, Mario Chingole SJ, Pius Ndekile SJ, Akakpo Ghislain SJ, Uchechukwu Oguike SJ, Kelvin Munkuli SJ, and Olivier Niyibizi SJ. There were about ten weeks of intense training in various areas of theatre and performance. Acting lessons, including characterization and voice training, were championed by Mrs. Gertrude Munhamo; dance lessons by Mr. Gibson Sarari and Mr. Tendai Guzha respectively. Typical of philosophers, an incredible amount of reflection and debate went into the formation of a story line. Several themes came up, and we were often stuck with non-inspirational stories. However, the camel's back was eventually broken, and the class came up with Signatures of Our Time, written and directed by Uchechukwu Oguike SJ and Mr. Daves Guzha respectively. The play was performed on the 25th of March 2017, just after the handover ceremony between the former rector, Fr. Chuks Afiawari SJ and the new rector, Fr. Gibson Munyoro SJ. Thus, the audience comprised Arrupeans as well as friends and well-wishers of the college from Harare and beyond. The audience was thrilled by a stellar performance which was punctuated by singing and dancing.

The play, largely centering on some of the major issues plaguing Africa today, provokes the audience to critical reflection on several of these issues. The class tried to picture the various thought structures present in Africa today, the various attitudes towards the plethora of problems in the continent, and finally, the future many Africans crave for today; a future where the structure of thought would be rooted in our African tradition irrespective of the influence of non-African cultures. This future demands a more effective educational system, critical consciousness and active participation of youths, and an awakening of the custodians of our cultural heritage in Africa to their roles as guardians and agents of change and empowerment. Thus, the play challenges the current philosophy of education in Africa, the role of elders in our society, the mentality and attitude of African youths towards the resources and opportunities available, and perhaps a certain philosophy of victimization held by many in the continent. The play ends on a high note, giving the audience an opportunity of touching the future we want to see in Africa. It ends with Koffi, one of the characters, finally finding a balance between education for empowerment and education for sheer knowledge; between his African roots and the influence of other non-African cultures. It presents Chiedza, an educated elite as the primary agent of change who becomes wise enough to believe in the talents and innovations of her young cousin Koffi, and decides to fund his projects as well as his university education.

The second performance the play enjoyed was at Theatre in the Park, Harare Gardens, Harare, on the 4th of April, 2017. The audience comprised mostly youths, who were elated by the pulsating performance, as they had several questions to ask afterwards. More importantly, the play left them with a new gospel; the gospel of self-belief and learning creativity amidst the most difficult of circumstances. Furthermore, the performance was an opportunity to raise awareness about the various programs available at Arrupe College. Indeed, the stage becomes another classroom where students become teachers themselves; teaching their audience the philosophy of better living and goal-getting.

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