IN ART WE TRUST: HOW CREATIVE ARTS CAN SAVE THE NATION.

It’s time for the homegrown arts to come of age


Recently, in a taxi as I made my way to town, I got a light bulb moment (I can finally cross that off my bucket list!). No, I did not discover a new and improved design blueprint of Thomas Edison’s light bulb but I did discover something similarly intriguing. As the driver snaked down the tricky streets of Kampala as though he suddenly thought he was riding a boda-boda, something stuck out to me so glaringly, something I should have seen before but had never been aware of; the Apartheid-like design of our city! In my defense, I have always been poor at Geography in class. 

Simon Kaheru once published an article on his blog talking about this design in detail and how it had shaped the way Ugandans look at themselves. The colonialists shielded themselves in the high end areas of Kampala like Muyenga and Kololo, away from the natives who got pushed into slums like Kamwokya and then used the Asians as a buffer, a wall to keep the blacks in their lane of poverty and desperation. They even used British names for the streets to drive the point home that Native Ugandans were not welcome there. Think Apartheid. Though not as brutal as in South Africa but it was subliminal, and equally effective because you live with it all your life and then you pass it on to your children. This design was so successful that through the years, we have accepted that we are second rate. This mindset has been so much ingrained in us that we still build houses with boy’s quarters which were used by the colonialists to shelve our forefathers away for the night,we still brag about our fantastic grasp of foreign languages and ignore our pitiful command of our mother tongues, we have even still failed to support any of our Ugandan made products, except maybe the Uganda Cranes.

And So?

You may be wondering what I’m blubbering on about. What does Apertheid have to do with storytelling? Well, Simon’s article sparked a debate between me and some of my friends and we agreed that Ugandans had failed to define themselves apart from their colonial masters which is why the only yardstick we have is imitating them. Nobody has ever told us that dreams and romance blossom at Lake Bunyonyi resort in Kabale so we seek them in Paris. Few know about the Nyero rock paintings in Soroti so the only art heritage we know is the renaissance artists. 

Who knew that we had been had in our own city, yet we jubilate at having survived Apartheid. We do not know where we have been, so we cannot map where to go. We do not know what we have, so we cannot decide on what to throw out. So the question is how can we curb this deficiency? How can we redifine and find ourselves again? How can we break the physical and mental barriers that we have known and grown accustomed to for ages? 

Storytelling.

The approaches to finding these solutions are as numerous as the children God promised Abraham but the one medium I’m passionate about is storytelling; the arts! Our forefathers used it for ages to instill value and pride in themselves and their offspring, to instill discpline, joy, hope, valour! Remember your grandfather’s stories by the fireplace? Beautiful, right?

 In those days when loadshedding was a plague, my dad took those opportunities to tell us stories by torchlight. He was gifted. I always used to marvel at how well traveled he was to meet Ogres and kings of old! From those stories I learnt respect, heritage, common sense, imagination and why it’s not wise to eat dog meat! (Story for another day). This influence he had on us growing up is the same influence storytellers have over the nation. It’s the untapped potential they possess. Storytellers (by storytellers I mean anyone using any form of artistic expression to tell a story) have defined cultures since time immemorial, the likes of Michelangelo, Picasso,  Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, J.K.Rowling, Mozart, Chinua Achebe, and many more. Artists, poets, writers, musicians all had a role to play, all have a role to play in sculpting modern culture. It’s time for the storytellers in Uganda to stand up and be counted, to be relevant, it’s time for the arts to come of age, to start a revolution of a strong and defined Ugandan people. This is not an ode to writers or artists, rather it’s a call to all Ugandans to take responsibility for their story and it’s wellbeing.

 “Support the homegrown arts.” This well worn saying has never been truer. It’s like the one your mother used to sing so much in your childhood, “Eat your greens!”, overused but still vital. And if you thought literature was a waste of your precious time and money, it’s time for you to think again. “The West” has used it as an empowering tool since time immemorial, to open their minds and break limitations. Literature is a strong vehicle that drives home ideas and virtue with amazing horsepower. It helps a writer compose and organise his/her thoughts and sparks debate, and a thinking debating society is a growing one. An audacious person once said, “if you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book.” And we decided to prove him right. 

The homegrown creatives too would have to be more in tune with their people, jump off the many copycat bandwagons they subscribe to and define their true art.

The Power In Our Hands.


The managing director of TheStoryPeople™, an NGO using storytelling to inspire , Mr. Aaron Kayondo, once told me how storytelling had changed people’s lives in Karamoja. A speaker was speaking to the Karimajongs about something important but they were not understanding and they were bored to tears! So TheStoryPeople™ decided to play it out in a skit and when they were done, the villagers were so excited and happy and most importantly, they had learnt all the speaker had intended to teach them! That is the power of storytelling! Storytellers change mindsets, they reaserch and unearth hidden truths which they feed people in enjoyable ways, they preserve important information for generations to come and we all know knowledge is power. They surpass physical boundaries and push the limits of what is acceptable. They spark debate. They spark thought. Look at what Prof. Stella Nyanzi did, now we all understand “interpretation” a bit differently.
I recently attended “Words of Wake”, a one man poetry show by the obscenely talented Gordons “Wake” Mugoda. He talked about local beauty, the power of words and the intricate art of rolex making! I was captivated by how proud he was to show off his heritage of Bagwere and did some of his pieces in Rugwere. Most of all, however, I was captivated by the trance-like influence he had on the audience, the power he wielded just because of the way he played with words. I’m sure that everyone that nite was proud to be country mates, if not tribe mates, with “Wake”.

I also was very proud of the Queen of Katwe movie because it was a Ugandan story. Inspirational even, and I thought criticism of it was a little bit, just a little bit, misplaced; the important thing is not where we are but where we can go. I believe the Queen of Katwe was a challenge to the storytellers, as much as any ordinary Ugandan, to believe dreams can come true, to believe that their is much awe and wonder here at home as much as in Hollywood. Stories impact mindsets more than you think. In church, they are called testimonies, and they are one of the major reasons people stay strong in faith. Imagine a child in Katwe ditching his petrol smoking gang to go learn chess because he has heard of Phiona Mutesi. I think the angels would celebrate one over the dark side.


Hence therefore;
 This was not an article offering answers. It was an article inspiring questions. Who are we? What’s our potential? Bla bla bla, so feel free to comment anything within you that has been set alight by the article. In a nutshell, all I’m saying is, let’s utilize the potential of storytelling as a viable avenue to inspire and rebuild broken hopes, to rebrand ourselves, package and export our potential, to refill our moral cavities and cure our knowledge deficiencies. Support the homegrown creatives, don’t just frown upon their attempts. Be one yourself. Join a poetry movement. Attend art exhibits. Buy a piece. Pride in our arts and heritage begins with you. And pride in our arts begets a sense of pride in the people it represents and who knows the limits of a proud people? If you feel the homegrown arts are below par, then show them how it’s done. Offer solutions.

There are a gazillion stories to tell, and I do not mean only the stories of the 1950’s and the liberation war. There are stories of the modern Ugandan, the Ugandan who can use a smartphone and refers to Google like a dictionary. It’s time to discover what it means to be Ugandan in the 21st century. Do not undermine that story of yours, your country needs you. Let’s discover together. Let’s define our nation. Let’s explore and discover!

REVIEW.

LOST GIRLS, a poetry chapbook by Akello Charlotte.



I have mixed feelings about written poetry. Barring the ability or inability of the reader knowing how to read poetry, a poorly crafted poem can be nothing more than a drab sputter of words on a page with the poet drowning in overused cliches. However, crafted well, written poetry can transport you and touch those places locked away within your heart of hearts and deepest corners of your mind that you will be looking around you just to make sure nobody can see your nakedness which the poet has laid bare on a page, a stairwell going down into an abyss that just keeps going; exciting and frightening. Charlotte Akello harnesses this skill admirably  in this her very first chapbook, Lost Girls.

Lost Girls is Charlotte exploring topics close to her heart like Family, Home, heritage, war and womanhood, exploring the aspects that define her. The collection is laced with a sombre tone and delivered in such true honesty, akin to works pulled from the writer’s deepest and darkest corners, that it makes me feel guilty for knowing some of her deepest feelings. Picture stumbling upon her personal diary.

She keeps her poems as stripped down as she can allow, reducing the useless chatter. Somewhat similar to the way she strips her soul bare while writing the poems and as she searches for meaning and identity.

In the first poem, “Home – a crevice”, intriguing is her mixture of displeasure and contentment with which she describes home. She shows a need within her to break out and soar but yet, in the third line, shows a contentment of the comfort she feels when home, using words like “warm”.

One of my favorite works in the collection is “Songs” in  which she borrows music as a metaphor to reveal the futility of our aspirations, how we wait for a coming generation that will instead use our gravestones as anchors for their houses. God knows I love metaphors!

Charlotte’s choice of words is also quite enviable. It showed that she put some effort into finding suitable words for a suitable phrase, for a suitable image. I constantly found myself thinking,“I wish I had coined that!”

The collection wasn’t short of humour either. In her piece, “Crossing Ugandan Roads”, she describes the dilema that may beset a pedestrian trying to wade through the raving mad hysterical drivers and riders of Uganda. Though quite lighthearted, the poems point on a serious matter of road user indiscipline. With the context of the chapbook, I might hazard a guess and say this perticular piece reflects the confusion in her mind as she tried to answer the questions of the lost girl within her, coming in contact with indiscipline people in her walk of life and the occasional “angels rare this side”.

All in all, Lost Girls is a beautiful collection of heartfelt honest poems seeking to find meaning and direction. Any lover of poetry must get his/her hands on this chapbook. I will leave you with Charlotte Akello’s opening words in the chapbook:

“I want to tie home around my neck and walk away.”

To get the LOST GIRLS chapbook contact;

Charlotte Akello

Email; charlotteake@gmail.com

Facebook; Charlotte Ake Lottie

THE LITTLE BRO SERIES

Little Bro…brushes aside my sacarsm with such skill and grace that I almost feel embarrassed.


SEASON ONE

Episode Three

He Who Laughs Last

It’s a lazy afternoon at BLB 05, Glory Drive. The sun is warmly gliding through the clear sky and the birds are quietly perched in the trees, seeking refuge from the sweltering heat. Little Bro is in the living room doing home work and I’m in my room sheepishly swiping on my new Huawei smartphone. This Huawei is such an achievement because it’s an upgrade on those “chinese” phones with cringe-worthy names like “Xin Hua” or “SamSong”, those ones which have ringtones akin to the scream of an enraged bat! With a silly smile on my face, I’m humming that popular Kadongo Kamu hit, “Gyenvudde tebibadde birungi…”

Soon, Little Bro scurries in. He has a burning question.

“Ian, what is rusting?”

He catches a glimpse of the new phone.

“Oooh! Cool phone. Let me see! Let me see! Is it Apple? Does it have games? Where did you get it?”

Not particularly pleased with the untimely interruption, I reply sarcastically,
“I picked it by the roadside.”

​​
Little Bro is unfazed. He brushes aside my sacarsm with such skill and grace that I almost feel embarrassed.
“Oh Lucky you!” he says. “You know, I had a smartphone once. It was…”

“What??” I interrupt. “Where did you get a smartphone?”

I asked, shocked, because it’s quite unheard of that at his age, Little Bro would be allowed to carry a phone, much less a smartphone.

However, he has a huge smile on his face which lets me know that I’m being had. But it’s too late, I’ve already fallen into his trap. 

“I picked it by the roadside.” he replies comfortably, picks up his home work and saunters out. I can almost swear I hear him laugh the universal evil laugh but maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks.

As the birds bask in the afternoon heat, at BLB 05, Glory Drive, House-with-the-black-gate, it dawns on me that Little Bro is a force to reckon with.