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.
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?
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.
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!