Ugandans: Owning the Narrative

Uganda Writers Conference
Uganda Writers Conference

I am not concerned with slogans of yours of Anglophone and Francophone; for I am Bantuphone.

With a speech at the East African Law Society in 1997, President Yoweri Museveni put the world on notice: his country would no longer be defined by recent Colonial times. Uganda had its own proud history, culture and identity.  A generation later, Ugandans have not only found their own unique voice, but they are sharing it with the world.

Today’s Uganda is a vibrant scene of contemporary artists, writers, bloggers, poets, filmmakers, fashion designers, and musicians. Through these artists, strong online presence and a rich media landscape, Uganda has begun to tell its uniquely Ugandan story and to take ownership of the Ugandan narrative.

For many years Uganda has been one of Africa’s leaders in talking to the world and talking to each other.  In 1993, Uganda was a pioneer in liberalizing the media. It was one of the first African countries to have full Internet connectivity, and in 1999 became the first in Africa to have mobile phones surpass land lines.

Today, Uganda has more than 200 radio stations and dozens of television and print media. Thirty-two percent of Ugandans access the Internet, 1.8 million are on Facebook, and thousands are active Twitter users. When Storipot, a Ugandan-based news and blog reader, launched with a shout-out to Ugandan bloggers, more than 200 joined within the first 3 weeks. Cell phones are now used by more than 19.5 million subscribers, or about as many mobile subscribers as there are Ugandans over the age of 15. There are now 18 mobile lines for every land line, which now seems like a rather quaint statistic as with Uganda’s vast youth population, it’s likely that half of Ugandans may have never even seen a land line.

Owning the Ugandan narrative is happening in so many ways, whether an entertaining movie, hit song, or evocative paintings and art.

Nigeria has Nollywood, India has Bollywood, and America has Hollywood, but Uganda has Wakaliwood, and 2.5 million hits on You Tube for the trailer of its biggest hit, Who Killed Captain Alex. The action film has become such a cult classic that BBC calls its director, Isaac Nabwana of Ramon Productions, “the Tarantino of Uganda.”

Senegal’s MC Solar, Akon, and Youssou N’Dour are known internationally, but look up Senegalese musicians on Wikipedia and there are only 27. Uganda’s list: a rousing 73. The best known of those: Joe Chameleone, who has performed his Afrobeat hit-songs at concerts worldwide. In 2014, his Tubonge Live concert at the Lugogo Cricket Oval Stadium in Kampala attracted 40,000 fans and broke the record for the largest audience of any East African performer.

In the visual arts Uganda is making its mark. With a focus on contemporary art influenced by African flair, The Kampala Biennale, helped to make Kampala a cultural hub of East Africa. The 2014 launch featured 45 artists, 100 artworks, and nearly a month of art-loving bliss at the Uganda Museum, Nommo and Makerere Art Galleries, and other venues.

Just like the African extended family, many of Kampala’s most successful artists are now making sure their younger brother and sister artists can have a chance to make it. Duadi Karungi, painter, printmaker, and photographer, started platforms like AfriArt Gallery and START, a journal of arts and culture, to promote Ugandan artists on an international scale. Wassa Donald, a painter and self-described “artists without boundaries,” founded Artpunch Studio to support creative collaboration across various artistic fields. Sculptor and painter Maria Naita, did the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) monument in Kampala, has exhibited internationally, and can brag about having several pieces of hers in leading cultural institutions’ collections. She serves as Director of the KANN Artists Group, a group of artists dedicated to creating appreciation for Ugandan art and artists.

Connecting early to the digital world allowed Uganda to have its narrative heard around the world, whether delivered as visual arts, movies, insightful blogs, or an inspiring talk. When TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), the exclusive conference and Internet sensation featuring “Ideas worth spreading” launched TEDx, local independently organized events in the TED format, Ugandans stepped right up to the challenge. The first TEDxKampala in 2009, featured several of Uganda’s most innovative thinkers. The event caught the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, who came to the event to engage with Kampala’s change makers. Since then, Kampala has hosted five more TEDxKampala events. The theme of the most recent, held in January 2015, summed up Uganda today: Owning Our Destiny.

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