It is Sunday night, the last day of the 2010 Bayimba International Festival of the Arts and I am walking through the crowd that is watching the Ugandan Afro-pop band, Percussion Discussion Afrika perform on the stage. I am searching for eccentric dressers to photograph; searching for typical festival couples and drunk-out-of-their-minds art students to derive comic sketches from. But finding none, my friend and I settle on this conclusion; these people present didn’t really understand the art of cultural festivals.
Three warm starry nights, performances in a packed auditorium, great musicians playing on stage and in the National Theatre park yard, and cheap beer at every corner. And no one in a crowd made up of creative types, art lovers, theatre enthusiasts and young people from different parts of the world; none amongst them was capable of anything random or crazy or eye-catching at all, not even in their dress sense. Seriously?
Listening to me rant, my friend cut me short and not to ask me why I wasn’t going crazy myself by say reciting any one of my terrible poems or breaking into a one-woman-show to attract the people walking back and forth from all the alternatives officially provided by the festival.
Instead he’d cut me short to ask me this; “What really is the point of it? This festival? These people here? What are they searching for? What specific benefit is this festival serving?”
Puzzled at the question I answered, almost defensively; “Me. You. Everyone here. This festival is serving us. It is showcasing to us that we are talented. That we have it in us to be great, to perform, to be cultured, to get together and come up with beautiful, enjoyable and spirited acts. It is testimony that we do not really need organized governments and any such systems to elevate ourselves. That all we need is our creativity and our artistic sense and realising it together. But most importantly, it is for young Ugandans, East and Central Africans to see themselves as they have only dreamed of before. We too can take to that platform, express our uniqueness in fashion and installations, dance and music. It doesn’t always have to be a foreign face from a far away land. We too can celebrate ourselves as artists”, I explained.
“Who is this ‘we’ you speak of? Or rather should I ask, who are we?” he inquired further. By this time I had come to the realisation that he was only picking my brain, a pity seeing as it is I hardly walk about with any. Still I was open to answering his philosophical questions, but first, something interesting was going on a few feet away from the stage. Percussion Discussion Afrika had provided festival patrons old discarded scrap metal and steel material; tins, trays, saucepans, and the like, to cling and clung together in rhythm-making music.
Taken and absolutely loving it, I jumped up and down swinging my hands freely in the air. “Look, this what I was saying. This is what the festival is about. This is exactly what it is about”, I told my friend.
“Well,” bringing me back to the question unanswered, “you’ve already given a speech of what this is about. Now we must move on. This festival says it enables us to discover who we are. You seem to understand what that means and I don’t, so….” he replied.
Who are we, you ask? Yes. Well: We are today who we were taught we physically are: Africans. Blacks. The poor and suffering. The inept, savages, corrupt with no defined sense of financial sustainability, no creativity – and the order matters to none. We are clutter from a shattered vessel and nothing substantial.
In our native tongues however, we are various tribes; individuals of significant family lines. We are respectful and decent. We are diviners, life is sacred. We are leaders of men, medicine men, and family heads, and mothers, and storytellers, and warriors, and dancers and painters. We are hunters and we are gatherers. We take from and we give to the earth, the gods and each other. We are human and godly beings.
Yet strongly, spirited and beautiful what we say we are versus what ‘they’ say we are must sound, we have continually fallen trap to mismatching our words to theirs in a bid to perhaps fit in with the modern world, the out-of-control global village. As a result we have, in general terms, become; corrupt leaders of men, poor diviners, savage dancers, inept story tellers, etc – and the vessel shatters a bit more.
The idea therefore, to stop and search from the clutter, and the loud noises, the true definition of who we are, especially in this generation of post-colonial Africa, in which we have embraced Western and some, Eastern values and are still are undeniably tangled with our native indigenous beliefs. It is important that we are able to identify who we really are if we are to stand up and stand-out not just as blacks or as Africans, but as a people who are part of this progressive, stimulated global village, we must be able to. A festival like this therefore enables to bring forward ideas with which one can experiment.
While we showcase our artwork we are testifying that we draw from our modern worldly influences while upholding our ancestral values. We fuse modern music instruments with indigenous ones. We sing folk songs telling the stories in-between in a foreign tongue. Our clothes made out of African fabrics are designed not in anyway different from western ones. Our art is influenced by modern day world issues like global warming, child and women trafficking etc, yet we use all materials found locally. Our tools like cameras and computers with which we use to create our art may be imported but we still are the new and old, the globally aware, the affected and influenced, the diverse, the open minded, black and white.
We are much more, than we have been before told we are. And this is the important discovery festivals like the annual Bayimba International Festival of the Arts brings to us and the very purpose it serves.