What does it mean to be a creative in Uganda today? To ask this is the same as to ponder the implications of self expression in an ever-narrowing space.
The detention of Makerere academic, Stella Nyanzi was watched with curiosity by many who might have a stake in the creative economy of Uganda.
A government that made an effort to pretend to be different from those for whose excesses it justified it’s emergence has thrown away all pretensions: it is Byron Kawadwa vs Idi Amin all over again some would say.
Nyanzi’s use of provocative langage has riled many in the past few years. Even many who would normally describe themselves as progressive, have criticized her “profane” attacks on personalities.
Before Nyanzi’s “pair-of-buttocks” saga, before the drama that has followed her for the last few years, she was better known among the creative writing set for her expressive use of language. She was not known to shy away from the hot potatoes of the day, but she was still flying under the radar. At least publicly, it was not overt that the powers that be had any problem with her.
The argument that she could have crossed a line when she went after the president’s wife could be valid, but this too might be simplistic. A political family that has weathered insults for decades was incensed by the crude imagery spouted by an activist? The family that has ignored critics and/or eventually bought them off?
It is hard to imagine Nyanzi’s words were too horrible to even try to silence her in less public ways. Cue all the top critics who have mellowed over the years only to end up with corner offices in nondescript government-connected houses doubling as offices in Kololo. If your favourite columnist who says all manner of truth-telling to power has not stopped, chances are efforts have been underway to buy them into the NRM fold for some time now.
Yoweri Museveni famously ignored the innuendo in tabloids until some stories started hitting too close to home. To the truth, maybe?
This seeming use of a machine gun for a mosquito might be part of a bigger push, and it might be directed to creative’s in the country.
Revolutions are sustained by the willing masses, but the messaging has got to be right or else they will be stillbirths. The messaging is crafted by the artists, the singers, the wisemen; those with too much kerere.
And that’s the crux of the matter.
When the artists stop doing what the regime would rather have them do and turn their attention to the day’s pains, if you are a government analyst, it is time to earn your pay by pointing out that a hydra head is growing and it has to be cut off.
Museveni’s war had its own sound track. When the rag-tag revolutionaries stumbled hungry and wornout into Kampala in 1986, songs accompanied them. Videos on national TV gave us musical soldiers like Sgt. Kifulugunyu. Omoto Nawaka was a delightful ear worm. So one would say this government knows the power of the arts in revolution.
There was a time when creative people were just the entertainment. They provided the cheap thrills but nothing would come of their views.
It was a general African way of thinking. This is why when Gaetano Kaggwa, Uganda’s first Big Brother Africa housemate was believed to have had sex on TV with Abergail Plaatjes of South Africa, even when he was considered by many to have been the most popular housemate, he had already lost the prize. Columnist Timothy Kalyegira at the time predicted Kaggwa would lose because of this blunder.
But times changed. Government is not ignoring creative’s anymore. Right now, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) is running for political office. We have of course already elected a professional comedian to Parliament. We know that when nusicians marshal their armies on social media, things get done. The 40-40 organisation, without resorting to government patronage has taken on social issues, like building a dormitory for needy children. The creative’s are coming.
What it all means is that if you are going to be a creative person in Uganda today, you need to choose your weapons carefully. Because this is not child’s play anymore.
Everything you write, all the songs you compose; your audience just grew exponentially and your words carry weight. Are you ready to change your writing style so no one will be able to ignore you? Are you able to stand up to the government?