As the world marked World Tourism Day on September 28, East African Community partner states were basking in the glory of the just concluded Third Edition of the East African Community Arts and Culture Festival also known as the Jumuiya ya Afrika Mashariki Utamaduni Festival or simply Jamafest.
The event, held in Kampala on September 7-15 was a snapshot of the region’s shared rich cultural heritage.
The festival is hosted on a rational basis by EAC partner states every two years, bringing communities across the region together to foster socio-cultural interaction for long-lasting connections.
As a basic foundation for the building of a stronger region attractive to both business and leisure travellers, Jamafest is envisaged to help to develop new world audiences for the region and promote cultural tourism in the Community as well as create employment while promoting social inclusion, cultural diversity and human and economic development.
The festival was held in various venues across the city and featured colourful performances, art exhibitions, poetry, storytelling, traditional games, film and drama, and live music performances on several stages at different venues across the city.
There was also a symposium to discuss how the region can unlock its culture and creative industry for it to make significant contribution to the economy.
The festival kicked off with a street carnival on Kampala Road with dancers, musicians and acrobatic troupes from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan.
The Kampala-based Watmon Cultural Group performed the Acholi royal dance Bwola, once only performed to entertain traditional chiefs during cultural installation ceremonies, but is today performed at local and national events.
The Bwola is a highly choreographed dance performed by a group of 70-100 male dancers in a circle facing the main drummer in the center of the circle.
The circle represents a fence that surrounds the Acholi palace court.
The main dancers are warriors in animal skins and ostrich feathers head gear, signifying royalty.
They continuously blow animal horns in unexpected harmony and sing in praise of the king for his bravery. Women and youngsters appear as support cast on the fringes of the main dance circle and blow whistles continously in harmony with the horns and the drums.
The Burundi National Troupe showcased amazing drumming skills and dance with performances of Ngoma.
This is a ritual dance performed by men only, carrying huge wooden drums on their heads which they play furiously using heavy wood drumming sticks to produce a loud synchronized music accompanied by graceful but vigorous dancing and jumping.
More soothing sounds were performed by the Sengenya Asili group from the Digo community from Kwale County in Kenya’s South Coast with Koma Nazilale.
The is a prayer to the ancestors for peace and a good harvest. The ceremonial music is played with Zumari (flute), drums, kayamba (percussion) and njuga (melodius bells) tied on the ankles.
But it was the Rwandans with their graceful birdlike moves who hypnotised the crowd with Rwanda Nirwiza, Umucowacuru Mwiza, Abagore Beza, Uwejaje Imana and Kunda Ink performed by the Rwandan cultural group Urukerereza.
From Tanzania was the Zanzibar National Orchestra who played their melodious poetic Swahili Taraab music. Taraab — a fusion of African, Arabic and Indian rhythms — is the national sound of Zanzibar and the first recorded music in East Africa.
Beyond the music, there was plenty of traditional food and beverages, but the Ugandan traditional fermented banana beer, tonto, and banana juice, attracted a lot of attention.
Banana beer is one of the oldest and major alcoholic beverages in East Africa. It is made from fermented mashed sour bananas mixed with sorghum.
The banana juice is extracted from peeled ripe sour bananas and this is done by men using their bare feet, hence the Luganda name for the drink, mwenge bigere meaning feet beer.
The juice is then filtered and mixed with ground roasted sorghum. The mixture is fermented in a wooden canoe-shaped container and buried in a pit for two to four days to ferment. The alcoholic drink can only be served after fermentation.
Tonto is very popular in western and central Uganda – the main banana growing areas. It is used in marriage and burial ceremonies, merrymaking and sometimes even as medicine.
Banana beer is known as urwagwa in Rwanda, isongo in Burundi and, kasiksi in DR Congo, urwaga in Kenya and mbege in Tanzania.
There was plenty of art on display at the market and exhibition spaces. The festival lived up to it theme of Culture and Creative Industries: An Engine for Unity and Employment Creation by attracting over 1,000 artists, held 64 performances, had eight performing stages, showcased 10 traditional games, a diversity of cuisine and exhibition of cultural products from all Community partner states.
According to Uganda’s Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development Janat B. Mukwaya, “The total number of participants and the public visiting the venues by the end of the festival was expected at 50,000 people.
Amid the merrymaking, the organisers also held a symposium at the Hotel Africana from September 11-12, where policy makers, political leaders, academics, art and culture managers, media, civil society and artists discussed key issues affecting the development of arts and culture in the region.
“Although the creative industry in East Africa is growing, there are still challenges affecting its contribution to the economy,” Ms Mukwaya observes.
“Inadequate infrastructure in terms of human, equipment and financial investment impede their growth. Festivals such as this one help the people to benefit from the Common Market Protocol,” she added.
In her paper The Potential Contribution of the Film Industry to Regional and National Development: The Case of the Film Industry in Tanzania, Dr Mona N. Mwakalinga, examines the Tanzanian film industry, putting it in global context, and argues that the film industry in East Africa if harnessed, can spur employment, promote cultural heritage and values and add to the economic growth and development.
Dr Mwakalinga, who is the head of the department of fine and performing arts at the University of Dar es Salaam, further argues that the film industry in East Africa has the potential of being an important economic contributor and also be used as an instrument of soft power by exporting cultural products to a wider global audience.
She describes soft power as the ability to influence and shape the preference of others through appeal and attraction without coercion. It is getting people to want what you want them to want.
“Culture is always considered a significant source of soft power, therefore film as a cultural product and industry has been a crucial instrument to materialise that power and thus promote nations’ cultures and values,” she says in her paper.
She single out the US film industry as one of that country’s strongest soft powers, exported globally on a mass cale to win the hearts and minds and eventually the admiration of the US to the point that it makes it easy for the country to essentially sell its products and export its values.
She further notes that, “governments investing in the youth and in the film industry is a smart business decision,” since the language used in Tanzanian films is Swahili and there are approximately 130 million speakers of the language — 49 million Tanzanians and 85 million other living in East Africa and its diaspora.
With the culture, language, snow capped mountains, beaches, wildlife and lakes and rivers; fashion and performing arts, “We must brand East Africa as the destination of choice for the rejuvenation of the soul.
When we choose themes, settings, language and actors for our films we must remember that all these have an impact on how others see us and thus are influenced by it,” said Dr Mwakalinga.
“If we utilise film as a source of soft power, we will capture the minds and hearts of our global audience,” she adds.
Dr Mwakalinga notes that for East Africa to achieve this it must overcome the myriad challenges facing the regional film industry — institutional capacity building, inadequate financing, and inadequate infrastructural systems.
She opines that many filmmakers in East Africa, and in Tanzania in particular, lack training in the art of filmmaking and film business.
“Proper training in screenplay writing, film directing, editing, sound recording and editing, cinematography, lighting and production design should be emphasized to inject professionalism in the final product as we move toward having a vibrant film industry.”
She suggests public-funded film training institutions be equipped with proper equipment and instructors capable of providing theoretical and practical skills necessary to produce quality filmmakers who can survive in the the competitive world of film world.
“Besides training filmmakers, film schools should provide a fertile environment for research into film so that their students can contribute to the critical understanding of the social role of cinema in society,” she says.
Financing or lack thereof, is a major drawback for East African filmmakers and she said, “The East African Community should establish a trust fund that will support filmmaker’s initiatives. The industry too should find ways of attracting investors such as banks.”
Her overall recommendation is that governments must have conducive policies that will attract investment from international film companies.