21 September 2017

Uganda: How Uganda Wasted Jamafest Opportunity

The East African Jumuiya ya Afrika Mashariki Utamaduni festival (Jamafest) happens every two years on a rotational basis.

First edition was held in Rwanda in 2013 and two years later, the festivities shifted to Kenya where Uganda was announced as hosts of the 2017 edition that took place last week. For many artistes and promoters, Jamafest is a golden concept.

"It is an idea that doesn't only promote art and culture but carries tourism with them," commented one Eric Ntaro on his social media page.

The festival at each edition brings together artistes from all the member states of the East African Community to turn the host city into a melting pot of arts and culture; this is a chance for the host to market more than what they programme, since unlike the visitors, they can invite as many exhibitors as possible with little financial impact.

Indeed Uganda had more exhibitors than all the other countries combined; some just showed up to sell merchandise without being invited, but that was almost it. Since the organizers - government - had not advertised the event, Ugandans knew little to nothing about what was going on.

The anticipation of artistes selling their work to exhibition patrons quickly became a fluff. The anticipated pour-in from Ugandans buying visual art or even watching performers from Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and Rwanda also did not happen; most of the time, the performances at Kololo ceremonial grounds were watched by the performers from other countries instead of the intended audience.

"The stage and organization here is good," said an official from Tanzania, adding that the only problem was a small crowd. "It's like we are performing for ourselves most of the times."

The official wondered why Jamafest was not on Kampala's billboards downtown or even near the two venues - Kololo and the National theatre.

According to an insider from the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, "The ministry had wanted to organize the whole show at Namboole stadium with a hefty budget set aside for the venue."

The source says after moving back and forth, Namboole was rejected in favour of Kololo and the National theatre, although works to renovate the latter for the festival would only start in mid-July.

Because there was no promotion for the festival, the opening Saturday that had a carnival in Kampala only became a traffic disaster with many people questioning what was going on. The follow-up cultural presentation did not save things as even the invited diplomats were a no-show.

The ministry diplomats, politicians and MPs invited for the festival whose official opening at Kololo was meant to be graced by President Yoweri Museveni didnt show up.

Instead, the president embarked on countryside trips to talk about the land bill amendment on radio, and like that, the diplomats, MPs and many politicians reportedly cancelled their attendance.

"The diplomats' tent was empty, glaring at us all through," complained Andrew Ssebaggala, an artist.

Without an attendance from both politicians and the public, exhibitors such as Teddy Nabisenke of Tsenke Designs did not make any sales even as they labored to showcase their works at Kololo for all the days the festival was on.

The festival had some glory days at the National theatre where some people actually showed up for the traditional music showcases for at least two days, which convinced organisers to move the closing festivities there too to avoiding empty seats suffered at Kololo.

Tanzania was announced the host of the 2019 edition and they have vowed to teach Uganda what hosting an event like Jamafest means.

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