In March 2023, we partnered with the KQ Hub Africa to organize the first-ever arts for civic engagement residency program. We advertised the residency through our various social media platforms and altogether seven artists applied to participate in the program. We selected five artists coming from the three artistic disciplines of music, theatre, and literature. For two weeks, the artists were immersed in Okere, participating in various community development projects, such as teaching at the community school and farming. They also collaborated with the community members to create artistic projects and attended virtual seminars delivered by various experts, artists, and scholars. Below, we provide some key aspects of the various activities, showing major highlights.
a. Physical workshop seminars: Three workshop seminars on key aspects of civic engagement were facilitated by Ojok Okello, the founder of Okere City who also curated and convened the residency program. The first workshop session specifically focused on understanding the concept of civic engagement and why it should be of interest to artists. It was understood during the workshop session that civic engagement is when an individual or group of people seek to address issues of public policy or concern. By participating in civic issues, an individual or a group seeks to protect public values or make a change in their community. Civic engagement includes communities working together in political and non-political ways. Civic engagement aims to address public concerns or promote the betterment of a community. This session was particularly helpful because most of the residency participants thought or perceived of civic-engagement to mostly be a political activity, such as voting, contesting in electoral politics, or speaking/debating multiparty political issues. The important question for the facilitator was to make the artists think more intently about themselves as civic agents. The fundamental question of how artists use their art as a tool for facilitating constructive social change was instructive during this session. Giving the example of Philly Bongoley Lutaaya, the Ugandan musician who was the first prominent Ugandan to give a human face to HIV/AIDS. He became a national hero because he was the first Ugandan to declare that he was HIV – positive in 1988 when HIV still carried a lot of stigmas. Partly due to his bold action, government policies were put in place and budgets were availed to fight the pandemic with progressive results. Indeed, some of the artists, such as Mary Favor who has worked on theatrical productions to sensitize the coastal people of Mombasa against dangerous practices of unwanted disposal of plastic waste which was a marine-life environmental threat fully appreciated her work as an artistic civic duty.
The focus of the second physical workshop seminar was on storytelling for change. During the session, Mr. Ojok re-echoed to the artists that change-making is a slow and painful process and using art to bring about this change might even be slower because in essence, “art mostly helps you to understand the problem better and think of how to solve it but not provide practical and immediate solutions”. In that same vein, he reminded them about James Baldwin’s inspiration that even when you change someone’s mindset just by a millimeter, it is the beginning of the change-making process. The session also presented some practical insights into how artists can develop a storytelling strategy, and create/build their audiences. It was emphasized during the session that there’s no such thing as a “general public” and so the artists were challenged to specify—or “segment”—their audiences as much as they could.
The third and last physical workshop facilitated by Mr. Ojok focused on advocacy as a tool for civic engagement. Whilst most artists thought or considered advocacy to simply be about speaking up on public policies and concerns, Mr. Ojok also emphasized that advocacy is about both words and actions that either a person or a people emit seeking to improve public policies, programs, and practices with the ultimate intentional of improving services or wellbeing of the general/ordinary citizenry. During the session, it was emphasized that advocacy was perhaps the strongest tool for ordinary citizens to participate in political processes and hold their leaders to account. Because artists are either admired or respected and most often have a big following, they can use these assets as opportunities to become advocates for improving service delivery and governance.
b. Virtual talks: During the course of the residency program, the artists were able to have a deeper appreciation and understanding of civic engagement as shared by five different experts, namely, Ber Anena, Kagayi Ngobi, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Jimmy Spire Ssentengo, and Jackie Asiimwe.
Ber Anena, a Ugandan poet who is currently a Ph.D. student in creative writing at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln shared with the artists about the role of poetry in nurturing civic engagement. In her submission, Anena reiterated the fact that poetry should be considered as one of the quintessential tools for making citizens to think more cogently and intentionally about the historical and political affairs of their country. Poetry, Anena recapped can be a people’s history on a page. For instance, through her poetry collection, a Nation in Labor which won the Wole Soyinka Poetry Prize in 2018, Anena succinctly captures the history of conflict in Northern Uganda and the painful experiences that the people went through. “It was my way of documenting our experience of war and that way, a history of the people of Northern Uganda has been archived through my poetry”. But should poets be quick to think that their poems shall bring about a quick political change? According to Anena, as she matures as a writer, she is increasingly becoming aware that she only hopes that her poems contribute toward the expansion of knowledge and promotion of critical thinking because it is only a critical mass of informed and knowledgeable people that can bring about any fundamental political change. “Believing that change is going to come tomorrow because of your civically conscious poetry is unrealistic and foolhardy”, she warns. Ber Anena also talked about the difficult economic question of how a poet can survive and thrive in Uganda. She encouraged poets to not just focus on pursuing poetry as a singular career option but also engage in income-generating activities or get gainfully employed. Through other engagements and jobs, we also get inspiration and experience to become better artists. “For instance, as a journalist, I covered many stories that gave me more knowledge and experience to write better poems” Anena quipped.
Another renowned Ugandan poet Kagayi Ngobi also gave a very riveting virtual talk. Being a professional poet is a hard sell in Uganda where the reading culture is poor and book sales can aren’t impressive. But Kagayi has defied many odds to emerge as a household name in the poetry circles of Uganda and one of the early definers of the poetry scene in the country. A lawyer by training, Kagayi knew he wanted to be a published and professional poet while still a law student. “Deciding to become a poet was an act of defiance and revolution as few people appreciated poetry as a professional practice”, Kagayi recollects. “But I knew I had to make big sacrifices and invest in the things that would pave the way for success, such as finding better writers as my mentors, being part of literary and poetry circles, and reading vastly”, he said. “You can never be a writer or a poet without reading”, Mr. Ngobi sternly told the artist. “Through reading the poetry works of some of Uganda’s most acclaimed poets like the late Okot p’Bitek and Prof. Sarah Kiguli, Kagayi was able to glean inspiration and improve his writing skills and craft by standing on the shoulders of giants. In 2020, he published his first poetry collection entitled, The Headline that Morning which became one of the best-selling poetry collections in Uganda. “You cannot claim to be a poet when you do not have published works”, Kagayi emphasized. To him, publishing quality poems helps a poet to be respected and appreciated which can make their work to be bought hence helping them to both economically survive and financially thrive. The pioneering work of people like Kagayi to define the poetry scene in Uganda has made it possible for other young poets to emerge and be mentored and nurtured. Through Kitara Nation, Kagayi’s poetry publishing and mentoring organization, young students at secondary schools and universities are now aspiring to become poets and are producing publishable works. Many poetry slams and platforms for poetry performances are also being organized providing unique platforms for expression. And these emerging developments are making poetry to become an essential tool for nurturing civic engagement. According to Kagayi, poetry helps us to understand the pertinent political questions and reality of our time and it’s only through understanding these complex questions that solutions can begin to emerge. Most importantly, a poet has to use their talent and knowledge to be of service to the people because he/she is the antennae of the society. “The great gift of a poet is to compose language that communicates realities; that shapes narratives; that gives hope”, Kagayi reechoed.
Dr. Tinashe Mushakavanhu, a literature academic at the University of Oxford also shared with the artists about creative writing as a tool for facilitating civic engagement. Whilst Dr. Tinashe’s writing has significantly contributed towards nurturing civic consciousness in Zimbabwe, his home country, he encouraged the artists to think globally to enable them to widen their understanding of the how the world operates. “Sometimes, you never where the opportunity comes from”, he said, before cautioning that, “however, thinking globally shouldn’t make you forget about your local contexts and realities because they help to ground us and remind us of who we are”. Dr. Tinashe also emphasized the significance of collaboration, encouraging the participants to seek opportunities for collaborations with other artists as much as possible. “As a creative writer, most of my current projects involve working with graphics designers, illustrators, poets and painters and through such collaborations, better artistic expositions, clarity and simplicity can be found”, he said. Collaborations also enable us to share our different world views, knowledge, realities and energies which are key assets for artistic creation and expression”, Mushakavanhu reflected. He concluded by encouraging the artists to be more intentional, determined and courageous to create artistic products that celebrate and appreciate African culture and greatness noting that for him, he is contributing towards the deepening and appreciation of Dambudzo Marachera’s literary works.
Cartoonist, academic and public intellectual, Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo who at the time of the residency program was organizing a successful civic action project called #KampalaPotholeExhibition also talked to the artists about the role of artists as civic educators and facilitators. He warned the artists that they must be prepared to be misunderstood, harassed, arrested, or even killed if they start being involved in civic action projects that question or puts those in political power in the spotlight. He also noted that if an artist is comfortable with the status quo, then they are simply entertainers, which he said is generally fine because people still need to be entertained even in difficult times. “But to rise above using art to entertain and enjoy to use it to raise awareness about and mobilize mass action against the social and economic injustices in our society is the ultimate role of conscious art”, Dr. Spire emphasized. And of course, this doesn’t come without fundamental risks. “You could be killed. You could be arrested. You could be harmed” He warned. “But it’s ultimately your choice and conscience that should direct you to do the right thing”, he said. For young artists still trying to build their audience and find their footing like the participants at the residency, Dr. Spire encouraged them to take it slow and learn as much as they can and strive to be as good as they possibly can be in their various forms of artistic expression. “This is a slow and painstaking process, but unfortunately, all artists must pass through this stage because it teaches you to be patient, resilient, skilled, and knowledgeable which are the prerequisites of any artistic excellence”, he concluded.
Lastly, Jacky Asiimwe, a social justice advocate and chief executive officer of Civsource Africa also shared with the artists about the pertinent role of art as a vehicle for driving social and political change. To Jacky, artists are endowed with the talent or gift to view and understand our society differently. “Many of us are locked up in boxes but artists oftentimes refuse to be boxed, enabling them to see what ordinary eyes don’t see”, she said. “Beyond seeing, artists also have the capabilities to express themselves in ways that teach and inspire people, in addition to mobilizing them to take civic action” she further explained. Additionally, Jacky explained that taking civic action requires boldness which most people do not have but artists can be so instrumental in reawakening this mass civic action. “This is important because fundamental social change is also possible if mass civic action is taken”, she said. But of course, artists too need to be inspired and supported to do the work that they do to nurture and facilitate civic engagement. For most artists, they need space, network, and financial resources to create and expand the scope and excellence of artistic products. But these asset bases are a rarity in Uganda. To this end, Jacky appreciated the Okere Artist-In-Residency program for providing a much-needed space for artists to learn and network, but also immerse themselves in community. Through Kounyesa Arts Fund, Civsource Africa is also supporting artists with financial resources to improve the quality and increase the number of their artistic products. For Jacky, local philanthropic initiatives that support artists to perform their public duties of informing people and inspiring civic/social change are needed now more than ever before.
c. Participation in community projects: To enable the artist to fully immerse themselves into the community, the artists fully participated in many projects of Okere City. Mercy Awino, for instance, taught English classes and organized debating sessions with the children. Apart from exciting the children because they were taught by a different ‘teacher’, the children also learned how to be more confident and how to express themselves better. Jackline Kobusinge actively rehearsed and practiced with our school choir to inspire them through her music. The artists also participated in farming activities, such as planting groundnuts.
Mercy Awino practicing how to play a xylophone with Petra, one of our school children.
d. Co-creation of artistic projects with the local community: One of the most exciting components of the residency was offering the artists a unique opportunity to co-create artistic products with the community members in Okere. Particularly, Alex Kitaka who is a playwright wrote a play about the importance of education for community development which was performed by the children. Rania Mulungi who is a poet also wrote a poem that was co-performed by the children, and Mary Favour also wrote a song that she performed together with the children.
Mary Favour performed a song together with the school children.
e. Reading and film screening: Two texts were read and discussed during the residency. Maya Angelou’s powerful poem, Still I Rise gave the artist inspiration to continue working towards perfecting their art despite the challenges they are experiencing at the moment. Martin Luther King’s speech, “The Dawn of a New Age” too was read and discussed by the participants. Reflecting on the significance of this speech, the artists agreed that the speech did not only inspire them to use their platforms to speak up on various forms of injustice in their societies but also enabled them to appreciate the relevance of collective action and non-violence methods of community organizing and civic engagement. The character of Chief Wembi, a cultural leader in the movie, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” that was screened also appealed to the artists. When drought occurred and his people were starving, the chief advocated that the government should come to the rescue of his people. In speaking up, he criticized the ruling political elites for their collective failure to feed starving citizens which cost him his life.
f. Games and leisure
They say all work and no play made Mary and Mercy dull girls. We avoided that by enjoying wonderful games of football, hide and seek, and white ant hunting, among others.
In conclusion, the Art for Civic Engagement (ACE) Residency program was a unique opportunity for experiential learning and networking for the artists. However, the value of participating in residency shall be appreciated differently by the artists. For instance, the residency enabled Alex Kitaka to challenge himself to be more cautious and intentional about using poetry and theatrical productions for fostering civic engagement. Jackline Kobusinge was able to imagine how to incorporate community voices and experiences in her music. Rania Mulungi was grateful for the time and space the residency offered to enable her to reflect deeply on her role as a poet in society. Mary Favour who traveled for more than 1,000 km from Mombasa to Okere was proud that the experience of being immersed in a different cultural context gave her newer frames for appreciating and celebrating Africa through her different forms of artistic expression. For Mercy Awino, a writer still trying to explore herself, the residency was a good place for self-introspection.
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