Earlier this year, I participated in The Art for Civic Engagement (ACE) Residency in Okere City, Uganda, in collaboration with KQ Hub Africa. Among the five artists chosen, I was the sole Kenyan representative in this residency. Our journey began with an 8-hour trip from Kampala to Okere City, situated in Northern Uganda, where our mission was to utilize art as a means of civic engagement.
Okere City, once a war zone with residents residing in refugee camps, has undergone a remarkable transformation into a peaceful and livable community. The resilience, determination, and tenacity displayed by the community left a profound impact on me. The prevalent theme of community and togetherness in Okere became the driving force behind my inaugural composition, which I have titled 'The Song of Okere'.
This musical piece drew inspiration from the traditional string instrument of the Lango people called adungu. Collaborating with the children of Okere, I incorporated indigenous melodies they played, ensuring the authenticity of the composition as a genuine representation of the people of Okere. Engaging in brainstorming sessions with children aged 5 to 16, I sought their perspectives on what the Okere City community meant to them.
I aimed to compose a cheerful and inclusive song that resonates with everyone. Viewing Okere City through the lens of children helped to simplify the complexities of war and tribal conflicts. The child's perspective shifts our focus towards the essence of community—a fundamental value in this village, where people genuinely look out for one another.
'The Song of Okere' celebrates the love, joy, unity, and hope that pervaded my experience in Okere. Engaging the community in discussions about maintaining unity and peace proved to be a profoundly impactful experience. What stood out was the community's eagerness to participate in healing conversations, especially considering the historical challenges faced by the Lango people due to Uganda's volatile politics.
The enduring impact of the 19-year rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) against the Ugandan government has resulted in significant population displacement in the region. Rebels continue to unleash violence—attacking displaced camps, burning homes, looting, abducting children, and committing acts of brutality.
The scars of this war linger, as revealed in my interview with a resident of Okere City who personally witnessed the war's devastating effects. He shared harrowing experiences of witnessing killings and surviving by hiding in bushes. Despite the trauma, he expressed hope for the future and gratitude for his present family. The community's yearning for peace and progress exposes them to potential manipulation by political leaders exploiting their trauma for personal gain. This inspired my second song, 'Winy Aber.' This song serves as a call for accountability from politicians and those in positions of power—demanding that resources be dedicated to the well-being of the people and steadfastly upholding basic human rights. It stands as my encouragement to the people of Okere to vocalize their concerns and make sure their voices are heard.
Crafted in the form of a freedom chant, this song employs traditional musical instruments to create a straightforward melody. I utilized repetition and the call-and-response technique, ensuring a memorable tune that anyone can join in singing. Collaborating with the community, I sought assistance in translating the lyrics into Lango because I believe that words carry a greater impact when expressed in one's native language. Creating a song that resonates even with children underscores the profound influence of art as a tool for community engagement and social change.
Lastly, I had the distinct privilege of bringing to life 'Clementine,' a character from Okot p’bitek's 'Song of Lawino.' We presented a preview of the theatrical adaptation for the people of Okere City, and the full play was later staged at Uganda's National Theatre in Kampala.
The book itself provides a poignant critique of the clash between traditional African culture and the encroachment of Western influences. Through Lawino's voice, the poem explores themes of identity, cultural pride, love, and the erosion of African traditions.
My character, Clementine, symbolizes modernity—a person who has forsaken her culture for the allure of the colonizer's lifestyle in pursuit of sophistication. To her, Western culture holds superiority over African traditions. Clementine is characterized by sassiness, drama, and a blatant disregard for tradition, making her story both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
A notable challenge in this project was the majority of the book's dialogue being in Lango, a language unfamiliar to me. Embracing the multicultural aspect of my creative work, I welcomed this challenge. After reading the English translation to understand the storyline, I collaborated with the director to translate Lawino's dialogues with Clementine.
Telling stories in different languages is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, yet it's a deliberate choice in my role as a storyteller. Authenticity in community creative projects necessitates the artist's willingness to speak the language of the people they are creating for.
During the residency, we engaged in workshops led by various artists, activists, and scholars, including Ber Anena, Jimmy Spire, Jackie Asiimwe, and Kagayi Ngobi. Alongside these sessions, we actively participated in sporting activities, book readings, and gardening.
My time in Okere was one of my best highlights of 2023.