“Lunkulu is calling” was the favourite hashtag rolling around social media weeks before the first weekend of August 2019, when the 12th edicition of Bayimba International Festival of the Arts festival went down at Lunkulu Island.
Lunkulu is a two hours drive out of Kampala on the Mukono side along Jinja road, and this is the home of Bayimba foundation from two years ago. The drive could be shorter than two hours, but Jinja is a busy road, being the main import route for goods coming from Kenya to Uganda, and by extension to Rwanda.
Organising 12 editions of the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts is not a mere feat. Besides, Bayimba is also known to spearhead other major activities including the Kampala International Theatre Festival (KITF), the Amakula Film Festival, the Doa Doa East Africa performing arts market, and a multitude of workshops to improve the quality of arts education through the Bayimba Academy.
This is the 12th edition of the festival, and the second on the island. As expected, this shift comes with its unique set of achievements and challenges. I get a moment to sit down with a drowsy Faisal Kiwewa, the founder of Bayimba, and try to understand how it’s been at Lukulu.
I am curious to learn how Bayimba was able to pull an international festival with a 90 percent Ugandan line up. On one hand, while this was a cost saving mechanism, it was also a good sign of the maturity that Bayimba has brought to the Ugandan cultural and creative economy. Bayimba spent five years creating regional festivals outside of Kampala, in places such as Gulu, Mbarara and Mbale. Evidently, their work has come of age. Uganda is rich in its diverse cultures, food, fashion, music – all these are alive here, and Bayimba invested years of work in packaging them for the contemporary festival space, and this edition of the festival was just the testament you needed.
Faisal explains that they spent much of the resources creating facilities for guests on the island – tenting, footpaths, bridges, lighting, toilets, signage, showers. You can appreciate that this destination has been spruced up over the past year to ensure the comfort and variety of facilities for the guests who travel hundreds of kilometres to the festival.
The festival programming was diverse, and intense – four nights, and three stages, with every night ending with an afterparty powered by some fine DJs spinning tunes till early morning on a stage set next to the lake. Kenneth Mugabi stole the hearts of many, and turned out to be the festival highlight for many who attended. His ability to connect with the audience, and immerse them into his music, amazing vocal skills, and a powerful band left the audience yearning for more. His performance was certainly talked about throughout the festival. Sandra Suubi, a sculptor and musician was also part of the diverse and talented lineup.
Leo Mkanyia, originally from Tanzania and now a resident of Uganda was yet another festival highlight. He performs alongside his father, a guitar maestro of the golden age of East African music (the famous DDC Mlimani Park orchestra). His works not only point at bridging the generation gap, but also echoes efforts of younger artists in East Africa, who are trying to ensure the legacy of their parents continues to reign, as is the case with the Ongala Music festival coming up later this month (August 2019).
Beyond the glory of a new destination, Bayimba is faced with a new set of challenges, including having moved into an area that is very low on literacy. Faisal explains that the priorities of the foundation continue to evolve, and right now – community engagement for development of the islanders is key. Faisal mentions that Bayimba Academy is setting up an arts education program on the island, and a virtual bank that will come in handy for the fishing community that makes good money but is spent immediately with equal zeal. This speaks of the work ahead, beyond the event just being a destination for an amazing cultural experience that is uniquely Ugandan.
For the past decade, the work of Bayimba has been generously supported by international funders, and local corporate sponsorships. The festival ticketing has grown over time, from when attendants paid $10 dollars per night at the Uganda National Theatre to now paying $300 for a festival experience.
Pioneers such as Faisal Kiwewa, and his apprentice – Herman Kabubi who is taking over as the Director of programs at Bayimba Foundation, are part of the visionaries that have taken the courage to innovate and develop alternative creative platforms. The platforms not only give artists the opportunities to grow in their discipline but also allows them to connect to other global platforms.
Organizers of festivals across East Africa can testify to how it is increasingly becoming difficult to put together commercially viable cultural festivals. Infrastructure, energy, production, security and talent are costly elements that often require some form of subsidy, to enable organisations to break even.
While East Africa is celebrating the addition of yet another destination festival at Lunkulu Island, perhaps it is time to find answers to the deeper questions of local ownership and long term sustainability of our cultural festivals. In many ways, we celebrate the likes of Faisal Kiwewa and Herman Kabubi as Africans rising, people who stick their neck out in the odds, think globally and act local, but also should stop and acknowledge the long way we have to go to ensure such pioneers live to see their dreams and visions become self sustaining.