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The arts vs office mentality in Uganda

When President Museveni announced that Arts courses were “useless”, he was tapping into a belief held by many Ugandans raised to believe an office job is the only legitimate form of work, and that artists are failures. We would all be poorer without the arts.

There are parents who say to their children at the beginning of their holidays: “Now that you are done with this school term, you should relax by doing less serious activities”. What is sad is that the “less serious activities” include learning music, painting and sports.

Interview a random selection of Ugandan students and they will tell you they want to become lawyers, doctors, judges, and so forth. Not one will tell you they want to become a writer, or artist, fashion designer or poets. The reason being that their parents or sponsors are not willing to “waste” their money on dreams that to them are never going to pay back even a single coin.

So my questions:

  1. If you think that studying Accountancy, Medicine, and other such disciplines are the only serious lines of study, have you ever tried studying music?
  2. Have you thought about how much our doctors earn? Or how some of them hate their jobs?
  3. Do you know how much fun it is to be an artist? Or how it feels to be paid after you have had fun and entertained others in the process?

Allow me to have this in upper case. WE ARE TIRED OF INDIVIDUALS MEETINGS US AND ASKING US WHAT ELSE WE DO. Who says that as an Artist, I can’t survive on the Arts? Some of the more self-satisfied people even ask things like: “Besides being a DJ, is there anything serious you are doing with yourself?”

For those possessed with the office mentality, this is for you; what matters is not the word office. There is something known as a work station. When a visual artist working in his or her studio, that is their work station. A performing artist on stage is also on duty, busy working.

Who says you need to put on a suit and work in an office to do something of value to society?
Who says you need to put on a suit and work in an office to do something of value to society?

With all due respect for the office of our president, for Museveni to say that Arts/Humanities courses are useless simply means that he does not actually understand what it is to be human, and no idea of the central place the arts have in life or how the arts encourage us to think of the way society is run. Humans can do without the arts, but would you want to? Neither does he understand how science and technology are complemented by art, even if his cast of mind is entirely utilitarian. The ancient Egyptians knew this, as does Apple today (at least they did).

If we were to sink all art/the Arts in a big ocean, we will have put an end to our culture. Our tales will be like those of hunting written by the hunter, because how will our stories be told by scientists when? The African signature attached to whatever we do will be lost.

If I may ask what someone might consider a rhetorical question: How does Accountancy, Medicine, and the likes promote culture in a country like Uganda?

On a day like today, some of those who want to please society are dressed in suits, rushing to what they call “office” for either work or status. You, as an artist, might be dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, your hair might be long and uncombed. Those heading to their office might look at you as if you are from another planet, have a mental problem, are stoned, a thug, or a complete loss to your family. But I say to you today: continue going to that office, being stressed and miserable every day with what you are doing while reassuring yourself it’s okay to be miserable because society respects you. We “thugs” will continue to live relatively happy independent lives as we make the ends meet. But please do not come crying to us at the end of the month about being paid “peanuts” for your hard work.

In a country like Uganda, what matters today is not always the academic documents that you hold while seeking employment, but what lies inside your mind.

In life you can acquire as many certificates, diplomas, degrees and PhDs as you want, but if you lack the creative mind your mother bore you with, it might be hard for you to make it in this world that I and I live in.

So whether one is a DJ, musician, singer, graffiti artist, dancer, painter, photographer or designer, respect them for what they are for you neither house them nor put food on their table.

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