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 the hosts of the 2017 edition that took place early this month.
For many artists, performers and cultural practitioners 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 artists from all the member states of the East African Community to turn the host city into a boiling point 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 even just showed up and sold merchandise even when they had not been invited but that was almost it.
Since the organizers – the government through the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development had not advertised the event, Ugandans generally knew little to nothing about what was going on, the anticipation of artists selling their work to anxious 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 didn’t happen, most of the times, the performances at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds were watched by the performers from the different countries instead of the intended audience.
“The stage and organization here is good,” said an official on team 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 wasn’t on Kampala’s billboards downtown or even near the two venues – Kololo and the National Theatre.
According to an insider from the ministry, confusion had started in the preparation phase of the festival; “The ministry had wanted to organize the whole show at Nambole Stadium with a hefty budget of over shs3bn set aside for the venue.”
The source says that after moving back and forth, Nambole was rejected in favor of Kololo and the National Theatre though the works to renovate the later for the festival would only start in mid-July, only a month away from the festival.
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 and the following debut cultural presentation didn’t save things as even the invited diplomats refused to show face.
The ministry, allegedly handled Jamafest the way they handle political events; apparently the ministry had sent out over 5000 invites to Diplomats, Politicians and MPs.
These were expected to attend the official opening at Kololo that would also be graced by the president Yoweri Museveni.
While banking on the attendance of the president, the ministry didn’t put in an effort to invite the public, in fact, even the few publicity fliers that were later ordered came without dates or even venues of where the festival would take place.
However, when the president embarked on a trip to Masaka to talk about the trending Constitution Amendment Bill, all the diplomats, MPs and many politicians cancelled their attendance; “The diplomats tent was empty glaring at us all through,” complained one Andrew Ssebagala, an artist.
Without an attendance from both politicians and the public, exhibitors like Teddy Nabisenke of Tsenke Designs were not making any sales even when 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, forcing the organisers to move the closing there too avoiding empty seats chairs they had suffered at Kololo.
Tanzania was announced the host of the 2019 edition and they’ve vowed to show Uganda what hosting an event like Jamafest means.