“Nsaze akaviiri nze nenyuma. Sitera golola ngolodeko. Mpakinze nemiwula jafene bambi olyeeko. Engeregeze nazinabyeko leero. Ebijanjalo kumanyo nabijeeko… Naki aah please be my lover”
These are the first few words from Naki, a song that narrates a love story in the Ugandan countryside.
The song, which features a simmer of African folklore and percussion presents “Love Made in Africa”, way before the modern times’ romantic setups with dimmed mood lights. Way before love was defined by a lady clad in a long expensive red or purple dress with her pursuer seated across a candle-lit table tightening the bowtie on his deep black tuxedo and offering a glass of wine to the fine lady.
It speaks of a type of love that is meager of iPhones, selfies, makeup, and flashy jewelry. It is a love raw, innocent, and real. A story of a man who (in previous times) had attempted to please the love of his life in vain but would give it one last shot.
The lyricist’s words loosely translate: “I just trimmed my hair and I’m looking very smart today. I would normally not press my clothes, but for you I did. I also came with a fine present; some fresh jackfruit. I washed my face today and brushed the usual ugly plaque of beans off my teeth. I first fell for you many years ago when we were young and ate guavas but I didn’t have the courage to tell you back then; my fear for your mother was profound. I, however, return ready, dressed in my cheap new crisp shoes. Naki (the girl’s name) please be my lover.”
This song is by Afro-soul vocalist and guitarist, Kenneth Mugabi, who among other lively artists had revelers pacing musically and over the moon, in an unforgettable concert last Saturday at the just concluded Bayimba International Festival of the Arts.
The journey to Lunkulu, an island overlooking Lake Victoria
That morning, I was up before the hour of five o’clock to get ready, but to also confirm that I had everything I needed before ordering for a motorcycle taxi (Boda Boda as we call them in Uganda) at 7:30 am to ride me to Namboole, where I would board a 45-minute taxi to Mukono taxi park (a journey much shorter on a good day without heavy traffic).
From this point, I enjoyed a 25-minute matatu (taxi) drive along the Mukono-Katosi road, to a roundabout in a little town called Kisoga.
As I disembarked the taxi I was greeted by a team of Boda Boda riders. “Bayimba Lunkulu tugende senior?” they asked as two guys scrambled for my bags hoping to win the chance to ride me along a dirt road through a tea plantation, to Namazina landing site. “5000 shillings only sir”, they said with a grin.
An obvious pick, wasn’t I? My tripod was visibly laced to the side of my backpack, and a vintage metallic mug sagged from the other end. There’s no way I would just be one of the locals.
They could easily tell I wasn’t from around (as the contemporary saying goes) and with the branding around town they certainly knew to expect groups of people jetting in from Kampala to camp at Lunkulu Island for the 12th edition of the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts that took place between 1st and 4th August 2019, a busy time for them to make a kill.
The previous night I had called a cousin of mine who was already on the island. My aim was to establish the most desirable route.
I quickly learned that Lunkulu Island was accessible by both boat and a footbridge, but with the limnophobia in me (fear for the lake) there was absolutely no way I would hearken to the nice words from a clique of Boda Boda men taking me the direction of a motorized canoe.
Fast forward... I took another taxi to Nkokonjeru town where I got stranded in the rain for at least an hour and a half.
My idle-self chose to order for an early lunch of rice and beef at a local restaurant. Of course, this earned me the favors of sitting under their shelter as I waited for the rains to calm before I could continue with my journey to Lunkulu Island.
The spooky stroll to the footbridge
From Nkokonjeru I jumped onto another Boda Boda for about 15 minutes to a gazetted parking lot by the lake, manned by the Bayimba Cultural Foundation, the organizers of the event.
“Just follow that path until you find a footbridge”, were the words (in the local language) of Simon the Boda Boda chap as he gestured towards a narrow path leading through a bush.
“Very unfriendly of him, he should have ridden me through this bush”. These were the thoughts in my head as I trekked the slippery path, needless to say, that I was wrongly dressed in crocs which made my abandoned state worse.
I had camera equipment on me, the road was bushy and empty; fear bells were everything I could think about. But as they say, a little uncertainty makes part of the experience.
About 15 minutes later my eyes met with a security camp with a few saloon cars, and right next to it was a man with an AK47, dressed in plain army green; a scene that freaked every little ounce of courage left in me.
As I garnered all the courage to draw closer, his face slowly lit up with a smile. “You’re most welcome sir”, he said as he pointed towards the direction of a footbridge. Whoosh! I made a fast-paced walk to the other side of the bridge which led over a swamp, right into a forested reception.
You guys know how I am in this continuous relationship with nature. The sounds of forest and lake birds, crickets, monkeys, with noisy bellows from hyraxes remixed with distant sounds of African drums seemed a kingly procession. My first steps on Lunkulu Island felt like “welcome home”. I could now wipe the sweat off my forehead.
Camping with a team of fantastic bloggers
Having received my special festival passport from the organizers, I was united with the team of bloggers who were here for a retreat and was shown my little tent, one of the benefits all official Bayimba content creators got, a special secure camping ground next to the artists.
Camping is the only accommodation type available at the festival. Very fun until it rains lions and hyenas (cats and dogs).
The night before I arrived, it had rained so heavily and all their clothes were soaked in it. I found them mopping the insides of their tents, and bringing clothes out to dry. The mischievous soul in me felt giggly, but I felt sorry for them. I had packed an inflatable (air) mattress to keep me above the ground, and as they say, I think I came with good weather.
Camping tip: “Choose your spot well. A slightly slanting spot is usually better than a flat area which can often clog with water.”
Bayimba was an entertaining experience
That evening and night we were hotly entertained at the Centre Stage by seasoned live stage performers including Aziz Azion, an energetic performance by Kenneth Mugabi, an animated display of largely Congolese music by Muserebende Hytham Ssali; as well as an amazing show by melanin ambassador, Sandra Nankoma, who recently won the Best Female Artiste in African Inspirational Music at the Afrima Awards.
The night before, Gravity Omutujju had performed and on Sunday, Apio Moro took to the stage after a stunning performance by Sandra Suubi, whose song “Nsiimye” (an appreciation to God) gets me emotional. I love it!
The festival also presented a couple of celebrated producing DJs like Shiru, Poros from the UK, Ras Brown, MAD, and DJ Mash-Up who rocked the Bukunja Stage.
The fact that all performers were required to perform with a live band kept me engaged, but the unknown talent in the artist line-up even impressed more. Surprisingly, even the guys I had never heard of, had the crowd shaking, and at no time did it feel like they were curtain-raisers. Things like this point to something correct being done.
The free-spirited vibe and the artsy style presented in African music rich in content, dance, drama, and fashion was nice to experience. I also enjoyed bumping into some old friends and meeting people from different walks of life and races.
Everyone seemed friendly, minding their own business and I still wonder how you will have thousands of adults (mostly youth) on an Island but not have a fist-exchange or some signs of mayhem.
Potential for tourism
During my time at Bayimba, I got the appreciation of how an event built around the arts could be a boost for local tourism and a potential attraction for foreign travelers. Perhaps with much earlier marketing and bringing more stakeholders on board (including those in the tourism sector), this could be developed into a product to compete with the Edinburgh Festival or Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
I saw Ugandans spending on food and drink, and I saw muzungus buying coffee, nyama choma, crafts, and souvenirs. Of course, people also spent on tent hire, transportation to the island (taxi, fuel, Boda Boda, and boat); and the endless benefits that accrue from this arrangement for people along the value chain is a story to document for another day.
There is often the urge by event planners to replace roadside stalls with exotic tents, as this usually seems a more presentable display. The guys at Bayimba, however, maintained the stalls in their raw state. I guess this partly explains the concept of “a festival of the African arts”.
I had my tea served in a clean cup from one of those “toninyira-wooteli-style” restaurants and although my favorite Ugandan snack was double the price I’d pay to my favorite Rolex guy in Kyanja, the stall was similar and authentic in every way.
This year’s edition had various fringe events including a fashion show, a film shrine locally called “ekibanda kya filimu”, a lively slum festival that left everyone wondering where it came from, and then we had the bloggers’ retreat which was coordinated by a friend and veteran travel blogger, Charlotte Beauvoisn from the Diary of a Muzungu.
Part of the program for the bloggers’ retreat at the Bayimba Festival involved sharing and learning from one another on subjects relating to writing for the arts, video marketing, monetizing blogs and videos, etc.
Meeting the founder
From a short chat with Faisal Kiwewa the founding director of Bayimba Cultural Foundation, a multiple-branched organization that focuses on uplifting arts and culture in Uganda through cultural exchange and creativity; you can already see a man with so many incredible plans for the future.
Needless to say that you must think hard and big to own 100 acres of land which is only wholly inhabited for a few days a year. How do you even breakeven or does he hold a permit to mine gold in his free time.
Faisal shared about his upcoming solar project to light up the island with sustainable energy, a zero carbon footprint target in the near future, recycling of plastics into event coupons, lobbying for grants to build capacity and create alternative income sources for the fishing villages, boosting the telecom network on the island for a better client experience, creating more festival activities on the island and the lake, as well as intentions to transform the island into a retreat for families and a center of excellence for creatives during the quieter months of the year.
For a party destination that is off the grid of many social amenities, it must take a lot of investment, effort, and dedication to pull off an event like the Bayimba Festival. This being their second edition on the island (with the same level of motivation) I can only see it grow bigger and bigger in the years to come.
“Whether I will return for the next edition is now just a matter of life, health, and schedule. Perhaps I’ll see you in the next one.”