Thanks to support from the Nyege Nyege arts collective, African women have fast become an influential force in the country’s electronic music scene. Based in Kampala, Uganda, Nyege Nyege also has two record labels and community studios that offer a place for female musicians from Uganda and other East African countries to record their music. An artist residency is offered to musicians ranging from novices figuring out their own sound to those who want to finalize recording and mastering full-length tracks.
Co-founded by Derek Debru, a Belgian, and Arlen Dilsizian, a Greek-Armenian, Nyege Nyege has also put on a festival every year since 2015. It not only provides international exposure for African musicians but also serves as a safe space to elevate marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, who are integral to the development of electronic music but who face political and social exclusion, especially in Uganda.
Nyege Nyege still plans on holding this year’s festival
In May, the label was invited to take part in a series of streamed concerts titled “Nyege Nyege, A New Hope” broadcast by the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon, Portugal, in celebration of International Museum Day.
Despite the restrictions imposed because of COVID-19, Nyege Nyege still plans on holding this year’s festival in Jinja, Uganda, from September 3 to 6, with significantly reduced physical capacity and a livestream.
In mid-March, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) suspended all resettlements of refugees and displaced peoples due to COVID-19, leaving thousands stranded in countries that were only supposed to be throughways to their final destination.
For many, the added months aren’t too much of a burden, having spent years waiting for their resettlement applications to be processed after waiting long stretches in refugee camps. But in Kenya, hundreds of LGBTQ refugees fleeing homophobic persecution from neighboring Uganda are now stuck in a torturous limbo, under a constant threat of being deported or unable to support themselves as they wait for flights to resume.
It's a holdover from British colonial-era laws reinforced by homegrown evangelical Christian movements
Homosexuality is still considered a criminal offense in both Kenya and Uganda, a holdover from British colonial-era laws reinforced by homegrown evangelical Christian movements. While LGBTQ people face police harassment and the threat of imprisonment in Kenya, it pales in comparison to the aggressive homophobia that characterizes Ugandan political and civil life.
Lydia Boyd, an anthropologists studying Ugandan attitudes towards homosexuality, has observed that the animosity is characterized by a belief that non-hetero sexual identities are an imposition by Western influences, at odds with Ugandan culture and familial bonds that are central to social networks. In recent months, LGBTQ activists have faced threats of violence, one being murdered in his own home, while others have been arrested on suspicion of homosexuality alone.
Rumors began to spread in late 2019 that Uganda was looking to reintroduce an anti-homosexuality bill from 2013, whose original draft included the death penalty for violators but was changed to life imprisonment. Though it was passed by President Yoweri Museveni, it was ultimately overturned by the constitutional court over legal technicalities, following months of international condemnation.
On Sunday, May 24, at least seven villagers were killed in their homes and others were reportedly kidnapped in the DRC’s North Kivu province in an attack attributed to the Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Members of the ADF settled in the forests along the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern border following their expulsion by Ugandan forces in the mid-1990s. They were tolerated by the locals until about six years ago, when they began to attack civilians and raze villages. They frequently target military bases in order to steal weapons and ammunition before retreating into the forest, where local farming operations help them stay active despite no known source of formal funding.
Secretive Jihadist Group
This latest attack casts further doubt on the efficacy of a Congolese military operation launched in October 2019 to dislodge the ADF from the Beni region in North Kivu province. The DRC’s armed forces, FARDC, did succeed in pushing rebels out of their stronghold while also establishing a permanent presence in the region, yet ADF fighters have continued to attack civilians, killing an estimated 1,000 people in four months after the start of the operation.
Of the numerous armed groups operating in this region of the DRC, the ADF has remained one of the most elusive and least understood players in the region. Though initially formed to remove Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni from power and largely led by Ugandans, the ADF has spent most of its existence in the DRC, embedding itself in local power structures to encourage recruitment. Propaganda from the group suggests it is trying to establish ties with international jihadist groups such as Islamic State with the intent of creating a local caliphate.
The fashion industry’s global supply chain has broken down due to COVID-19. Some 100,000 stores will probably close in the United States by fiscal 2025, with apparel retailers the hardest hit at 24,000 closures. The famous department store Neiman Marcus is expected to file for bankruptcy protection sometime this week.
The global health pandemic is not solely to blame for these failures, however. The reasons are deeper. When a US$10 shirt at H&M and a US$1,000 shirt from Hermès are made in the same factory, if not by the same hands, in an emerging market, then global fashion has a problem. The shift to fast fashion has overtaken our ability to adapt to a sustainable model.
For the future of sustainability, let us turn to Africa. The continent has the youngest population in the world—an estimated 60 percent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are under the age of twenty-five, and a fast growing middle class, yet the fashion world tends to treat Africans merely as consumers of second-hand clothing from the developed world, and thus are excluded from conversations about the future of fashion.
In solving this problem, some of Africa’s traditional sustainable fashion practices could play a role. The continent’s cultural heritage—like bark cloth manufacturing in Uganda, woven textiles from Nigeria and Ghana, traditional Berber weaving in North Africa, and beadwork from Maasai and Ndebele artisans—could play a central role in the revitalization of the fashion industry in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
Looking to Tradition
Bark cloth, in particular, has been receiving renewed attention. Long worn by traditional faith healers and as a burial shroud, it is increasingly being revitalized for bespoke fashion. The whisky-colored cloth is made from pounding the fibrous inner bark of the Ficus natalensis tree, variously known as a Natal fig, mutuba, or omutoma tree. It is a laborious process, which may explain how bark cloth production began to decline after the introduction of cotton as an alternative textile by Arab traders in the 19th century. Yet it was once widely worn, and the cloth is more like leather than other plant-based textiles in durability.
Entrepreneurial Ugandans have already started to use the textile for anything from clothing to bedspreads and pillow covers.
“I have been to too many funerals of bark cloth makers in recent years,“ says Ugandan visual artist Fred Kato Mutebi," These artisans -- mostly men, leave this earth with nothing for their families to inherit but their mallets.
Mutebi often uses bark cloth as canvases for his artworks. He estimates there are less than a hundred artisans with the knowledge of making bark cloth left in Uganda. “We as artists, designers, and Ugandans must do more to protect this tradition and help it go global.”
The Cloth for Royalty
Bark cloth is most closely associated with the people of two of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms, Tooro and Buganda. The Kingdom of Tooro, in particular, is seeking to develop its bark cloth industry. The Queen mother, HRH Best Kemigisa, has advocated for the planting of trees used to produce bark cloth, saying it will not only provide jobs but also serve to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Her son, HRH King Oyo Rukidi IV, is currently championing a new initiative that will create jobs centered on the Tooro cultural heritage of bark cloth manufacturing.
"The Omutoma tree that Barkcloth comes from has been with man since the beginning of time and used as a shroud, for fashion, a fire preserver, a blanket, used in spiritual rituals and we intend on continuing the heritage into the future," said Hon. Peter Apuuli Rusoke, the Minister of Culture of the kingdom of Tooro.
Surely some of Africa’s other indigenous fashion traditions can similarly be promoted at this time. Now is the time to develop collaborative opportunities to ensure the future of such traditions, from Uganda to South Africa to Morocco.
Camilla Barungi is a Ugandan-born, New York-based model, entrepreneur, and social innovator with a special interest in African sustainability, fashion, emerging technologies, and film. (Twitter: @camillabarungi)
Regional governmental organizations in Africa have a mixed history. Some like ECOWAS in West Africa have been able to facilitate collective action and drive change in the region, while others like the Maghreb Union in North Africa lay dormant. Somewhere in between is the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, better known as IGAD. It was established in 1996 as a successor to the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development, created in 1986. IGAD includes eight countries from the Horn of Africa, the Nile Valley, and the Great Lakes Region—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda—and has its headquarters in Djibouti City. Its mandate includes development with a focus on peace and security.
In the long-term IGAD and the EAC may merge but, the two blocks have very different origins. The East African Community (EAC) started as a trade bloc, there was a custom union between Uganda and Kenya even before independence, then Tanganyika (comprising the mainland of present-day Tanzania) joined in 1927, the union of East Africa collapsed in 1977 and then was revived in 2000, while IGAD did not start as a trading bloc and is still behind EAC in economic integration.
Don't Wait for Peace to Pursue Development
Some civil society leaders have wondered aloud if IGAD is putting the cart before the horse, and whether there shouldn’t be greater emphasis on solving the region's many conflicts before working on regional integration, let alone establishing economic corridors, which may run through conflict zones.
In 2019, I wrote an article criticizing IGAD and suggesting that its endless search for peace was a trap, because “sustainable peace objectives with high standards of security and stability” were the bait that entices stakeholders to ignore the need for private sector development and regional economic integration. My article “IGAD and Peace Trap” focused on the IGAD peace-for-development approach.
To be clear, IGAD's peace building efforts in South Sudan and Somalia have been successes. IGAD led the negotiations that achieved independence of South Sudan. After a new wave of the civil war in South Sudan beginning in 2013, IGAD launched a mediation effort which helped the two parties of the conflict reach several peace agreements. Of theses the 2018 Khartoum agreement was the final and most decisive one.
In Somalia, IGAD led efforts led to the IGAD Peace Support Mission in Somalia (IGASOM) in March 2005, approved by the AU in September 2006, then approved by the United Nations Security Council in December 2006. The current African Union Mission in Somalia AMISOM replaced IGASOM.
Still, we should build on available conditions, and let people and local communities push the process of accomplishing peace forward through economic development. Hopefully, this third foundation of IGAD will witness the balance between peace and development.
IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan
The development of the IGAD Regional Infrastructure Master Plan (IRIMP) is ongoing and offers a new foundation for IGAD. It focuses on the development of major economic development corridors (EDCs) that cross borders, and the integrated policies and laws to support them. If implemented by 2040, as envisioned, it will offer a clear move away from the protectionism that has characterized the region for far too long.
In March 2020, the first forum for IRIMP consultative dialogue was held in Entebbe, Uganda. I was the chair of that forum. This consultative meeting was meant to engage with civil society leaders interested in the development of IGAD generally and the IRIMP specifically.
Elsadig Abdalla, IGAD director for economic & regional integration, said the Entebbe dialogue provided valuable inputs that would enhance the IRIMP for more effective implementation. He emphasized that all IGAD members were actively involved in infrastructure: “Ahead of the implementation of IRIMP, to date, member states have invested nearly US$20 billion in infrastructure development alone.” The Entebbe dialogue witnessed broad participation from NGOs and the private sector drawn from seven IGAD states with the notable exception of Eritrea.
From a Master Plan to an Action Plan
In April 2018, IGAD signed a contract for the development of the IRIMP with consulting firms IPE Global Limited and Africon Universal Consulting in Nairobi, Kenya. The development of this master plan—with the support of the African Development Bank—is a vital step toward achieving economic integration in the IGAD region and to contribute to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) goals of streamlined trade in goods and services.
“The economic corridor approach transforms transport corridors into engines of socio-economic development.”
“Corridor approaches to economic development have increasingly informed strategy and plans in Africa over the past ten to fifteen years; the latest AU thinking continues to refine and further develop this approach,” said Jamie Simpson, executive director at IPE Global, in a conversation with the author at the IGAD event in Entebbe.
Simpson confirmed that projects in the areas of energy and transport have been identified as priorities in the master plan. These projects are estimated to cost between US$6 billion and US$10 billion, which will be invested in a phased manner.
IGAD’s interest in the development of EDCs builds on well-established research in Africa over the past decade. An Africa Development Bank report on developing economic corridors, makes a compelling case for the role of EDCs. “The economic corridor approach transforms transport corridors into engines of socio-economic development”, the report reads. It suggests that local plans for linking the geographical surroundings of each member country should be made in line with the corresponding EDC plan.
A crucial point made in the report is about the role of the private sector in the development of these corridors: This partnership should start in the planning phase and continue through construction. A list of existing African transport corridors prepared by EENI Global Business School contains nineteen corridors. The map shows how corridors became new rivers of development on the continent.
As far as regional blocs in Africa are concerned, IGAD began as development regional institutional and eventually assumed security roles. With the IRIMP the organization can fulfill one the most pressing needs of East Africa and be a model for others to follow.
Mekki Elmograbi chaired the first ever IRIMP consultative dialogue for IGAD in Entebbe, Uganda in March 2020. Elmograbi is a former Sudanese diplomat and is currently the head of the independent think tank Mekki Center.
As the worst locust infestation East Africa has seen since the 1970s continues to wreak havoc, the United Nations has warned that a second, significantly larger swarm originating in Somalia poses a grave threat to food security for millions of Africans.
Consuming the Food of 3.5 Million People in a Day
At the end of February, swarms were already devastating crops in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, and continued to spread to Tanzania, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A swarm of desert locusts typically can occupy 100 square kilometres, and it’s estimated a swarm this size could consume crops in a day that would feed 3.5 million people.
Combating the locust spread was already proving a monumental challenge before COVID-19 led to the implementation of restrictions that have hampered the infestation response. Even with satellite technology to better track and optimize what limited resources African governments and volunteers have at their disposal, the effects of climate change have created prime breeding conditions for the locusts.
The Second Wave Could Be Twenty Times Worse
The second wave is expected to be twenty times worse than the first, posing a serious threat to food security as the voracious young adults seek out newly planted crops. Many smaller farmers depend on foreign aid to supplement their income, aid that is now threatened as international efforts are focused on the COVID-19 response.
In a public address delivered on Saturday, March 21, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni ordered a 30-day closure of all border entry and exit points in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Total confirmed cases in Uganda have reached fourteen now. All passenger flights into Uganda are banned, save for emergencies. Exceptions have also been made for cargo planes and UN planes involved in emergency and relief work.
Several other African countries have instituted similar measures. Yet Uganda has also taken the step of closing down its refugee transit and reception centers as well. Uganda has maintained a relatively open refugee policy for years, hosting 1.4 million displaced people, most of whom fled conflict from neighboring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Museveni’s decision on this matter treads a fine line between retaining a commitment to protect refugees and mitigate COVID-19 infections and deaths. Many of the refugee camps are already overcrowded and lack sufficient numbers of intensive care units and ventilators.
Why It Matters
Uganda’s radical measures reflect the difficult decisions national governments must make in terms of protecting life: do they prioritize their citizens, or strive to address the needs of refugees as well? In most situations, refugees end up on the losing end of these questions, as few politicians are willing to risk their careers defending people who are not their constituents. This also means that refugees can become scapegoats for government failings when managing crises like a viral pandemic. Uganda’s decision makes practical sense, as healthcare systems the world over struggle to provide enough equipment to diagnose and treat infected patients, so allowing more potential carriers into the country is a risk that would most likely exacerbate the situation. Nonetheless, Uganda should take steps to collaborate with its regional partners to support refugees in order to prevent COVID-19 from taking hold in such a vulnerable population, while also ensuring they do not become the victim of crisis-induced panic.