The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in Africa and more specifically East Africa saw African governments react with laxity in the early stages of the outbreak, only to realize the seriousness and speed with which this pandemic is sweeping the globe. This necessitated the haste implementation of measures to curb the spread of the corona virus and minimise the impact the outbreak might cause not only in the economic sector but other areas as well. Kenya and Uganda would later follow suit and in addition to actions recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the two governments went further to prohibit gatherings of all kinds and nature as well as imposing a curfew and complete lockdown respectively.
On 25th March 2020, the president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta announced among other measures the immediate enactment of a nationwide 7:00pm to 6:00am curfew with only the gazetted essential service providers being allowed to operate beyond these hours. This was preceded by implementing the WHO recommendations including the suspension of all public gatherings. This saw the closure of all entertainment night spots as well as hotels thus creative artists who depended on such businesses
to earn a living were stripped off their sources of daily bread. In a similar move though much bolder, the Ugandan president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni imposed a total lockdown and complete closure of all borders on March 30th 2020. This meant that no one could gain entry to or exit the republic of Uganda. Only truck drivers carrying goods were allowed in and out upon stringent scrutiny. The boarder of Busia was obviously affected by this announcement. Busia County, priding itself as the gateway to East Africa, and bordering the Busia District of Uganda to the west, islocated on the former western province of Kenya and has two road transit boarder points to Uganda; at Malaba town and Busia Town. Busia Town border boasts of numerous socio-economic and cultural activities exchanged between the two town of Kenya and Uganda.
For a long period of time, the residents and more so creative and cultural artist fraternity of the two border towns of Busia have enjoyed a mutually beneficial and friendly relationship, which has led to intercultural marriages as well as exchange of creative ideas and collaborations while boosting the local economy of the two counties. It is through such interactions that the Kenyan shilling is often referred to as a ‘dollar’ in Uganda. Unfortunately, this lockdown has caused seriouslosses in all sectors the creative entertainment businesses seemingly being some of those most hit by this crisis. The dollars are no longer flowing as they used to be and creative artistic ventures have since been exterminated.
The Ugandan side of the Busia border enjoys hosting masses of Kenyans especially during the night. This is due to the fact that over 80% of entertainment joints including night clubs on the Ugandan side are visited by Kenyan while 70% of these major joints are owned by Kenyans. This has facilitated a 24 hour economy around the border of the two countries and especially in Uganda, since the Kenyans crossing over require all kinds of services available at night including food and accommodation when needed. This influx of Kenyans in Ugandan border for entertainment is necessitated by a number of factors:
- Most of the entertainment joints are owned by Kenyans thus Kenyans feel the need to go and promote their own business people.
- The expense incurred to enjoy a night in Kenya is almost two times the expense incurred in Uganda. For instance, a bottle of beer that costs an average of Ksh. 200 in Busia Kenya goes for Ksh. 100 in Busia Uganda, and this applies to food and even accommodation as well.
Therefore, in an effort to save and get more for less, Kenyans prefer having fun in Uganda.
- The friendly nature of the border officers to Kenyans of crossing the over to Uganda.
- The Ugandan cultural foods that appeal to Kenyans also triggers some of them to cross the
border just to enjoy even a simple meal.
- The normal friendly nature of the Ugandan people, mostly those working in these
It was noted that majority of those Kenyans living in Busia Town and its environs agree to have spent their money in Uganda several times to get one of these services, with many of them acknowledging that the main reason they cross to the Ugandan is to go to the night clubs for a drink and music.
Consequently, those who frequent Uganda in search of these pleasures are between 16 to 50 years with the younger group composed of creative and cultural service providers as well as enthusiastic youths who want to enjoy their youth hood while the older unit composed of Busia County employees and business people who just want to spend their good time and money well.
CROSS-BORDER CREATIVE VENTURES
Owing that the booming businesses at the Ugandan side of the border are nigh clubs and drinking spots, this side enjoys a host of Kenyan creatives including Djs, Mcs, hypemasters, local musicians and occasionally celebrity artists like Arrow Boy, Otile Brown, Nadia Mukami among others. While these celebrities bring with them a fortune due to larger crowds that gather to catch a glimpse of the artist and enjoy their music live, the other group ensure they give their best to keep the crowds entertained all night.
On the other hand, while the Kenyan side may not be privileged to enjoy extensive numbers of Ugandans visitors in search of fun the services of the local artist and entertainers are very much sought after. Majority of the areas where the services of Ugandan artists are imported are public and community gatherings and functions that involve processions such as funerals and weddings. In such events, music bands and cultural dancers are invited to entertain the guests and escort the dead body
or the newlyweds respectively. Subsequently, roadshows look for comical dancers and masquerades from Uganda as part of a marketing and publicity strategy to attract the public to whatever is or will be going on. Of course all these services come at a cost from the pockets of even organizers, producers and owners of these businesses.
Recording artist are equally feeling the pinch of this Pandemic. They are forced to produce their music in Busia Kenya, and while they acknowledge that this is indeed a good thing because by so doing they boost their County’s own economy, they admit that besides this coming at an extra cost, they miss the input and creative touch of their Ugandan counterparts.
Similarly, Videographers, photographers and filmmakers can no longer frequently move between the two countries to cover events and/or access locations for shooting, or even vend their products and services while interacting with the fellow artists. This is an obvious indication of the collaborative spiritbetween creative of the two countries that is not being enjoyed at the moments.
With this reality being posed by the pandemic, it is evident that creatives residing and working around these two border towns are having the worst time of their careers. And it becomes even more difficult when one acknowledges that the culmination of all this is unknown neither can its impacts be ignored.
Owners of the many entertainment joints are certainly feeling the economic impact just as much as the creatives who help in keeping these places alive. With these joints closed, it means that no income is coming in and their stock is rotting off behind those closed doors. Equally, the local creatives, who by the way operate on small scale local level and do not make lots of money from their services yet are in dire need of it, find themselves wasting away in their houses with nothing to do, leave alone affording a meal. And this gets worse upon the reality that some of them have families they need to feed and take care of. For instance, in Kenya some of those interviewed reiterate that indeed the closure of the boarder and by extension cancellation of all public gatherings has been a toll on them, and they have had to engage in other ventures just to keep the day going by. Yet these venture have no relationship whatsoever with their creative prowess. Some have had to hawk masks, others to sell locally produced liquid soaps while others have opted to engage in online businesses which is another hectic and uncertain undertaking all together.
And on the other side of the border, the few opinions gathered from the creative reveal this similarity and maybe even worse as it appears. It is to be noted the creatives outsourced from the Ugandan side such as bands work collectively requiring the input of not one but several individuals. As such, measures like prohibiting gatherings seem to be threatening the existence of these groups. Some are afraid that since the group members had to part ways and are locked up in their homes as they figure out alternatives for livelihood, chances are very high that this might be the beginning of the end of the groups.
2. Cross cultural exchange
It cannot be disregarded that this cross boarder association between creatives of the two countries has been a major contributor to the shared culture. Many a times, gatherings and functions that have artists and performers from the other country have seen them adorning cultural attire, feasting on local foods and enjoying traditional and local music and dances. These cultural pieces find themselves in the other country simply because they were embraced by the local people who found the foreign culture fascinating thus borrowed it. Indeed many Kenyans can attest that at the moment, they miss the Ugandan music, fashion and meals just to mention but a few. This has also helped to strengthen the friendship and relationship between the different communities living around the border and the two countries at large. Unfortunately, since the outbreak of this
pandemic and closure of the border, the case has been different. No gatherings and no crossing of the border means no cross cultural and creative interaction thus no exchange of these cultural facets.
3. Collaboration, Connects and Contacts
The creative entertainment business is not a one man solo venture that can succeed with only one skill. Just like the word itself, it involves creating meaning there are different skills, ideologies and entities that work together, merging their input to make a whole. This is what has been the case before the outbreak of this Covid-19 and the measures to curb it were put in to effect. Creatives and artists from these two countries would meet often in the entertainment joints or other places of work and would work together to create a successful event or project. This consistently gave them the chance to, learn from one other, acquire new skills while exploiting and exchanging contacts as well as connects.
Currently, there are no collaboration or any collaborative artistic ventures. Skills not being shared this the benefit of learn from each other while exploiting available opportunities and collectively looking for other opportunities has since ceased.
Indeed, the effect brought by this pandemic to the two once lively border towns of Kenya and Uganda are wide and far reaching with terrific consequences. The towns no longer enjoy the vibrancy and liveliness the creatives and entertainment sector brought. Since the outbreak, they have become dull with the days as quite as a lifeless body and nights as silent as the grave, and all there is to show for it are the empty pockets frustrated creatives who have now been left to ponder on the uncertain of the fate of their careers. Regrettably, such times bring with them the ease of losing hope, giving up and entirely abandoning what once seemed like a successful career in the arts, creative and entertainment industry. Truly, Covid-19 has already caused unprecedented damage to the businesses as well as lives of most creative artists residing in these two towns. Therefore, at such a time, there is need for critical and innovative thinking to quickly put in place actions that will help to reduce the damage already caused and even prepare for future uncertainties.
1. While the local governments may not be in a position of find it obligatory to provide financial support for these creatives, it should find an alternative way to engage them in a systematic and organized manner compensated by a stipend that can help them keep up with these tough times. Such alternatives may include using them to disseminate important Covid-19 messages and information to the local communities. This can be of great benefit since most of these communities are vulnerable and do not access the needed information since the main stream communication medium does not get to them.
2. Even though they should continue exploiting other ways to earn a living, creatives should not let go of their creative ventures and instead use this time to perfect their art. They can take advantage of the internet to learn as much as they can and if possible produce more works. They should also exploit the opportunities and chances on offer online such as grants, online contests, online exhibitions and mass release online mediums.
3. The creative fraternity in these two towns should establish savings societies and associations. The savings can come in handy in helping to push through such times in the future. They can also help in boosting business and ventures of individual members who can borrow money to expand and return it with a certain amount of interest.
4. Artist and creatives from both countries should make us of social media and phones to continue sharing ideas and connect while maintaining contact. Because, somehow when this is all over, they shall still need each other.
It was not possible to cross and get interviews from the Ugandan creatives due to the complete closure of the border. Therefore, the information gathered was through phone calls from few contacts that were available. The views expressed in this paper are entire of the writer and do not reflect those of any other third party.
The writer of this paper is a filmmaker, actor and development enthusiast running Franosa Films and Ubuntu Rave Kenya. He is currently undertaking his M.A in Development Communication at Daystar University.
Special appreciation to: Lydia Nabwire, Henry Okumu, David Kilwake, Jossy Ofcourse, Blandina Oweya, Ken Okhala, Moses Ouma and Georginah Akinyi for their support and input in developing this paper.