On Ugandan Soft Power

I believe that the strongest power a people can have is soft power. Forget the military. Forget technology. Real power is in the culture. Everything else follows. The fact that I am writing this in English is evidence of someone else’s soft power. But the fact that it will be translated into other languages to make sense to more people shows that there is not only one powerful culture today. Increasingly, we are learning Chinese (there are Chinese notices, with English translations at the Ugandan office of the President complex), eating Chinese food, watching Chinese movies among other manifestations of Chinese cultural power. So, where do we lie? We are neither English, nor Chinese. Where is our soft power?

This morning, I was discussing Nollywood movies. Making the point that when Nigerian filmmakers reflected rural African lives in film, they tapped into a market that had not been exploited before. They inadvertently made the point that our rural existence was not under-development in need of some GDP figure induced development. They were building on African soft power. Something that latter-day ‘modernists’, ‘development theorists’ and ‘Turn Africa into Europe’ activists did not see. Some of them who noticed the influence of Nollywood immediately attacked the industry, claiming that those movies were not of high quality.

Nkem Owoh

Nkem Owoh, one of the popular actors in the Nollywood industry: Photo from answersafrica.com

But where did they get the idea of quality from? Can culture be low or high quality? Where do we get standards for culture? Can we use standards of one culture to judge another? Can there be universal standards? So, since the advent of Nollywood on our screens, we have since heard more and more Nigerian music, we consume more and more Nigerian Literature and the agbada is common outside Nigeria, worn by non-Nigerians. Nigeria has its problems, and I think their political leadership could develop some sensible cultural diplomacy policy, but they have some soft power going for them, that in economic terms, they are now graded as a top emerging economy alongside Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey by economist Jim O’Neill, who coined the MINT acronym. My argument is that it is all in the soft power they are developing themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously.

I want to be understood in context. Some Nigerian policies like Fashola’s, of washing Lagos of the poor and New York-ising it, are regrettable but I feel that the stronger Nigerian soft power grows, the more the politicians and policy makers will smell the coffee. So, who makes soft power? Cultural producers. Writers, Filmmakers, Musicians, artists and more of their tribe. These are the people we should look up to, if we want to actually develop. I use the verb ‘develop’ carefully. Not to mean turning Africa, into a Europe, but growing in confidence of ourselves, and who we are, the way China has, Turkey, Norway etc.

Development is being you. Being us, ourselves and dealing with others, comfortable in our skins, setting our own standards, negotiating as equals, when interacting with others, exchanging, not imitating and mimicking. For if we mimic and imitate, we shall never get out of the shadows of the originals we are copying. The imitation can never compare to the original. We have to be the originals of ourselves, to develop. Thus, when we are defined as poor, we need to question the standard used to measure poverty. Indeed, what is poverty to us, may be wealth to others, and what is wealth to them, may be poverty to us. This means that we can’t have a universal definition of poverty. Thus, we need to step out of others’ definitions, for us to develop. Development starts with defining the concept for ourselves.

So, is there hope for the British-created Uganda? Where does our soft power lie? Are we just a done and dusted deal? You will rather find a bat flying during daylight than find a Ugawood film screening at Cineplex. Our bookshops will have books from Europe and America, and our own books hidden somewhere at the back of the store. I can go on and on and whine. But that would be unfair. Let me talk about music. While I grew up, in the 90s, Lingala was the thing. Awilo. Pepe Kale. Olomidde. Do those, of my generation remember Bamusakata? Obangaina? Ekimbeewo? And then, listen – the bang – Mama Mia! And now we can safely say that Ugandan music is gaining character. P-Square may be played on our radios, but Chameleone is king. Do not mention Bieber. That is a far-cry. But let me mention that I am talking in generalities. We still know of a tiny sector of the population that consumes Western culture at all costs and hold their noses high against Ugandan culture. But the numbers speak. The music industry sustains so many other sectors of the economy and is gaining ground in influencing politics and other things. You know our 27-years and counting ruler is also listed among our rappers, right? But is this enough?

Jose Chameleone

Joseph Mayanja,a aka Jose Chameleon, one of Uganda’s popular musicians

What if, what is happening in music happens for the movies? And thanks to the television stations supporting the Ugandan movie industry. What if it happens for the literature? The sky can be the limit, right? But we must first legitimise the tastes of ‘the masses’. Not to suggest that they are illegitimate. But, that we need to produce for them. The music industry at a point was lamenting that our people love South African and Congolese so much to listen to Ugandan music. But when they started producing more and more, what did they find out? That our people were just being starved of their own culture. As the Bible says, the harvest is plenty, the harvesters? And we claim to be under-developed!

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