The following was written by a friend (author’s name withheld at their request) of EA Scene and Purely a Work of Fiction
The buses to Jinja were late, but no one seemed to mind it after five or so beers and smoking whatever they could roll, the wisps of which had been rising from just behind the stages of the Westlands hipster spot for some hours now. I was already several drinks deep, ready for a deeply complicated weekend of emotions, running
into former lovers while in the company of my current one and witnessing actions so foolish they should never see the light of day.
What was the reason for all the assorted up and down? The newly legendary Nyege Nyege festival: a three day orgy of sensations out where the highway of the Nile River starts its infinite meander just over the border in Uganda. My need for such a break went well beyond anything that I’d ever needed before; it’d had been a long month, steeped in election tension and troubled reports of horrid police brutality just around the corner in Nairobi. The overwhelming feeling of those in the bus who had been in it for the recent long haul of elections that this was the weekend after one miserable fucking week. This wasn’t a getaway excursion, it was a doctor-prescribed 72 hours of turnt madness.
There were no sins in the next few days that could run too heavy for the motley crew of weirdos who now awaited their lift over the border. As such, I bought my (seventh) beer and smiled slyly as I found fellow indulgers in the back alleys of the bar complex while old school mixes of Biggie and Black Coffee echoed out from the
Some desperately tall girl in eight inch platform shoes wore a jean jacket that she’d painted with bright acrylic across the back: “Wasted Youth. FUCK OFF! It Was Lit Fam!” with a bony skeleton arm clambering up from a shallow grave; I caught a glimpse of it as she clambered on board the bus as the sounds of engines idled.
A good bit of chaos later and we had piled into bus seats, myself with a cloth bag full of liquor in tow. Lighters clicked into flame with vengeance and the sudden call to arms “Nyege Nyeegeeee!” spliced through the air from all sections of the bus.
Without warning and just as several members of a band taking up the back row had hopped off the bus lurched into space to cries of ‘WAIT’ and ‘NGOJA!’ from those occupying the red felt seats. After much pleading and moderately ugly arguments with the bus runners a few of them caught up.
One short chick with blonde braids hopped on with heavy breath and declared: “I had to run, there’s no damn way I’d miss this festival, I moved like it was my LIFE!” All good things come to the committed, and the three bus loads of my fellow freaks that were ferried forth were most certainly that. I took ‘taxes’ (giant swigs) of beer from a tiny Indian girl as she passed by my row seemingly 20 times, each with a new and full beer. My thoughts were not on the source of the suds, nor the true possibilities of the contents within. In my experience, there has long been a tradition on board long haul East African shuttles that are decked out with televisions: the movies coming forth on the screens are always deeply strange films
that barely qualify as B-flicks. Therefore, as Steven Seagal and the burnt out shell of former WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam blasted away at members of ‘ISIS’ in HD clarity, I got heavy into the Kenya Cane Coconut rum and Stoney tangawizi ginger, a concoction of which I’d mixed several soda bottles worth into tepid warmth before boarding.
Drinks flowed, laughter bellowed and the scent of cigarettes wafted around, turning the next few hours into a strange haze, blue runner lights illuminating the entire length of the bus with the surreal hue of an after-hours Malindi strip club.
The blurs continued, shapes flying by in the night; apartment lights and Thursday night bars transitioning into cows and police checkpoints. I have vague recollections of screaming foully at the driver not to leave several girls behind who were pissing in an alley somewhere by Nakuru. It is entirely possible that I challenged him to a fight there on that roadside, but all that is lost behind cup full of coconut rum and sharp ginger soda.
I woke at the border, deeply confused before shuffling through customs, hoping that no one was twisted enough to exclaim a bit loudly with nervous eyes and unconvincing chortles: “Hopefully they don’t search the bus too thoroughly.” I noticed a well-known dealer of assorted goodies give me a nod and hop off the bus. With a gulp and a momentary relapse away from atheism, I followed him.
With any possible derailment in customs avoided we landed in Jinja and hopped off somewhere outside the festival grounds on the doorstep of the headquarters for the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints (who, you can be sure were most pleased at the decadence spilled onto their prayer-step). After confusion with the hotel, several terrifying motorcycle rides swerving around tarp covered lorries and several substantial cocktails laced with Waragi (an utterly incredible Ugandan gin, but more about that later) we rocked up to grounds of Nyege Nyege. The front was starting to show signs of mud, and we slid our way into the festival, somehow finding our press passes. How to even describe the setting of the festival? It took two Bell Lagers worth of walkabout just to explore what I thought was every nook and cranny. The main stage had an area some 100 meters long sloping up a hill, flanked on either side by a platoon of bars and rolex stands, with puddles already
starting to form towards the bottom. The stage was massive and the sounds coming forth were incredible, great waves of bass already hitting the high ones in the audience strongly as they flailed their arms around, dancing in the overcast late afternoon light.
We wandered on down the paths of the Nile Discovery Beach Resort, a place (despite spending three straight days within) I still don’t entirely understand. Was it a hotel? A campground? Where was the building? What were those ruins now occupied with party-goers tents? Was this place some long since haunted site of a once magnificent tourist trap that had burned down sometime in 1972? All these questions could be solved with more drink and I hit it with gusto. The paths wound up and down, muddy muck giving way to white tile the closer to the river one got.
It would truly be regrettable to mention, that out of all the parties I’ve been to in all my years on this side of the pond, the settings of the ‘House Stage’ and the ‘Chill Stage’ were truly the most heart stopping.
Rain soaked dance floors were built into the side of the lush green hill, with crooked throughways down to the Nile which stretched out some 500 meters across and one meter below much of the floors. Strings of lights hung across from trees over the revelers, the stages covered with green palm fronds interwoven over tarps. The great theme of the weekend was to be water, the wetness of it, fluidity, how it can make and break weekends with simultaneous storms of different origins. White sails hung over the dance floor of the bigger of the two venues (the House Stage) and patterns of lights were already bouncing off in motion above the chaos of motion that was already taking up the energy of the space by four pm Thursday. Everyone seemed to be on their own individual trip, a myriad of substance effects colliding with each other in a bizarrely beautiful crescendo beneath the trees. ‘Why resist?’ I thought to myself, and joined in the twirling masses with earnest as the sun started to set and the mist came rolling in thick over us all from the river just below. Heavy house splurged with hip-hop, what sounded like Childish Gambino, bass shaking drops from the leaves above
us and guiding our feet to move.
As it got dark, the lights hanging from technicolored umbrellas above the Rolex stands just by the grey stone column fences by the river came on. If you moved back a bit further into the jungle along the river path, the scarlet and green glow of lights from the floor reflected and the lights of the tiny coal fires frying chapati and eggs shone like lamps, bouncing off the occasional glitter encrusted miniskirt. To say the least it was quite a bit to take in. The whole scene…burned? Glowed?Vibrated? It’s hard to explain but in those early hours, as chemicals rushed about in force, as we joined together in the great bizarre release, one could feel their energy bouncing off it, contributing to it, building it all up into a towering wall of sound and stomping feet. It may be obvious, but that first night was one that within which we’d gone through the entire partying cycle by 9 PM. We’d gotten drunk, sobered up, procured food, ran into friends and lost them again, managed to track down small plastic zip-locks surrounding goodies behind the Red Cross tent and
had danced to the point of severe physical soreness and possible stress fractures in the toes. It was time for shots: so we slid our way into the mud-scape, through clouds of mango tinted shisha smoke that billowed out from a large concrete floored building before emerging to the Waragi bar.
Spending so long in Nairobi, with its sky high prices and aspirations had left me emotionally vulnerable to a truly strong shot of liquor. It had been a couple years since I took shots of smuggled Czech plum vodka one twisted Nairobi night with the suited manager of Sauti Sol. Deep in my heart I thought I’d seen it all, but ignorance will be the end of mankind. For 2,000 Ugandan Shillings (Some 60 bob Kenyan or 60 cents US) they were selling double shots of Waragi Coconut. Pride made me throw back the curved translucent double tot with the gusto of a 19 year old frat boy in the suburbs of Tucson.
It floored me. I coughed and sputtered, looking down into the glass in disbelief. What had I done? I tried to move my feet and walk away from the bar but my lower extremities ignored my pleas and stayed planted in place, sinking further down into the now building sludge. A Ugandan chick wearing jewel-wrapped hipster shades threw her head back and bellowed laughter, which seemed to slow and come out in bass tones, harmonizing with the music. Truly I wasn’t ready. The next few hours were spent in confusion, searching for friends who had clearly gotten hopelessly lost within the growing madness that was coming into its own all around us.
The search kept getting derailed into dance, beers, discovering more winding trails and getting utterly turned around within them. At one point around 11 I went looking for another lost companion who had long since ventured off to buy a bite to eat and sober up. As I was well twisted a wrong turn was taken and I reemerged into what looked like a literal city of tents inside the brick-framed ruins. The shelters heaved and moved like huge hippos in the night: the dew, raindrops and mud flecks glistening that coated them constantly shifting with the wind. Eventually I popped out on a steep brick path just above the ‘Chill Stage’ and quite frankly didn’t miss a beat. I just danced down the stairs (like I hadn’t just ventured too deep) and discovered a delightfully decadent Reggae DJ spinning on decks, her
dreadlocks framing her face in darkness as the lights shone from behind her. Who was even playing? It was becoming difficult to know or care at this point. It all blended into a delicious swirl.
Eventually, we found all parties that we were looking for somewhere underneath a bottle tent and chilled out on couches, talking and quaffing huge sips from plastic cups of beer, occasionally pouring shots of liquor over the top of to…enhance the experience, one that was now running deep due in no small part to small bags of goodies that had been repeatedly quaffed down in earnest over a pizza some hours back. Despite my excess, some of those out there in the party were having a much heavier time than I was (because I am a thoroughly responsible journalist), at one point near the central mud puddle by the main stage I ran into an old friend who was tripping heavily on no less than three tabs of powerful imported acid during a pounding set of drums by a Brazilian duo who were bounding about the stage wearing Phantom of the Opera masks. She asked to be lead out and I told her to follow me, but when I turned back she had already been folded back into the bowels of the surging crowd.
Perhaps Doreen Murugi Nguji, who made the journey from Nairobi put it best, “It was crazy, lit as fuck. Guys were going so hard, as in they couldn’t even remember, you found people the next day and they would introduce themselves to you all over again.” I can’t really tell what time I left that first night, but at some point, the music reduced in its utter excellence (although I was later told it resurged somewhere around five AM as more rains moved in).
Confusion surrounded me as I woke up on Saturday. My tiny hotel room was already in chaos. A bottle of Waragi clattered across the floor as I stood up to open the curtains, startling a maid who was mopping just outside. There were half-drank sodas all over the place, empty bottles of beer took up most of the TV stand. A thick layer of black mud seemed to coat the entire inside of the bathroom from a long forgotten late night shower. Even so, trails of muck caked the sheets. I had vague memories of bad conversations with the night guard; possible threats; the taking of shots.
The day was spent drinking around the hotel, with massive claps of thunder interceding in our first several attempts to chuck the hotel and make our way back to the Nyege Nyege grounds. When life gives you lemons: drink more. The friends I was with took that mantra into heavy stride. It was obvious to all of us, tonight was party or die. No sleep to be had and the sight of sunlight was set as the goal. Everyone I called or later ran into seemed to share the same zeal. A Nairobi graffiti artist and a member of the band Yellow Light Machine I ran into at the hotel
canteen during the worst part of the rains were already advancing their beer and gin agenda by one in the afternoon.
Several hours later, a Kampala guy called Paul who I chatted to at the bar expressed his feelings that seemed to be a snapshot of the Ugandans stance on the festival: “Why should you sleep, why the hell would I or anyone sleep. Listen, we came all this way, who is anyone to quit yet?” Exactly. Last night was a warm up. Now it was no time for fucking about, the very feeling seemed to be in the air, wafting up from the tent cities that were expanding around the fringes of the stages.
I arrived at the festival at around six, after the rains had peaked and moved on further inland from Lake Victoria. The Nile was visibly higher, the crowd had surged in sized to seemingly 50% more than it had been the night before and the ooze had deepened to depths adequate to drown a llama. To avoid going too hard too early (and suffering some kind of terminal mud fall tragedy), my compatriots and I found a bar on top of a hill. Luckily for us they were selling bong hits at 3,000 USH a pop. A few flashes of matches later and we were all a giggling mess, were they laced? It is truly hard to tell- but when you’re in that far anyway, all that matters is you made it out the other side in a singular piece. That was one thing that the festival organizers must be given a heaping serving of credit for: drugs at the festival were not done in dark corners where anything could go down. They consumed with earnest out in the open.At one point I was negotiating the strength of weed laced coffee with the lady brewmaster while a crowd passed a series of joints around in swirling rotation while leaning on the fence by the river. They were only a few meters away when I realized there was a cop in faded baggy army fatigues standing between us.
‘Shit on a shingle’! I thought to myself, ‘they’re cooked!’ The small eyes of the officer of the law caught mine and he must have recognized the look of trepidation on my face. He winked and nodded and moved on past the kush crowd on down the river path into the shadows. Whatever the organizers chipped the cops to not hassle those within the 15-odd acre madhouse was on point. Despite this little corner of pot heaven I’d discovered this was no time to chill. We were there
to do a job, and the way the beats were emerging out from over the top of the jungle; our vocation should be to dance in the midst of it all. It occurred to me as we struggled back down the hill, stopping for 45 minutes on the way to turn
up on the floor and talk to assorted other friends who I wouldn’t see again for the rest of the weekend that this festival was better organized than any I’d been to in the region before. Food stands stood every twenty feet and bars every thirty.
As we curved back towards the music the lights of river side glowed that night and the crowd was thoroughly pulsing within it. From a distance of a couple hundred meters removed, it looked like the end of the river in Apocalypse Now.
The hammocks that were hanging in log A-frames out in the waters had long since been swallowed by the rain waters swelling the river and now the muddy waters lapped at the edge of the river walk. When I came back out onto to the main stage field I realized just how far things had gone in the last few hours. The ground no longer had any inkling that grass had ever even grown there. A thick goop stew encompassed everything, the puddles of unknown contents turning into several small ponds up to 35 meters back from the scaffolding and lights that covered the main stage. One thing we’d underestimated was the sheer scale of the Nyege Nyege. I heard dozens of comments throughout the weekend to the tune of ‘my god, I’ve never been to a festival so big,’ and ‘it has to be at least double the size of last year’.
I’d wondered about it myself, would the banks of the festival burst and overflow into the Nile? Would party goers start building rafts and lash them to trees and columns to have room to keep dancing onto the river and over the lip of the nearby dam? Are there crocodiles? Could I pre-emptively arrange for a party raft complete with waragi on ice and dry fried tilapia (clothing optional)? A fence had been placed about two meters back from the edge of the stage and leafless branches places around it to keep drunks from wandering too close, deepening the mud and
destabilizing the entire structure. That would have been a headline to remember: ‘Drunks Climb Ugandan Music Fest Stage: 13 Feared Dead’- luckily such problems were avoided by barrel-chested bouncers who were quick to glower at any unqualified person trying to cross the fence or get back stage. Sometime around one we flashed our press passes and managed to smooth talk our way back stage to get out of the sinking thickness that was growing in volume with every pounding step and echo of reverb.
Congo Loco soon took the stage and twisted the masses into dancing frenzy, muck and God knows what else now was caking many up to the knees, especially those within 15 meters of the rappers spitting into mics. We found a steel borehole cover that was just high enough out of the mud that one could properly dance without the sudden fear of an ankle sliding out and leaving you face down in semi-liquids of
increasingly questionable origin. I ventured back out, grabbed as many beers as I could fit in my arms and slid on my sandals like they were skis and slid back to behind the speakers with a sly grin to the bouncer. Once in a while, covering an event comes with some perks. One of those perks had been given to me by a drummer/photographer drinking buddy from Nairobi the previous night. We proceeded to put that perk into a water bottle and knocked it back somewhere around 3 AM while a couple of European DJs (vaguely Scandanavian) crushed it with an old school soul and rap set. The crowd was with it, they were game. Fuck the norm seemed to be the MO of most of them, tits were out and lighters were up.
As the night slid on into morning, casualties of the turn up started to appear. One of them, a massively tall DJ friend from Nairobi appeared from the crowd suddenly as a Yeti, utterly zonked out of his mind. He surveyed the crowd around him, turned in a circle five times without stopping and then disappeared
again, quickly as he’d popped into view.
There was one band that the late goers of Nyege Nyege had extreme levels of psych for: the house fusion collaboration EA Wave who were slated to come on at three in the morning. The minutes began to slip by towards four and the five members still weren’t bounding onto the stage. Hell I could’ve cared less, by that point the chemicals were so engrained into my bloodstream that I could have danced my ass back to the comfy confines of Nairobi if I had wound up missing the return party bus. In all great festival weekends, there comes a turning point, when something goes a bit sideways and the vibe’s façade lets up for a second, sending many of the twisted into sudden chaos. That moment in my view came sometime slightly after four that Saturday. EA Wave came on and were immediately beset by technical issues (a lack of mics and a sudden rush of mix ups). I physically watched several people snap back out of their trips as the music died. Within 20 minutes the
crowd had thinned by half. The sense that I was wearing out my welcome was coming on strong. I’d just bribed a bouncer with one of my warm bottles of Bell beer after standing front of a photographer while she peed in a corner behind a stack of mixing boards and monitors, the corresponding wires not free of getting splashed.
It was time to move on, the feel had been sucked out and had revealed some stark realities. Cups and wrappers were everywhere, little pale specks peaking out from the infinite swamp. I tried to step quickly but the grips on my sandals were gone, my tiny flashlight went skittering out into the dark and I started a weird snowboard slide down the hill, managing to catch myself on a small tree just before hitting a huge patch of mud. “So close man! Give in to it!” a passing Ugandan guy in a skull cap exclaimed with a chuckle. The fog started to roll in heavy around this time, the mist looking like it could round the bend into a downpour at any second. Then we heard music: the beats of Fela banging out from somewhere deep within the festival, just out of reach. We followed the sounds along the river and discovered the house stage, 300-500 people dancing in unison shouting upwards for the sun to rise and for the rains to fall, middle fingers pointed at cops and clouds alike.
We danced on in earnest, with Afrobeat layered into some house remixes. With everything going on around us, the energy of the crowd and the desire to make it ‘til morning helped us rebound and we partied on until my feet became numb.
‘Only the hardcore ever make it past four’- the line was capitalized, written in my notebook, taking up an entire page. Being it was soaked in beer- I must’ve tried to write it while getting knocked in the kidneys on that dance floor. An hour later it was time to head down towards the river and watch the sunrise. We sat somewhere near a bend, awaiting whatever the daylight would surely bring. No one spoke much around that time. An old friend/my part time attorney wandered up and startled the ever loving hell out of me, held out her hand, pills clasped within them and told me “take them they’re dissolving.”
“I’m sorry I’m well too twisted to try that now.” I replied, she nodded her head in disappointed understanding and made her way off up the steep stairs towards the ruins that were somewhere 15 meters above us, the powders still breaking down into her hands. A lot can happen in daylight that no one had any idea of, and this was no different. The sun arose somewhere beyond the mist, giving an eerie glow that slowly expanded across the river valley. Above us, on a raised grass terrace a couple was fooling around on the ground. They simultaneously noticed the sunlight, looked desperately around and quickly ran off in polar opposite directions. The EA Wave brigade made their way past us in a procession all sly smiles and nods before hopping up into a nearby tree house platform to take cigarettes and reflect.
I was burnt out. Covered in mud past my ankles and questioning whether or not I still had cash in pocket we journeyed up an incredibly steep set of stairs towards the exit. Only then did I realize how big the peak of Nyege Nyege had reached. There must have been a thousand tents, perhaps more, of various colours, shapes and rumblings of snores or people chattering to each other of screwing within
them. The whole camp site was an organism. Some weird European 38 year old suddenly yelled directly into our faces, “THIS IS STELLA! SHE’S GOING HOME WITH ME TONIGHT!” I looked back at at him and his desperately young compatriot. Maybe she was 18, but either way he could fuck off at this point. I had been sapped of all will to intervene in such weirdness.
What had even happened? Even my notes are scattered as I write this. Various fragments of ideas were captured in my note book but few of them were totally realized. One that did was this: the East African sound emerges. In my mind the East African house scene had crystallized at Nyege Nyege, (especially on those first two nights) to a much more realized extent than I’d witnessed in the past.
I woke up to the door being knocked on and a friend offering us liquor. I was in no possible mental space for it yet, but I drank on anyway, well past the point of exhaustion. For me this was day four of the strangeness, having gone to a drink up on a balcony on Wednesday and getting into a yelling match over the purpose of Kenyan opposition politics with a drunkard who’d had five too many vodka-passions, but I digress. We made it to the festival to find the muds had dried, the crowds had thinned and the bars had all been restocked, with what seemed to be a mere lightning storm illuminating the distance every 13.6 seconds.
Our party morale soared. “This could be the most crazy night we have here!” I told one of the girls I was with and she nodded, a huge grin on her face. We made it down to the river and bought beers just as the deluge began. Within 15 minutes it
became torrential, and even those heaviest into the dance couldn’t hack nature’s onslaught. The floors cleared and we found shelter underneath some huge mabati (corrugated metal) roof that slid along a cave-like terrace 10 meters above the river and led to nowhere. Joints and cigarettes were lit as a few hundred congregated around underneath as huge sheets of water went sliding off the roof and the thunder seemed to match the beats that still rang out from the stages. Three hours later it was still coming in steady. In the end, there was nothing left to try to hack.
All the energy had been drained off into the river, but later I heard that a few hundred diligent weirdos kept it all going in the downpour on into the morning.
I couldn’t swing it anymore. It had been a weekend of thorough excess and it was time to throw in the towel. I looked homeless and thoroughly disheveled.
On the way back out we ran into friends who gave us a delightful ride out whilst sliding up the now-liquid hill that led down towards the gates of Nyege Nyege.
I spent the next day drinking Nile beers and never removing my knock off Ray Bans. As we sat taking fried tilapia by the river’s mouth, I got lost in contemplation whether or not there had been a better music festival I’d attended. In the end my consensus is that I doubt it highly, this was organized chaos in its highest form. The music infected us all, and now the memories of those beats came floating back through the ether of the hangover. I got a sudden call saying the time and location of our ride back over the border had been drastically shifted and we took off, girls clutching several purses on the back of beat imported Chinese motorcycles.
Somewhere on the bridge over the dam across the Nile my driver (who had clearly had his share of fermented plantains) nearly revved the engine to the point it would of sent us jerking underneath a passing 18 wheel lorry, but seeing as you’re reading this now, I avoided such a strange death in Jinja. We finally caught the party bus back towards Kenya after much confusion, beer swilling, spliff taking and eating of Ugandan style fried pork. Several friends and acquaintances wandered up to me
trying to start conversations but I was long since too fried for a proper dialogue with anyone. My mind was still shattered by the sheer volume of the party that I had just partaken in. It was decadence on every conceivable level; no one spoke all that much, most people had blacked out by 11 pm to the tune of mediocre straight-to-video British films blasting away through the speakers.
Zombies is the most accurate description of the giant clump of humanity that passed back over the border that night. We passed without incident, other than the same small Indian girl from the bus to Uganda nearly getting arrested for paying to pay a public toilet fee. In the customs line stood the ‘Wasted Youth. FUCK OFF!’ skeleton jacket girl from three or four days ago and I think I finally got what the thrust of her message was.
It was lit. Now I felt like I was dying.
I woke up in Nairobi, back to the same Westlands haunt that I’d spent so many weird nights in, but none quite to the level I’d just experienced. Truly, I think it’ll take me several weeks to fully comprehend the scale of the Nyege Nyege festival in its scope, vision, successes and failures. It’ll take weeks to truly track down who out of those I knew went the hardest, if anyone was pregnant and what kind of ratchet tales would come scurrying out of that now gone tent city in the ruins. The decadent had prevailed, the Nyege Nyege Festival 2017 was the epitome of East African music and its infinite possibility. Now all that remains is to see if anyone can summit that peak and plant a new flag, a new high water mark for the party brigade to aspire towards.