By Alex Roberts
Yes, I apologize for being the bringer of gloomy outlooks and cynicism, but this may be the time to set in for realism. 2021 may, at least in large part be another lost year for East African creatives, shillings swirling down drains of mere surviving- but certainly not thriving.
‘Just hold out!’ They’ve cried from behind closed gates, avoiding events that they talk down about anyway.
Well, as long as they’re safe behind big gates, in houses up on bigger hills, with bigger bank accounts and bigger bottles of imported whiskey. They’ll sit back and sip, we’ll keep on sitting and spinning.
The industry has been damn near strangled in Kampala, with everyone left scrambling behind OTT taxes, registration of blogs and a still-imposed 9PM curfew (despite day-to-day life largely being normal, as if the pandemic can’t spread in the day time hours).
Nairobi isn’t much better, and just put back in further rules in place. Don’t even ask about Kigali, those restrictions could be written a novel unto themselves.
Yeah, we get it, the pandemic is important and desperately serious. We’ve understood as it has been repeatedly clubbed into our collective consciousness by those who have claimed to be ‘supportive’ of the industry. We get it- trying to throw a socially distanced concert is definitely a super spreader; but political rallies and church are populated solely by the chaste and immune.
There has been a positive spin attempted to be made as in ‘now government, NGOs and foreign businesses are looking to hire from within the region instead of random 22 year old foreigners!’ Thanks for being fucking late to the party and a symptom of the systemic disease that COVID-19 blew back the cover on. At least in this year of 2021? It is too little, too late. Are we to be grateful you’re shifting your means of exploitation? Will you be paying a Ugandan graphics designer at one fifth or one sixth the rate? What’s the term? Local pay scale versus international?
Look, don’t mistake this writing for some awkward Trumpian anti-COVID screed whilst high on top-end designer drugs from a farmhouse just outside Malindi. No. This writer fully understands the depth of the seriousness of this pandemic, I’ve heard the ambulances myself, their sirens whirling by in the night and fading, only to be replaced in the echoes by the next. That aside however, if a government wants to cast aside people from their means of employment while implementing heavy-handed draconian measures, shouldn’t those affected be covered on the back end by the government?
No? Then what are they to do? These questions haven’t been answered as November is rolling into December- and now musicians taking a cut of the bar, freelance bloggers who are now ‘non-essential’ and artists who can no longer count on gallery showings for steady incomes are all staring down the barrel of another dreadful economic year.
The ugly truth remains that all of our optimism and loud-mouthed curses (‘A POX ON THE YEAR 2020!’) while looking to the proverbial New Year’s Ball dropping- things won’t be changing at least for the first six months of 2021.
How could they? Will Uhuru’s stance suddenly lessen and call for a full scale push for events in Nairobi? Will Uganda really relax restrictions in this season of contentious elections? Will Kagame truly take a step back now that he’s planted his flag of control?
I doubt it.
As always, I have the utmost faith in the creative sector of East Africa to find some outlandish solutions to the myriad of obstacles now thrown up in front of them- it is the powers that be towards whom I raise my eyebrows.
It is arts that always get smacked by such things first and foremost, advantage will continue to be taken and salaries continued to be cut. The arts are ‘non-essential’, haven’t you heard? Enjoy the shit you’ll be given regarding your career choice, for that is definitely coming your way if it hasn’t already. 2021 will be another year of judgement-laden side eyed glares and uncouth conversations about your ‘potential’. Try to ignore them, for they were probably the same ones attempting to hustle you for free concert tickets to your event in January.
I know there’s a vaccine (or a few) coming down the pike in short haste. Sounds great, I look forward to the leaders of the West rolling it out equally quickly in East Africa as they do for themselves. There’s no history of ugliness there, right? To end this little rant, I have no advice other than to become mildly more cynical (if at all possible)- improvements will be lagging for East Africa’s creatives.