Gilgil. Kenya. 14. 09. 2022
Towns fly past as the bus speeds by. Kinungi, Morendati, Gilgil, Kanyawa. I tug at my seatbelt, as the lights in the distance keep me fascinated. Vibrant towns during the day, they are white dots in the distance now, and are only slightly visible in the Kenyan night, as the Mash Poa Scania puts away as much of Kenya behind us as it can. Jinja, our destination, is all of 561 kilometres, or ten hours away. Sitting in the bus feels as if the speed governor is the only thing making the driver not make it there in five.
I shove a bite-sized piece of a ‘smocha’, (the food baby of a chapati and a smokie), in my mouth as I look into my phone’s screen for my google result. The Scania website is saying satisfactory things about the high-decker Scania Touring bus I’m in. The seats are huge and reclinable, and there are charging sockets in case there are devices to be charged. I loosen my seatbelt because this is my second smocha since we left Nairobi, and also because the reviews say that Scania makes good, safe buses. Inside the dark, now-quiet bus I push my earphones as far as they can go inside my ears and I blast Madilu’s classic single ‘Sansa Ya Papier’, a fifteen-minute medley of some of his and Franco’s most popular songs. Road trips should be accompanied by good music.
I ask myself which version of Madilu sang this banger; dark-skin Madilu or bleached-skin Madilu. On Google, there’s nothing about when Madilu sang this repeat-worthy song, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m headed to Jinja. There’ll be over 300 visual artistes, singers, dancers, DJs and performing artistes over four days along the shores of the Nile, for NyegeNyege. THE Nyegenyege Festival. The (in)famous festival that draws revellers, artistes, vendors and media from as near as Busoga in Uganda and as far away as Graz in Austria, Sousse in Tunisia and Curitiba in Brazil. There’ll be artistes at different stages of their careers, those starting out, those that are one painting away from success and those that are one viral Tiktok challenge away from a record deal or a life free of those anxiety-inducing calls from the landlord. There are also those that are at the bleached-face stage of their careers and need a huge entourage to walk them through the festival.
The thousands of NyegeNyege festival-goers, estimated at about 15,000 and I, will hopefully post as many photos, videos and information about the artistes as the people at home and those from the future can consume. We’ll also dance, sweat till our clothes all off, overeat, swim in the Nile, drink too much and get lost in the moment. Then hopefully when someone googles about what stage their favourite Nyegenyege artiste was at when they released their art, they will have more information than I am having right now.
A hand taps me from the back.
It’s Wango. He asks if I want crisps, I don’t particularly want crisps right now but I know if I say no, then there’s only going to be an empty bag when I actually want some. I fill my hand with as many crisps as I can, pass it back and I say thank you. I just realised I’ve talked about Madilu, Nyege and Mash Poa and I haven’t mentioned my crew, I apologise, I get carried away a lot.
I’m headed to Nyege, as it is known colloquially, with my friend Wango and his friends Willy, Munga and Biko. There’s also Yvonne, a German friend that we just met on the bus, and who’s part of the crew now, so she gets crisps too. That’s five young men, and a lady, drawn to Nyege like moths to a light, looking to find adventure, reasons to add another tattoo, pictures that will change their Instagram, a break from Nairobi and collectively, memories that we will hold on to in old age..live performances, eclectic playlists, camping beside the Nile and walking bare-chested while eating matoke and rolex. Now I’m wishing the bus didn’t have a speed governor and the bus was flying through the remaining towns.
Instead it stops.
Nakuru by night
We’re at Nakuru. It’s the pitstop of road trips. You stop at Nakuru to buy snacks, to refuel, to pee, to poop, to take a break, to buy toothpaste and condoms if you forgot to do that earlier. I’m washing my hands after I’ve used the bathroom that is clean but stinks of excess general purpose cleaner, when I smell THE smell. I follow it to behind the bus and it’s four young men, the bright-orange, lit end of a marijuana stick the only tell-tale sign that they are standing there. I bump fists, the traditionally accepted way to get a puff. We smoke in silence, the hum of the engine a subtle reminder that we have 413 more kilometres until we’re in Jinja. In the driver’s compartment, he flattens the clutch and presses the gas pedal with his other foot, and the engine roars. That’s the universally accepted ‘get-back-to-the-bus’ signal at Nakuru and all the other stops that he will make.
The spliff is good enough to put me to sleep until we reach Busia, and I don’t dream at all. I just close my eyes once I confirm that my whole gang is seated, and the next minute, the driver is nudging me to take my passport and to go get my credentials stamped. It would be pitch black all around us if it wasn’t for the bright white lights from the border post offices. We walk towards the offices, with shuffled steps and shawls and warm jackets on our shoulders. A long line awaits us, there are busloads and busloads of people waiting for two men in Covid-era protective suits to stamp their Covid certificates. It’s frustrating.
Two men to manually sort out hundreds of people.
It’s almost as if they want you to pay, no, bribe someone. Any among the men roaming the lines with offers of quick solutions, to ensure you don’t have to queue. The frustration means tempers are short and any attempts to greet anyone you recognise ahead of you is taken as an attempt to jump the queue. A group of sleepy-looking Kenyans snap at me for going to see what’s taking so long, and I retreat to my spot. It’s embarrassing to make the walk back, but I’m old enough to know that everyone wants to get to Nyege as fast as they can, and I don’t want to be collateral damage.
Getting our passports done
Because my crew and I are law-abiding citizens who refuse to bribe anyone, we spend three hours at the post. Three awfully long hours, and we are still queuing as the sun rises at Busia. It tests my patience, but I don’t rush as long as I can see the driver with us. There are biometrics, fingerprints and photos to be taken, and a stamp that means that the gun-wielding Ugandan police who’ll check your documents later won’t evict you from your bus. Almost four hours after we arrived at Busia, it is confirmed that everyone is on board, and the driver takes off and we officially get into Uganda.
Our Safaricom signals slowly disappear and the Ugandan number plates become more than the Kenyan ones. The signposts keep shifting from Bugembe to Magamaga to Wandago to Iganga. We’re in President Museveni’s Uganda where MTN is Safaricom, Umeme is KPLC, Bell Lager is Tusker Lager and 30 UGX is 1 Ksh.
In the Ugandan morning sun, the Mash Poa Scania shares the road with boda bodas (motorbike taxis) carrying fat bunches of bananas, live chicken and head-scarfed women going to work. I notice that women here don’t sit spread-eagled on bodas the way we do back home, (I’ve always wanted to say ‘back home’ so just know I’ll use it a lot), because of how largely conservative rural Uganda is. Instead, they sit facing sideways, with their legs firmly closed, perhaps symbolic of the firm grip that religion and culture have on everyday life. There are many churches along the route to Jinja, peppered with mosques that have signature Arabic signage and outward-facing speakers.
It’s a scenic route, the roads are good and so I don’t sleep. Instead, I take in the views, large swathes of lush, green land that extend out into the horizon, with hard-working men and women cutting cane, planting crops and feeding livestock. Oblivious to the bus that is ferrying us to one of the largest, most diverse festivals in Africa. We arrive in Jinja at noon, tired but full of life. Of the five of us, I’m the only one that hasn’t come to Nyege before and my bag shows. It’s bigger than anyone else’s and I carried a power bank, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit and a grooming kit with enough supplies to last me a month of manscapping sessions.
The first stop though, is to find something to eat. I haven’t eaten anything apart from the crisps I ate on the bus, and we take bodas costing 1,000 UGX to an eatery that smells like boiled bananas. After we convert a bit of money into Ugandan currency, and we now have hundreds of thousands of UGX, we decide against anything boiled for as long we are in Uganda. A little money and we go against our traditions, smh. Jinja is hot in September, or for the day we get there, and we need as much cool air as we can get. Wango finds us a spot that has Wi-Fi, fried food and cold sodas. It’s good to have resourceful guys on your team, and Wango is that guy for us 😊.
Bodas in Jinja
After we eat, we walk through Jinja. It’s a relatively small town that you can walk through without needing motorised transport, and there’s a lot of classic Indian architecture; massive gates, buildings with rounded domes, elaborate windows and wide airy verandas. The roads within the town are old and patchy, but the people are really warm and friendly. We walk to Todorico’s, a cosy, boutique liquor store and eatery in central Jinja that is run by a dreadlocked smiling man that never takes off his sunglasses. We order cold beers and Ugandan Waragi as we wait for our Nyege ticket plug to give us the confirmation.
Wango outside Todoricos
Because I have a Zoom interview at 7, we try to get a sim card with Wango and that’s when it hits us just how much we take Nairobi’s efficiency for granted. It takes almost thirty minutes to get a sim card, a process that takes ten minutes at most in Nairobi, and even then we have to leave the process halfway because of ‘technical issues’. It’s a painfully slow process and I hope that it’s a one-off experience, and my luck was just out on that day. We find our ‘taxi’ to Itanda waiting, a white van with blue, horizontal strips across the body.
Yvonne in Jinja. Most of us had bags slightly smaller than hers 😆
The journey to Itanda from Jinja is a forty-five-minute, unremarkable journey as the crew and bus drink more Waragi and I stare out into the Ugandan landscape. Just like Iganga and the towns before it, the scenery is green, lush and very slow-paced. It’s like a coastal city without the humidity and the beach. There’s no rush here, kids play on the streets, boda bodas speed past, betting placards eat up most of the advertising space and men play board games on large, airy verandahs.
At Nyege’s Nile entry, there’s a welcoming crew from Safeboat, the maritime version of Safeboda, as we are crossing the Nile. There are the wafting sounds of a good time across from us, accompanied by the party lights that announce a festival. Here, I find the most beautiful sight I have seen in my life (and I’ve been to Diani and Amboseli severally).
The Nile. My gallery
It’s the Nile in its full glory.
Water crashes onto rocks, creating a loud, beautiful cycle, on repeat and then slows down to widen into the longest, most powerful river in Africa and second, (only behind the Amazon River), in the world. Providing sustenance for about ten African countries. It’s an emotional moment but I have a ten-kilogram bag I am hauling on my back, and I have been upright for the last eighteen hours. I’ll have my moment, and soon. Just not here in front of people who’ve come to enjoy Pallaso and Cindy Sanyu and not watch a skinny guy from Nairobi crying because he thinks the Nile is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
There are lifejackets on the boat, and it calms me down for the ten minutes we are in the boat. I can’t swim, and the Nile is a powerful river. So powerful that the boat’s engine has to work overtime to fight the currents, it spews black smoke until we’re at the small harbour, and finally we’re at Nyege.
It’s more than I expected it would be.
There are stages and stands being set up and there are already so many people everywhere. There’s gigantic speakers at each stage and I have to shout to be heard. There’s music from about six different venues, all blasting at really high volumes. We meet our ticket plug and we are assigned our sleeping area. It’s dark at this point, and my powerbank, which has a torch, comes in handy, as we set up our tents in the artiste’s village. We don’t realise it yet because it’s dark, but we’ve landed one of the most beautiful spots, a vantage point where we can see the Nile emptying into a water body that looks like a moving lake.
Beautiful, beautiful stuff.
We didn’t know we’d get this views in the morning
We unpack and head out into the moonlit Itanda sky. There are people everywhere. Lots of people, and in the dark, it looks like there are even more people. There’s a literal forest on our way to the stages, complete with undergrowth.
The Artistes Camp. Drawn by Wango
The festival starts here for me.
In my estimation, there are thousands of people drinking beer, calling their friends, taking pictures, eating food, dancing, and others pouring in, carrying huge bags. And lots of Ugandan police. Those with the power to cancel things almost cancelled the festival, and one of the conditions for the show to go on was that there was a heavy police presence to control us, so we don’t do ‘immoral’ things, whatever that means. I take it that the heavy police presence is a loss for me wanting to do hard drugs at a festival but, a win for my personal safety.
My MTN line still doesn’t work, yet I have a Zoom interview in thirty minutes. The agency that sources my work interviews works hard to find them and so there’s a one-strike policy for missing them. I cannot afford to leave Uganda jobless, so I start looking for solutions. After I’m told that I have to wait till tomorrow to get it sorted by the attendants manning the MTN tents, I find Ochola, a policeman who allows me to use his sim card. Twenty minutes later, I complete, and pass an interview deep inside a clump of trees inside Itanda, as far away from the noise as possible, while all around me drunk revellers shout into the wind and snarling sniffer dogs are restrained by policemen in fatigues.
I make a mental reminder to add “works very well under pressure” to my CV
After I return the sim card, we catch up with Ochola. He’s stationed near the Stanbic Bank stand, one of the tens of vendors at the festival. He’s a good man and he saved my job, I tell him about a hundred thank yous, and press a 10,000 UGX note, all the Ugandan currency I have left at this point, into his palm. He smiles, and I’m torn between thinking whether I bribed a policeman or I thanked him. He wishes me well and disappears into the Nyege crowd.
At Nyege, there are four main distinct stages; The Dark Stage, Boiler Room, The Bell Stage and The Main Stage. The Dark Stage and the Boiler Room are the most experimental and it’s likely the kind of fast-paced, tech music will be new to you. Nyegenyege, named after the Luganda word for the overpowering feeling to dance, is the holy grail of African experimental music; there’s Kuduros, Kwaito, Afrohouse, African Hiplife, Highlife (the genre Fela Kuti pioneered, and Burna perfected), Tuareg Rock, Cosmic Synths, Moroccan Bass, Arab Tech, Soukous, Gengetone, Balani, Swahili Trap, Swahili R&B and Tigrinya Blues. There’s so much variety that you can listen to your favourite jams, almost as if it’s your playlist from Spotify and the next moment there’s a DJ playing a song that Shazam doesn’t recognise but your ears love.
The main stage. Drawn by Wango
At this point, my feet are on fire, I don’t know where Munga and Rigo are and I leave Wango and Biko partying, and walk back to the tent where we left Willy sleeping. There are shadowy figures in the dark mini-forest, that I take to be policemen. As safe as it is, it must be mental torture to walk in a dark forest as a woman, and security lights would be an extra layer of comfort.
15. 09. 2022. Itanda Falls, Jinja, Uganda.
The din of the speakers across the shore wakes me up at 7. I’m exhausted, but in a nice way, like I’d assume people who go to the gym feel. In the morning, Willy and I, the most well-rested members of the crew, descend the short cliff down to the rocky beach at the shores of the Nile. We enjoy one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ll ever see, as the sun rises from the Nile like it would in a ‘Visit Uganda’ ad, only that this time it’s in real time, and we can feel, smell and take in a sight that is so beautiful it gets me emotional.
Slightly before the sunrise at Itanda. Willy shot this.
We enjoy the scenes for an hour, until the beach starts to get crowded. You know you need to leave when guys strip naked and start washing their junk all around you. We leave and come back to bathe, fully clothed, by the Nile, because the crew and I are never going to be comfortable bathing publicly.
As inclusive, fun and anticipated NyegeNyege 22 is, it isn’t perfect. The open-air baths are frustrating for campers, especially women, who had been sold the idea of on-site toilet and bathrooms. On day two, there’s still set up going on and where there are bathrooms, the water isn’t enough. A two-year break probably meant that a lot of service providers were rusty, and that understandably soured the experience for several campers, with complaints of the services provided, on ground and via Twitter; the cottages, the tents and the bathroom situations not being as advertised. There are a number of hot, angry, sleep-deprived people and Twitter is burning at this point. I’d hate to be the NyegeNyege social manager, who has to post an official apology on the issues, because the mentions and hashtags are a mess at this point.
The public ‘bathrooms’ at Itanda
After we ‘shower’ by the lake, there’s a breakfast of eggs, bread, pounded plantain and tea at the campsite and it’s interesting to queue up with artists that I’ve only seen on Instagram so far. There’s a Japanese DJ collective from Tokyo, a Tanzanian band, A Congolese one, Kenyan Gengetone artistes, South African and Tunisian DJs and a Ugandan Alpha Otim-led band that plays for us as we have breakfast. They’re so focused on creating music that it almost feels like the band that played for the Titanic as it sank, only that we’re eating instead of looking for empty lifeboats.
Ever seen an international breakfast queue at Itanda? Now you have
At the artiste’s camp, there’s an endless amount of tents and it feels like we’re one big unit. Almost like we’re in Franco’s band, where Madilu started his career as a vocalist, and which had 50 members at some point btw. After breakfast, we put our shirts on and we head to the performance village. Another beautiful thing about the artiste’s village is that in addition to free water, sodas, food and a charging area, no one judges your outfits. I saw rainbow-coloured hair, I saw men wearing glitter and fishnet tops, and there were shoes with heels so high I thought we were in the 80s. The looks were so colourful, we looked basic with our short and no-tops-or-shoes outfits. The distance to the village is long, and I’m happy that I carried comfortable sports shoes.
Because we don’t have a working phone number yet, we must walk together so we don’t lose contact. Wango stops every few minutes to take pictures and draw, Biko is always taking photos while Willy, Munga and I stroll around like members of their entourage.
Just near the Boiler Room stage, there’s a campfire-ish performance, without the campfire, by Burundian drummers. Their performance is an inclusive drumbeating and dance session. Like every other stage, the audience is international and slowly the drum stick changes hands from South African to Ethiopian to Brazilian. It’s a very upbeat performance, with lots of clapping and laughter and all the emotions that come with people being happy. Once the images hit Twitter though, we quickly realise that the Burundian Culture ministry isn’t pleased that women got to play the country’s sacred drums. It’s a stark, real-time reminder of how some of our African cultures alienates women.
The drummers at Itanda. Drawn by Wango
At the Boiler Room stage, I meet Velma (@dormantyouth on Instagram), she’s here from Johannesburg to deejay on Sunday. She smells nice, smiles even better and has the personality of what you’d imagine bright sunflowers would have if they could speak. She tells me she’s here because “NyegeNyege is the heartbeat of Africa’s most creative sound”.
Velma. From my gallery
She’s absolutely right, you don’t find so many of Africa’s leading creatives concentrated in one space, for such a long time, being their authentic, beer-in-one-hand-and-a-rolex on the other, selves. There’s probably more collaborations planned and conceived here than in boardrooms.
As I shadow Biko, and watch him take photos of as much of the festival as he can, I’m impressed by how many of the artistes at NyegeNyege are autodidacts, (self-taught, in case you’re new to the word). In addition to having a bottom set of silver teeth, and being one of the best culture photographers in Kenya, he’s my roommate at the tents in the artiste’s village and I’ve let him know he’s already won the ‘Best Roommate Ever’ award on day one. He’s as funny as he is respectful of people’s spaces. He’s already let me know that I can kick him out of our ‘mansion’ if I need to bring a girl back to our tent. A man of culture. I’m firmly in the ‘Biko for President’ camp already.
The Artiste’s Camp, with the forest behind it.
Our tent at the Artiste’s Camp. With the village in the distance.
At the Bell stage, near the docking area for the boats plying the route between the Nyege side of Itanda and the other one, there’s a lot of beer being drunk. East Africa spent $900 million on alcohol consumption and it’s easy to see why, the bartenders at the Waragi and Bell stations are busier than China-based bootleggers when new Yeezys are announced.
I’ve never been to a festival this big and I’m walking around like I’ve gone to a big city for the first time and I’m only just seeing sky scrapers, tarmac and bright lights. We spend the rest of the day catching sunsets with Munga, eating Rolexes and dancing at the Boiler Room stage.
The boy Munga can dance for real 🕺. My gallery
16.09.2022. Itanda Falls, Jinja Uganda.
I’m at the beach alone, it’s an interesting experience. For some reason, the sim card situation has me on edge because I can’t post images in real time, and I am at the beach by 6:30 am. One on of the rocks, there’s a piece of seaweed caught there and it bothers me.
Early morning at Itanda. My gallery
The currents, strong as they are, can’t dislodge it from the rock and now my image of a sunrise isn’t complete. It makes me think about Africa and how despite a generation of educated, strong-willed and competent youth, we are still held back by governments full of old, rigid authoritarians.
The water moves over the rocks, smoothly, silently, consistently. It reminds me of time, and how youth is transient. That you’ll never be as young as you are today, ever. How living in Africa means that you’ll probably have one shot to do that thing you crave, that thing that satisfies your soul, and if you don’t, that opportunity is gone. I throw a pebble across the water. It’s cathartic watching the pebble skid across the river, before it sinks into the bottom, to add to the rocks that people threw before me and to add a base for the rocks that people will throw after me. I enjoy my moment until those that bathe naked arrive, and I take off.
Later, at breakfast, I notice the co-existence at Nyege, there are a lot of people that are flamboyantly gay, and I loved that they walked around unbothered, (or at least it seemed so in my opinion). To live as a gay person in most African countries is to live a closeted, filtered life, and it must have been a sweet four days to live free; to hold hands, to wear skimpy outifts, to take pictures and live without judgement. Long live Nyege and the spaces that allow people to be their authentic selves.
My guy, Willy 🤟🏾
Later I meet Osanjo, from back home in Nairobi, outside the Dark Stage stage, where a clump of pine trees provide sweaty revellers with shade. Two of them are a Kenyan couple from Mombasa, the Huskberrys, in adorable, matching tops. The kind that reminds me how much nice it would be to have someone to do things with. Wear matching tees, have inside jokes, snuggle in tents, and take pictures together.
Osanjo from back home 😎
I snap out of my daydream and ask them why they came all the way to Jinja for NyegeNyege, “A three-day festival seems enticing, new food, new people and new cultures”. They, and Osanjo, have a sad story about accommodation and sanitation, but they loved the live shows on the main stage and are looking forward to more. I like them, they are like human teddy bears. They tell me they love the ‘stage-hopping’ bit of the festival, (same Huskbery’s, same) and that they have a dedicated Instagram page where they sell their branded merchandise.
The Huskberries 🥰
After I lose Asanjo to a low-battery phone that needs charging, I meet Eric From Austria. He came to Uganda last Sunday, escaping the European winter and seeking out the Ugandan electronic music scene. He’s one of the people that proponents of Nyege quote when they speak about people flying in just for the festival. H’es a retired festival organiser from Vienna, about 60, who dresses exactly how you’d expect him to. Round-eye eyeglasses, a beige t-shirt, washed grey dad jeans, and leather plimsoles. I ask him what drew him specifically to NyegeNyege, and he says he’s torn between the festival atmosphere, the friendly nature of the revellers and the techno beats. Festivals in Europe are bigger but they don’t play experimental music like Nyege does.
The Itanda golden hour looked good on Eric
Lunch passes by in a haze; more matoke, beef, pasta and ground nut sauce. The caterers at Nyege don’t play with their meal combos and portions, and I nap in my tent until I’m woken up by concert lights in the distance, I haven’t been to the main stage yet, and Alpha Otim is performing.
If I can sum up the performances at Nyege in one artiste, it’d be Alpha Otim.
He’s a Ugandan Luo artiste with the most iconic live performances I have ever seen. He’s a tall, athletic beefy man who has the purest vibe you’ll meet in Uganda, if you ask me. The person that finds artistes for Nyege deserves a raise, and top-class health insurance, and orgasms, and all the good things their heart is after. Every single one of the artistes I saw and heard were super talented, but the most memorable for me was Alpha Otim.
Alpha Otim on stage. I don’t know how I managed to take a clear picture. It was crazy in there
He’s probably in his late forties but moves like a teenager who has just discovered amphetamines. He and his crew did the performances earlier as we had breakfast, but they were slower love ballads.
Nothing like what they are serving now.
It is pandemonium from the moment he starts performing till when he sings his last song.
He is Pablo Escobar up on that stage and we are Reagan’s America. He is Nelson Mandela and we are black South Africa at the Grand Parade Grounds on Feb 11, 1990. He is all that mattered to over one thousand of us for one and a half hours.
In his song Power, Kanye West sings “..No one man should have all that power, the clock is ticking, I just count the hours..”.
But Alpha Otim has all the power at the main stage in Itanda Falls on the evening of 17th September 2022. He could have led us to war and we’d have followed him, every last one of us in the audience. We want to follow him to Northern Uganda and listen to him perform ‘Tong Ngweno’ as many times as ‘Africa’ by Toto is playing in the Namibian desert. (If you want a video, DM me your number and I’ll send it to you).
Listening to Alpha Otim on the muddy grounds at Itanda, it makes sense why Mobutu had to jail Franco, why Cuba had to jail Maykel Castillo..music is the most powerful tool to numb pain, outside of narcotics and analgesics. Otim’s dancers slither on stage like they are boneless, and the lead dancer is balancing about ten bowls on her head while she maintains perfect rhythm. I almost cry. It is a beautiful sight that I won’t see again for a whole year.
THIS IS NYEGENYEGE.
People dancing, crying from the music, letting loose, dancing in trains, some off-beat, some rhythmically; black, white, poor, rich, free, oppressed, in therapy, in denial, gay, straight..it is one big ball of nuclear energy and Alpha Otim has the code to it. The dancers start throwing bracelets into the crowd and people are stepping on each other to have a memento mori of what happened that night.
“GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT, MAKE THEM HAPPY”
Oh my God, Alpha’s off-script chants have us going nuts. He stops to catch his breath as his dancers assemble for yet another banger. Their shoulders moving to the beats of the Luo drums. At this point, we are lapping up everything that he serving, that man could have stared at us and people would have gone mad. His white tribal markings on his chest, visible earlier, have been wiped away by the sweat from the dancing. I’ve never seen a man rap, dance, sing and command a crowd as he did that Saturday.
He exits the stage and throws his headgear into the crowd, the tussle for it is the last thing I see before I take the long walk back to my sleeping bag. It was a legendary night, and Alpha Otim deserves a blank cheque and a statue from the Ugandan government. He’s at the rolex, coffee and tea level of famous Ugandan exports.
18.09.2022. Itanda Falls, Jinja, Uganda.
I sleep in. Last night was beautiful and I don’t want to wake up just yet. There are a lot of thoughts in my head. Humanity is beautiful. Life is beautiful. Dying old is a privilege that I’d want to have, because imagine how many NyegeNyeges you can attend if you live to 70. A lot of Nyeges. A lot of Alpha Otim performances. A lot of stamps on your passport. A lot of experiences.
There are so many incredibly talented artistes, and we really need to listen, watch and buy as much art as we can. The pandemic taught us that the world without art, (and well-funded healthcare service) would be a very hollow place. I think about the space for drugs in art. Surely there had to be artistes who delivered a memorable night for us when they were high from something. What’s the intersection between the legal boundary with the moral one? At Nyege, it’s the Ugandan Police with sniffer dogs, that’s what.
NyegeNyege is for everyone. Biko shot this
After another heavy Ugandan breakfast, I talk to Dj Missyness, a Tunisian DJ that just did a madness on the Boiler Room decks with songs that were so French, Arabic and exotic that I instinctively kept inwardly shouting allez and oui, the only two French words I know. There was a heavy, drenching rainfall during her set, but it stopped nobody, and the show went on as the wet season rain pounded the village.
DJ Missyness. Biko shot this
After her intense set, she talks to me about her experience as Dormant Youth takes over. She’s delightful, and she tells me how important cross-continental collaborations are. She met the resident NyegeNyege DJ in a festival in Paris, where after a show together, she got a chance to play underneath the Itanda sky.
I realise that I’m yet to see any cocaine or people having sex publicly, so I decide to look harder.
There’s not cocaine or any orgies on sight, just like there’s scanty information on Google about exactly how much the festival makes, but respected media puts it at about $3 million, in direct and indirect terms. Hotels and accommodation around Jinja and Itanda, food, alcohol, art vendors, ticketing, financial and in-kind sponsorships.
A ‘rolex’ (A chapati or pan-fried flat bread, wrapped around eggs and garnished with tomatoes) vendor tells me he’s made chapatis from about 5 bales of wheat flour, each having 24 kilos at his food station where there’s chicken, fried plantains, and mountains and mountains of chapatis. He won’t tell me exactly how much he made on day one, but I think it’s been worth his time.
Wango eating a rolex. Biko shot this
I’m sleepy as hell after the rain beat us up as we watched Dormant Youth and Dj Missyness’s show, and I split my time between the vendor stalls, The Dark Stage and The Bell Stage. I have to fight through my heavy eyelids, and show up for my Kenyan brothers’ show.
First up is X Ray, a gengetone artiste with a song so big the Kenyan President used it as his catch phrase during the successful general election campaigns, followed by Benzema, a rapper that laces his songs with so much sexual innuendo he calls himself the ‘Van Damme of Porn’. They set it nicely for Boutross, the ‘Shrapgod’ to end things on a high, for the estimated 4,000 Kenyans in Nyegenyege. He’s a new-age artiste that uses Swahili to rap about getting money, drugs, partying and fun over trap-infused beats. The show doesn’t end as planned and he has his mic cut off due to scheduling conflicts and as a big fan of his music, it’s an anticlimactic way to end the night. I take that as a cue to go to my rain-soaked tent and sleep the exhaustion off.
19. 09.2022. Itanda Falls, Uganda
After last night’s madness, and having to sleep in a fetal position after mattresses were soaked by the rain, we wake up late. The camp is almost empty, as most people travelled yesterday or are packing up to leave. We head to the beach, and there’s a lot more water than we expected.
At the beach. One last time. Drawn by Wango
We decide to enjoy the Nile one last time as a crew, and it almost becomes one last time, in a tragic sense.
One moment Wango is swimming upstream, and we’re talking and laughing about how much fun the crew had even if we only saw Yvonne in bits and pieces. The next minute, Wango’s dreadlocked head is bobbing up and down the water, shouting for help. I throw my washcloth into the river and rush to help Munga, who’s almost reaching Wango, only to realise I’m now in the same predicament as Wango is.
My legs are floating in the Nile, and then it hits me that because I can’t swim, then I’m about to drown.
I panic and attempt to clutch at anything I can feel around me, but all I can see, and feel, is the strong waves of the Nile. It’s a scary realisation; I might actually die if nothing changes. I raise my hand and shake it with all the power I still have left, and lucky for Wango and I, there’s a pair of kayakers who fish us out of the water just as we almost start to sink.
I thank the kayakers with what is left of my breath, and it’s a sombre time at breakfast. I can’t believe that I almost died on the most beautiful part of the entire campsite. Not far from where the seaweed was, and where I was taking baths, pictures and hunting for sightings of cocaine.
Life is fleeting. I lose one of my rings to the Nile but that’s a small price to pay. I have a reason to get another tattoo, on the finger the ring was on. I have a memory that I’ll carry for life. I have a reason to come back next year.
It feels nice to have the breeze in your face after you almost die, it’s almost cathartic to even laugh about it. How I was flailing in the water, and how men on Kayaks saved us. I must learn how to swim.
I meet Alpha Otim as we are about to dress and leave, I take an obligatory picture and his WhatsApp number. My Tanzanian friend Hemedi who is as funny as he is creative, teaches us the slang they use in Dar, and he even invites us to his wedding in October. I still have water in my ears but I’m happy I came.
Hemedi 🇹🇿 Alpha Otim 🇺🇬 and I 🇰🇪
We get a ride from the Uganda Police to Jinja, complete with the occasional siren, after there are no cars to carry us to Jinja. It really is a movie. Five guys, on a police car, with a darker skin tan than they came with, two of who just got a second chance at life, on a speeding police car.
After a game of pool, at a makuti-thatched bar near the the bus depot, we file into the Mash Poa Scania to Nairobi. The ride home is slower, as if the driver knows we have a lot on our minds and we need to think about our lives. The beauty of friendship. How transient youth, and life is. One minute you’re joking near the Nile, and the next you’re fighting for your life in it.
NyegeNyege is ours. The Japanese DJ K8 at the Artiste’s Camp. Biko shot this
Sure, Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru started NyegeNyege, but it’s ours now, and that’s the most beautiful and sacred thing about it. Nobody can take it from us; not the government, not regulators, not outsiders and definitely not those who don’t understand what it means to us. It’s not the African Glastonbury, or a modern-day Woodstock or Tomorrowland’s doppleganger, it’s our NyegeNyege, and it always finds the theme to our lives, on the shores, in the tents, in the stages and underneath the beautiful, infinite Itanda Sky.
A special Thank You to
Nyegenyege for the tickets to the Artiste’s Camp.
Wango, Biko, Willy, Munga and Rigo for making my trip amazing
Everyone who talked to me
Oloo for introducing me to Vipassana and Iworker
Hallie, for always being supportive
Siyah, for making me happy
Ben, for making it possible for me to have a place to write this
AND YOU FOR READING THIS VAIN, BORDERLINE NARCISSISTIC but HONEST EXPERIENCE OF MY FIRST NYEGE NYEGE