HOW THIS PIECE CAME TO BE.
Wango, who I have collaborated with on a few projects documenting some of East Africa’s most iconic events, told me that an email from Jinja had confirmed that we’d cover Nyege ’23 like we did last year. I had just come from Kilifi, on a passion project that had me four days in one of Kenya’s most scenic beaches, with fresh food, torrential rain and the cheapest sleeping quarters I could find in Mnarani. I love Nyege, and what it means to the artistes, vendors and revelers who attend the four-day festival. I tried to keep it as authentic to myself and my crew, as much as I could, although I’m sure there are people who attended Nyege, who will have a different recollection of events or who will think I was starry-eyed by the four days in Jinja. My aim is to get you to experience Nyege, at least once in your life, because just like the sounds of the birds, we don’t know how much we needed it, until you’re on the shores of the Nile, a drink in your hand looking into the sunset and wishing it could last forever.
LOSING WANGO AND BIKO.
The walk from The Nile Hotel to The New Bridge in Jinja shouldn’t be long. But I was walking at 11 PM, in a foreign country, and on a poorly-lit road where I had to use my feet like an insect uses its feelers. As I dealt with heart-in-my-mouth stumbles because I couldn’t see the unevenness of the stretch, men on motorbikes zoomed past me, on the tarmac road that I walked beside. Little Ugandan flags on their registration numbers reminding me where I was, their headlights illuminating ‘Government Of Uganda’ signs and hedges with the biggest leaves I’d seen in my life. Half my brain was trying to anticipate the buzz of Biko or Wango’s call, the other half was trying to walk towards the music that played in the distance and that signified that it was NyegeNyege. A few steps near Njeru, where plump women carrying stools and baskets that contained entire kiosks on their heads walked past me on their way home and everyone around me spoke a language I couldn’t understand, I knelt. Not to pray, but to put my open shoes in ‘sports’ mode and then hurry my steps towards Jinja. I was lost, and if I was to meet the guys and find my ticket, my food and my bed, I needed to get to the showground fast.
A few hour earlier, I had realized I lost the guys, (Biko and Wango) on my third unanswered call. We had travelled in different buses, a decision that was shockingly brainless on my part, but had a chance meeting at the border crossing at Busia, where staff in branded white shirts stamped on our passports with the enthusiasm of African government workers in stuffy offices. I had said to meet at Jinja, without specifying where exactly, which wasn’t very smart because our Kenyan network wasn’t working in Uganda. The drive to Jinja had been standard. We had left a soaked Nairobi at 11 PM on a party bus, arrived at Nakuru four hours later for a stopover of snacks, toilet breaks and marijuana, and then stared out the window as the bus left the towns behind till we got to Busia, where men with fat bundles of cash asked you how much money you wanted to exchange, as others fried rolex (a flatbread sandwich with eggs, tomatoes and onions as a filling) by the roadside. Countless roadblocks on the Ugandan side had slowed us down, but as we approached Jinja, half the bus was asleep, and the other half were trying to get internet service or wonder why their powerbanks were charging so slowly. On the steps at The Nile Hotel in Jinja, a nice-looking hotel with bleached out walls and the hardest-smiling staff I saw over the festival, where the rest of the party bus guys were staying, I had tried to get the hotel Wi-Fi to work. But with hundreds of phones trying to make calls, withdraw money, install dating apps, drop pins and send out pictures, my Redmi’s Wi-Fi bar moved from one to zero like a child learning how to play Ping-Pong. While everyone else got their room keys handed to them, I had smoothed out my creased pants and tried to act like I had things under control.
Acting cool is hard work, and while everyone had moved to their assigned rooms, I had sent out my luggage with a friend to his room, and remained in the lobby, trying unsuccessfully to get to my guys via WhatsApp, and consequently, my tickets and accommodation. 11 PM found me hunched up at the lobby, reading magazines on fishing and bungie jumping, until I opted to walk into the night and that was how I was now walking into a police squadron near the New Bridge at Jinja. I waved to them and kept walking, until a burly cop in a hunter-green uniform motioned for me to walk to them. I clenched my teeth and prepared for the worst.
“Where are you going?” with that unmistakable Ugandan accent.
“Jinja Town, for Nyege” I realized I had answered a bit callously, like he was supposed to tell from my ripped jeans, loud t shirt and open shoes that I was going to the most legendary festival in Africa, and I almost added “Sir” because the squad car had a space that could have fit me with handcuffs on my wrists.
“No pedestrians on the bridge. Take a taxi”, he said it with a finality that left no room for discussion. For a brief moment I had wondered why I had to take a cab, till I remembered Ugandans call public transportation taxis.
I stood as far away from the black squad car with a portable jail cell as I could, in uncomfortable silence, as the cops checked out my drawstring bag that contained nothing illegal, a powerbank, chewing gum and Ugandan currency, but still felt suspicious on my shoulders. For the five minutes I stood there, I counted the trucks that carried cane as a distraction. Sugar must either be cheap in Uganda or the alcohol they make uses thousands of tonnes of that white stuff, because I must have counted at least ten massive trucks squeaking under the weight of sugar cane. Kenyan cops would already have found something to arrest me for, and as we waited underneath the starry sky, I broke with atheist traditions and said a quick thank you to God that I was outside in Jinja and not Juja. It was good I didn’t close my eyes, because the cops flagged down a taxi, and asked the driver to get me to Jinja town. Outside the taxi, the music got louder, signifying that were entering town, and ten minutes later when we got to Nalufenya Road, I fished out a UGX 2,000 note from my wallet, handed it to the driver, and walked away when no change was forthcoming.
I flagged down the first motorbike guy I saw, and asked him to take me to Nyege, which I guessed wasn’t far away given the number of cops I saw as we sped into the night. I’m not sure but I think a third of Nyege’s budget goes to the Uganda Police and military, the place is always swarming with cops. Military, army and SWAT-dressed cops. Fat cops, skinny cops, young cops, old cops, cops with shiny boots and ironed uniforms, and those with wrinkled shirts, bloodshot eyes and muscles the size of a baby banana trunk. A lot of cops. At the gate, an attendant stopped me, and said I couldn’t go beyond without a ticket, I wanted to ask them to let me in for a few minutes because the people with my tickets were inside but the angry-looking policeman next to us was cradling his baton like you would a sleeping baby, and I figured it would actually be nice to explore Jinja by night.
The walk back to Jinja town was embarrassing, and the rolex I bought at the gate tasted like cinchona bark. I walked past a school that had an Indian-sounding name, made my way past Jinja Police station, walked aimlessly past a couple of streets, then past Lovina, where call girls called me babe and tried to get Ugandan money from me which I didn’t have myself. At Vibez, a liquor bar where the waitress had the biggest ass I had seen in years, I thought about taking a shot to numb the bitterness I felt eating up my soul, but I wasn’t going to break my six-year break from alcohol just because I was salty that I didn’t have anywhere to sleep yet. Jinja is actually well-planned, and if I hadn’t been pissed that I still couldn’t get to Biko and Wango, I would have thoroughly enjoyed walking through it. At Iganga Road, where my feet were burning from all the walking, I thought I’d have another rolex just so I could have a seat. The seller proceeded to make me the worst rolex I’d ever seen in my life, blackening the fuck out of my egg and hardening it around the edges. But this wasn’t inside a Super Metro bus in Nairobi, where I could have caused a scene and demanded a refund. Instead, I took baby bites of the culinary atrocity, as I watched the streets, and took pictures of the old Indian architecture against the moon, anything to take my thoughts away from where I’d sleep that night. The rolex seller was skewering pieces of chicken at this point, from a dirty cardboard box, and putting them into an even dirtier container, making me think that Jinja’s food safety inspectorate must be massively understaffed, because he should have been in jail for what he was doing.
After I packed what remained of my rolex to throw away later, I figured I’d ask him to get me a boda, so I could go back to the Nile Hotel and see if I could find anyone I knew and try sleep my frustration of missing my first night away. Mr. Bloody Hands proceeded to wipe his hands on his pants, grab a key from his pocket, and told me to get on an old bike that was parked in front of his food stand. He asked a friend to take over the chicken-skewering task, and told me to sit tight. A few kicks in, the old bike coughed and spluttered to life and we took the old bridge route to the hotel. Our bike was in such bad shape, it would definitely have had us inside the squadron’s car if we tried to pass by the New Bridge, him for traffic offences, and me as an accomplice. At the old bridge, there was a banner of General Museveni from the 2021 elections that flapped in the wind, faded and tattered as you’d expect a three year banner to be, a banner that had seen it all. I imagined Biko and Wango under the stars inside Nyege, dancing with beautiful women, taking selfies and drinking Waragi, while I was being chauffeured in a bike that was only on the road because there aren’t enough traffic policemen at night. After I said thank you for getting me home safe, I told the guy to keep the UGX 5,000 balance because turning off his bike to go find change would have meant him having to kick it back to life. Sure he was a bad, unhygienic cook, but he was actually a good driver who got me home safe. I was so bitter and angry at missing night one of Nyege, I imagined my feet to be a hot spoon, and the ground maragarine, as I was gliding across the staircases.
Unable to reach Wango and Biko, I spent the night curled up on the floor, I had already been given a room to store my bags and sleep in, I wasn’t going to ask to share the bed. Then, as I looked up onto a gypsum ceiling in Uganda’s fifth largest city, thoughts of one last try at finding my guys in the morning lulled me to sleep. The next morning, I woke up at 6 AM to brush my teeth and massage my sore neck. At the Java near the Jinja-Kampala highway, with my luggage at my feet, my Kenyan friend got me breakfast, and as I sipped on sugarless coffee thinking about how long and frustrating the bus ride to Nairobi was going to be if I didn’t meet my guys, I got a WhatsApp call from Josh, my friend from Kampala who said he had spoken to Wango and he was going to give him my location.
AT THE WONDERLAND
I didn’t know how to react when Biko and Wango walked in to the Java, wearing safari hats and Biko with the shortest shorts I had seen on a man to that point. A few minutes later, I had gotten my tag and accomodation, at the cost of a stiff neck and missing night one of Nyege. At the house that we had been allocated, a swanky colonial-style cottage that overlooked the Nile, that had manicured lawns and armed guards, I showered and put on so much deodorant, I almost choked on my Dove extra fresh. At Todorico, the quaint, intimate pub we use as a ‘I went to Nyege’ marker, we had Waragi and Bell Lager. You know the effect in a movie where the character can’t hear anything around him even when lips are moving and bodies are moving to a sound, and everything slows down? I felt that way, the ‘psss’ sound from beers being opened, the ‘pap’ sound as someone slapped the bottom of a gin bottle, and the pop music from the giant JBL speaker in the corner, I could only see, as I asked myself why I had left my bed in Nairobi to sleep on a floor in Jinja. I snapped out of it when someone asked me to smile for a group photo, and with the soft, glowing heat from the sun, we walked towards Nyege.
The Nyege Wonderland for 2023 comprised the iconic Source of the Nile, The Jinja Golf Course and the Jinja Showground. I don’t have specifics about the size but it was big enough to make my feet hurt from all the walking, and I play football for three hours every week and walk as much as I can when I’m in Nairobi. The place was massive, and I think that’s why all the army and police were needed. At the mainstage, while Wango sketched and Biko pointed his lens at Dance Mamweta on stage, chics in bohemian-themed fits walked around in boots so heavy that seemed to slow them down. Nyege is an open-air fashion show, where every inch of space can be used as a runway. There are plenty of signs that people come here to impress; dyed hair, t shirts with puns on them, skimpy fits, baggy fits, muddied fits, crisp made-for-Nyege fits..I fished my notepad and pen from my drawstring bag, and before I could scribble anything, I saw Alpha Otim, and him remembering me from last year made me so happy I cussed myself out for even thinking about going back to Nairobi before Nyege was over.
If you’re wondering why I was so pumped to see a chest-bare Acholi man (you’ll rarely see Alpha Otim in a shirt), it’s because NyegeNyege is the Matryoshka doll of festivals. You get there to see Alpha perform ‘Tong Ngweno’, and realise that there is a mosh pit in the middle of his performance, a group of old friends just happy to be here, another of new friends that just peeled back that outer layer of awkwardness, and complete strangers doing an extended version of the ‘choochoo train’ dance: a scene that is just as crazy as the concept of a doll within a doll within a doll, within a doll, withi..you get where I’m headed with this. There’s seven different stages at Nyege, each with its own distinct personality, layout, crowd and vibe. The main stage is the most popular because the most famous artistes often perform there, especially during the night shows, then there’s The Bell Stage where you’ll get as much beer as you can drink, The Smirnoff stage which has a lot of bright red lights, and vodka, The Waragi Stage where people go to check out and never leave, Hakuna Kulala Stage which is where you’ll find people in fishnet stockings, heavy boots, biker goggles and a love of everything that’s rare and eccentric, and I’d have liked to see what was going on at the Spirit of Uganda Stage and The Busoga Stage but the place was so huge, I knew they were there after the event.
Night falls, and Nyege becomes wild. Not wild in the way that there’s screams around you, and you have to clutch at your phone and feel your pores become sweaty, no. It gets wild in the way that it’s one big show of lights and sound. String lights hanging on trees and tents such that the venue looks like a giant 3D Christmas postcard, (only that here Santa brings views of the Nile, street food and gifted artistes that the general public will hear about in a year), security lights pointed at the bushes, neon lights letting you know where Smirnoff, Bell and Waragi are on sale, phone lights when an artiste is on stage..and the sounds and smells of the generators that power the lights and speakers, when you walk from one stage to the other, the echoes of the MCs screaming themselves hoarse as they hype up artistes who are probably on stage for their first major festival and the ‘ch,ch,ch’ sound of vendors counting up your change after you bought a plate of fries, or a trinket or a pack of condoms. It’s an actual wonderland, and time moves fast, one moment you’re walking along Nile Avenue, with nothing but flatbread in your stomach and a drawstring bag on your shoulders, the next you’re inside Nyege, with hope, optimism and a little marijuana in your soul, watching a heavily-pregnant Jemimah Sanyu give the performance of her life.
After she’s done, Groovy Joe, a raspy-voiced artiste Kenyan femcee from Kenya who is performing her first Nyege but doesn’t show any nerves brings Boutross, a three-time Nyege artiste, who caps his performance with ‘Angie’ his viral hitsong. The Tanzanian ‘singeli’ duo, Queen Asher & Rehema Tajiri, a mother-daughter duo where Rehema sing-raps Swahili over fast paced electro-Swahili beats that are mixed and mainly produced by her daughter Queen Asher. Wango seems to enjoy it more than we do, having travelled to Dar earlier in the year, and he had gotten to enjoy Singeli in its raw form.
A SHOW BY SHO
I woke up the next day to views of the Nile outside the compound, ships billowing smoke from their diesel engines, and at the open-air food place we had brunch, people went about their business like Jemimah Sanyu hadn’t delivered nearly two hours of a live show while she was visibly pregnant. And that’s the thing about life, you can be fighting to hold on for your life on an old bike in Jinja, while your boys are having the times of their life a kilometer away, you could be drowning in debt, wondering how you’ll eat tonight and someone else might be ordering a new iPhone 15 that matches their car’s interior. The dualities of life. We had travelled over 500 kilometres to come for Nyege, and the people who sold us food didn’t even know one person from the lineup. Here we were, Wango, Biko, Njehia, Murage, Shii, Munga, Blaze and I, eating fish topless, the wind in our faces, the waves crashing against the rocks not far from where we were seated. Having an impromptu photoshoot for Wango’s streetwear brand Karibu Nairobi, stylized as ‘Krb Nrb’. We would never have this moment again, because like Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”, sure, we’d probably be here at the same place next year, but we’d be different people.
Shii, the only girl in the group, had worn boobtape, panties and layered it with a fishnet bathrobe. Nothing else. Culture is interesting because later on at Nyege, she wasn’t even getting stares, I actually saw two other girls who were dressed just as sultry as she was. But at the market, old women shaked their heads in disgust, as the men craned their necks at the prospect at one more second of her cheeks dancing in her see-through bathrobe. She’d never wear that at a festival in Nairobi, or on the streets of Jinja, but inside Nyege, there’s a freedom most people find that isn’t available elsewhere. Four sleepless, adrenaline-filled days away from work, or home, or a routine that has you caged, because Nyege exists to let you blow off steam, and enjoy the show.
At the artisan’s market, I buy vanilla pods and a bracelet from Shamusa, who first came to Nyege 8 years ago. Boxing and back-breaking artisanal work mean he doesnt look like he is in his forties. He has been an artiste for twenty of those forty years, break-dancing, doing afro music, creating beadwork and avoiding trouble in Kampala. The artists and vendors here; facepainters, bead-makers, tattoo artistes, rolex makers, sheesha vendors and even carnival ride providers come from as far as Gulu, and as near as Jinja. With over 10,000 visitors, Nyege provides an opportunty for the vendors and artistes to sell, interact with a market that already believes in supporting artistes. It sounds like it should be light work, but I’d pass by the vendor stations late at night and see them layered in blankets and hoodies, the unglamorous and frustrating side of artistry.
At the ‘Hakuna Kulala’ stage, Alpha Otim gives us a 45 minute set of fast-paced electro Acholi bops. There are traditional cooking pot covers as decors on the fringes of the tent, and inside the red and white lights, which get hot, blink as fast as his dancers tap the stage with the transverse arch part of their feet. Then we look at the schedule and take off running, Sho Madjozi has a show at the main stage and she’s one of the biggest reasons we came to Nyege.
Sho’s show is the highlight of the main stage at Nyege. She has an impressive catalogue, but Wango and Biko saw her at her first Nyege in 2018, and to see her again, after her worldwide success, is like a long-lost friend in town. Sho is angelic, with an aura of happiness that is infectious, and even on stage, she laughs a lot, and she looks like she smells like strawberry bubblegum. She’s wearing muddied Nikes, and a poncho made out of about ten different shades of wool, that lost bits of it and turned into a skirt as the show rolled on, like a tasteful, all ages admitted strip tease. The main stage arena is packed, step back and you hurt someone’s feet, step forward and you are breathing on someone’s neck, its outdoors but it’s hot and sweaty. Even bearded men are screaming, and bobbing their heads to Gunna’s ‘Fukumean’ track that features her vocals. The crowd loves Sho. Earlier Biko mentioned that in in 2018, they’d chill with Sho after her perfomances, and now she’s on Ellen’s show with John Cena. That’s growth, and what Nyege should provide. That just because an artiste doesn’t have 5,000,000 views on YouTube, it doesn’t mean they are not good, there are so many talented and unique artistes who can’t all fit on the stage at Coachella, or Glastonbury, Summer Fest or Lollapalooza, and we need to platform them, scream their names and give them the confidence to go out and make art that people can cry to, dance to, get high to, heal their pain or simply enjoy.
While Sho performed, Biko showed me her dancer who would use the breaks between songs to puff on an inhaler and then get back to the energy-sapping dance routines that had most people’s phones out, and my pen scribbling furiously on my notepad. As an asthmatic with an inhaler in his drawstring bag, I know that it takes some serious commitment, because your lungs feel like they are getting smaller when you need your inhaler. She had a brace too, and that’s how you know she’s committed to her craft. After several encores, Sho leaves to wild applause, her face glistening with sweat and her dancers looking like they’re headed straight to bed. DJ Kaneda from Kenya takes over and I jam to her set with a girl from Kenya who has a yellow beanie on every time I see her.
Then we head out to watch Wango paint faces, sketch, then we play poker, watch a firework show, because at Nyege you can start your New Year in Novermber, we walk till we muddy our shoes and get back home at 7 AM.
RAIN AND VIEWS
At breakfast the next day, Wango invites Queen Asher and Rehema Tajiri, the ‘singeli’ duo for brunch, and the girl with a yellow beanie comes too. With a breakfast spread, and Shii covered up, there’s no unwanted attention to us today and we can chat about how a mother and her daughter were on stage serving up what has been described as ‘The future sound of Dar Es Salaam’. They’ve been to festivals in Barcelona, Lisbon and Paris, where revelers enjoy the sounds she learnt rom observation. Rehema tells me she sing-shouts into the beach to keep her voice going for her one-hour-plus sets, and maintain a jogging regimen to keep up with the physical demands of touring. A lot of the artistes on stage are autodidacts, there are very few music schools for alternative musicians and they have to learn their trade by trial and error. When they get to the Nyege stage, they usually have performed for free, for crowds of ten or even fewer, and most artistes, like the duo, appreciate the artistic side of a festival performance.
At the Nile viewpoint, where the sun disappears into the horizon and the fiery orange has people’s phones out, I think about how difficult it would be to get lube at Nyege, not that I planned on having sex, but the concept of preparation and paying the price for the lack of it made me think that my drawstring bag needs to have a lot more than chewing gum and my inhaler in case someone I liked wanted to have a taste of this Kenyan man. I pass by Smirnoff, where the rain has us packed into a storied dancefloor made out of wood, where the DJ has to remind us that we will “find ourselves in the news” if we keep dancing and shaking the wooden structure that is now carrying twice its weight and is about to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
After the rain subsides, and we file out, I head out into the Nyege dusk, on my last night here. The rain muddies our shoes, and we file into the old colonial house at ungodly hours, like true festival-goers should. Nyege is not a conventional festival, nor does it claim to be a perfect one, and it doesn’t aspire to be neatly structured for replication. Fueled by a legion of devoted, returning cast of artistes, artisans, revelers and haters, it has the ability to provoke intense emotions among those involved. Yet, its essence, innovations, and outcomes are intricately connected, a harmonized system if you will. It will exist for as long as the revelers need to escape society’s pain, and the artistes and artisans sing, mould and create the cure and platforms for it, which is my way of saying that Nyege will outlive us all, and while it’s ghoulish at first, it’s a beautiful way to be remembered, that as strangers in someone elses photo, or compliments about someone’s tee shirt, created a carnival that will last forever.