JINJA, UG – How many music festivals can claim to host over 200 artists on five stages over four days on the banks of the longest river in the world? Visitors typically flock to Jinja for its famous water activities at the source of the Nile, but there is another attraction that draws thousands of people from around the world: Nyege Nyege Music Festival.
"Nyege nyege" in the local Luganda language translates to "the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake or dance," and 15,000 people journey to Jinja, Uganda, to experience this.
"Nyege Nyege stands for peace, respect and abundant joy, it stands for Africa and Africans, for underground music and musicians, it stands for fun and curiosity and strives towards inclusivity and wonder," according to the Nyege Nyege website.
As a majority conservative country, not everyone agrees. Uganda’s Directorate for Ethics and Integrity has been advocating for the cancellation of the festival since its inception. While the Luganda translation says "nyege nyege" is that urge to dance, other regional translations give the phrase a sexual connotation.
In 2018, three days before the festival on 3 Sept., Ethics and Integrity Minister Fr. Simon Lokodo wrote a letter addressed to Internal Affairs Minister Gen. Jeje Odongo proposing the cancellation of the festival. He cited "credible information" that the festival "has been compromised to accommodate the celebration and recruitment of young people into homosexuality, and LGBT movement." He continued to write that this motive "may compromise the national integrity of our nation and put our citizens at risk of deviant sexual immorality."
Two days before the festival on 4 Sept., Lokodo declared the cancellation of the festival, saying there would be nudity, sexuality and "devil worship" otherwise. That same day, government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo tweeted that organizers should proceed with preparations.
There was a meeting that Wednesday morning, one day before the festival, involving all stakeholders reviewing the event. In a press statement released afterwards, Lokodo said the event is cleared to go, subject to conditions, after discussing with organizers and government officials.
He stated, however, "I wish the public and event goers to be mindful of the requirements for safety, security, law and order, ethical behavior and sanitation as they participate in the festival. The compliance and successful conduct of this event free of the threats and mischief while promoting our values is what we all desire."
Besides the formal meeting, there were other factors that may have been at play. Not only were there massive protests on social media, but there were large financial investments. With official sponsorship from the telecommunication giant MTN – as well as Coca-Cola, Uganda Waragi, Modern Coast and British Council to name a few – it posed a challenge to cancel.
The first Nyege Nyege took place in 2015, making it one of the youngest and fastest growing festivals in East Africa. The festival centers around not only music, but startups, food and art. Campgrounds were added in 2018 – two minutes away from the festival by foot – to accommodate the rising number of attendees.
The music itself is a showcase of the transformation and fusion of contemporary African music, within the continent and across the world. Go to one stage, and you may see a traditional Ugandan ensemble. Move on to the next, and you might meet a Euro-African techno-fusion DJ. If you entered the World of Waragi section, you could even participate in a silent disco – with the purchase of a bottle of their waragi, a local gin, of course – with channels of different genres.
Hopping on a bus from Rwanda to Jinja and back, here are snapshots of the Nyege Nyege experience.
*Click on photo to enter slideshow