Uganda’s Bonfire Youth

How a group of young people are employing poetry and storytelling to speak out against state repression, corruption and abuse of power.

Still from "Somebody clap for me."

There might be only little room for political dissent in Uganda, but there is no limit to the creativity of the country’s youth as they continually engage the three-decade-old grip on power of Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM).  This, at least, is the conclusion one reaches after watching Luciana Farah’s new film, Somebody Clap for Me. Set in Kampala, the nation’s capital, the film highlights how a group of young people are employing poetry and storytelling to speak out against state repression, corruption and abuse of power – its title drawn from a satirical rendering by one of the youths of President Museveni’s campaign promises.

At the center of their initiative is an eye-catching concept, the bonfire. An ancient village arrangement, this is where elders and young people met around an evening fire for poetry, storytelling and discussions. It becomes the rallying point for these urban young people, who seek to confront the curtailment of freedom of speech and other democratic freedoms by the Museveni regime.

Appealing to tradition to highlight the need for a conversation between generations about national issues, the young artists are powerfully rebutting the contemporary state ideology in Uganda. Past statements by Museveni and other high-ranking government officials, for instance, have glorified the “historicals” – the former 1981-1986 bush war fighters who currently constitute the ruling class – for their supposed experience and wisdom, while dismissing young people for their “lack of ideology.” It is not uncommon for public officials, when confronted with questions about the succession plans of the aging president, to sweep them under the carpet by calling upon the youth to “respect their elders” as traditional customs supposedly dictate.

However, Somebody Clap for Me explores how progressive youth are rejecting the silencing of dissent in the name of tradition and, instead, are reclaiming the concept for emancipatory purposes through bonfire poems and stories. Through an adroit weaving of the personal profiles of some of the youths, the film also tells the story of their struggles with questions of race, poverty and life in exile. Accompanied by a soundtrack featuring indigenous and Afro-pop Ugandan music the movie presents the individual stories of Roshan, Abbas Ugly Amin, Jungle De Maneater, among others, as a microcosm of the country’s young generation and its efforts to get a say in the running of the country.

Yet, for all its merits, the movie overlooks some key questions concerning the practicality of the bonfire project in the context of liberation politics in the country. For instance, considering the fact that quasi-democratic regimes like Uganda’s survive in power more by their military muscle than by popular legitimacy, how effective is poetry, storytelling and the arts at large in prompting democratic reform?

Relatedly, contrary to what the film presents, freedom of speech in Uganda appears less threatened than the right to organize. As the government’s cruel response to the 2011 Walk-to-Work campaign demonstrated, popular protest – not merely free speech – constitutes the real threat to the NRM. Public debates, media campaigns and even artistic initiatives like the bonfire are normally left free to thrive, so long as they don’t morph into powerful social movements capable of challenging state power.

The film should therefore have probed the wider implications of the bonfire project in terms of what it hopes to achieve beyond the already largely guaranteed freedom of speech. Nevertheless, Somebody Clap for Me remains a must-watch for anyone interested in youth, civil society and the quest for political reform in sub-Saharan Africa.

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