From Nyege Nyege to Woodstock: The Debate About Freedom, Sex, And A New African World Rages

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From Nyege Nyege to Woodstock: The Debate About Freedom, Sex, And A New African World Rages

 By Charles Onyango-Obbo

One of Africa’s biggest – and most controversial – indie musical festivals, Nyege Nyege, is underway (Nov. 9-12, 2023) in the eastern Uganda industrial town of Jinja. Nyenge Nyenge season tends to be one of the most divisive in Uganda, pitting moralists, religious guardians, traditionalists, and anxious parents, against free-spirited youth, the rebellious, sexually liberal, and socially progressive. Ugandan politicians usually play both sides.

If Nyege Nyege wasn’t controversial, it would be a useless festival. The controversy around is proof that it is challenging convention, and of its social shifting impact. Its critics too, remind us that there are old certainties and a world that offers some security that is worth fighting for. It would be unusual if people didn’t wish for their children, siblings, and relatives to return home in one piece when they go into what they see as a risky experimental new world.

Nyege Nyege has often been messy, and even disorganised. But that messiness is necessary. It is what gives it a raw edge and authenticity. If it was too sleek and ran like clockwork, it would seem too contrived and plastic. It is a complex event about African bodily autonomy, agency, self-expression, freedom, and unity. And it will always be uncomfortable. When it ceases to be, it could die. In that, it is not alone. It bears some similarity to Woodstock, widely regarded as one of the most important events in music history.

The Woodstock festival, which took place on August 15–18, 1969, on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, drew about 500,000 people – and perhaps as many as 750,000 – and was headlined by later-legendary acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Woodstock succeeded, though it was a poorly organised event. The crowd experienced bad weather, muddy conditions and a lack of food, water and adequate sanitation, the overall vibe was harmonious. Medical facilities were swamped. Pumps set up to extract water from the ground occasionally failed under the strain. Eventually, dairy trucks were acquired and used as water containers. Traffic congestion made it virtually impossible for the portable toilets to be emptied of their contents.

There were concerns about the “moral degeneration” of sex and drugs. The concerns turned out to have been overblown. The promoters and the festival-goers generally responded to a difficult situation with compassion, kindness, goodwill, and even humour.

Many residents were pleasantly surprised by their first encounters with hippies, exotic creatures they’d only heard about in the news. Others continued to be enraged. Woodstock was an opportunity for people to escape into music and spread a message of unity, love, and peace. It helped bring counterculture into the mainstream because it presented people with types of music that they had not previously been aware of.

The history of Nyege Nyege is being written. This time, by many more black bodies.

– Credit to various sources.

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