Student Editorial: Will there be a Cultural Gala at UCU in 10 Years from Now?

[Editor’s Note: Here on the UCU Partners blog we hope to connect our readers with the UCU community in various ways, including sharing the various happenings and conversations going on on campus. One way that we hope to do this is through showing some of the good thinking that is going on among students and faculty at UCU through occasional editorials related to current events and/or issues that are of importance to various member of the UCU community. We hope this will help to provide glimpses of life in and ideas emerging from Uganda and UCU, ranging from celebrations and innovations  to challenges and struggles in the context. We are happy to provide this first editorial by alumnus, current student, and staff member, Mr. Ikyiriza Eliab. As a final note, I, the editor, have included occasional comments to enhance understanding where it might be needful.  Enjoy!]

By Ikyiriza Eliab, BA Social Work and Social Administration – UCU  ’14 & current student in Masters of Social Work at UCU. Tutor in Foundation Studies and Social Work departments UCU.

A picture of the Acholi Association Performers from the Cultural Gala 2016 (credit: UCU Communications and Marketing)

On the 7th of October 2017, Uganda Christian University (UCU) had its annual cultural gala that lasted for a full day, packed with different pieces and presentations from the different students’ cultural associations. The Gala is a full –day annual activity with the different tribal/ethnic or regional groups of students compete by show casing the beauty of their traditional cultures through different presentations like folk songs and traditional dances. The Students’ Guild [editor’s note: the student government at UCU] in cooperation with the different cultural associations with in the university organized the intriguing event, with Omukama Oyo of BuTooro [editor’s note: a Kingdom in Western Uganda] as the chief guest. After a grueling competition, with strong showings particularly from the Acholi, Baganda, Bakonjo, and the Bagisu, the Acholi cultural association was crowned the winners of the gala. A very big thank you to the organizers and participants!

However, as I sat in the back seat in Nkoyoyo Hall watching the performance and enjoying the thrilling, energetic performances amidst the noise of applause and excitement from the audience, this one question ran through my mind strongly. ‘Will there be a cultural gala in UCU in ten years from now?’ And to be honest, the little undertones of answers in my mind were colored with skepticism and pessimism. The seven years I have spent in the UCU community both as a student, and now as a staff member, have enabled me observe the changing trends in social class and lifestyle within the composition of the students’ body over the years.  And these changes, in my own thinking, stage the greatest threat to a possibility of having successful events like cultural gala in some years to come, or more broadly to envision what role indigenous cultures would have in shaping UCU’s and Uganda’s future.

Not basing on any statistical evidence, but, rather on my personal observation, UCU currently admits more students from urban high schools, especially around the capital Kampala and other parts in the central region, more than from other parts of the country. This is different from few years ago where the students’ community was a composition of a proportionate mixture of students from urban and rural schools.  The two anticipated causes of this new trend in the composition of the UCU students’ body may be: one, the relatively high cost of attending university for most students who have little access to university, thereby making it more affordable by students from a certain economic and social class who typically live around the capital and families to attend forms of elite education, including able to take their children to expensive urban high schools, while less well off people often from areas outside the capital have less access to universtities. Second, the growing numbers of mushrooming universities in the different regions of the nation. These universities due to the proximity to the home communities and some tuition savings absorb a great number of students that initially would join urban universities like UCU. There are of course many other factors and reasons that explain the trend but nonetheless they are not the end in themselves, they only give a general picture of the danger faced by the traditional culture paused by the life style and attitude of what I may call the ‘elites’ of the modern Uganda. This danger is exposed to the urban schools and communities because they are positioned in the gateway to Western influence through media, entertainment, human interaction, and trade, it is also in urban schools where western ways of knowing and norms are emphasized and deliberately ignoring the goods and strong points of the African traditions present in the various cultural communities in Uganda. It is also surprising that Christianity is also contributing much to this trend by promoting the advance of western culture though music, norms, style and language, when should be a channel through which the traditional culture is preserved through contextual theology and a value of critical contextualization through the Spirit’s work in our specific contexts.

One may notice that almost all the students that participate in the cultural gala or those that subscribe to a regional or cultural students’ association, those that attend regional fellowships, are the students that have joined the university from upcountry [editor’s note: meaning in the rural areas outside of Kampala] high schools or have had a previous traditional setting local experience outside of the capital. For some reasons, most youth, students from the ‘elite’ families, those that have had much of their time and experience as wealthy people from areas around Kampala and have gone through urban schools where life is much about books, with no value for indigenous traditions and only for Western cultural traditions, tend to deliberately express apathy to students’ activities like cultural gala, membership to cultural associations and regional fellowships, fellowships that gather students from their respective regions or home dioceses in the country. They deliberately express no attachment of membership or feeling of belonging to their cultural or ethnic identity. In fact to some, mere identification witha cultural association is detestable.This may be because to some youths such identification is constructed as being tribalistic, primitive, and regressive, not “modern” (whatever that means). Though a good number of such students enjoy attending and watching the cultural gala performances, very few of them are willing to actively participate.

The effects of this trendy lifestyle and attitude are slowly manifesting and cropping up in some regional students’ fellowships. Some of the regional fellowships that have been booming are currently experiencing a drastic decline in membership. For example, one of the regional fellowships, that I am a committee member, has not recruited the expected numbers of new members this year from the entering students. While talking to one on the leaders of that fellowship, she said that ‘the would be members are there in the campus, but they are not interested in being members of the fellowship.’

It’s from such observations that get me to wonder whether Uganda Christian University will be in position to have a cultural gala in 10 years from now, if the trend continues unchecked, ignored and in one way condoned.  Having the youth not only at UCU but also in Uganda as a whole increasingly disassociating themselves from any cultural or ethnic identity is one sure way of completely losing our traditional cultures and identity. When I was talking to one of the groups’ participant and cultural group leader, whose very own group was struggling to have members actively participate, he said that it is becoming hard to have students from his region get involved in such an event. They feel ashamed for some reasons to engage in an activity that reveals their ethnic identity. This could be because, these Kampala elites are most raised in Western ways and are disconnected from their people, places, customs, and ancestors, thus they do not understand its importance and/or the way that ethnicity, tribe, and culture are constructed in public discourse. And in fact, some of the big cultural groups like the Banyoro are already failing to be part of the cultural gala, likely due to such reasons.

I have always wondered why someone should have inferiority feelings at the mention of his/her tribe, why is disinterestedness in traditional cultural ever on the increase especially amongst the young generation? Why is it becoming admirable today to find a three year old very fluent at speaking English but unable to even say a greeting in his/her mother tongue?Why is it becoming an offense even to casually ask someone of his/her tribe? This reminds me of an incident where one student came at one the staffrooms, and after one of the staff members came to the knowledge of her ethnic background because of her name, he jokingly greeted her in mother language. To our shock, instead of the student responding to the greeting, she said that she doesn’t know her mother language because she has been raised from Kampala! After she had left, we all refused to accept her excuse; we instead considered it to be either arrogance or the products of an inferiority complex, if not both combined. While it may be true that some people barely can speak in their mother languages, there is no excuse for one to at least fail to speak two or three words of greeting or engage in a brief conversation in her / his mother tongue. I guess her whole point was to disassociate herself from her ethnic background, thus she was only unfortunate to be betrayed by one of her names.

I find it ironic that most people especially the elites of our time, who call themselves the patriots, are the same people with children unable to speak in their mother tongues or express and demonstrate themselves culturally appropriately in terms of indigenous cultures in Uganda. I was a couple of weeks ago sharing with some of my colleagues that some scholars think that in 500 years from now, most of the local languages in Africa will be facing the danger of extinction. There are all efforts being made to have Africans embrace numerous foreign languages from English, French, Spanish, German, and Chinese, while there little efforts are being put to use and preserve our indigenous languages here. As we embrace the era of a global village because of the associated benefits and advantages, and strive to be identified as the ‘elites’ of the time, we need to be conscious of our lifestyle and its implication on the future of our traditional cultures, and even consider what might be possible for “modernity” in line with our indigenous cultures rather than the various European and/or Asian modernities which dominate the global. If we do not do this, we will have no excuse to give to the coming generations that will be trying to search and trace their roots but in vain.

While there might be some elements of the traditional culture that need to be abandoned, a great deal of them necessitates our efforts to be preserved because of their importance to us, their appropriateness to our context, as well as the creational goods of human diversity in God’s good creation. It is most likely that the coming generations will desire to live and express themselves in terms of their traditional cultures, but be unable to do so.

I would like to think that when we are talking about “sustainable development”, we should also incorporate the element of culture because the next generations need it to for them to survive and thrive. As I near to the end of this piece, we need to realize the need for a drastic change in thinking and attitude towards our traditional culture not just here in UCU but in Uganda in general. The next generations stand to face difficulties in the search for identities, histories and formation of values and morality if this trend is kept. It begins by knowledge and appreciation of who we are in Christ including ethnicity, including tradition language, customs, categories, ways of knowing and ethnicity because He preordained that way and values diverse ways of human expression in light of the redemption of the Gospel. Thus engaging in cultural activities such as the cultural gala help to keep the heart of our cultural heritage awake amidst the different winds that pull it into slumber is one valuable endeavor as part of a larger project to reflect on, preserve, and continue our indigenous cultural ways.

What we may just see here in UCU is a mere representation of the bigger problem in the African society with its traditional cultures on their twilight. It is upon the older generation to ensure that some of the long held cultural traditions and practices are not only dearly preserved by also passed on to the young generation. This can be achieved through starting with the smaller communities and units in our society like families and institutions such as universities, including Uganda Christian University.