What is Nyege Nyege? That was the big question ahead of the four-day festival at the Nile Discovery Resort in Jinja, which ended on Sunday.
The festival is in its fourth season already, but had not attracted as much attention before as it did this year, thanks to a now-banned, now-not-banned communiqué from the state minister for Ethics and Integrity, Fr Simon Lokodo.
And like that, government became the biggest advertiser for a festival it loathed because it allegedly promoted promiscuity and homosexuality.
There were several first-timers at Nyege Nyege this year, transforming the quiet town of Jinja into something else. Organisers call it a cultural festival; some think it is an escapade to loosen up and spend at will. Critics label it as short on morals.
Nyege Nyege has become an enigma, because even the word itself has different meanings depending on the language you choose to use in translation.
In Luganda, ekinyegenyege means ‘the urge’.
While there, I met quite a number of revellers each on the quest to fulfil a different urge. The urge to dance; the urge to sneak away and grab some sleep in the tent; the urge to meet someone special; the urge to make good music…
Many did not care as long as they enjoyed the atmosphere. Whichever way one may wish to describe Nyege Nyege, it is an attractive set-up that can only be understood when one reaches this scenic, six-acre forested resort on the banks of River Nile, just a kilometre away from the actual source of the river.
There were so many people [an estimated 15,000 attended over the four days], fun activities and subplots; right from boat cruises, brand promos, the silent disco, stage performances or even playing on the swings.
There were also many expatriates – in the past they have been the dominant group – Rastafarians, clowns and, of course, Kampala’s socialites and notable showgoers.
People converged in groups of five to ten and several interracial couples flaunted their love for everyone to see. They enjoyed themselves with abandon, some kissing openly – stuff that could have made the good former priest manning the country’s ethics, faint.
For the brave, it was a perfect occasion to make fashion statements, especially with African batik and flashing tattoos for admirers to have a good look.
Some female revellers wore outrageously-skimpy outfits it was hard not to look more than once. Yet amidst all this, everyone minded their own business.
Meanwhile, the police keenly watched the crowd’s movements from the background with little interference. Drinks were aplenty and it was difficult to find one without a beer or glass of hard liquor.
The venue is such a large swath of land with scattered activities and camping spaces, it was hard for one to do everything; you had to pick your interests.
Unique to this year’s Nyege Nyege was the opportunity to walk into a recording studio with a production team led by Benon Mugumbya and be able to walk away with a song recording of your choice.
The studio was a major attraction with revellers testing their vocal and lyrical abilities. For those who got cold feet, they danced to mixes by DJs Ali Breezy and Bank Robber while they waited for their friends.
In Uganda everyone has a loud opinion about everything, and organisers thoughtfully put up a wall of expression for people to express their views.
Anyone was welcome to write on the blackboard and slogans such as ‘People Power’ and other not-so-loving messages aimed at Fr Lokodo were the order of the day.
On Saturday afternoon, some ‘privileged’ ones who had slept in tents the last two days were just waking up to continue from where they left off the previous night.
Some had been at the venue since Thursday and for Shs 200,000 for the full festival pass, it seemed like worth every penny. Vendors for nyama choma, mobile money, snacks, ice cream and more made their kill, but what stood out for me were the masseuses, whose massage services attracted the attention of several tired legs. That was a lucrative venture.
Oh, there were some suspicious-looking ‘cigars’ and shisha pipes, which were later confiscated by police even though it seemed it was just done to appease some individuals.
Put simply, this was organised chaos; no scuffles or controversies. Even the knocked-out individuals [by booze, what else?] ‘safely’ lay on the ground without a problem.
Word on many people’s mouths was the weather with the sun bathing the venue in sunshine, even as it rained elsewhere. Last year revellers had to stomp through the mud, as it poured relentlessly.
The most valuable asset in Jinja was a power bank; I cannot recall how many times complete strangers asked to borrow mine, some even willing to pay for a few minutes to charge their phones.
On one of the five different stages, cultural troupes entertained although the revellers there were predictably mainly white. At the main stage, DJs Slick Stuart and Roja thrilled revellers in the afternoon hours, putting the Nyege Nyege partygoers in the mood.
As the party mood picked up in the evening, many showgoers could be overheard making phone calls to their friends on the way to hurry up, lest they miss it.
Later, dancehall star Beenie Gunter did not disappoint with his energetic performance. On Sunday morning, the rain finally came down.
As some revellers retired and signed out, others were waking up to continue the fun. After a bath in the river, it was party time yet again on Sunday morning.
Nyege Nyege officially wound up on Sunday evening, leaving many first-timers still wondering what that really was!
Nyege Nyege, from my observation, is like joining popular outdoor events such as Roast and Rhyme with Blankets and Wine, with a wild, camping scenery.
If Lokodo’s intention was to discredit the event, organisers could not have wished for a better endorsement; the festival is now considered the biggest in East Africa.
The Nyege Nyege patrons came from neighbouring Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and further beyond to watch the hundreds of artistes from all over the world perform each day. Zanzibar and its huge Sauti Za Busara festival had better watch out; all festival roads now lead to Jinja, Uganda.