How did #UbunifuEastAfrica come to be?

Many a times we wait for recognition and celebration of what we feel are things we have achieved or milestones we have made. Most often, achievement is relative, because no one else other than you can understand what struggles you have been through to get to a point.


My view is that often, success is directly proportional to the distance you travel in pursuit of an idea you believe in, the amount of effort you put in is often a matter of debate – some people have easy and quick ways of doing things, others apply a very labor intensive, perhaps a typical pedestrian way to delivering a milestone.

When we go to a restaurant, we often celebrate the meal and tip the waiter for “the service”, as if they cooked the meal. When we see the president address the nation, we forget that they write nothing about their speech, or even do the work they own or attribute to themselves. Some one once said, “the soldier fights, the commander gets the medal and promotion.”

Today I was coming out of a morning gathering that launched the Ubunifu East Africa report and implementation strategy. Organized by Hivos East Africa, a development agency that I worked for between 2011 and 2015, a time during which ( I strongly believe) the East Africa culture and creative sector experienced a turn around.

The detailed story of how all this worked is in a separate book that I been writing over the last one year. Not sure when it gets published, I just hope it wont be cold. However, my reflection of the process that brought this document to life sent me thinking, in two directions, what does Ubunifu Strategy mean to the sector? And what does my contribution mean to me?

Ubunifu East Africa, loosely translated to Creative East Africa, is a term I coined to localize and contextualize the Arts, Culture, Media and Technology program in East Africa, formerly encapsulated under the brand Expression and Engagement program. But beyond the name, what is the untold story of the making of the name?

Most development programs and strategies are an outcome of  “a brainstorm” from a group of  “development experts”, sitting in a penthouse boardroom, armed with the internet, coffee, cigar, air conditioning, a few newspaper cuttings and a mac book computer. The background research is provided by interns who are doing a chapter for their undergraduate project or, an associate researcher doing their masters dissertation.

Alternatively, a very “knowledgeable consultant”, an expert of matters of “the global south”, often based in the global north” or in their holiday home somewhere is West Africa, is contracted to write on behalf of the “development agency”. A Skype interview with the another knowledgeable counterpart based in “the south” validates the newspaper cuttings.

Once the document is done and approved, it is dusted and “AIRDROPPED” for implementation in the country of operation, and the process of outsourcing LIPS (Local Implementing Partners) begins. I call this Airdrop, a type of airlift developed during World War II to resupply otherwise inaccessible troops, later on advancing to peacekeeping operations or humanitarian aid situations where food and medical supplies are often airdropped from United Nations and other aircraft.

Airdrop. Press repeat, every 4 years, in multiple of 4, we are at 16 now, right? Now you see how we arrived where we are? Obese aid workers, serving an increasing constituency of starving subjects and nothing concrete to show around. More concerned with matters weight-loss, the amount of sugar in the maple syrup and that fatty-beef-samosa, and nothing solid to show or brag about – talk and more talk, re-frame the problem, re-fine the theory of change, re-vise the strategy.

There are many ways of looking at this phenomenon, but I will focus on – does this “AIRDROP” strategy work? In my view, NO. Social development is about the people, for the people, by the people, and therefore any strategy that does not include the input of the people in aligning their ambitions, churning their priorities, designing strategies, will most likely – fail.

Very aware of this phenomenon, the challenge to re-orientate any institution about change of  conviction is never the easiest task. Shall we brainstorm the needs of East Africa for the coming 3 years from a boardroom? No. Shall we work with “experts” from the North? No. Shall we follow the trend – as in, where the wind of money seems to be going? No. And that marked the beginning of a pedestrian walk to seeking a strategy that percolates silt in a dam, from the river bed.

Ubunifu East Africa, is a strategy that was developed over a period of 3 years (2013/4/5). Not as many strategies take that long, but there was a reason. Starting with scanning of the region for common practice and challenges, followed by mapping of unique opportunities that can be exploited, followed by setting vision for a sustainable cultural and creative ecosystem in east Africa. That is the tip of the iceberg.

Beneath the process, we cannot count the amount of back and forth, cups of coffee, emotional flares, burn out, passive-aggression, doubt, panic, depression,  and ultimately, a warning  from the boss asking  “ are you pursuing a personal as opposed to an institutional mission?”. Today,the all bloody and dirty mother sat down there to watch the siblings, neighbors and guests smile at the baby, touch the noose, and say “how cute, you little thing”.

And so, when I look back at Ubunifu East Africa, I not only see a win for Hivos in East Africa,  but also a win for the artists whose views formed a large part of this strategy. It is a win for the local consultants that made it happen, it is a win for the local organizations that have grown to see the light of a new consultative approach to development programming. It is a win for those coming to drive the vision for the coming 4 years. It is a win for Creative East Africa.

And for me, it is a milestone that will go down in history as one heavy but worth the while wrestle, one that saw me on the firing line, one that perfectly encapsulates my contribution to growing a more progressive, independent and sustainable  creative economy in East Africa.

May this entry be found in the annals of history.








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