Sunday July 9 2017

Taking a leap of faith in the arts


By Edna Ninsiima

On Good Friday of 2016, after a sermon that she believes changed her life, Kemiyondo Coutinho booked a ticket to Uganda via Dakar from Los Angeles, leaving behind her Hollywood acting auditions clueless on what she was going to do in Uganda. It is that decision to venture into the unknown that birthed the live music A Ka Dope shows sensation and opened her and several Ugandan artistes to opportunities that they only dreamt of.
In a café at Acacia Mall in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, “Kemi” as she is commonly known, sits across me with a broad smile. Visibly tired, she intimates to me that she has barely been sleeping. As people go to bed, she goes to work. She is currently working on her film, Kyenvu coming out in August. Just the night before our interview, she had hosted a BBC team at an A Ka Dope private show by musically talented Ugandan women, to film for the BBC’s Across Women’s Lives series. Later, I learn she was also featured on CNN’s African Voices.

Life mantra
Kemiyondo’s life mantra is “Hold the vision, Trust the process.” In fact, a quick scan through her Twitter account and you will see a tweet or two like that. She says she read this somewhere once, at a time when she was in a hopeless, uncertain place. “Then, I realised that I was only holding the vision; which was to tell stories on a big screen, to be part of a TV show or a movie, but I had been ignoring the other part of the mantra- Trusting the process.” It was then she realised that she had to slow down and appreciate that to reach her goals, there were several important life journeys on which she had to be first. “What I learnt is that you have to hold both of those as true.”
A scholarship to study in the US after high school at Waterford Kamhlaba UWCSA, Swaziland, enabled her study what she refers to as a double degree; Communications and Rhetoric and then a Masters in Fine Arts- Acting in 2008. After school, during a showcase, some acting agencies took interest in her craft which prompted her to remain in Los Angeles and pursue acting there, but the breakthrough frustrations were too overwhelming.

Letting things die
So what was the sermon that led her to bring her dreams back home? “Devon Franklin, a celebrated pastor in the US, was preaching about needing to let things die. That sometimes you hold onto how you think things should happen; but you need to let things die. He was using the analogy of Jesus dying for our sins and rising from the dead, which allowed me to access the message. So I thought, this is my career. I need to let how I think it should be, die,” Kemiyondo says.
She arrived in Uganda, June 6, 2016, after eight years abroad and considered exploiting the idea she had always thought of.

“I wanted to bring artistes together to perform live and I thought I would have about 50 people attending. The first show had 100 people.” Putting the show together, she knew that she needed a band, rehearsal space and lights, yet she had no money.
She pitched to and got one of her first sponsors who she asked for money to cover those, then paid the first artistes out of the ticket sales.
“Literally, as people were paying, we were putting money into facilitation envelopes for the artistes.

Then we saved the rest for the next A Ka Dope. That is how it has always worked.” She holds the shows every first Friday of the month, so far she has had six shows and will host one this weekend.
“I look out for authentic, talented and unconventional artistes. I direct the rehearsals they do with the band.”
As to whether she is making money out of the shows, she says, “I am not making money out of it yet, but that was not my primary focus in the first place anyway.”

Closer to her roots
The last and only girl child of three children born to Dr and Ms Coutinho, Kemiyondo’s experience abroad brought her closer to her roots. “Living in the States was a very necessary move for me because while at first I thought I would not want to return, my stay there allowed me to appreciate the beauty and the simplicity and the genuineness of Africa as a continent but mostly Uganda,” she says adding, “I found myself so excited to come home. I did a lot of research and even learnt more about my country because in the States I felt a little isolated like an outsider.”
Kemiyondo says that being an outsider is what has kind of become her story. “Out there I felt like an outsider but coming back, I was still seen as an outsider who is not Ugandan.”

Kemi the artist
She struggles with challenges such as limited spaces for artistes in Uganda and consequently having to tussle for everything. Nevertheless, she is grateful for the tremendous growth in her artistry. Two years ago she did not know how to be backstage. She was focused on being on the stage. She recently directed a music video for Kenneth Mugabi’s hit song Naki in which she had originally been asked to be. “I had a moment of, oh! I am behind the camera now. And I like it. And I like not having to do makeup; and wearing gumboots on set. Sitting here and watching somebody else do it.” This growth she largely attributes to the Ugandan A Ka Dope artistes. Kemiyondo has certainly grown beyond her expectations, yet often she does not stop to pat herself on the back and count the blessings. “It makes me sad,” she intimates. “My friend was listing all these things I have done since I got back and it sounded like news to me. So now I am learning to stop and recognise my efforts.”

What others say
Lagum owor, Artiste
This is my second time performing at the event. The experience especially during rehearsal is inspiring, comes with a lot of ideas and the direction is spot on. Kemi has got a real eye when it comes to creativity. She understands art and has passion for it to grow- not just her own but also for others and for me that is really the coolest thing.”

Francis kasura, band member
Kemi as extremely humble, fun and also a person who does not settle for less. It has been challenging in a good way. She also really looks out for all of us.