Friday February 1 2013

Culture is a vital aspect of East African integration

By Jesca Eriyo

Much has been said about the fact that the East African Community (EAC) doesn’t quite tick the check box on citizens’ involvement in matters of regional integration. Maybe that is a criticism that is not entirely fair, but then, it’s a challenge that the bloc prefers to see as an opportunity. A good place the Community is looking to address this challenge is at the first-of-its-kind EAC Arts and Culture Festival that is happening from February 11-16, hosted by the Republic of Rwanda in the capital Kigali.

True, we’ve done well in negotiating and signing protocols for the Customs Union and the Common Market respectively, and both are now at different stages of implementation. Similarly, our negotiations for the Monetary Union Protocol are as good as concluded.

But legitimate as the accusation of limited participation by ordinary citizens in the integration discourse may sound, the reality is that there is a variety of barriers to how much an ordinary East African from Kitale or Mbeya would be able to enrich a discussion on macro-economic convergence criteria, to give just one example.

That is not to say their views are not appreciated. They certainly are, but these would be best utilised once they have been subjected to processes of refinement, and thankfully, these processes are already clearly laid out in our partner States.

Even then, mindful of the importance—insofar as it is feasible—of keeping East African people at the centre of the integration project, our partner States have committed in Article 119 of the EAC Treaty to promote close cooperation in culture and sports, with respect to the promotion and enhancement of diverse sports and the promotion of cultural activities, including the fine arts, literature, music, the performing arts and other artistic creations, among others.

In that regard, the upcoming EAC Arts and Culture Festival, code named Jamafest (Jumuiya ya Afrika Mashariki Utamaduni Festival), is a powerful illustration of the recognition of the place and significance of arts and culture in not only steadying the integration trajectory but also ensuring its durability.

I believe that socio-cultural integration is the critical enabler for our unique aim of political federation. At the same time it is the impermeable glue that will hold in place the gains we have achieved and expect to achieve from our economic integration.

I also believe there is no better, more practical platform to bring ordinary East Africans together and enable them to have conversations with each other, than through regular light-hearted and fun-filled events like Jamafest is shaping up to be.

Yet, the festival is more than just another avenue to meet someone new; it is an opportunity for us as East African citizens to truly connect, to build meaningful bonds, to interrogate the aspirations of our regional bloc, to understand our different cultures and appreciate the diversity of those around and among us, folks that a combination of geography and history has thrust into our intertwined destinies.

Over a six-day period, we’ll have a raft of events and activities lined up, including a carnival, live musical performances, theatre, arts exhibitions, film, workshops and symposiums among others. If you ask me, that sounds perfectly in tune with the festival theme: “Fostering the East African Community integration through the cultural industries”.

The festival will also have a cultural village, the Jamafest Village of Countries, which will feature a country day for Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda where the partner States will showcase the best they have to offer in terms of dance, songs, food and drinks.

What’s more, the culture/creative industry makes for great business too! The tendency to ignore the economic import of arts and culture events, especially in our part of the world, is particularly rife.
Yet a cursory glance at the figures tells a dumbfounding story of the kind of economic value that such events can add to a nation: the Rio Carnival brings in an estimated $500 million into Brazil’s economy each year. Closer to home, events such as Sauti za Busara held in Zanzibar every year attract over 200 performers and thousands of visitors.

Elsewhere on the continent, there are a host of other incredibly successful arts and cultural events in countries like Nigeria that create employment, attract tourists and bring money into the economy. That is to say nothing at all about the market created for arts and culture products, or indeed the long-term boon such events bring for the creative industry. The lesson here is that our festivals are too important to ignore.

So, after more than a decade of crafting treaties and negotiating protocols, you bet the time couldn’t have been more opportune to let the hair down, if you like. What better way to do that than through a festival of dance, drama and cultural exchange?

Ms Eriyo is the EAC Deputy
Secretary General in charge of
Productive and Social Sectors