How creatives are surviving during the pandemic

Hannington Bugingo

What you need to know:

Tough times. The continued lockdown on theatres, bars and cinemas, among others,  has drastically affected the livelihood of the stakeholders. Because the industry relies on physical presence mostly, musicians and bar owners have had to reinvent themselves to keep their jobs and careers going.  

Over the past two decades, Uganda has enjoyed a booming hospitality and entertainment industry.  Uganda’s nightlife was popular in the region thanks to bars and night clubs that were allowed to open at all times. All this came tumbling down when the coronavirus pandemic hit Uganda more than a year resulting a nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure to the spread of Covid-19. 

Since then, various businesses have been reopened while others such as the entertainment industry remain firmly under lockdown. Most theatres, bars and cinemas have been shut off  for more than a year leading to layoffs and loss of personal income. 
Artistes and entrepreneurs share lessons they are learning for the future while living through the pandemic period. 
Based on the Covid-19 Arts Impact Survey carried out, the arts industry and artists collectively have lost more than Shs 500m nationwide from the cancellation of more than 300 events impacting more than 700 artistes.  With the industry relying almost exclusively on its ability to bring people together in big numbers through generating income from ticket sales, the closure of theatres, bars and cancellation of events has been a big challenge.   

With no possibility of opening up the industry soon, stakeholders have been forced to improvise in order to survive. The industry is focusing redefining the way they work and thinking beyond the stage and physical audience arrangement. Comedy outfit Fun Factory is arguably one of the more prominent and oldest in Uganda with more than 13 years on stage. Before Covid-19 hit, the group staged weekly shows at the National Theatre but with the closure, the group had to find a way of keeping its members working and earning.
According to Hannington Bugingo, the director of the group, productions are expected to take a different approach, encouraging people to stay home if they are not feeling well.

“We do not only earn from the stage alone and that has helped us survive during this period. Ever since Covid-19 broke out, we went into TV production and we now have a show known as Mizigo Express that airs on Pearl Magic every Tuesday. The programme has been airing for a year and a few months,” Bugingo reveals.  
Besides that, most members of the group diversified into other fields such emceeing at functions, voicing  over adverts and script writing among others things that keep revenue coming in.  Bugingo believes the indefinite closure of the arts and entertainment industry is an extreme and unnecessary measure. 

“I feel there is a way we can get back to work and remain safe. We are ready to observe the necessary standard operating procedures to protect the audience. For instance the National Theatre seats 380 people but we can comfortably work with 200 people which will allow ample social distancing and since there is excellent ventilation there will be no need the air conditioning,” he says. 

Asylum Bar and Restaurant manager Cissy Jawe says they stayed afloat because of running several businesses in one. PHOTOs/ Courtesy.

Sell music not performances
Nince Henry Ssekyanzi, a song writer notes that while others have been finding it difficult to make ends meet, he has been surviving this lockdown through this trade. 
“I have not been on stage for the last four years or so. Music is not only sold on stage. As a matter of fact we are selling more online now than before. Music is powerful enough to make money for the artiste whichever way they choose to package it. I do not need a stadium filled with people to make music and sell music, that realisation has never been more important than during this period,” Sekyanzi says. 

Re-inventing in digital 
Wycliff Tugume better known by his stage name Ykee Benda, says he has had to invent and adopt new ways to keep his career and business going.  
“I think the president has no option but to keep the industry in lockdown because the danger is real and the entertainment can wait. Artistes should re-invent themselves or invest heavily in the digital world. I focused my resources on digital and building a fully-fledged music label. We have now ventured into making commercials and have an advertising agency within the label,” he says. 

Asylum Bar and Restaurant had opened three months before the lockdown was effected with an investment close to Shs300m.  According to the manager, Cissy Jawe, the biggest lesson they learnt in the lockdown was never to focus your business in one direction. “We are lucky we have a bar, a lounge, a restaurant, a washing bay, a salon, a grocery store, boutiques and mobile money services. We are literally a business centre of sorts,” she says. 
The restaurant and washing bay continued operating smoothly and have been able to have some of their staff back at work.