As the sun rises over Kampala, the city begins to pulse with life. Taxi vans, belching out thick black smoke, lurch onto the roadside, picking up and dropping off customers. They speed back into traffic, competing for ever dwindling space with honking motorbikes, overloaded trucks, tilting semis, and droves of pedestrians. Breakfast stands open, shopkeepers start sweeping their stoops, calls to prayer sound off, and this East African capital becomes a thriving, swirling, eclectic mass.
However, if you listen in closely, there is something droning just below the hum of the city. It’s the distinct sound of country music. And not African countryside music, but good old-fashioned American twang. Sometimes it’s Dolly Parton and other times Kenny Chesney. The greats are all admired. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire are on regular rotation. There’s even a station in Kampala devoted entirely to playing country music’s latest and greatest hits.
At first, this seems perplexing. In a country that thrives on the slick beats of the latest pop songs (you can’t spend an evening out in a club without hearing almost all of Sean Paul or Rihanna’s greatest hits), the off beat sound of American country music seems out of place. Yet, when you really look into the history of Uganda and its people, that lazy country beat starts to make a little more sense.
Right now, the only history most people know about Uganda is based on the infamous Kony 2012 video. About 6 years behind schedule, it took a nuanced, complex problem and broke into the most simplistic terms, which is causing more harm than good. It’s easy to call for the head of an evil overlord. It’s much harder when you realize 3 generations of child soldiers, years of hard fought stability, and international border agreements would have to be contended with to actually reach a solution. The scars of the LRA and Kony are still felt in Uganda, especially in the North, but it is enjoying a level of peace and stability that is being threatened by such sensationalistic, narrow minded approaches.
Rather, one must look at the entire modern history of Uganda, from independence from British rule in the 60s, to Idi Amin Dada’s reign of terror to the current system of governance under Museveni. Although it is long, varied and is far more complex than can fit into a simple article, one of the main veins running through all of these periods was that of displacement. From those who had to flee under Amin’s repressive measures, to those who had to flee the LRA terror up North, to others who still have to leave their towns and villages to come get a job in the city. There is a lot of missing home. And not just any home, but a much slower, simple sort of life with their close family and small plot of land. That theme starting to ring any bells?
“If Shania Twain wanted to sell out an arena, she could do it in a second in Uganda.” Cathy, a university student in Kampala tells me. Walking through the dorms we can hear country music cranked up and coming through the doors of student quarters. “A lot of us are coming from other parts of the country, where the air is cleaner and it’s beautiful. I come from an area that is often compared to milk and honey because we always have enough food there. It’s beautiful. But to get a good education, we must leave all of that and come into the city.”
“I wish I could go to a concert,” said Brenda, another student that came from a smaller town in the West to study in Kampala, “but the cost isn’t justified. It’s expensive to fly to Africa and put on a show. Especially when your average Ugandan simply couldn’t afford the ticket. Still,” she adds, “I’d love to be able to go. When Dolly Parton sings, and her voice cracks, you can feel that sadness. You understand it even though you don’t always understand her roots.”
At the city’s major commercial hub, the Nakumatt Oasis (comparable to a Wal-Mart or Target as a catch-all store) Dolly Parton tapes and CD’s are lined up next to Kylie Minogue and ABBA. Although some write off the center as a part of town that caters mostly to expats and therefore isn’t a good representation of the people (and this does have some truth to it), you can find country everywhere. Down in one of the more hectic markets of the city, a chaotic mix of cloth, plastic goods, church music and touts, you don’t just hear Garth Brooks’ latest hits, you see it spread out next to the latest country singles, bootlegged from the States. Pirating moves fast in these parts, and a day after the Country Music Awards, it’s easy to find the night’s winners on prominent display.
East Africa has become a fast moving area of commercial investment and trend watching. As money pours in from China and new infrastructure is being developed, it will be interesting to see how the country music scene evolves. As of yet, there haven’t been any native Ugandan country bands that have cropped up, but that might only be a matter of time. And as the wages and opportunities increase here, we just might see a future where the next big country star plans their world tour with East Africa in mind. Until then, Ugandan streets will continue pumping out those down home beats, proving that from Tennessee to Kabale, all you really need is a place to call home.