BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
The recently ended East African Arts Summit held in Nairobi was historic in many ways.
It wasn’t the first time artists from the East African Community states came together, courtesy of the GoDown Arts Centre (and several supportive donors). This was actually the seventh arts summit organized since the GoDown was born in 2003 and shortly thereafter, came up with the plan to strengthen the creative economy of the region as well as promote and encourage all the artistic initiatives in the EAC member states, including Rwanda which has only sent representatives to the Summit since 2009.
Still, it was the first time that more than 100 artists and so-called cultural stakeholders stayed glued to their seats for three full days during which the Summit not only saw performances from singers and spoken word poets.
They also listened attentively to a panel of community leaders like the chief economist and CEO of Commercial Bank of Africa Isaac Awuondo, the respected social activist and founder chair of Inuka Trust John Githongo, cultural activist and former Chair of the Kenya Cultural Center who’s now with the Africa Leadership Centre Dr Mshai Mwangola, and the ICT expert and founder of the website www.creativecommons.co.keAlex Gakuru.
“The idea was to start off the summit by putting our priorities into a broad socio-political and economic context,” said Joy Mboya, managing director of the GoDown, explaining why the first afternoon’s theme was ‘Where is East Africa Headed?’, which seemed a far cry from artists’ primary interests.
But what was clear from the word go was that artists and cultural stakeholders were hungry to get to know their counterparts from other areas in the region and even other sectors of the creative arts.
There were artists from nearly all the creative arts sectors present. There were poets, prose writers and publishers as well as dancers, musicians and painters. There were fashion designers, a few art dealers and even puppeteers who were there to hear what the GoDown and its colleagues had to say about the way forward for the East African arts.
It was an inspired occasion all round, especially as the Summit started off with the celebration of the GoDown’s 10thanniversary.
Joy Mboya, who’s been with the Centre even before its official launch, explained the idea of a multidisciplinary arts centre strategically situated in Kenya’s capital city had been percolating for some time before 2003. It was only that year that the GoDown managed to secure the funding from Ford Foundation and find the venue—a sprawling rundown godown on the far edge of Nairobi’s city centre and a site easily accessible by public means.
A lot of repairs and renovations were required to get the old worn-out warehouse in shape and eventually house studio space (for visual artists like Patrick Mukabi, Gakunju Kaigwa and Maggie Otieno among others), rehearsal and performance space (for countless contemporary dance and theatre groups), commercial space (for music producing firms like Ketubal and filmmaking firms like Medeva) and even schools (like Nairobits for computer learners and an annex for the Kenya Conservatoire of Music).
All that has happened—and much more—in the first ten years, but it’s only been done with the consistent leadership of Joy Mboya and her general manager Judy Ogana.
They also couldn’t have achieved the success they undoubtedly have without generous donor funding from everyone from the Americans, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, and British, as well as multiple corporations and a plethora of gracious volunteers like Dr Eric Krystall and Harsita Waters who gave their time and meeting space especially during the initial phase of planning and preparing the GoDown’s vision, policy and their practical implementation.
According to Joy, cultivating a regional arts summit wasn’t initially in the overall plan. But after the first year’s success, it became clear the Godown had a larger role to play in strengthen the cultural scene in the region by bringing together artists and addressing issues uppermost in their minds, including short term survival issues as well as long term concerns like rousing public and political awareness of the importance of the cultural economy in growing the region’s GNP and overall economy.
With its evolving vision clearly focused on strengthening the region’s creative economy, it wasn’t difficult to persuade donors to appreciate the value of a regional arts summit.
This year’s Art Summit’s success was clear-cut evidence that the Godown had a great idea when it took the lead in calling cultural practitioners from no less than 4 countries—Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and of course Kenya.
‘Eventually we hope to have creatives come from all the countries in the region,” said Judy who has also been actively involved in recently launching the 4th Kenya Arts Diary, a collection of more than 52 mainly Kenyan visual artists into a January -December calendar for 2014. “Next year we hope to have our first East African art diary,” Judy said.
 It won’t be difficult, she added, given that numerous visual and performing artists were on hand at the Summit, including Dr Lilian Nabulma and Nathan Kiwere from Uganda, Carole Karemera from Rwanda and Johannes van Esch, from Tanzania who is also one of the organizers of the just ended East African Art  Bienelle.
But the participants were not merely attendants at talks given by professionals; they were also called by the Summit’s MC, publisher and Kiswahili scholar Dr Kimani Njogu to be active participants in discussions on topics close to artists’ hearts—like what possibilities are open to them in future and what are the best strategies for overcoming the various obstacles that artists meet in their everyday lives.
By breaking down the larger assembly  into smaller working groups, the discussions among artists and cultural stakeholders across the region bore rich fruits and fodder for further strategising about how to advance the way forward by working together both regionally and by the cross fertilization of groups with one another.
And while controversial issues like cultural policy and national laws were discussed among the groups, so was the itemizing of all the regional training institutes. The list that was generated is meant to inspire artists to think in broader terms and take advantage of training programs across the region, from Nairobi and Kigale to Kampala and Dar es Salaam.
‘We in Rwanda are still weak in establishing a diversity of cultural institutions, the likes of which we see in especially Kenya and Uganda,” said Carole Karemera, Rwandese actress, writer and longstanding friend of the Godown who came to Nairobi with four countrymen and women.
“We’ve gained a great deal of inspiration from all that we’ve seen at the Summit, and we feel energized and encouraged to redouble our efforts in our country,’ Carole added.
By the end of the Summit, virtually all the artists present concurred with Dr Mwangola who claimed one of the biggest challenges that regional artists face is the misunderstanding of culture and the arts on the part of politicians who either ignore culture altogether or don’t appreciate that culture forms the foundation of any society. It also has untapped potential for generating economic growth if given even minimal support from national governments.
 “They often don’t understand that by strengthening the cultural sector of their countries, they can advance their own creative economies and thus grow their countries’ GDP (gross domestic product),” said Dr Mwangola.
Noting that it’s also been well documented in numerous United Nations reports on the creative economy (which few politicians actually read), Mwangola’s passionate appeal to Summit participants struck a sympathetic chord. She herself is a world-acclaimed performing artist as well as a respected scholar, but she was just one good reason why regional artists and cultural stakeholders stuck like glue to their seats throughout the three day summit.
Offering hope and the possibility that the way forward for East African artists is bright, most have already marked mark their calendars with a view to returning to the next East African Arts Summit in 2015.

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