Re-Imagining Culture: A Dialogue With Caroline Anande Uliwa
Caroline Anande Uliwa is a Culture Journalist, Poet & Singer from Tanzania. She has been working in print media in the country since 2008, when she was opportune enough to run a column in a weekly newspaper, ‘The eXpress’ titled I am an African. To date she has worked for the National newspaper as a features reporter, in Flare Magazine as Assistance Editor and as a contributing writer in Lucky, The Bold & Bang magazine, plus as a columnist in The Citizen Newspaper in their Saturday insert magazine ‘Woman’.
She’s currently running her own blog titled ‘MKEKA,’ as well being a contributing writer in the ‘Magazine’ inside The East African Newspaper (distributed in Kenya, Uganda, Kenya & Rwanda).
As a Poet, she has been the Chair & co-founder of a burgeoning Poetry Club called WAKA, which in 2015 worked with Badilisha Poetry (The biggest online archive of African Poets). To amass over 40 Tanzanian poets works for their website.
As a Singer her debut was in Tusker Project Fame the East African iconic singing competition, here in 2009 she attained the 11th position (2nd in Tanzania). Since then she’s performed in South Africa, curtain raised for Oliver Mtukuduzi at ‘The East African Vibes Concert’ & mostly she’s worked in local live bands in Dar es Salaam. With seasoned musicians from her country like guitarist Norman Bikaka, sax player Rashid Pembe, percussionist Twaba Mohammed & Kauzeni Lyamba as well base guitarists Bakuza Moshi & Leonard Kayoya.
This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the Soma Book Cafe in the chilly, rainy city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania by Skype.
Gaamangwe: Caroline, you are a cultural journalist, which absolutely sounds cool and interesting. Which aspects of culture do you explore in your job, and why was it important for you to explore culture?
Caroline: It happened quite organically, growing up I was always drawn to fiction. When I returned home from college, at my first job working with a Journalist & Communications expert, she hooked me up to an editor at The eXpress Newspaper. A weekly English paper in the country. Through that the editor, I got to start writing a column titled “I am an African”. It’s here that I started to sink on the surface of culture journalism.
I wrote on the topic to affirm my being an African. As most of the fiction and literature I had read till then, was on foreign cultures mostly from the west. The column was my ‘pop’ attempt to uncover more of our own stories/heritage. Starting with the little things; how we make our hair, how we eat our food, where we sit when we are eating, how people talk with their accents etc.
To date I am drawn to sharing on this inner journey of the African persona, his/her emerging culture particularly the Afropolitan emerging sphere, which showcases our interaction from domestic norms which for the majority are from tribal environments to the globalized context in Africa today. I see then that this ‘Afropolitan’ description is still an embryo which requires stronger voices from African perspectives.
Gaamangwe: The “I am an African” column is so important, because modern Africa knows far too little about her history and culture. Hopefully, the emergence of the “Afropolitan” culture is here to dismantle this. What does it mean for you to be “Afropolitan”? Where do you think we are going with this “Afropolitan” culture?
Caroline: I find that the Afropolitan culture is being forged strongly in the cities of Africa then trickling down to the rural areas. Though of course this varies from country & region to region. It’s in the city that a lot of diversity meets. A year or so back I was at an art exhibition ‘Impose/Expose’, with Tanzanian sculptress Safina Kimbokota. Herein she showcased a metal plate wind chime. She said the clash of the metal plates were indicative of the clash of traditions and norms that occurs in the city, forcing a new culture, in my eye the ‘Afropolitan’ culture.
Personally I am very interested to inform on it, this drive is empowered by my noticing that it’s endangered in maintaining its authentic African emblems. Due to the heavy influence of globalisation, which on this continent is felt triple, what with our past of colonisation, slavery etc. So now you have our popular music with a heavy western influence, the South America’s telenovela’s prevalent in our local TV’s. Not to mention our publishing industry faces stiff competition (economies of scale) from the west, with our own low standards of living that make buying a book for many a luxury.
This battle is then to amplify the voice of the native african footprint in the equation of ‘Afropolitan’ culture. Noticing how Afropolitan in Kenya is not the same as Afropolitan in Mozambique for example; is what I foresee my life work being anchored on.
Gaamangwe: One thing I am seeing with the emergence of “Afropolitan” is a lot of our culture seeping in our creativity. Our literature, music, fashion is becoming more Afrocentric.
It is empowering that no matter how much we have been influenced by the outside western world and colonialism, nothing can remove the aspects of us that is rooted in being African. Our essence is still integrated in our Africanness.
Caroline: Very true, there is hope for sure. Even for individuals like myself who don’t speak their native tongues (my parents speak two different native languages & I grew up in the city where Kiswahili is spoken). The ancestors still have a latch on us, not just in our DNA but in our ghost african accents, our mannerisms, how we eat our food, how we raise & discipline our children and how we respect our elders.
I recently interviewed a young jewelry maker Sekela Nyange of KusKus Jewellery, I was fascinated that even though most of her raw materials come from China. Her designs are so intrinsically African with notes from the Maasai culture, tapes from the Nubian choker necklaces, not to mention her play with bold colors that can be seen in various tribes from the Ndebele in their homes to our ‘vitenge’ fabrics. This tells me there is still a beautiful thread that we ought to be proud of and expose more boldly.
So yes there’s a brave resilience of our essence budding, it’s there in our bold african prints, the thrive of new natural hair movements, the joyous music genres that have more of african beats like Kwaito & Nigerian pop music.
Of course I think we have to dig deeper because there are so many norms and traditions of Africa that are positive & being left to the wayside. For instance in Tanzania there are music instruments like the Zeze, Irimba, the Makonde Drums, that have fewer and fewer of the younger generation learning to play them.
I’m moved to look into the past, pick the thorns from the gold and amplify the jewels of our traditions, inviting all of us to forge a ‘new/today’ that is more authentically ours.
Gaamangwe: That new and braver reclamation of our heritage is surging all over. Women with their Black Girl Magic & Melanin Poppin hashtags; which is basically us appraising and encouraging ourselves to to be entirely okay with who we are, because we are magic just the way we are right?
Yes, the challenge is we didn’t record a lot of things, so we are trying to get back to who we were with little information of how things were done back then. Also, globalization is really pressing hard, and sadly the majority of what has been promoted as Global, for a long time now, is not from our ways. It’s an interesting state to be in right now.
Caroline: It can get frustrating. Though once you’ve sniffed the pandora box of our histories, you can’t go back. There are times however when I wish I was oblivious, that I still thought wearing weaves every day was empowering and/or beautiful. That gorging on popular African music which has only 10% of our real essence, entertaining. As there is economic power backed to those who stick to this lane, I saw this connection clearly when I watched a documentary.
Aired at the Zanzibar Film Festival by John Antonelli, it highlighted the plight of the tribes like the Suri in Northern Kenya living around Turkana Lake. Their very livelihood is in danger due to the construction of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia on Omo River (the biggest water source for lake Turkana). Now you’d think there’d be an uproar from the East African public through mainstream media & or social media.
As our own people are being prosecuted with clear cases of land grabbing and environmental crimes. Yet the thing is, these people aren’t wearing normal clothes, many of their women still walk bare chested with gleaming brown skin covered in ground clay, an assortment of jewellery and leather skins for skirts.
It dawned on me that to the public they are not us but an ‘other’, a clear indication of the danger of the subliminal messages in our society. Propelling the themes of ‘heathens’ and such regressive perspectives.
Gaamangwe: The worst act done to the African human is the de-humanizing of African ways and realities. We have lost so much of our cultures and beliefs systems because time and again, we’ve been told they are barbaric and regressive. And now we have adapted those perspectives as our own. Its absolutely sad.
Do you think that art can play a role in redefining, influencing and impacting the way that we perceive our cultures?
Caroline: I think we have to recognize that art is the one profession that reminds humans we are creative beings. We don’t end at food, clothes & shelter; we enhance our food by cooking it with recipes (chefs), knowing how to best let it nourish us through nutritionists. We don’t just protect ourselves from the elements with clothes we also express ourselves through a fashion designer. We enjoy our environments better with architects and interior designs, we connect to that intangible space of our spirits through music & literature (holy texts).
Despite this in our third world economies in Africa, Art & Culture takes a back seat with stringent budget allocations and poor policy & laws to support their infrastructure.
I believe if our leaders were empowered with a modern ‘griot’. Hailing the pride of their histories, by stumbling into works from African storytellers in all genres of art. They would meet that intimidating space, filled with foreign tongues and etiquettes backed by financial prowess (that our ancestors through slavery, colonialism helped cement). Where they negotiate deals that affect all our lives, they’d be there with more confidence and therefore fight for us more diligently.
Instead of what is the case right now, where brave leaders like Thabo Mbeki release a report showcasing that Africa loses Billions of USD per annum. More so that what it gains through financial aid (illicit financial flows). Still we don’t see a unified cry from the continent demanding a stop to this modern slavery.
We instead have cases like in my own country where our Ministry of Culture in less than a year has seen two Ministers despite being in a serious bid to uphaul our ‘Art Policy’. With the current one Hon Dr Harrison Mwakyembe quoted publicly to say ‘musicians shouldn’t bother with integrating social political messages in their works…’??!!.
They have to see that art enhances culture and culture is our backbone. The foreign powers that have ravaged our continent for centuries knew this and so they always first aimed to undermine our culture (what with mentioning our way as ‘heathen’ ‘barbaric’ and sanctifying us with their religions). Before showing their fangs and severely regressing our progressive evolution.
Gaamangwe: Its absolutely maddening. The power of the artists in the average person’s life is far understated in Africa. Yet the artist reflect the things of the time as they see it. They mirror socio-economic, psychological and political state of human existence. When you see, you can change. How can that be minimised?
Caroline: I draw inspiration from persons before me who have persevered in even tougher times. Recently our own John Kitime, a musician and notable activist in the art circles of Tanzania. Took funds from his own pocket to interview and document views from various artists in the country so as to give our ministry of culture, a wholesome representation in their deliberations of tabling of our new ‘Art Policy’.
I know many such s/heroes like Demere Kitunga, Elieshi Lema of E&D Publishers, Carola Kinasha-Musician/Teacher. They pushed through despite the challenges. I think with this age of social media, the opportunity to create meaningful dialogue is present and it is being used. However the case is that of David & Goliath for as I said the capitalist powers that be, wouldn’t have it in their interests if we really knew our histories. As then perhaps we would demand reparations for all that has and continues to be embezzled out of this continent in ways of natural resources and low/unpaid labour.
Gaamangwe: This is sadly true. But yes, artists are fighting in the ways of rendering new spaces of interaction with our culture and heritage. You are one of those people who have created this new, empowering space by the way of WAKA Poetry. How are the artists who are coming for WAKA poetry sessions re-imagining culture? What are the dialogues that they opening up in the sessions?
Caroline: WAKA has certainly been a space where I’ve witnessed the re-imagining of culture. Through the monthly meetings and the interactions on social media mostly through our whatsapp group. We attempt to strengthen our poetry and always end up giving each other food for thought in way of discussions and debates that arise from the poems.
Our dialogues here touch on gender roles, politics, humour, spiritual journeys. The nature of our meets nurture a safe space, we sit in a circle, we introduce ourselves at each session (kind of like AA). So due to the personal nature of poetry & the environment we provide (thanks to SOMA book Cafe) many of our dialogues veer from the heart and the consequent osmosis of ideas, change our lives. This space has certainly enhanced mine.
Gaamangwe: That is amazing, you’re doing a great job. On this vein of enhancing lives, you wrote a poem Fundamental Lessons of Four, on the lessons humanity needs to learn in order to enhance our lives. One stanza says;
“If the world were well-educated
they’d be no hunger.
As lesson namba mbili,
humans here are the smartest species
should translate least effort goes to survival”.
What was the source of this poem?
Caroline: My own journey as an artist has found me being uncomfortable with labels, noticing how they ultimately don’t really define me. This poem then walks on a spiritual vein, that speaks to what really unifies us in our ability to draw breath.
See despite many of us being religious, where we are taught to value life, see each other as brethren. In reality there is still a strong ‘other’ in our day to day. How else do you explain some of us going to the moon whilst millions starve to death.
I heard a woman say “We have to respect racism is a disease and should be treated as such, like someone suffering from alcoholism“
I think our systems have a disease of ‘inequalities’ stemming from our own decree of ‘other’. We have to bring awareness to it and perhaps that is where the role of the artist shines through. For me it has been art in the form of film, literature, fine art that has poked me to see we have more in common than not.
Gaamangwe: I agree with everything that you are saying. So as an artist how do you use your artistry to re-imagine culture? And how would you like to contribute to this endless conversation that we are always having as human beings?
Caroline: I have to say meeting persons like yourself, who see the importance of telling authentic stories that forge our true evolution on the continent. Keeps me refreshed, inspired, for it can be lonely working with infrastructures that don’t yet recognise our presence as poets, culture journalists or afro-jazz/ spoken word artists.
I use my articles to allow my audiences to be better informed on the cultural resources of their own treasures here in Tanzania & to a less extent the rest of Africa. My music & poetry many times is my own therapy, though I don’t live in a bubble. So they’re an honest engagement with what bombards me. Somewhere in there I find I relate with various people, which I am grateful for.
I’d like to contribute to this endless conversation by continuing to grow in this work. Learning from those before me, where my prayer is to be so immersed in it that the universe doesn’t have a choice but to keep me sustained in it.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.
Caroline Details: @CarolAnande- Twitter @CarolAnande- Facebook @CarolAnande- Instagram Caroline Anande Uliwa- Youtube Website: carolanande.blogspot.com