Nawany: A sensitive Karamojong

There is a feeling of revolution you experience as you watch Francis Manana, Milege Afro Band’s lead guitarist, invite Nawany, traditional singer, dancer and poet, to the stage. It is a quietly burning sense of revolution, and soon you start hoping that this is what Uganda has become:

That even the middle class, in the exclusive Serena Hotel conference hall, would enjoy being entertained by the same people termed as backward, disagreeable and previously charged an ethnic group with the disparaging statement that: Karamojongs will never develop!

Written by Serubiri Moses

In other words, Ugandans in general think of the Karamojong people as savages. The word savage was used in pre-colonial era to describe the inhabitants of the so-called “Dark Continent” of Africa—but to this day the word can, in some parts of the world, be used.

Nawany on stage with Milege Band, Kampala 2012

The girl, Nawany, the center piece of the entire concert, was referred to as a poet and a singer. I quickly recalled listening to a professed expert in Ugandan ethnic music say that the Karamojong do not sing. However, when they go through death and are forced to leave the place in which death has occurred, as is their practice, they gather together and jump in synchronized rhythms. He said this exaggerates the height of their spring above the ground; adding supplementarily that while they jump, they also make strange throaty noises.

Later, I found out later that the Karamojong (cousins to the Masaai in Kenya) have a strong musical tradition of chanting which echoes specific periods of early European classical music, such as the motets.

To hear of and watch a culture of Karamojong people, is beyond any feeling of patriotism one came imagine; but a more base, basic instinct of brotherhood. The Karamojong also have a rich culture of poetry, an art which is perhaps always deemed intellectual.


It dawned on several people during the show, in moments where Francis Manana recited Karamojong poetry, that the Karamojong indeed are intellectual. The poetry had a hypnotizing impact, in this way stunning and brilliant, mostly because it was unheard of; unlike the well-known poetry tradition of Ankole, Kyevugo, in which the poet (most often male) recites unbroken lines of memorized verse which can stretch up to 40 minutes of recitation.

Milege Band on stage, Kampala 2012

“It must be tragic for a sensitive Negro to be an artist,” said Bernard Shaw, a London publisher to Claude McKay, a black novelist of the Harlem Renaissance looking to publish his book of poems in London; to which McKay responded with, “He is right! Some of the English reviews of my book touched the very bottom of journalistic muck,” referring to the negative remarks based on racial prejudice.

In close allusion to this anecdote, I must ask myself and others whether we are willing to review the work of Milege’s collaboration with Nawany and the band’s foray into the music of Karamojong, without the bias “Karamojongs are backward” prejudice we hear against those people.


The Karamojong can be seen on Kampala streets begging, year after year after year. The picture of those little children with stretched out palms under the glaring midday sun reminds me of coming across the word “pickaninnies” in an anthology of African-American poetry that I downloaded from the internet several years ago in the writings of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Claude McKay. Both poems written in the patois English of their homeland Jamaica; before moving to study in America.

The word pickaninny is a derogatory term for little black children, derived from the pequenino, meaning “little” in Portuguese, and primarily used to name caricatures for the entertainment purposes of colonial white audiences. Along with clowns in black face and the black maid in a cinema film, these were the only accepted representations of black people in Europe and America in the late 19th century.

Are these little pickaninnies of Kampala road simply entertainment? Have we grown so fond of looking at those little black babies who think their life on the street is trivial?

Nawany on stage with Milege Band, Kampala 2012

With this mindset how could the audience fully appreciate the vast talents and gifts of Nawany; a rattling earthy singer and performer with perfect timing and gently subtle changes in tone at time when she wanted humor in her lyrics.

How well she blended with the Milege band, even as they kept playing behind her in a militarily Western 4 beats to the bar. She gracefully leaped up in flights of beautiful melody and poetry, accompanied by her group of singers, both dancing and chanting, with joy.


It was the same feeling I got when looking at the crowd of Acholis at the Silent Voices show at the National Theatre. The increasing fondness with which I looked at them, developing from watching Judith Adong’s play, a real kinship with them.

“For better or worse, every person in Russia is vitally affected by the revolution. No one but a soulless body can live there without being stirred to the depths by it.”

Both Judith Adong and Francis Manana speak mechanically and philosophically about their art projects. Especially since they had the impact the artists had assumed the work would have. That it would leave the audience fiercely impassioned about the state of people in Northern Uganda, and would not rise in to rest until change had come to fruition; until they had seen and witnessed transformation.

Nothing was more patriotic than hearing a patron after Judith’s play say earnestly, in the discussion on peace reconciliation after the show, what can we do to change this?

I have seen the play more than two times, and each time I have come to the same realization: What can be done to change this situation?

Bridging the gap

Had this been Russia, every person in this country would be swept up into a passionate state and urgently talked about change. This is the power of communism. This (power) is Lenin signaling in 1917, for the oppressed of the world to unite against private capitalism. That is to bridge the growing class and tribal divisions which engineer much of the structures that keep Karamojong as beggars on the street and Banyankole in Parliament.

I wonder if this crossed Francis Manana’s mind as he carried out a systematic ethno-musical research in Karamoja. I wonder whether he was aware or not of the divide between us. I wonder if he systematically wanted to breakdown these barriers. I wonder if he was using this ethnic music as propaganda to charge up Ugandans with the desire to integrate and destroy barriers of culture, race, tribe and class.

Kinobe, a musician schooled by African maestros like kora master Toumani Diabete, surprised the audience (majority of whom were foreigners) and warmed them with his virtuosity.

A dutch acquaintance mentioned to me that Konibe stood out for him, and I immediately suspected that it was because of his virtuosity. Music is simply much more than virtuosity, I thought to myself. I thought about those who gazed with amazement and wonder as these uncivilized beggars performed remarkably complex poetry and music up on the stage.

Throughout the show I got the feeling that this distance between the audience and the performers was being bridged. A culture was being born that provoked the beauty of Karamoja, like never before, living up to the show’s motto of “Repainting Uganda” which itself can be alluded to themes of Russia’s Lenin and Bolshev.

Through the systematic collection and display of culture, the Milege band managed to create an integrated multiculturally diverse experience for both foreigners and native Ugandans. It beckoned to the feeling that music is truly the space of multiculturalism, that does not have neither race, class nor tribe as guide posts. Nawany is a representation of that multiculturally integrated Uganda to come.

The 3rd "Repainting Uganda" at Serena Hotel, Kampala 2012.

Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.

All photos by courtesy of Milege Band. Click here to view a short movie clip from the concert.

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