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Cultures for sale

By Henry Zakumumpa

Ugandan cultural expressions are being ‘stolen’, repackaged and sold

It was October 2010. President Yoweri Museveni was locked in a presidential election contest with Dr Kizza Besigye. A decisive blow, an event, an endorsement was needed by either camps to turn the tide.

Then came the idea of turning a video skit of President Museveni ‘rapping’ a traditional Ankole song; ‘Mpa enkoni’ that had just gone viral on the Internet into a modern hip hop rap track complete with electronic beats. The resultant song was baptised ‘You want another rap’.

It was an instant success and also went on to go viral on

YouTube. Hundreds wanted to watch a head of state who could rap like Eminem. More importantly for the producers of the song, ‘You want another rap’ got traction among the critical Ugandan youth voters who formed the demographic bulk of registered voters.

Beyond the electoral contest, the song became a pop culture hit in Uganda, and beyond. The President was advised to copyright the song. Not so fast, said Mwambustya Ndebesa and Dr Deo Katono. The historians maintained that ‘Mpa enkoni’ could not be copyrighted because it was a traditional cultural expression of the Banyankole people and could not therefore be claimed as private property by an individual.

‘I sang Mpa enkoni before I went to school. It was sung by my father, and grandfather before him. It has been here for many generations. President Museveni must have first sung this song before he was probably four. He did not make any intellectual input into it,” Mwambustya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University, told a meeting of intellectual property rights experts at Africana Hotel on June 28, 2013.

The dispute regarding whether ‘You want another rap’’ merited copyright protection went as far as the Ugandan courts which held that ‘Another rap’ was a ‘derivative’ work’; an adaptation taken from existing work.

And that is the crux of the debate.

What constitutes Ugandan folklore and who owns it?  And when does an adaptation from it qualify as copyright? The Africana Hotel workshop which attracted Ugandan intellectual property rights legal experts and performing artistes’ interest groups was organised by Anthony Matovu, a PhD student, with funding from the University of Illinois in the US.

Mwambutsya blamed the current debate on turning collectively-held cultural rights into privately-held commodities on ‘marketization’ where ‘’ the rich appropriate the cultural resource of the poor’’. He argued that privatization and individual economic rights are western concepts alien to Africa where cultural expressions were communally held. Mwambutsya said the advent of western neo-liberal ideology is endangering African cultural expressions.

One of the participants observed that African people are an oral people and as such did not document their cultural expressions as well as western societies, which is why they remained largely in orature form.

From 1980’s with Philly Lutaaya’s ‘Tulo tulo kwata omwana’ to the contemporary Nawulira by Navio, Ugandan artists have taken Ugandan cultural expressions and converted them into popular culture saleable commodities. But just how much is their individual input and what remains cultural property?

According to Jeroline Akubu, Principal Legal Officer at Uganda Law reform Commission,  Ugandan folkore or ‘cultural expressions’ are not currently protected by existing intellectual property laws  which opens them up to private copyright claims by individuals claiming that they have added value to the folklore existent in Uganda’s over 60 ethnic groups.

Ghana has done better than Uganda on cultural assets by imposing a domestic tax on folklore by visiting foreigners.

Roger Mugisha, the renowned radio personality who attended the workshop, advised that the communal cultural expressions be grown into brand because the world today is a world of markets and brands.

He sais he had noted a favourable shift in attitude by Ugandans towards folklore which, in the past was seen as “inferior’’ and that some enterprising Chinese are studying the traditional ‘endingidi’ with a view of  teasing out a commercial prototype that they can re-package and sell. Ndere Troupe director Steven Rwangyezi said he was uneasy about reported efforts to seek a private patent for Ugandan bark-cloth.

A representative of the Ministry of Trade, at the workshop, reported that studies are yet to be done to quantify the contribution of Uganda’s cultural assets and industry to GDP.  Dick Matovu, General Secretary of Uganda Musician Union said it is a pity that people complain of high youth unemployment rates when converting our cultural assets and industry into the market economy can help create jobs. One Ugawood film script can create 100 jobs through actors, script writers, and directors and a Ugandan CD can create 50 jobs through studio staff, graphic designers, and vendors, he said.

He pointed out that Nigeria, which is the second highest oil producer in Africa, has Nollywood which is the second national revenue source. Cultural industries are overtaking traditional industries in some countries, he added.

Charles Batambuze, an intellectual property rights expert, reported that government has set up a national creative economy committee under the Office of the Prime Minister and efforts are being made to document and quantify the importance of this industry to Uganda.

Expressions of folklore are collective cultural assets and ordinary Ugandans should not be deprived of them. Globalization poses a clear and present danger of commoditization of African cultural expressions in a manner of exclusion. Ugandans as a people should document all the cultural expressions in their diversity and recognize them and protect them by law as Ghana has done. From that baseline, determining works that merit copy right protection, and those that Uganda can package and sell to the world, will be made a lot easier.

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