By Alfdaniels Mabingo
The arts have always been at the center of human life and civilisational progress in African communities. In the pre-colonial period, the arts defined cultural expressions, mediated community structures, and facilitated the generation, articulation and flow of knowledge within communities.
With the advent of colonialism, the centrality of the arts was disrupted. The moralising Christianisation crusades of the twentieth century characterised indigenous art forms as devilish, backward, and primitive. Punitive measures such as castigatory forced community services were put in place by the colonial governments to reprimand individuals who were caught engaging in the arts. Consequently, the place of the arts in communities was diminished.
The arts reclaimed their position as drivers of social and cultural change during the postcolonial epoch. Communities sought common destiny through their artistic practices. Communities rejuvenated arts practices to inspire generations of cultural practitioners, spearhead national building, and regain cultural pride and dignity.
It is against this background that Makerere University established the Department of Music, Dance and Drama in 1971. Makerere University is now the leading academic institution in Uganda to offer undergraduate and graduate courses in creative arts. Originally, the mission of the academic department was to build local capacity through research and scholarship to revive, generate, and promote indigenous knowledge through the arts. This mandate expanded into civil engagement, where the department engaged in programs and activities to use creative arts to address community-based challenges such as HIV/AIDS epidemic and steer national recovery in the aftermath of military dictatorships and armed conflicts in 1970s and 1980s.
Since then, the arts in higher education have expanded in response to the neo-liberal economic framework that was instituted by World Bank and International Monetary Fund through Structural Adjustment Programs in the late 1980s. This liberalised economy created opportunities for creative artists in sectors such as print and electronic media, tourism, leisure and hospitality, marketing and advertisement, as well as creative arts and cultural enterprises. To respond to the ever-shifting market demands and dynamics, the department has continued to restructure curriculum to integrate courses in theatre for development, drama in electronic media, theatre technology and multimedia, community music, community dance, music business, applied dance, and arts entrepreneurship, among others.
Building on this momentum, the department has also engaged in research and knowledge transfer collaborations with local and global institutions to increase the flow of knowledge and ideas, expand the relevance of the arts to the prevailing local and global needs, and build capacity in creative arts and other related fields. This interdisciplinary work has led to: 1) establishment of the first ever ethnomusicology archive at Makerere University; 2) community outreach training programs with rural and urban youth refugees; 3) a cultural exchange program with The Norwegian University College of Dance; and 4) cutting-edge research in popular music, community music, music archiving, intercultural dance education, ethnomusicology, and applied theatre by students and staff.
The progress of the creative arts in higher education has not happened without challenges. Firstly, government austerity measures have drained the creatives arts of much needed resources. With focus on STEM subjects, the creative arts have suffered from budgets cuts, and have experienced devaluation of their knowledge and viability. This has impeded student enrollment, research output and effective teaching. Secondly, access to tertiary education in Uganda is still low. According to a report on the state of higher education by the National Council for Higher Education (2013), 198,066 students enrolled into higher education institutions in Uganda, representing 0.57% of the entire population. The lack of accessibility is still constraining growth of expertise in various fields, including the creative arts.
Uganda is experiencing challenges such as unemployment, gender based violence, forced migration, child labour, poverty, human rights abuses, armed conflicts, and bad governance. This situation calls out for the engagement of creative arts as a path to identify possible solutions. The youth have capitalised on new innovative technologies and artistic energies to create platforms to hone their creative abilities and expression, and boost their creative productivity. However, a lot of work needs to be done. According to Ahaibwe and Mbowa (2014), 75% of the total population was between the ages of 18-30 by 2012. 64% of this population was unemployed. In light of these developments, the creative arts in higher education have a key role to play to skill the youth and build the much needed expertise to support the economy.
Ahaibwe, G. & Mbowa, S. (2014). Youth unemployment challenge in Uganda and the role of employment policies in job creation. Retrieved on February 17, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2014/08/26/youth-unemployment-challenge-in-uganda-and-the-role-of-employment-policies-in-jobs-creation/
National Council for Higher Education (2013). The state of higher education and training in Uganda 2011: A Report on higher education delivery and institutions. Retrieved on February 17, 2018, from http://www.unche.or.ug/download-attachment/256/
Alfdaniels Mabingo is a scholar, performer, Afrofuturist and percussionist from Uganda, East Africa. He is currently pursuing PhD in Dance Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Mabingo serves as an Assistant Lecturer of Dance at Makerere University, Uganda and has taught courses at New York University in the U.S, The University of Auckland in New Zealand, and Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Jamaica. He has facilitated workshops and presented papers on intercultural dance education, pedagogy of African dances, and community dance in the U.S, Europe, New Zealand, Australia and the Caribbean. Mabingo has also published scholarly peer-reviewed book chapters and articles in several journals on dance.