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I love cultural festivals, I am keen on attending Cultural Festivals, I am an advocate of Cultural Festivals and more so Cultural Festivals in Kenya. At Cultural Festivals, one gets the opportunity to learn the lifestyle of a people, make friends with people they may perhaps not necessarily engage with on a day to day and fact check stereotypes they may have of different communities.  One meets people willing to share and showcase their culture, people genuinely ecstatic to “teach/inform” others about their way of life, everyone is everyone’s friend, security is at an all time high- led by the locals themselves and several cultures would be showcased at one place. In some instances, members of previously perceived warring communities would be eating, drinking and dancing together. Everyone has equal opportunity to engage in the same activities, it does not matter if you arrived on the first or second day, or what time you arrived-your free class was almost be on repeat through out.

However, recent happenings have left me wondering, why/when some organizers lost the plot and  killed the main reason for hosting  Cultural Festivals. I am at my wits end, wondering , “Are they worth attending anymore?  Are they really for “the people” or for “some” people?  Are they worth the time, money and resources required to be invested to attend? Are they really a celebration of a people or something else? Let me share some of my recent experiences and you can be the judge:

  1. Political Rallies disguised as Cultural Festivals: This one has become the current trend and it is “killing” the authenticity of  Cultural Festivals. Political rallies are marketed as “Cultural Festivals”, funded with money aimed at promoting culture and the destination, yet are actually political rallies in all but the name. I remember one I attended and it was a replica of all the political rallies I have watched on TV. This means there was entertainment offered to the politicians, introductions of all the politicians was done and then POLITICAL TALK took the center stage for the whole day. Thus, in such a case, one only got to enjoy entertainment if at all, when the “performers” were practicing before the politicians  arrived. After this, everyone ceased to exist and the “Cultural  Festival”, sorry, political rally started and continued for hours. Kindly note, at this time, all other activities whether engagements or music and dance are stopped as the politicians take over.  If the intention is to have a political rally, just be honest enough to call it that and stop making us invest our time, money and resources to attend a “Cultural Festival”, only to find ourselves held hostage `at a political rally.
  2. Illegalities hidden under the guise of  Cultural Festivals : This officially tops my biggest disappointment and started this mental and emotional turmoil as pertains Cultural Festivals. I once attended a Cultural Festival and was awed by all and sundry-I was in cloud 10, as we would say. In it all however, I noticed a young local girl, not more than 12 years dressed up in their traditional regalia and looking oh so beautiful. She was a gem, she was a beautiful girl but her eyes showed fear, sadness and resignation. I approached her, I tried to engage her but all she did was look beyond me, the terror in her eyes evident. Eventually I engaged the family/group she was with and they nonchalantly shared she was in the “market” being showcased , so that potential suitors can “betroth her” there and then. This my dear people is modern day “Child Slavery, Child Rape( I cannot call it  Child Bride, as those two terms should never be in one statement” all being done in broad daylight. This is illegal in Kenya yet some communities still practice this illegality.  To this day, I will never forget her face, I will never forget her look. I am left to wonder, if I, a visitor could discover such in a few hours, what of the organizers and security on ground. I wonder, do they know this and turn a blind eye, or , is it a case of see no evil, hear no evil, know no evil?
  3. “Waheshimiwa” Parties disguised as Cultural Festivals: I once attended a Cultural Festival having been enticed by the communication that it would be a Great Cultural Infusion, only to arrive and feel like a gate crasher at an exclusive party. I arrived early and had the chance to watch the entertainment groups practicing which made me all the more excited for the actual performances. Soon After, the “waheshimiwa”, otherwise known as people holding leadership positions in the National and County government  arrived in their numbers, accompanied by their security, media teams, hang abouts among others. The Festival was officially opened by the Guest of honour among them,  the “high profile” performers performed a song or two, the “waheshimiwa” in their numbers joined in for the third song and alas, entertainment was over. I thought it was a joke but the mystery soon unfolded. The ‘waheshimiwa” were proceeding to a nearby “waheshimiwa arena” for their party/catch up disguised as attending a Cultural Festival,  away from everyone. I thought, Ok, nice, at least the politics will happen away from the event and we can enjoy the rest of the Cultural Festival. Shock on us, as soon after,  part of the organizers came around the field asking all entertainers to follow them, leaving us common folk, us attendees, us who had invested heavily from our limited resources, with No cultural entertainment in the form of music and dance. Well……
  4. Unhappy locals : Noting that most of the troupes, groups, dancers, etc that are on ground have been brought in by the organizers, I think it is only fair that they are paid fairly. It is sad to sit with them to understand their “unfestive mood”, only to be met with “WE HAVE NOT EATEN”, “WE HAVE NOT BEEN PAID”, “WE HAVE SLEPT OUTSIDE” etc. I know some may just be seeking money, but you can see the genuine cases and recently, they seem more. How is one  supposed to enjoy the festival, yet knowing the hosts of the event, the genuine locals are actually not enjoying it. Even worse is knowing on average what it costs for a festival to be held and then learning that the people who actually make the Cultural Festival worth while, are receiving close to peanuts, if not peanuts as payment.
  5. Business over culture: Please don’t get me wrong, business is appreciated as we get to buy souvenirs and all, but that is not the reason we attend the festivals. I have arrived at cultural festivals and found there to be almost more people “selling artifacts” than people showcasing their culture. In the case of those showcasing their culture, you are then blown away by how unenthusiastic they are. They ask for “lunch” even before they engage you, they ask for “payment” before they can allow you to take pictures with them, there almost seems like a cost for them even saying hello. Again I wonder, what arrangement do they have with the organizers, what is their purpose for being at the festival?  As a habit, I always have a budget for festivals that incorporates buying artifacts and “tipping” those who go over and above their expected engagements, when showcasing their culture. It is however wrong, when it is made compulsory for attendees to pay for them to have any engagements.
  6.  Unauthentic Cultural Experiences: I have attended Cultural Festivals and left the worse for wear. Kindly organizers, be strategic in whom you bring in for the engagements. It is disappointing to engage the “culture custodians”, only to realize they hardly know anything about the culture they are supposed to showcase. Here, I have come to learn that some are business outfits “hired” to dress and look like they belong to culture x, but know little to nothing about the culture. In other cases, as mentioned on issue 4 above, they are unfestive and thus refuse to share their knowledge. The reason people attend these festivals is to “learn from the source”, “drink from the overflowing cup of the locals/natives”, “to interact and assimilate from the cultural custodians”, otherwise one could learn some of these from books, videos, history lessons among others. We opt for the Cultural Festival because we want to learn and experience it from the people, its people.
  7.  Welcome All-(Not)Previously, cultural festivals welcomed everyone by providing similar experiences and engagements regardless of status, creed, religion or race, as they were done in the open field. That means, even in cases where there were “dignitaries” and “waheshimiwa”, their presence would be  acknowledged but they would  try to blend with the people. That meant, they would walk around the field, they would dance randomly with the groups, they would take time to learn and have fun like the rest of the attendees as individuals, not blocks. Now, one has to battle with these “moving blocks of people” for a chance to even glimpse at the cultural engagements. Their security teams are hot on their heels shoving attendees out of the way, while their media teams get priority on getting spots to take pictures. If you ever see a picture of me atop a flag post, know that it may have been the only available spot.  However, what topped this list was a recent engagement where, to be able to enjoy , “I needed to have a VIP Pass”, to be allowed to get close to the entertainment.  Imagine that, a VIP pass, at a Cultural Festival, to sample and experience their music and dance, which is one of the prime reasons I attended.That my dear people, is how, a festival I had planned months in advance for, budgeted for, saved money for, travelled and spent money,  left me  feeling robbed, swindled, cheated and abused. I didn’t even get one picture of the entertainment because,  I did not have VIP pass, which were being dished out to friends and guests of the organizers.
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The above are some of the reasons, I am becoming “unfestive” at the prospect of attending some Cultural Festivals.To those staying true to the “heart beat” of Cultural Festivals, I applaud  you and may you keep at it. If you are an organizer or host of a Cultural Festival and any or many of the above mentioned seem to be talking about your festival, yes, it’s yours I am referring to. People invest lots of resources into attending these festivals, everything from money, time, travel, emotions and it is an embarrassment and  shame for the organizers to market one thing and deliver nothing close to what is promised. It is the same for the locals, if they no longer feel like they own the festival, that the festival is Not for and about them, they will also be weary. If such is left to continue, organizers/counties will be hosting Cultural Festivals where invited guests “general public” will refuse to attend, and the hosts themselves-the locals, will be in absentia of the same. Be careful, you may be left to be the only attendees at your “Cultural Festivals.”

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