Art exchanges links between Africa and Europe


Storyteller-actor Wakio Nzenge performed at the ART X CHANGE event at Pride Inn Azure, Nairobi on November 20, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Collaboration between the African Union and the European Union have been quietly underway since 2000 when the two regional bodies agreed that mutual exchange could be beneficial to both parties.

They have worked together on projects in various sectors ever since, including everything from business, peace and security to education, digitalization, and good governance.

They have even been busy in the area of arts, sports, and culture, setting up something called the Art X Change (AXC) aimed at creating connections and increasing skills among young creatives.

“The Art X Change is actually a project that grew out of the AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub,” says Emma Macharia, a spokeswoman for AXC and the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP).

“So far it’s a consortium of just five partners from five countries, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Italy, and Sweden, but the project is growing,” she adds, “especially in East Africa.”

Evidence of what AXC has already achieved could be seen this past week during a day-long conference on ‘Connecting Creative Youth in Africa and Europe’ held at Pride Inn Azure Hotel in Westlands.

Organized by the Italian Institute of Culture (IIC) and CISP together with Kenya’s Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Heritage and UNESCO, the Conference shed a spotlight first on several successful case studies that AXC has already participated in.

The goal in every case was to support new ways to mobilize creative ideas and cultural activities that would also advance sustainable development.

“Training is one of the big elements in our program,” says Rachel Kessi, the founder-director of the Tanzanian contemporary dance troupe, MUDA Africa.

Kessi explained in a live Zoom call to the conference from Dar es Salaam, that her dance group has been collaborating with dancers from Rwanda and Uganda in the areas of performance and capacity building. She also focused on building a regional body of dancers that can be self-sustaining.

“This is why we got UNESCO involved in the project.” Emma says. “We are also concerned about institution-building as a key factor in sustainable development which is where UNESCO comes in,” she adds.

Two other cultural projects highlighted at the Conference that involved the concepts of cultural identity, sustainable development, and institution-building were the Mogadishu National Museum and the Awjama Cultural Centre.

Dr Osman Gedow Amir, director of the museum shared both high hopes and tragic circumstances of the museum. He has detailed strategic plans for the re-development the museum which is currently a shell of an institution. But due to the instability of his country, his plans are on hold. Nonetheless, AXC is still prepared to support his goal to reestablish the National Museum.

Fardowsa Jama is better off insofar as she started her Somali Awjama Cultural Centre in Eastleigh, Nairobi not Mogadishu. She has a plan to re-establish the Centre in the war-torn Somali capital. But in the interim, she has been able to build up her centre and train Somali youth in multiple aspects of Somali culture and heritage.

One aspect of training that Fardowsa has used to share traditional folktales, riddles, and songs from Somali culture is storytelling. It’s a technique of performance that AXC also supports. Indeed, a high point of the conference was when the Kenyan actor Wakio Nzenge told her story of ‘The Message’.

Having just completed a short course in Storytelling supported by AXC, Wakio told a spellbinding tale of a girl wanting to share news of her good grades with an old friend. Her journey to reach him was harrowing. What was worse was the man had been in jail for 10 years, and had clearly changed dramatically since they’d last met.

Their encounter was brief but it had a profound effect on the child who almost forgot the purpose of her mission to visit. It was to tell her father about his little girl’s progress in school.

Wakio’s performance was poignant and bitter sweet. It also illustrated the value of AXC’s concern for cultural exchange and training. “We want to see young people trained so well that when they go out to share their skills, they can do it as professionals,” says Nancy Mwaizaka, UNESCO’s culture officer.

The one Kenyan partner of AXC is the GoDown Arts Centre, which regularly runs an Entrepreneurship Training course for Kenyan creatives. Unfortunately, they had no representation at the conference.

Nonetheless, IIC’s new Director Elena Gallenca noted that The GoDown is a valuable partner of AXC. “Many of our exchange activities take place at the GoDown,” she said.