Kalaverse is a creative organization based in Kampala, providing hundreds of girls around Uganda with the skills to show the world their uniqueness. Through film and design, the organization aims to amplify the voices of Ugandan girls fighting the culture of silence, pervading the discussion on the female issue and fostering the development of contemporary Uganda’s visual identity.
The architect Maria Sheba Atukunda and the singer and filmmaker Ann Mary “Afrie” Nassaga are two creatives who decided to join the forces and use their skills to shape a better future for all Ugandan girls.
Camilla Colicchio Can you tell me about the journey that has brought you to found Kalaverse?
Ann Nassanga Mary and I have been friends for over 20 years. She has always been into arts, but into the design side of art, and I’ve always been into the music and the film side of art. We had the same passion. We both felt that, because of culture, tradition, and lack of access to education, most Ugandan girls were lacking in skills and not because they’re lacking in talent, but just because they’re lacking in knowledge. We found that gap, and we dared ourselves to make a film. It was the first we did together with another friend of ours who passed away. This film brought together so many girls who had a passion for creating, and that’s when we decided, let’s make this a thing. Why don’t we create spaces and natural communities where young female creatives can come together and learn how to tell their story to find representation for the African girl? That’s how we started. Maria is more into design, and then I’m into film and music, but it’s really the same thing. It’s about empowering and educating the Ugandan girl. So that’s how we started the Kalaverse.
Camilla Colicchio So, what’s it like for a girl growing up in Uganda?
Maria Atukunda There are two categories of girls, the girls who live in the city and the girls who live in rural areas, and the challenges are different. For the girls who live in the city, the main challenge is pursuing a career, which is often thought of as a matter for men. Ann was studying at the university’s dental school, and was the only girl in her class. I was doing architecture and was one of five girls out of a class of forty people. It was difficult to face so many things, from being bullied when men think that the things they say are funny but aren’t really funny; it’s harassment.
Also, getting into the space and getting a voice inside is hard. So, even in the film space, we get into situations where you have access to tech, but somehow the men always had the tics, and, for some reason, the girls were withdrawn and were not asking for a chance to shoot or to edit. The girls were most assertive and were able to shoot and handle equipment, but they were waiting for permission. So much of Kalaverse’s work is basically saying, “You can do everything, don’t wait for permission from men”. The girls in rural areas still struggle for basic things like education. They’re still struggling not to be married young. They’re still struggling to do more than just make biscuits.
“So much of Kalaverse’s work is basically saying, ‘You can do everything, don’t wait for permission from men.'”
Camilla Colicchio How do your initiatives impact the life of these girls? And how can art and education become a tool for the liberation of Ugandan girls?
Ann Nassanga I’ll give an example. There’s a documentary film that we have done, it’s called Little Faith, and we went to Karamoja to shoot it. We shot it with the local community, and our main character is a Karamojong girl and one of our very first female doctors. She’s the only doctor right now in the whole of Karamoja, a region that hosts quite a huge number of people. It is a documentary film about her, about her journey. She also was faced with an early marriage, and she said no to this early marriage. She was alienated from her community at the cost of finishing school. Once she finished school, she went back to Karamoja and is now inspiring the girls there. When we did this film, we didn’t even have an idea of the kind of impact that it would have. But right now, it has been shown in over 20 countries and reached over 5000 girls, and whoever watches it wants to contribute to that cause.
So far, we have sponsored the education of over 30 Karamojong girls just from that documentary. People watch it and ask how they can support it. That’s an unseen way in which art can help education because, through art, we’re able to create a documentary film. But that documentary film has now opened the doors for parents, for teachers, for society to actually see the effects of negative cultural traditions and also see the positive effects of faith, and just that ability of someone to dare to be different, to think that they can, despite everything. One of the favorite quotes of Dr. Faith Loyce Nangiro that I like is, “We are not where we are born or where we grew up from. We are who we decide to be”. We have the choice to be who we decide to be despite where we grew up. I feel that art is a way for us to consume the heavy things of life, climate change, and gender equality. When you hear it on the news, it’s traumatizing. When someone tells it to you, it’s even more difficult to hear. But when someone takes a picture about climate change or sings a song – like my I am an African girl – it’s more palatable and easier to digest. It motivates and inspires young people much faster than anything else.
“That documentary film has now opened the doors for parents, for teachers, for society to actually see the effects of negative cultural traditions and also see the positive effects of faith, and just that ability of someone to dare to be different, to think that they can, despite everything.”
Camilla Colicchio So, is it also about starting a new narrative about the gender issue?
Ann Nassanga Yes, it’s the best way to rewrite a story, to redefine an image, to recreate and tell the story of the African girls, or to package feminism in a way that’s a message to society. It’s not an attack on people. It’s empowerment for the whole society. Art is the easiest way to package that and ask people to participate in change.
Camilla Colicchio Regarding this, do you also work with boys?
Maria Atukunda Yes, we also work with boys because we’ve had so many meetings and arguments about that, but we find it’s very prudent because boys are the ones who shape the environment of the girls. We can’t isolate them completely. As I said about the vacuum, you can’t fix a problem in a vacuum. You must fix its surroundings as well.
Ann Nassanga We also put out a call for emerging filmmakers asking them to share with us any work that they have done. It was open only to female creators, and once we had selected them, we put them in contact with a list of facilitators, male and female. That was the argument because we also used to train guys, but they tended to override the activities. So, we said, let’s have a sit down with the boys and the girls and see how to fix this, how to empower each other. The guys agreed to come to facilitate and act. The result at the end of the day, is a film.
So far, we have done three films, one on love and identity and the second on mental health, because we felt we needed to talk about it. We have a culture of silence in our society, and we need to break that. We also spoke about sexual harassment of women in public spaces, which is a big issue here, because we go through things that we think are normal, but they’re really not. So, we had to talk about that as well, and we did it in a comedy. But for our last work, you have to wait and see.
“It’s the best way to rewrite a story, to redefine an image, to recreate and tell the story of the African girls, or to package feminism in a way that’s a message to society.”
Camilla Colicchio We have spoken about the Kalaverse Film Company, but could you tell me a bit more about the organization’s other main program, the Ugandan Design Show? How is it organized, and what’s the purpose behind it?
Maria Atukunda What I have seen so far in the work we’ve done is we are making girls aware that they have options. You have the opportunity to be an architect, you have the chance to be a musician, and you have the option to express yourself. You’re not as devoid of options as you think you are because many girls have been taken advantage of because they are unaware, but they have choices and can stand up for themselves. That goes straight into the design side. We are focusing on cultural design. The reason why our focus is identity is that we believe that for you to realize your fullest potential, you must be rooted in who you are, and who you are is Ugandan.
So, what does being Ugandan mean? The focus of our Ugandan Design Show is, we see you contemporary girls, but do you know who you are? Are you something of Pinterest? Are you like a composition of European art and design? Or do you know who you actually are? First, we go to villages of marginalized communities and regions, like Karamoja, where people are still practicing design in the purest way. While they may be the slowest to develop in a very global way, they are still practicing sustainable design. That makes sense for our context. In terms of Karamojong design, what we are doing is studying their design methods, studying their design materials and all the small details basically, and documenting them. After doing the documentary work, students from different universities come and create challenges for designers within the city. The first challenge we came up with was designing a headdress for contemporary design based on Karamojong cultural history. The point is basically to get people to look to the past, to shape the present and possibly the future, so that even in the future, the dimensions that come will be grounded in who we are.
During the last round of the Design Show, we asked the participants a bunch of questions about Uganda and the different cultures of our country. Then, we asked them to design for contemporary Uganda. We’re happy that we are getting them to think in that way. If you are Ugandan and Ugandan design is good and sustainable, try to design that way. So far, we have done two cohorts of the Design Show. The first one was in person, and the second one was happening online where we put out an open call for applicants to send in submissions for the challenge. The reason for that is also that we want to affect change, but we have long since realized that you can’t pull out change from a vacuum. If you want to change Uganda, invite as many Ugandans as possible to participate in the change. We are currently planning another cohort working with schools of architecture in Uganda and companies in Karamoja.
“The point is basically to get people to look to the past, to shape the present and possibly the future, so that even in the future, the dimensions that come will be grounded in who we are.”
Camilla Colicchio Your organization generally focuses on two bigger topics, gender and identity, but how do these two themes merge?
Ann Nassanga Gender and identity are big for us because our education system still has a long way to go to help us realize how unique we are as individuals. It’s always “going to school and getting employed”. And it’s not “going to school and learning how to create work for everybody else”. I think that we, as artists, have the gift of being outside, and being able to see it from the outside helps us figure out what’s really happening. People finish school but have no idea who they are, and culture is a very big thing here in Uganda.
Most times, you find that tradition defines who a girl is. By tradition, I mean gender roles, a girl is supposed to cook, say yes to a husband all the time, and keep quiet. We have a culture of silence that teaches us not to talk back, whether it’s our parents, peers, or husbands. Identity comes from uniqueness. Therefore culture does blot out anything that makes someone unique for the good of everybody else. You feel that there’s nothing unique about you; you’re just moving through life, not knowing why you’re here, what you’re going to do about it, and how you can help your community. That’s where identity comes in, and gender and identity merge because if our education system has affected the way we see ourselves even more, it has affected the way women see themselves.
“That’s where identity comes in, and gender and identity merge because if our education system has affected the way we see ourselves even more, it has affected the way women see themselves.”
Camilla Colicchio What are the challenges of running a cultural organization in your local context?
Maria Atukunda The first is, of course, financial, as it’s pretty hard to get financing for work that is not considered important in Uganda. The second one is we do not have enough examples of how to run a cultural organization. We have been learning alone by making mistakes along the way. Also, Uganda is developing its film industry as we speak, but we still don’t know what ministry film and arts fall under. Recently, bills were passed to have artists, musicians, and artists pay taxes for their work. Yet we are barely making enough money to pay rent and stay alive. The government says that artists are making some money, “let’s tax them,” and the rates don’t make sense. So, our government is not doing much to help us; we are figuring it out as we go.
Ann Nassanga I think I’ll add one challenge to that, which is an internal challenge, but I guess it happens in different organizations. We’re friends and running an organization doing trial and error. I feel like it has also strained our relationship in a way.
Maria Atukunda Another challenge is changing. Change is inevitable in life in general. As we learn more about running a company, we have to evolve, and it means finding new ways of doing things. When you have a routine and a system, you know how to adapt quickly and make sure it works.
Ann Nassanga The last one comes when, for example, we post about an artwork or an event that focuses on women, and people ask us “why only female poets or only female filmmakers?” People come in the inbox saying, “what’s up with you women who only want things by yourselves?” Guys act like they’re feeling left out. You become tagged as an organization that does things only for women.
“The government says that artists are making some money, ‘let’s tax them’, and the rates don’t make sense. So, our government is not doing much to help us; we are figuring it out as we go.”
Camilla Colicchio How do you create the right environment so that change can blossom?
Maria Atukunda To be honest, it’s something we had to learn from experience. One of the things you can do is to be open-minded. We get so many blows when the things we try don’t work out. But as long as you’re open-minded, you’re able to evolve. Another thing is also reading extensively and doing courses and research. We don’t sit in an office and make all the decisions. We engage the entire community doing little feedback sessions, and most people have different opinions, perspectives, and knowledge about how the organization runs. One of the ways we create the space for change is just opening ourselves to others’ opinions and not taking them as harsh criticism but more as suggestions and other world views.
Ann Nassanga It’s a puzzle we’re solving. We’d really need to go back to school and take a leadership course. Leadership is a skill, and how do we grow then? Reading a lot of books, we have a book club, and we are intentional about gaining knowledge. Also, we value communication and feedback. When people come in and apply for something, we ask them to fill in the Google forms so that we have all the general information. But also, as soon as the event is done, we have feedback forms, and we sit down together and share this feedback to improve. We do a lot of those meetups and movie nights and make people feel like we’re part of their lives, and they’re part of our life. That’s how change begins, when people feel like they belong.
Camilla Colicchio What are Kalaverse’s next steps?
Maria Atukunda We are partnering with students of architecture. I am an architect by profession, and I know for a fact that if I want to influence change in the space of design, I should partner with institutions that train design and influence design. We are in talks with universities in Uganda and already have one on board, and we’re partnering with them to go in these exclusions and document the traditional designs. The dream I have for the design space is an Ugandan utopia. I know that sounds insane, but I see a world where Uganda doesn’t look like Europe. When you get into a city in Uganda, you don’t see buildings trying to mimic European buildings, which is also not sustainable for Uganda, to be honest. In terms of dressing, I see a style that is a merging of something cultural and contemporary; sustainability in fashion, architecture, and production design regarding the materials and the methods we use. What I see on that stage is a utopia for Africans and a united Africa with people who are proud of who they are. That’s my vision and what I’m trying to reach with Kalaverse.
Ann Nassanga Between June and July, we are also going back to Karamoja, but this time for the Design Show with a number of events. In June, we’ll also be releasing films from this year’s cohort. In terms of numbers, we aim to directly reach at least 1 million girls in three years. So far, we’re on 700/800-ish and want to get to 1 million.
In 2022, Kalaverse was one of the recipients of the Creativity Pioneers Fund, placing creativity at the center of more inclusive, equal, just and thriving communities.Read more stories like this →