“Dereva, olina ebifo ebitumalawo fenna? (Driver, do you have space for all of us?)” asked one of the teenage boys before deciding whether they take the taxi I was in, or not.
Being in a group of seven, the boys did not want to use different taxis, because that would easily disorganize their plans, especially at the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) festival they were heading to.
“It is easy to lose sight of a person you were with at the festival…” the boys contemplated before the conductor eventually asked other passengers to squeeze and create space for all seven.
The rest of the journey was filled with the boys’ loud anticipation.
They had plans laid out: eat ice cream, meat and later dance in the streets that are not crowded, since they were afraid of getting their transport money stolen.
The group comprised mostly teenagers; they did not look like the ones you easily bump into during the Buzz Teenies or Miss Teens events, where a more ‘upper-class’ kind of teenager goes. These seemed more grounded, probably going out for an entertainment event in Kampala for the first time in a long time.
In fact, this has been the crowd that defines Kampala’s most renowned street fair for the last five years. Even with artistes such as Bebe Cool, Radio and Weasel or Chameleone gracing it, the audience at the festival is rarely those that pay to catch their shows.
As a new event in 2012, the city festival was marketed as a carnival to channel the famous one in the Brazilian capital, Rio de Janeiro; back then, it was strategized as a celebration to usher in ‘Uganda at 50’ Independence festivities.
The show, however, bounced back the following year and has happened for each of the years that have followed.
In fact, according to Jennifer Musisi, the KCCA executive director, the festival has been one of the fastest-growing events in terms of numbers and activities.
At a press conference that presented Tanzanian artiste Diamond Platinumz last Friday, she noted that the first edition had attracted about 800 people, but they have over the years seen the festival grow to attendances of more than 50,000 people.
And to keep it accessible especially to the norms that guide many of the homes in Uganda, they thought it better to keep it at festival level, where people can still dress respectably.
As a carnival, trust Ugandans; some would turn up dressed like they were headed for Samba de Janeiro.
“This year we even have the honour of hosting the Kabaka of Buganda, thus we hope people dress decently,” she said.
But without a fashion police at spots such as Watoto church, which divided the festival from the rest of the city, it was hard telling how the ‘indecently dressed’ were going to be sieved out.
There were no taxis exceeding the Watoto stage and immediately after being offloaded, patrons bumped into people offering services including face painting, Uganda flags on sale, as well as T-shirts and children’s sunglasses.
I tugged along with the group of seven, excited to get the youngest’s face painted. They had quickly bonded with another girl they had met in the taxi. The plan to paint their faces was abandoned when the first painter said he was painting for Shs 2,000, which was twice the amount they were willing to pay for the service.
The festival has become inclusive as time goes on; for instance, for people that only came to have a good time without getting mixed up with an overzealous crowd, it was easier to watch a football or basketball match.
For instance, a Hima Cement rally that took place in Naguru was highly enjoyed and so were other sports events like a three-against- three mini basketball tournament.
On many of the streets, many teenagers were clearly exploiting their ability to party and snog without a teacher or parent to stop them; many spent Sunday trekking between grounds as they ran from one excitement to the other.
At times even a DJ mix that involved a song they liked would influence them to line up and try to access that venue.
Sponsored by Bell Lager and a host of other companies, an insider told The Observer the festival collected more than Shs 1bn from sponsors and accredited vendors that sold food, clothes and drinks.
Unlike the past editions though, this faced a slump in attendance; for instance, unlike past editions where Kampala road was impenetrable thanks to a sea of partying Ugandans, this time round, moving between stages was easier.
According to Solomon Mukisa, one of the vendors that has sold meat at three previous editions, he was making decent money at this edition, but the workload was smaller compared to the past editions.
“See, last year, I couldn’t have even gotten time to have this conversation with you.”
But he was glad those around were buying.
Some enthusiasts argued that the festival is not defined and thus the loss of interest from revellers, while others said the programming has always been bad and ordinary Ugandans are finally seeing through it.
“The artistes at this festival are the same each and every year, which has made it monotonous,” complained a service provider, who noted that there was no way she would have been at the festival if it were not for work.
The festival featured artistes such as Gravity Omutujju, Vinka, Winnie Nwagi, Sheebah Karungi, Ykee Benda, Geosteady and B2C, among others; for the target audience, it was a perfect lineup. The problem was the monotony.
They were not enough for the entire festival but, according to the KCCA insider, companies such as Bell Lager bring sponsorship, but also produce and curate their own artistes for their spaces.
As a result, with many partners coming on board, KCCA ended up with more than seven stages whose sponsors all hired the same artistes to perform for them; it was easy to catch Nwagi performing at the MTN stage and only minutes later find her at the Railway grounds or National theatre, doing the same songs with a tired face.
But of course that was not an issue for many Kampalans that were seeing some of the performers for the first time, and for free.
Some were even excited to see them just standing without doing a thing.
By the time many of the stages were closing, Kampala’s little-known slay queens from Namere, Kasubi and other places were having a blast, in the middle of the roads; they danced like they had a roof and disco lights over their heads, chanting to their favourite lines in songs, and at times screaming song requests to whoever cared to listen.
The last I saw the group of seven teenagers from my taxi earlier in the day, they were having a blast and not caring how many times they had heard Nwagi sing Musawo.