[Please read the interview in english language below. The interview in german language was published in Hildesheimer Allgemeine Zeitung, 06.02.2018.]
Emily Achieng Akuno, born 1962, is Professor of Music at Technical University of Kenya, and a Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of Academic Affairs at the Co-operative University of Kenya, in Nairobi. She is the president of “International Music Council”, the Paris-based UNESCO-affiliated NGO umbrella organisation of worldwide music organisations. Professor Akuno works in the field of musical arts education for cultural relevance and development.
Akuno has spent over 30 years in University level teaching, research and administration. She has served in various management capacities in Kenya and abroad, including Kenyatta University, Maseno University and the Technical University of Kenya and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.
She is currently a guest researcher at Department of Cultural Policy at the University of Hildesheim and attends the international colloquium "Cultural Policy and Arts Education – A first African-European Exchange" (February 2018, Bundesakademie für Kulturelle Bildung Wolfenbüttel) in Lower Saxony. At Kulturcampus in Hildesheim Professor Emily Achieng Akuno and her Hildesheim collegues Professor Birgit Mandel, Professor Wolfgang Schneider and Dr. Daniel Gad shared knowledge in the field of arts education together with 8 further researchers from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria and 20 doctoral students from Germany. It is a generation of engaged Professors in African countries, who develop new structures and study programs in their home countries and who share their experience and knowledge. Since four years the team of the Hildesheim UNESCO Chair in “Cultural Policy for the Arts in Development" is working with the international partners on the question of the effects of the arts for society and what frameworks the arts need to fulfil its task.
Interview with Professor Emily Achieng Akuno
“The biggest medicine that we all have is the expression of our emotions”
What is your work about?
I am looking on the training of players for creative and cultural industries. At my University we are developing academic programs, so that whoever comes through our study programs are aware of the cultural context of their practice and are knowledgeable about the technology and business involved in the arts.
What is your motivation for your work? What do you want to change through your work?
My motivation is twofold: The creative industry in Kenya has a lot of young people, who are not trained in the creative subjects. For most of them, their level of General education is also pretty low. So I’ll be working on ways of getting them from their basic level to get some formal skills and knowledge to improve their output and thinking. This will allow them to be creative and to benefit from the outcome of creativity.
The second thing I am interested in doing is to ensure that arts – all the creative subjects – play an important role and are recognized in the country as equal players in the economy. That does not always happen. But the creative sector employs so many young people – they have new ideas. But they don’t have a channel through which their work can be improved or developed and packaged, so that they can live on it. In Kenya we are used to musicians and artists dying poor. We don’t want that anymore. My focus at my University is to have opportunities to make sure that the young artist generation knows how to do their art but they also know their rights. They can put a price on their work and defend themselves against inappropriate payment for what they do.
What new ideas do the artists in Kenya develop – for example in theatre, literature, music or film?
I think one example of the innovative things and ways of the youth can be seen in a popular comedy show filmed live in various locations, but domiciled at “The Carnivore Restaurant”, aired on on Nation TV called Churchill Live. In this, young people present song, dance, comedy, short skits, a mixture of these art forms. A second is the “Kenya Music Festival” and “Kenya National Drama Festival”. These two showcase young people performing in dance, elocution, spoken word, narratives, song, instrumental music and more. These are carried out of school. Today, even smartphones are used to capture footage for short films. Similarly, students of design generate games and animation from seemingly very basic equipment.
Why are you working in this exchange with researchers at University of Hildesheim?
I am working as a professor at Technical University of Kenya in Nairobi and work together with University of Hildesheim, we want to strengthen the academic exchange about cultural policy, and my emphasis is on that policy with respect to arts education. The arts are an expression of culture. The connection is understood.
A medical doctor can heal people, an architect can build houses. When we look into socities, what role does an artist play? Is an artist nice to have – sing a song for entertainment, write some words? In every society, in Germany, in Kenya - why do artists matter, what is the power of the artists?
In my country music is so abundant, there is so much of it, that we almost take it for granted. Unfortunately we don’t realize how important music is. The medical doctor repairs people physically – the artist does the same on multiple spheres, especially emotionally. We as humans perhaps give more value to what we can see with our naked eyes. The artist repairs people, but not necessarily physically. In a world characterised by segregation and strife, music can restore sanity and creates cohesion. That is healing that goes beyond ‘a person’. The biggest medicine that we all have is the expression of our emotions, which the arts make us do. Those who are trained in the arts are trained not to bottle in negative emotions and frustration, but to find ways of using that human energy. That is one of the significant effects of the arts which is totally underrated and downplayed.
We have not focused sufficiently on training of artists. In terms of economic empowerment: How many young uneducated people make their living from medicine, nobody! How many young uneducated people make their living from theatre? Thousands! That is important... the qualification matters. Society looks at how long it takes to train an artist, to train a doctor. I remember teaching in a high school once, and when the secondary schools students were supposed to choose subjects, the ones who were not good enough for sciences were sent to music. It was different with fine arts as one must at least be able to draw. That is not how to strengthen the arts. We need do recognize that a general training is important for the general population. To this should be added a specialized education for professionals in the arts. There is a need for training performers, creators and innovators in the expressive art forms, specifically music, theatre and film. There is also need to train for arts business and planning.
Interview by Isa Lange.