A Language and Grammar of Healing – A review by Erica Holum


Ife Piankhi, Artist in Residence: 

Ife Piankhi is currently an artist in residence at 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust. Working as a performance artist, singer, poet, and creative facilitator for over 30 years, Ife has recently ventured into a creative practice where her craft has taken visual form through a textured, multi-media approach to paper mache and collage work, and the creation of bright and colorful mandalas. The material and spiritual elements embedded within Ife’s work create a semiotic grammar and visual language with symbols and metaphors that unfolds into a space for peace, calm, and healing.

Ife grew up in London for most of her life with her Caribbean-born mother who took Ife and her siblings traveling from a young age. She describes her experiences in the U.S. as the time when her “politicization as an African began.” As a young adult, Ife stayed in the U.S. as an exchange student where she began learning about the Civil Rights Movement, and leaders like Marcus Garvey who advocated for Africans to return to their ancestral home. Never feeling like the UK was her place nor home, Ife returned from the U.S. and began traveling to Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Zambia, before making the decision to repatriate to Uganda. Ife has been living in Kampala for over eight years, and uses live performances, poetry, creative facilitation, and visual art to fuse her work into different mediums.  

Through a process of reeducation, Ife ventures into unwritten histories of the continent to reveal contemporary and contextual meanings of a hidden past through poetry, music, and art. Ife believes that Africans of the diaspora have important contributions to bring back to the continent, and engages specifically with mass healing after mass trauma, with a focus on the collective memory and collective consciousness among descendants of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.


During her time at 32° East, Ife used multi-media art forms and natural materials to create paper mache collages and mandalas from newspaper clippings, beads, shells, and cassava flour. Ife weaves together these materials to create a visual language with beads and shells, and writes text-based poetry with newspaper clippings on paper mache made from cassava flour. The materials symbolically illustrate ancient history and the decomposition of the pieces made of organic materials denotes the passage of time, a process which critically engages with the maintenance of art, the legacy of an artist’s work, and the temporality of embedded meaning on objects. The process of creation, engagement, and deterioration of the work represents a cycle from a traumatic past and healing for the future.

Ife believes in taking art to public spaces and using her work to bring ideas, methods, and approaches to that public that are not the norm. Her work pushes back against institutionalized methods of artistic production in favor of public engagement and discussion of her work. Ife has held community conversations surrounding the formation of identity, self-liberation, and mass healing, which has prompted personal stories and revelations from participants on these vital, yet contested matters. Following her residency at 32, Ife wants to continue exploring the creation of paper, collages, and mandalas, hoping to expand her installation work and continue to broaden and diversify exhibition platforms and audience engagement.


Activism, Activities, Articles, Diarie



I fill my mouth with it. Never mind that I am lactose intolerant and in a few hours my stomach will be gripping and bloated. I will release gases and hope I am not in the company of others. If I am, I will attempt to hold it in or release it without making a sound. Impossible.

Every other person in Kampala has ulcers. It is a national epidemic that is not on the radar of the World Health Organisation (WHO). It’s all HIV, Ebola and now the Zika Virus. We are under attack from new strains of bacteria which are now resistant to treatment because of the antibiotics our doctors prescribe like sweets. One of the unfortunate side effects of antibiotics is that they are not selective in choosing which bacteria to kill. All the good bacterial colonies in the gut die along with the bad. Doctors give you the pills in small envelopes with the name of the tablet (sometimes) and the numbers 1×1 or 3×1 written on them, to determine when and how many of these you should take. There are no instructions other than that. Maybe if the drug is particularly harsh on the stomach they would suggest taking them with food or liquids.

When I go to the clinic in Kampala I am not physically examined or asked about my previous health history. You tell the doctor your symptoms and he or she prescribes you antibiotic pills. We have this tradition of respect for  elders in Africa, so when we go to the clinic, because the person sitting at the desk calls themselves a doctor we are afraid to question or even ask for clarity on what is being prescribed and what the effects could be.

I believe this is what is leading to the problems with our stomachs. Bacteria that are either beneficial or at least not causing diseases are being destroyed, along with the bad bacteria, thus leaving us more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections that are becoming more expensive to treat. (Currently the American government, under the guise of copyright law, is attempting to stop African nations from purchasing generic pharmaceuticals which are often sold at a lower price).

The stomach, the site of intuitive knowing (trust your gut), is under attack.

In our gut there is something called the enteric nervous system. It is a sophisticated network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and support cells like those found in the brain. This network permeates the digestive tract from the esophagus to the colon, and “enables it to act independently, learn, remember, and as the saying goes, produce “gut feelings.” Think butterflies in your stomach or cramps or when you are nervous or upset.

We have two brains, and one of them is in our belly. They are connected like Siamese twins, and when one gets upset the other will too. The gut contains 100 million neurons — more than the spinal cord has. This means it is sensitive. Symptoms of ulcers include abdominal pain, anemia, bad breathe, constipation, diarrhea, anxiety, depression, fatigue or low energy, headaches or migraines, skin problems, premenstrual stress, sinus problems, sleep problems, weight problems (gain or loss).

It’s a debilitating condition which is caused by a bacterial infection (Helicobacter pylori) but also by a diet that is too acidic. While studying with Dr Llaila O Afrika, the well-known naturopath, I was taught that most of the foods ingested by Africans were acidic. We fry most of our food, combine carbohydrates with proteins, drink as we eat, eat a lot of refined flour and sugar, and take insufficient water, preferring instead to take soda or alcohol. No longer is our food our medicine. The belief is that if you are eating raw food, then there is something wrong with you. We are now medicating ourselves in order to numb our bodies. In order to be strong or appear strong we repress our anxiety, our depression and eat. It is common knowledge that women are experts at this one, and along with retail therapy we find creative ways to alleviate our stress.

I’m looking at a Ugandan population which is increasingly unwell. We are not exercising (the ritual of going to the garden to dig is what ‘villagers’ do). We eat large portions of food very late at night so that in the morning we wouldn’t feel so hungry.

As a woman living in Uganda I’ve been told I’m not authentically African and that I should learn to keep silent and observe more. To ‘hold water in my mouth’, to keep my opinions to myself and not share them with others because I will make people feel uncomfortable, even if I disagree or am curious to know more. My role is not to question but to blindly accept what is handed to me, because it’s rude not to. As African women we are meant to make people feel welcome, to give our time to everyone, but not invest in ourselves because that would be selfish. I believe those suffering with ulcers have a problem with anger and the inability to say no. We ingest the demands, protocols, and opinions of others but ignore our personal needs in order to keep the peace. This peace is the stereotypical image and behaviour of what makes ‘a good woman’. Meanwhile on the inside we are holding the tension of resentment because our words and emotions are trapped in our bellies.

The fear of violence, shame or guilt which traditionally would have ‘kept me in my place’ is contributing to the epidemic of ulcers. I don’t believe people suffering with ulcers are any different. Something is being repressed. Our second brain is reacting to eating habits that are resulting from our feelings of powerlessness. We are afraid to speak our truth.

The creative work that I do to empower youth and young women using the arts is essential to sensitizing us to the need for identifying and expressing our emotions in a healthy and productive way. To find the balance between self-care and the care of others is important. Repression of emotions leads to greater feelings of discomfort and disease in our communities. We need to provide spaces where we can express ourselves and stop seeking to control the reactions of others. Something is going on with our stomachs and we need to start listening, because the body has its wisdom.


Ife Piankhi is a poet, singer and creative facilitator currently based in Kampala, Uganda. She is an active participant in the creative industry of East Africa. Her works are available at

All photos courtesy: Sunoj D.

Source: the foregarmagazine

Activism, Articles, Poetry 0 comments on Singing for the Heart Written by Ife Piankhi

Singing for the Heart Written by Ife Piankhi

Right now, with the growth of the creative industry globally and the culture of “bling” as perpetrated by mainstream artists, I think a lot of people think it’s a way to make fast money. It looks glamorous, being on stage, mingling with stars, having lots of money—which is a myth, there is always a price to be paid when signed to a major label—nice clothes, fast cars and beautiful men and women around you, but in fact it is a profession that takes a lot of commitment, practice and hard work.

I received an email the other day with a picture of an iceberg. The largest portion of an iceberg is underwater, which represented the rehearsal, and the smallest part being above the water, which is the performance that everyone sees but only represents a small percentage of what we do as vocalists.

The voice is a tool that has to be trained in order to get the best. Notable voice trainer Sam West recommends 30 minutes a day of vocal training in order to increase the capacity of the voice by building stamina through diaphragm control. Once you are a regular performer this training is essential in maintaining the voice, because it does get tired which is when strain occurs.

A lot of the singers I hear in Kampala have the potential for a great sound, but they don’t breathe properly.

Ife Piankhi<br>

When I discovered my intelligence in relation to how I learn, it turned out that I am musical, auditory and visual. In primary school I played guitar for many years but gave it up to pursue academia.


I never forgot how inspired I would become listening to different types of music and how singing in church would leave me feeling so euphoric. I would sing along to artists like Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Sade, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, The Blackbyrds, The Jones Girls, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Through listening to those artists I realized that being a good singer was about vocal quality (i.e. your unique sound), the message in your music and the quality of musicians you work with.

Vocalists also have to understand that studio recording is also a craft, developed through understanding the use of a microphone. I have watched—and performed with—some great artists, and I have come to realize that making it look effortless takes work and time.

The first step to singing is to believe you can. I sing because I love it. I started singing at home, and then in church, and then at events, but along the way it has become a livelihood which means I now have to maintain a standard of delivery, which I always honour when performing and preparing for gigs.

I remember once I went to a jam session with notable jazz guitarist Alan Weekes. I wasn’t prepared. I went up and tried to sing Weeping Willow in a different key to the original. Alan kept repeating the introduction and I just couldn’t find the key. I just stood there and ad libbed a little. I was so embarrassed.

Because of that experience, I decided to strengthen my ability to listen well. So I studied counseling and listened to different types of music and tried to break the sound into its components.

I think mistakes help one to grow and learn.

We can’t always be right. Sometimes we fail, but it is essential that we are able to reflect on it, instead of blaming someone else. It takes strength of character to admit it when one is wrong.

I realized that I needed to get to know my voice, to understand the signs of nervousness, fatigue and over-sensitivity. This is why I started to meditate. I can be sensitive to the opinions of others, and through meditation I’m able to create a little space between my feelings and my essence.

In a poem entitled Brave I have written “It’s alright baby girl, I just forget, sometimes I forget who I am”. What I mean by that, is that I am more than this body, thoughts or emotions. So when I remember my essence, I don’t take the performance so seriously—I can have fun with it. Meaning that I am free to get it right or to make mistakes. It’s liberating.

Warming up

Before I perform I visualize myself doing well. I imagine how I want it to go. Essentially, I am programming my mind. I warm up my voice a little with some deep breathing exercises, but I now know it takes two or three songs for my voice to warm up, which is when I can really express its range well.

Being an artist also involves a divine element for me, I feel that singing connects me to a higher power, which when I leave the ego aside I become a vessel for the creative. I’m not a religious person, but I realize that music like sport has a way of unifying people, which is what we need both locally and globally.

When Nneka visited Kampala last year she came with a great crew of musicians. We had a workshop where we created a collaboration song with Keko, Irene, Tshila and MC Flower. After soundchecking and hearing how they played, I sang a phrase to a riff they were playing. It became the chorus for Powerful Women. Later we went ahead and arranged it, so people also had a verse.

For me, this was the biggest confirmation of my singing and creative ability. In a very short space of time we had co created something wonderful together with a band and an artist which is globally known and respected for its content and innovation in music.

I want to be an artist who has longevity.

We all know artists who had a few hits and then disappear. As singers we have to know how to look after the voice, train it, and understand the industry—what motivates people in it. Ultimately you have to love singing, not just as a means to an end, but because it is how you express your uniqueness in the world.

Ife Piankhi writes poetry and music that advocates for the untold stories of Africa and the diaspora.

For Issue 034 Jul ’13 of, Editor Thomas Bjørnskau invited eight Ugandan artists from different art fields to write an essay about the essence of art, all responding to the same kind of question: to sing/write/paint/write plays etc — what is it really about? This is one of the essays. 

Activism, Activities, Articles, Diarie, History, Poetry, Workshop 0 comments on Watch ‘Someone Clap For Me’ – Engaging Short Film On Kampala’s Burgeoning Poetry Scene By TAMBAY A. OBENSON

Watch ‘Someone Clap For Me’ – Engaging Short Film On Kampala’s Burgeoning Poetry Scene By TAMBAY A. OBENSON

68297_10151120489741417_293269089_nA side of Uganda (specifically Kampala, the largest city and capital of Uganda) that we often don’t get to see here in the USA, and which I hope you will appreciate…

Poetry has become something of a phenomenon in Kampala in recent times, just as much as the political turmoil that tends to dominate headlines both locally, and internationally.

In the below 10-minute short film directed by the Qatari filmmaker Luciana Farah, titled Someone Clap For Me, learn about this so-called “Poetry Movement.” 

This film focuses on characters like Medals, the Born-Again Politician, from whose poem the documentary title is taken, and follows the poets’ daily lives, weekly performances and numerous interactions with live audiences throughout the city. 

It was actually made via Mira Nair’s Maisha Labs in Uganda, which we’ve told you about before. In 2004, Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!, Mississipi Masala & others) founded Maisha Film Labs – a Uganda-based film training initiative (not-so unlike the Sundance Film Festival’s filmmaker labs, or the IFP’s filmmaker labs).

The goal of the Maisha Film Labs is to give aspiring filmmakers in the East African country the tools & knowledge to tell their own stories through film, which would then help foster a self-sustaining film industry in Uganda and vicinity, that will support and represent the interests of local audiences.

I should note that the director of Someone Clap For Me, Luciana Farah, is expanding the short film into a feature, as I type this. In December, the Doha Film Institute revealed 27 projects that would receive grants, as part of its autumn funding session, and Farah’s feature was one of them.

So we’ll be watching for the feature version of the below short in the coming year or two.

In the meantime, here’s the short version: