In the beginning there was Rambo. My two brothers sat in a makeshift movie theatre in Rukungiri, eyes ablaze with gunfire jumping off a 15-inch TV screen. They returned home with mock guns and practiced fighting stances in the name of Rambo the indestructible, the tragic hero, reincarnated as Rocky.
Tutandika Butandisi; we’re just beginning now!
The first movie I vividly remember watching was Independence Day. Will Smith towered over my 9-year-old body to shield me from the aliens. But I slept knowing they were waiting for me, lurking outside my window, pretending to be tree branches.
This was before I learned how to operate films, using them as portals to travel to other worlds, trusting the hero to bring me back safely. This worked best with action films. Jumping weightless from tree to rooftop and taking down entire armies. I believed I could survive poison, torture, and violent beatings. I learned how far to turn the other cheek before unleashing my vengeance.
Later, I preferred to watch movies alone and uninterrupted. It was a ritual to separate one week from another. One weekend I lovingly prepared a personal film night. The lights from my computer screen played off the walls, light and dark. I huddled in my blankets as the music rose to usher in V for Vendetta. The drums fell solemn in my darkened hostel room. Suddenly, distortion broke into the narration. “TUGENDA KUTANDIKA SAWA ENO, GWE! YES? OK! (We’re going to start right now!)” It was VJ Jingo translating the film into Luganda. His voice was wired in at a higher volume, interrupting the flow and straining the speakers. It shattered the dialogue and the shards got lodged in my spine.
VJ Jingo´s voice stood between me and that other world. He kept me from becoming V and surviving 10 rounds of bullets. He kept me from being Evey and surviving the torture chambers. This was my abrupt introduction to bibanda; movies dubbed in Luganda.
Tugenda mu maaso; we are going forward…
“Shah! I can´t die in my own movie,” says Stephen. He is the newest intern in the office; still learning to write according to his supervisor’s fluctuating fancy. Every time she reads his work and tears it apart, he just goes back to rewrite it. “I can´t let her get to me,” Stephen says, “I am the star of this movie.” And armed with the belief that he can’t fail, he comes back with a stronger piece.
Star taffa-the star doesn’t (never) die – is printed on the back of the minibus in front of me as I ride a boda-boda on my way to work. Star taffa is how the tabloids describe the latest incorrigible corporate thief on the front page, half-admiring his corrupt actions. Well, he got away with it. “Star taffa,” says my friend, when someone tries to get the best of him and fails.
I wonder how this phrase was born from the same mouth that dubbed over my favourite dialogue: VJ Jingo experiencing an epiphany as he recorded over a karate flick in his studio? Perhaps when he switched off the sound of the film, something inside him switched on – star taffa – a deep connection to the protagonist, a short prayer for everlasting life, a cocky phrase to entertain the viewers. “Star Taffa!” the voice says over the movie as the hero emerges from a fire and everyone erupts in cheers.
Video jockeys are the guardians that open the portal. The English dialogue is now background noise competing for airtime. In the audience we are watching two films. I listen for the chopped bits of English and everyone else follows the Luganda laid on top. I laugh at the one-liner, everyone else laughs at the VJs commentary. I imagine him recording, pressing the button that cuts the sound to the film; depositing his voice on top.
The kibanda (cinema hall) in Kamwokya has the recommended number of fire exits, perhaps by accident. There is a back entrance and two doors in front, one on each side. Every light source is blocked. White benches fill the room with creaking stiffness and the back half of the room is elevated. An American flag sputters over one window. A sign above it reads no smoking. No taking pictures either, they tell me. There are couples here who don´t want to be seen. It is three hundred shillings per show, all action as delivered by VJ Jingo; tripled when he translates live.
All praise Jason Statham, who was, is and always will be. Who was born of Guy Ritchie, cockney accents, and inventive methods of torture. Jason Statham whose head was shaved in accordance with the script. Whose name is synonymous with assassin. He escapes on boats, in cars, and from the arms of loving women. All hail Statham the transporter, the expendable, the mechanic.
The cinema halls are a refuge in more ways than one. People who have no shelter find it under iron sheets, in the voice breaking from the speakers, and behind the curtains that separate one reality from another. In more than one hall, I find men sleeping on the benches.
In Bwaise, there is a Muslim neighbourhood where all the carpenters are gathered on one block. It seems every area of Kampala specialises in a trade. This is where furniture is made. Sawdust falls through the air like year round snow. The ground is a rich, wet black that sucks in the dust as it lands. I sidestep handsaws in action to get to Londo, a cinema hall named for its owner. The hall is littered with working men on their lunch break. More will come after work. Many of them are shirtless in the heat. The only women I see come to take orders or deliver food from the canteens. Children sit transfixed in the glow of the TV screen, suspended for the first time in disbelief. Viewers sit out the heat that breaks through the roof and walls to collapse on their shoulders.
VJs translate the language, settings, and characters. Every hero Sylvester Stallone plays is Rambo. Every male Asian hero was Bruce Lee, until they became Jackie Chan or Jet Li. They are not driving from San Francisco to L.A., but from Kampala to Jinja. Films no longer belong to the directors, producers, or actors. They are born from the mouth and mind of VJs Jingo, Emmy, Junior, Sammy and other vessels of verbal kung fu. VJs speak over thousands of pirated films. They are the death of the film industry. They make film accessible to millions of people. They are the birth of a new film industry.
Die in Part One and come back stronger in Part Two.
Star taffa is Neo resurrected in The Matrix. It is Kizza Besigye[i] standing for every election, losing every time, and coming back for the next election. It is Bebe Cool[ii] surviving a bombing at Kyadondo Rugby grounds[iii]. Star Taffa is the Daily Monitor[iv] opening back up after the government shut it down, along with any delusions of press freedom. Star taffa is John Akii-Bua[v] reincarnated as Kiprotich[vi].It is the twitter profile of one hundred Ugandans and a song by Qwela band[vii].
Star taffa is also how men excuse their persistent advances on women who don’t want them. It is the ablution performed over the heads of corrupt politicians and business men; over the heads of hypocritical clergymen and their faithless followers. It is the perpetuation of capitalism, of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and every other agonizing system heroes sidestep in favour of super villains. Because it’s easier to kill one person.
It is the self doubt of reality shrinking in the shadow of fiction. It is realising you will never measure up to fantasy. It is the reinforcement of every bad decision you make in the hope of a happy ending.
Star taffa is not the story of Africa rising, changing, or developing. It is not the watermark of resilience on Ugandan skin. It is not a manifesto for change. It is not profound. Star taffa is pop culture sizzling on Facebook. It is catch phrases, vigorous dance moves, and drinking until daylight breaks or you break. It is optimism to the point of foolishness. Star taffa is braggadocious, positive thinking, and prosperity gospel. Star taffa is gospel truth until it isn’t.
We believe in Bruce Willis, Bruce Lee and Bruce Wayne, who toe the line between reality and fiction. Who deliver hard lines, hard punches, and hard vengeance. Who will die hard and be resurrected in Part Two. We believe in their muscles straining at their T-shirts. That they shall die a comic-book death, only to be resurrected in the third act. That their new releases will have no end.
[i] Member of the opposition party FDC (Forum for Democratic Change
[ii] One of the most popular Ugandan musicians
[iii] It became widely known that Bebe Cool left the grounds shortly before the bombings in 2010
[iv] The second most popular daily newspaper in Uganda
[v] Olympic gold medal winner for Uganda in the 1972 Munich Olympics
[vi] Olympic gold medal winner for Uganda in the 2012 London Olympics
[vii] Popular Ugandan band that performed a song titled Star Taffa
Gloria Kiconco is a poet and arts journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. She contributes regularly to START, a journal of the arts based in Kampala and her personal essays have appeared in the The Forager Magazine and Doppiozero’s Why Africa? Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper and Lawino. She performs regularly at Poetry-in-session in Kampala. You can find more of her writing on her blog, rhymesbythereams.