Uganda's veejays translate, add spin to Western films
Christian Science Monitor
Apr. 15, 2006
KAMPALA, Uganda - If there is one thing Jingo Tabula has learned in two decades
of bringing Hollywood into the slums and villages of Uganda, it's that every
story has a moral.
The message of Pretty Woman, for instance, is that no condition is permanent.
First Blood says Tabula, shows that even a soldier is accountable. And at the
end of Crocodile Dundee, he always gets a laugh by reciting a familiar Ugandan
proverb: "Nothing cuts like a crocodile's tooth at lunchtime."
"I've found that one can learn a lot about the world through a screen," says
Tabula, who is Uganda's premier video jockey. In recent years, so-called veejays,
who translate copies of Western movies into local languages, have become so
popular that a handful have become local celebrities.
"Veejaying" is now a central form of local entertainment. But the art involves
much more than translation. Part sports announcer, part street preacher, part
comedian, a veejay must fill in cultural gaps and keep the audience engaged,
which, for many veejays, often means taking considerable creative license.
The video jockey is an offshoot of the distinctly home-grown phenomenon of the
video hall. Makeshift shacks commonly made of plywood and tin sheeting, they
function as the main form of cinema for the Ugandan masses, most of whom cannot
afford theater tickets or rentals of pirated DVDs.
Video halls mushroomed around the country in the mid-1980s, when a measure of
relative peace and prosperity made copies of foreign movies more accessible. But
since most of their patrons did not speak English well, owners brought in
translators, who usually sat near the TV set, ideally with a microphone.
Well-known names include VJ Ron, who is known for his intricate translations of
detective thrillers, and the Love Doctor, who specializes in romantic dramas and
Jingo, as his public knows him, is most noted for his cheeky renditions of
American action films in Luganda, the local tongue. Hand grenades might become
passion fruits in a Jingo translation; characters played by Arnold
Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis evoke proverbs about crocodiles and chickens.
"He is not the most precise, but he is certainly the most colorful," says Lee
Ellickson, the American co-director of the Amakula Film Festival, an annual
event in Kampala.
Ellickson says the organizers had tried to include video jockeys in the festival
from the beginning, as they are such an integral part of moviegoing in Uganda.
The festival features a "Veejay slam," in which some of the country's best-known
video jockeys display different styles and compete for the best audience
This year, Jingo will teach a workshop on technique for aspiring veejays. He is,
after all, one of a handful of video jockeys who have managed to parlay this
relatively new street form into financial success, in the mode of hip-hop
artists in the United States.
Although the art of veejaying has not yet a emerged as a rags-to-riches path, it
holds allure for a growing number of impoverished Ugandans who dream of making
it big by tapping into their creative and entrepreneurial sides rather than
spending their days driving a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) or selling vegetables.
After dropping out of school because he couldn't pay his tuition, Jingo began
translating movies as the phenomenon took off. Robocop and The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly were among the early translations that made him famous.
Video halls proliferated in Uganda in the '80s and '90s, and today they are a
thriving local industry. According to the Union of Video Owners and Operators, a
trade group in Kampala, there are some 600 video halls in greater Kampala and
With better technology, video jockeys have become increasingly sophisticated,
dubbing their translations onto tapes and discs that they then offer for rent or
In particular, the advent of the DVD, which made dubbing easier, has fueled
their success. Jingo runs two "libraries," storefront kiosks, of his
translations. Each DVD costs 3,000 Uganda shillings (about $1.60) to rent and
10,000 shillings (about $5.50) to buy. He now has six employees.
Neighboring countries are getting caught up in the trend, prompting Jingo to
begin mixing Swahili into some of his Luganda translations. That has earned him
an audience from as far away as Rwanda and the Congo. Jingo estimates that he
has translated about 3,000 movies during his career.
But, like an actor whose first love is the stage, Jingo still veejays live most
evenings at a video hall in his home village of Kajjansi, a trading center about
15 miles south of Kampala.
At 8:30 on a recent Tuesday evening, anticipation is thick as people crowd onto
wooden benches in the dark, airless hall.
The film is The Escapist, an obscure 2001 thriller starring Jonny Lee Miller.
Tickets cost 200 Uganda shillings (about a dime). Jingo is seated at the front
before a pile of stereo components, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and clutching a
The opening credits begin to roll, and Jingo shouts the familiar refrain of the
veejay: "Tugende maso!" ("Let's go forward!")
Some church groups and other conservative outfits here complain that the video
halls and veejays are polluting the minds of Africans with the sex and violence
of Western mass culture.
Jingo, for his part, defends the morality of Hollywood movies. "It's true that
many American films start with violence," he says. "But in 99 percent of them,
in the end, the police always come."