Tanzania's VJs bring Hollywood to Africa
Adding context and humour to western blockbusters for the local audience, Tanzania's video jockey translators are stars in their own right
On a gridlocked Tanzanian street, a hive of market vendors are swarming around the cars, unloading boxes of electronics, hauling apple carts, pushing wheelbarrows full of wine glasses and calling out to each over. Kariakoo, Dar es Salaam's busiest street market, is also one of the points where global cinema flows into Africa; Derek Mukandala, who sells VHS cassettes from Hollywood, Bollywood and everywhere else, is a man with a surprising amount of influence on what kind of reception it gets.
He is Tanzania's first video jockey (VJ): one of the narrators who translate foreign films into Kiswahili, both for live narration over screenings in vibandavya video (public video parlours) and dubbed recordings to sell in shops. They are stars in their own right, each known for their trademark style of patter. Mukandala, 60, has been in the game since the early 1980s, and younger rivals are nipping at his heels these days. He's not too flustered, though: "Most of the people still like my films, because they think the ones that I have translated are much better than the other VJs."
VJs do more than simply describe the action – they frame the action in a context familiar to east Africans and add their own brand of humour. This is a sample of Mukandala's translation of Titanic, from the scene where Jack is invited to dinner in the first-class quarters:
(Narrating Jack's internal monologue) "On this party one is supposed to eat ugali [maize dumplings] with twenty different spoons. These are things I would never get accustomed to, stupid, useless things."
(General narration) "He thought that he would get ugali, spinach, beans and cassava, instead he was served only very small portions of food. That's how it is in a decent place like this. That was not very pleasant. He thought to himself that he would go to bed hungry today."
Mukandala or "Lufufu" – his nom de VJ (both mean a kind of belt in Kiswahili) – was a naval officer for 26 years, and now he prides himself on keeping his translation in shipshape order. Unlike some of his competitors, he always watches his films before he adds his contributions "to see who are the stars of that film, where the place is the film has been shot, what kind of message we getting from it".
Birgit Englert, an academic who's written on the VJ phenomenon, reckons that the Lufufu versions are more popular with conservative rural audiences outside Dar es Salaam, while the younger VJ brigade, led by one DJ Mark, have moved in on the capital with trendier, slang-filled commentary. Mukandala is dismissive of some of the newcomers: "Some people can talk good – but they can talk things that are not there in the film. For me it is not like that; I know what I am doing. To say lies is not good."
All of Tanzania's VJs have a common enemy, though: the law. They add their narration on top of pirated copies of foreign films; originals, at about 30,000 Tanzanian shillings (£12), are too expensive for most locals, and bootlegs cost about 1,500 TZS. The Copyright Society of Tanzania (Cosota) has been clamping down harder on the trade in recent years. The market feels like the kind of place where the rules are regularly bent: taking photographs doesn't win you friends.
Mukandala seems at a loss about how to handle the new pressures. "I don't understand what I can say to persuade the copyright commission. How can I get connections with them? How can I get connections with Hollywood to allow us to translate these films without any problems?"
It's not just his livelihood, and that of the other VJs, under threat. The whole VJing practice is a low-cost, enterprising form of private education: VJs often tour their works up-country, bringing foreign culture to audiences who couldn't afford it otherwise, as well as a type of local culture that is cherishable in its own right.
Matthias Krings at the Johannes Gutenberg University's anthropology department is another academic who has traced VJing's heritage from its modern beginnings in neighbouring Uganda (where Mukandala learned the technical aspects of his job) back to the traditions of oral storytelling.
Cosota stresses that it is just enforcing internationally binding copyright agreements that protect the works of all authors. But it also admits that it is in an impossible position: demand for Hollywood and Bollywood wares is sky-high, but, as in most of Africa, there are no official outlets because potential profits are still too low. "To take into consideration the rights of the people to enjoy a variety of works, it's important that you license someone [to sell proper copies], even for a small fee, rather than have a vacuum in the market that is filled by any means," says YustusMkinga, copyright administrator at Cosota.
He says the US embassy has advised him in the past not to bother with seizing American films. This is a pragmatic step that at least acknowledges that Tanzanians will get their fix of the latest superhero one way or another, but probably not what government officials in the developing world who are keen to establish the rule of law want to hear.
In the meantime, the country's VJing tradition is caught in the middle. "If we could find some way to translate them legally, it would be much better," says Mukandala. For that to happen, Hollywood will need to start taking Africa seriously.
• Additional reporting by Chris Michael. Thanks to Dr Matthias Krings for supplying contacts.