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The making of Kampala’s female film vee-jay

Maria Namuyanja in her VJ Kyle Productions studio, she loves watching and narrating films. The passion has since become her daytime job. Photo by Alex Esagala.

Daring. Translating films is said to have become popular in Kampala in the 1980s. Then, a video jockey would be in the crowd moving from the back to the front, telling people what the film was about. The craft later grew to dubbing on VHS tapes and later DVD, but through all the stages, a VJ or vee-jay has constantly been male, Promise Twinamukye talks to Maria Namuyanja, the woman from Kawempe taking on men in the field.

With the internet connecting Uganda to the rest of the world, many things have changed. For instance, where many waited for a TV station to broadcast a soap that would later become their best, today, people have a lot of pirated films and series they are hooked onto.

With many not so comfortable with reading, listening or speaking English or all those languages foreign content is made in, the veejay’s over the top commentary comes in handy.

With the comic relief veejays such as Mark, Jingo, Junior or Ice P bring to the table, they have become audience drivers that most vernacular TVs have had to seek their services to win eye balls.

But most of these are men and they drive the narrative according to their understanding.
Video Jokey, VJ or vee-jay as known to many is a craft that is believed to have started in Kampala slums in the 1980s.

According to Prince Joe Nakibinge, a local film producer who was once a vee-jay, his knowledge of the art was a man that used to talk over films they were watching telling them what the plot was.
Today, they are the most sought after films among video library vendors. A translated film in many of these places goes for an extra buck than one that is not or clear copy as they call it.

A vendor in one of the shops says that on a day, they will sell about 500 translated films and less than 20 that are not translated.
Maria Namuyanja, alias VJ Kyle, thought of becoming a vee-jay after watching a film she says was interpreted wrongly for the fun of it.

With parental guidance, a child can watch a recommended film. Yet, even when it is fit by its age classification, the language used by those interpreting the film could throw you off. For instance, terms coined to refer to different people may not be the best to use in public, yet the following day you will hear children using them.

And that’s where Namuyanja comes into the conversation, not to simply interpret a film but make it safe for the all audiences.
For instance, she will not directly translate dialogues where a character is swearing but will instead say something funny.

“I can either sing, make an advert, talk about me or make it funny in a way the children would not understand what exactly is going on.”

Starting out, Namuyanja says she knew it was a field dominated by men, but wanted to show the women that with resilience and determination, there is nothing they cannot do.

The idea
Before 2014, Namuyanja had not given becoming a veejay much thought. “At first, it was just a thought, a stupid thought.”
With less people backing her, it was going to take time to make it a reality.

“As I watched translated movies, I thought to myself, I can do this too. One day I asked my elder sister what she thought about me being a Veejay,” she says, adding that her sister laughed saying she can’t but later added; “Okay maybe you can try.”

When she met Alex, her best friend later that evening, little did she know the stupid idea was about to sprout. She casually brought the idea up in a conversation.
“That’s how everything started. He became more serious than I actually was and within a short time, things started falling into place.” she says.

Namuyanja met Alex’s other friends and after giving them an acapella trial she thought was rubbish, she was shocked that they appreciated it. That motivation alone got her mentally started.

“When Maria says she wants to do something, she clearly knows she can do it. When she came to me with that idea, I could clearly see she was joking, though her reason was stern and valid.” Alex says, adding that what convinced him she could do it was the way she talked about films she had watched.

“By telling you about a movie she watched you did not need to watch it.”
He says that as a friend, he had to push her, that he was never surprised when his friends gave her thumbs up after listening to her translate, “She has always been a daring person, going for things thought impossible to do,” he says

Namuyanja’s parents knew little about the whole veejay thing so they could not advise much. But when her films started playing on Top TV, they were thrilled and rendered their support all the way.
“I remember my dad saying: “I’m proud of you my daughter” nothing drove me like that statement,” she says.

Being a veejay
She later learnt, the job was more than sitting and interpreting movies but practice was needed. She started from a studio in Luzira, owned by one DJ Mande. “That’s when I started making my first copies with my then producer Ivan Kateregga.”

In search of professional help, Namuyanja approached veejay Emmy in 2015. She says he shaped her career; in two months, she felt she had got enough skilling to start on her own.

“Recording in another person’s studio was tough since I found myself in a long queue of men that were all there to record. These being films, everyone goes in for more than an hour, “I realised that if I have my own studio, things would be easier.”

But that was just the beginning, she had a market to face. Daily, hundreds of translated films are sold downtown. But many of these are films by veejays that have stayed around longer and have a following.

When a veejay is little known, libraries will barely buy their copies that at times they will be forced to give them out for free. After a veejay becomes a hit with the audience, they will start asking for their films and that’s when libraries will be willing to look for you and eventually pay.

Veejays are powerful in the Ugandan film business because they are infectious and addictive, some people will not watch a film not translated by a particular veejay, while others will buy a film because it was translated by so and so.

Translating a film
True magic according to Namuyanja starts when one likes the film they are about to translate.
“I may buy 10 movies and end up translating one,” she says adding, “I need to have the best for my customers. If I do not like the movie, how can I be sure the other person will like it? So, when I have liked a certain movie, I re-watch it till I feel I understand it completely.”

It is at the time of re-watching that she writes much of the content to use when the actual recording starts.
“I can watch the movie up to three times, researching what I do not understand so that by the time I record, I have the right information,” she says.

But that’s just one of the ways of doing it today. Earlier on, veejays would do translations with a live audience, today, this is usually done by those that own halls. The live recordings are usually promoted as special shows thus don’t happen regularly.

“I got to go to translate live at veejay Emmy’s hall in Lugala. There’s a big screen, you sit with the equipment and do your thing with the audience watching.”
On this kind of stage, one cannot afford to make mistakes, it is your reputation at stake and the stage can either break or make you. Luckily, the audience liked her.

Making the dream
In 2015, Namuyanja started fixing a studio at her home in Luzira where she lived at the time, she called it VJ Kyle’s Production. This made producing her own DVDs so easy and swift. She would work on up to three films a day without having to wait. “I enjoyed translating Two mothers, a Korean series.” This became her breakthrough and lucky for her, people came back for more episodes, that is when some started following her other works.

To seize the moment, she opened her own library, here she sold both films she has translated and those by other translators. She did this to ensure she made solid gains from her passion.
“Most times, when you translate a film and sell it to one library, they will duplicate it and sell to other libraries then by the time you seek them, they already have your work even without paying for it,” she said.

The rough ride
Not many people were thrilled though by a female veejay, instead, she was actually shunned by many- including the female audience.
“One time I was in my library and some people who did not know what I looked like started talking about me. I felt terrible at how they described my struggle, my voice and my dare,” she says.

Much as 2016 was her peak, it also became her lowest. Towards the end of 2016, she was robbed and all her equipment was taken. This shook her, tempting her to leave Uganda for a while.
“When I was robbed, there were many other things I was dealing with that when I got an opportunity to travel, I could not resist it. I had to get away for a while to keep my sanity.”

Keeping a legacy
“When I came back last year, I thought another female would have replaced me. To my astonishment, I found none.” she says.
Namuyanja made a resolution to open shop again. But before that, she has a studio to replace, something she’s still working on.
I wouldn’t want this to die. I want what I have right now to grow for more women to indulge in such. When I see more females doing this kind of thing well, I will take that as my cue to leave.

About Kyle
Name: Maria Namuyanja
Parents: Mr Hannington Kyambadde, Grace Kyambadde
Last born of 11 children, 5 girls, 6 boys
Last education level: Kajjansi Progressive, A-Level
Best movie: Mr and Mrs Smith, though she never translated it
Topnotch movie she translated: Two mothers, a Korean series.
Future goal: To see more females becoming veejays. Have concerts just like in the music industry where one veejay translates one part of a movie and the other another part and so on. Have collaborations with different veejays on a movie or Series.
Benefits from the field: I get more confident by the day, I have got more and more friends, I might be someone a person will look at and be inspired.
About Kyle: She made her stage name from two of her closest people. KY for Kyambadde, her dad and LE from the name Alex her best friend.

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