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February 18, 2019

Kenya's Systems Should Support Creative Minds

I hugely enjoyed reading ‘Uganda’s Tarantino’, a feature on the BBC website. A friend had pointed it out to me after reading the reprint in the Business Daily.

I might actually not have read it had he not first shown me the trailer for ‘Who Killed Captain Alex?’, made by ‘Ramon Productions – it was so joyfully ludicrous, with its very basic computer-generated explosions, other animations and kung-fu fighting, that I really wanted to know more. If you see that kind of wholehearted embrace of batshit craziness, you check it out. I wasn’t the only one thinking this.

The article also narrates how Alan Hofmanis, then a programme director for the Lake Placid Film Festival, saw the clip and decided to go to Uganda and track down its creator, Isaac Nabwana. He found him in Kampala’s Wakaliga slum. By the time Hofmanis arrived (and he’s still there, having moved properly after several visits), Nabwana had made around 40 action movies for a budget of around $200 per movie.

Aside from a general appreciation for batshit craziness and commitment to it, what drew me to his story were two things: the undoubted creativity in what he does and that he is not just an artist but a businessman too.

If you want to shoot a whole action movie with $200, then you do need to be very creative. Nabwana taught himself computer editing (makes for easier explosions) and guns are, for example, made out of wood. And did you know that you can create a snake woman with spray paint and fishnet stockings? Now you do.

This is the business model: actors and crew are volunteers, but then get to keep half of the profits from the DVD sales. Sales, you should know, are not a cushy formal distribution gig.

These guys sell them at around $1 from door to door. It has to happen quickly too, as there are pirated copies around a week after the release of the movie. Nabwana and Hofmanis will now have slightly bigger things to blow up, through a Kickstarter campaign, initially asking for $160, they were able to raise $13,000.

From this (lame pun alert) explosion of creativity over in Uganda to a lukewarm commitment to creativity on this side of the border. I recently spent a bit of time with my friends at StoryMoja, the publishing company and organisers of the annual StoryMoja Litfest.

StoryMoja has a great range of children’s books from local authors, both in English and in Kiswahili and the company has been working on getting their books approved by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development so that teachers can recommend them to parents for purchase.

This is not as easy as it seems. I don’t think that anybody expects a government institution such as the KICD to be overly adventurous, but it may be leaning a little (by which I mean ‘massively’) on the conservative side. StoryMoja had to redo the cover of one of their books, ‘Baby Star’, about a helpful little star, to remove the face and pants from the main character. Why? Because stars don’t have faces and pants, didn’t you know? Now you do.

There are also two cover versions of ‘Little Thithinda and the Wind Game’ because, you may have guessed, trees don’t have faces either.

I hope that Nabwana and associates will find some ways (maybe digital sales?) to make some more cash from their movies. The hustle is real. And I do wonder: Do you end up with crazily creative people like Nabwana if you tell your young and impressionable offspring that trees and stars don’t have faces? Or pants?

PS: Speaking of Litfest ‑ quick reminder to the good people from the corporate world: If you’re tired of receiving text-speak emails from your employees and semi literate job applications from university graduates, consider sponsoring the Litfest or StoryMoja’s amazing Start A Library initiative. Unless you get kids to read, those emails and applications won’t get any better, I can promise you that.


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