The red dirt road through Wakaliga is slick and wet with morning rain, staining the shoes and socks of travelers the color of dried blood. Commuters tiptoe carefully around the slippery streets, but Racheal Nattembo dashes fearlessly through them. The determined young girl is late for kung fu practice and has no time to fret about cleanliness.
She stops in front of Nateete Mixed Academy, a rundown school at the heart of the slum in the Ugandan capital. She fumbles with her shoelaces before entering the compound where five of her classmates are already practicing. The 8-year-old joins her peers in formation, practicing their moves.
“I like kung fu to act in movies,” Racheal tells me, wiping the rain away from her face. “It is fun—the best part is kicking.” She aims a swift kick at her invisible opponent and ducks in anticipation of a retaliatory blow.
Racheal Nattembo (centre) leads her peers through a kung fu routine in the school yard of Nateete Mixed Academy in Wakaliga, Kampala. The promising young martial artist played “Liz” in “This Crazy World,” a 2014 action flick by Ramon Film Productions. Photo: Elizabeth McSheffrey
I’ve been invited to watch the practice by Charles Bukenya, a kung fu master with more than 10 years of experience, who has trained the children since 2013. But the objective of their training isn’t to master self-defense, I quickly learn—it’s to tap into the soaring popularity of martial arts movies in Uganda.
Over the last 10 years, the local film industry, also known as “Ugawood,” has grown exponentially with increased access to technology and international distribution via the Internet. There are more than a dozen active films companies in Uganda today, nearly all of which were founded between 2000 and 2014. It is now estimated that Ugawood produces roughly 30 films per year, and while the movies span across all genres, action and martial arts rate among the most popular.
“If you see Western movies, it’s full of action which is dominating now here in Africa,” says Isaac Nabwana, founder of Ramon Film Production in Wakaliga. “Martial arts are rising and everyone now is trying to do what I’m doing because they see I’m doing something that is unique and is loved.”
The next generation of the film industry in Africa
Though the first official Ugawood movie was released in 2005, Isaac’s 2010 film called Who Killed Captain Alex? is widely credited as the country’s first action feature. His latest kung fu film, This Crazy World stars Rachael and her classmates in their big screen debut and went straight to DVD in 2014 under the local title, AniMulalu, or Crazy People. The movie features the young Wakaliga martial artists and their daring escape from child sacrifice rituals.
“I played Liz,” says Racheal excitedly, aiming a punch at a crumbling fence. “She was fighting to go back where she was living.” Isaac believes these children are not only the future face of the country’s film industry, but also evidence of a rising martial arts mania that is sweeping the city streets of Kampala.
Since 2006, the director has made more than 10 films, but none have sold better than This Crazy World. He attributes the movie’s success not only to its junior actors, but to its overarching kung fu theme. “I think this is going to be the next generation of the film industry in Africa at large,” he says.
Film director Isaac Nabwana shows off one of his latest movie posters starring the kung fu children of Wakaliga. He calls them the “Wakastarz” of “Wakaliwood,” a brand he created through his company, Ramon Film Production. Photo: Elizabeth McSheffrey
When a new Ugawood movie is released in Kampala, it goes straight to DVD and is sold door-to-door until a movie theatre or cinema hall, picks it up for a public showing. Since 2005, the industry has pumped out a number of well-known local martial arts actors including Kizza Ssejjemba, Dauda Bisaso, and the children’s trainer, Charles Bukenya.
“They will be good actors and actresses because they love what they are doing,” says Charles, inspecting the children’s movements for errors in technique. “I think they knew nothing about Kung Fu and now they are good, they are trying.” The trainer is one of Uganda’s first martial arts movie stars, having acted in both Who Killed Captain Alex? in 2010 and The Return of Uncle Benon in 2011.
Martial arts are not new to Africa; Nubian wrestling, which is depicted in ancient Egyptian art as early as 2300 B.C., is believed to be a predecessor to Greco-Roman wrestling. And Zulu stick fighting appears in written history nearly four millennia later as warfare training for Northern Nguni men in 19th-century Southern Africa.