Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Letter from Butiama: Heroes and villains

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 23 April 2006.


There was a time in the 1970s when Kung Fu films were tremendously popular with Tanzanian audiences.

These films were poorly written scripts and were popular only for the proficiency with which leading characters eliminated their opponents in fights.

One aspect that distinguished the earlier martial arts films from recent ones is the amount of blood that the opponents of the leading character spilled each time they received a fatal blow. Bleeding is an understatement; they vomited blood.

Many Tanzanian youngsters enrolled in martial arts classes at the time. I recall doing the same under an American martial arts instructor who held a black belt; the highest level one can reach. Together with many of my teenage mates, we were looking ahead to the day when we would also have black belts in Karate like our instructor. While the enthusiasm lasted – which was not long – we endured tough training sessions combining the Karate lessons with some rigorous physical exercises.

On our own, we also experimented with weapons that we saw used by our movie heroes. One of these consisted of a pair of wooden sticks of about an inch thick and about a foot long that were connected together with a metal chain of about two feet long. In combat, one stick would be held in one hand and the other dangling stick would be rotated in rapid circular motions and would be used to strike an adversary with violent blows.

To a novice the most difficult part of using those two sticks and a chain – we called it a nunchaku although I have no idea whether the name is originally from the Japanese language or whether it was a local creation – was to ensure that the rotating stick did not hit the user. Unfortunately it did, quite often, and was extremely painful. It was made of ebony, with assistance from the Makonde sculptors at Mwenge in Dar.

A lasting impression I have of those days, apart from the fact that I still remember to count in Japanese from one to ten, is the common belief that we would not only become holders of black belts in Karate like our instructor, which was quite possible, but more important to us youngsters was the possibility that we would also acquire the skills to enable us to beat the senses out of a dozen-or-so people simultaneously and single-handedly, which was a normal dream for our age.

Martial arts were not, to us, concerned with placing emphasis on the practitioner’s philosophical and spiritual development; we were interested in developing the gut spilling and bone crunching skills we saw on film.

I believe that in every generation of teenage film enthusiasts there is a group of fictional characters that stands out as heroes. It is likely that some of these heroes leave their mark on their audience, maybe even permanently. There have been cowboy heroes and war heroes and even gangster heroes.

I recall seeing a few films in which criminals, after executing successful robberies or other criminal activities, successfully evade the long arm of the law and are depicted, at the end, living off their criminal gains at a small island nation in the West Indies.

Following last Thursday’s fatal shooting of a policeman and a bank employee in a robbery attempt in Dar-es-salaam, I am beginning to wonder whether the gangster and criminal movies that are widely-available may have bred a generation of individuals who are trying, in real life, to emulate criminal movie characters.

Only if such a scenario exists would it be possible to attempt to understand the new breed of armed robbers who seem to be equally interested in taking the money as well as the lives of individuals who seem to be standing in their way.

“It was like in the movies,” I heard someone comment of the incident. The reported response by one Corporal Mkwawa, a traffic policeman, and three other policemen who mounted a counter-attack and forced the attackers to retreat and later flee also sounded like stuff from movies.

If we can pin some blame on Hollywood and Bollywood for influencing criminal behaviour then we must also look at the other side of the coin which also replayed itself in real life: the few heroes whose actions foiled the plans of the attackers. It was not exactly Rambo, but nevertheless, a few uniformed officers who, lately, have tended to receive more criticism than praise did some courageous work.

1 comment:


Hahaha! you remind me of those days. The fighting gadget was easily known as 'cheni' (swah)derived from chain (eng).

In Musoma town there were two main training centers called ma-'dojo'

1. Master Abdallah Mkamba (Kamunyonge) where I belonged!

2. Master Selle Kumcha (Bustanini/ ziwani) who later shifted to Dar and established a successful cultural dancing and Martial art group something like 'Wu-Shu group.'