Paper with following text, describing film within: Reel 1-7 of 7 Reels. Tea production in Uganda, Robert Serumaga. The Overseas Film and Television Centre LTD. 1-9 Hills Place London W.1

Photo by Kalundi Serumaga.

Overseen: memories of the search for a thing that maybe never was

Kalundi Serumaga

(Un)burial Ceremonies

A shooting star rarely gets seen by two people at once because by the time one tries to show it to a companion, it has gone. That’s why it is called “Kibonoomu” in the language of the Baganda, people in Uganda, of whom I am one. It literally means, “seen by one.” 

“What you witness alone kills your ability to recount it.” — a Luganda proverb

I once saw a vast collection of films about the Baganda featured within an archive of African state broadcasts in the early 1990s. I may be the only Muganda, and possibly Ugandan, to have seen it all. Nothing about any of this was normal. It all began with a man’s second funeral in 1993, I watched his remains being exhumed from a bleak Nairobi cemetery and accompanied them on the flight back to Uganda where eventually, the man was reinterred at the feet of his own father. 

His first funeral had been held in exile by his then comrades still standing, in 1980, in a public cemetery where noncitizens were accorded eleven years before it could be given to another dead noncitizen. Taking the remains of an assassinated leader of armed resistance home while the country was still being ruled by the very government he had been fighting, was clearly not an option then. But six years and two other wars later, a new government was in power. And the pressure to beat the stranger cemetery deadline saw political pressure mount. 

He came from that generation of what I call “The Shocked”—the ones for whom the hopes that came with Uganda’s independence in 1962 were dashed just four years later with the advent of a “modernist” regime that, like many on the continent, saw indigenous self-determination as a diversion from building a modern nation. A Ugandan filmmaker—whose raw cuts ended up in that unexpected collection—became a leading proponent of a type of experimental African theatre before transforming into a leader of an armed resistance movement. He was then assassinated. Whatever others may say about this, the Nairobi hospital in which he spent his final days was well known to Western intelligence agencies. The connection is completely plausible.

Buganda is located at one source of the Nile. This location made her the focus of the original colonial conquest.  Like some of her neighbors, the kingdom of Buganda, now locked into the wider Uganda colony, found itself still existing through and after the colonial experiment. The modernist African nationalism sweeping the continent in the 1960s was never going to accept this.

Just as Ghana’s Nkrumah had been hostile to the indigenous Ashanti kingdoms, and Nyerere had outright banned ethnic identity, language and institutions in Tanzania, and Kenneth Kaunda had abolished the Barotse Kingdom’s autonomy within Zambia, and Siad Barre banned Somali clan membership; their Uganda counterpart Milton Obote matched their “Pan-Africanist” fervor here and militarily crushed Buganda, then banned everyone else.

His second funeral marked the end of my life in exile, which had begun at fourteen years old in 1977, and drew me into this vast collection of films in my thirties as part of my homecoming. There is nothing exceptional about these sequence of events, they are emblematic of what generations of Baganda experienced. The man was my father. 

Preservation Predicaments 

In line with custom, I was now able to have a more equal relationship with former friends and colleagues of my late father, one of whom had been a long time radio and TV producer at the state (and then only) broadcaster. I told him of my interest in archives. He took me to a colleague at the state television headquarters.

“You won’t find any here,” the colleague said. “Most of the material accumulated in the first Obote government was destroyed by the Amin people when they came in, and when Amin went, and Obote came back, his people destroyed the Amin stuff.”

He then casually wondered if the old film processing center they used to use in London was still existent, and what leftovers they may have kept after processing.

This is how I came to find the collection when I returned to London to begin a long process of winding my affairs of a life lived mainly in exile: a whole floor of properly labeled and shelved chemical film and magnetic audiotape in a quiet office building in west central London. This was The Overseas Film and Television Centre (OFTVC). The films had more or less been forgotten there. They contained images, and accompanying soundtracks, from virtually every African country that had at one point been part of Britain’s African empire. This had been the output of a state-controlled media. First by the colonial authorities, and then later by their various (almost inevitably) newly minted post-independence autocratic regimes. So it had become a de facto archive, in all but name and arrangement.

I found the Center being managed by a most helpful and good-natured gentleman called Anthony Muscat, who had simply ended up as the last remaining member of staff. At that time, he was thinking about life after retirement. But he was trapped by this history. Morally, he felt that he could not sell the company off, because it and the films were not his. He could not send them back because the putative owners (the African state broadcasters) seemed uninterested. They had certainly shown no interest from the time they started using video. Furthermore (and as a result) the actual skillset and equipment for the storage, handling and use of chemical based film was no longer available in those countries. 

He could not trade them in because the main consumers of historical material—documentary film producers and the broadcasters that often commissioned them—used videotape too, and so needed material that had already been transferred to videotape. This meant that for OFTVC to become a working archive it would have to invest in the technology to make such conversions (which was still quite expensive and not entirely satisfactory in its results) and there were faster archives for the Western media, selling a one-time use right for just a few minutes of footage for hundreds of pounds. Therefore, this potentially lucrative way out was not immediately practical.

This left the Center in a state of limbo.


Ugandans have a long history of being organized by our enemies. The very existence of the British-created Ugandan state is testament. At independence, nearly every major political party voiced an imperialist interest, a factor that holds true even today. It begins with education, wherein the local representatives of the two main Western European churches—that moreover, actively participated in the colonial conquest—hold the vast bulk of the schools intake in the country.

Our actual history is a secret held from us. We take the resultant confusion, prejudice, and cynicism as valuable knowledge, and remain secretly anxious about our authentic pasts. This is what had inspired me, after a decade as a political organizer, to become a storyteller, researching our cultures, our pasts and telling the other side of the colonial conquest. 

I was already grounded in the means to do this. I had been a researcher, even doing intelligence gathering for my then party (if you wish to know how to tap and record a telephone landline, I am your man). I became a certified video based filmmaker after having spent my early teens immersed in the immersive avant-garde theater developed and directed by my father.  

It was his work, extending the logic of art to politics, that had contributed to us ending up in exile as a family, and to lead eventually to his assassination there. In fact, my first experience with film was when I was roped in as a small child to act in a speaking part for a television advert that he directed (but was never aired).

A West African saying asks: why spend so much effort trying to see what is behind your ear, when all along what you are looking for is right under your nose?

I had spent close to a decade in Britain by this time, imagining that what I needed was located far away in Uganda, when all along, it was in the same city as me. I enrolled as a film and video student at a small college, to prepare myself for this work, and my eventual full return home. And in that time, I came to know the Center very well. 

I tried to save the collection for Africans. This is the story about how I failed, why it matters, and what I do to manage all the images in my head that only I have ever seen in one place. This is a story about how these memories have been run after, over three decades as they migrated across four phases of moving-image technology in as many decades.

Over Time

A central theme of my course was asking the question of “if and how the technology of moving images”—as it then was—“could be liberated from the then financial and technological tyranny of the big studios and broadcasters and the corporations and/or states that controlled them?” Many independent practitioners shared experiences. The first challenge then was production, and the second was distribution.

Optimization and efficiency have driven the capacity to store images in infinitely less space, where they are altered using less equipment than ever before and as a result, time has been telescoped.

Wider distribution networks, along with greater access to editing tools and production knowledge, could have gone a long way in remedying historically structured production inequality. Instead the effect has been for greater emphasis to be placed on using up the recovered time, space, and skills deficit in an exploration of extraneous opportunities in neo-European special effects and camerawork. The great irony now is that we have moved from a situation of limited technical means to tell all the stories we have, to one of a plethora of available technical means but far fewer stories to now tell. This is because there has been no parallel development of access to records in the intervening period. Records are the well from which storytellers draw their raw material.

Film thrives on the archive, but our practice does not draw on our cultural history as it ought to, in contrast to film cultures in other parts of the world that naturally draw on theirs. Memory is important as a building block of identity. So it has to be preserved. But memory is not neutral. There is probably no such thing as a neutral image, because all images are a choice, but the archive can help keep memory honest. So, despite its creation largely within the confines of the colonially created spaces, which includes the postcolonial, the collection was potentially extremely useful: there were interstices that were a lot broader than we might initially imagine them to have been. Stories could be recovered from there.

Such limitations declined through the migration over analogue magnetic videotape (1970s) and then a precursory, or anticipatory, foray into computer-controlled analogue video editing (1980s) before migrating fully to native digital video (early 2000s), first as a digital signal recorded onto magnetic tape, before leaving tape altogether. It is actually the fully digital, post-tape format—let’s call it Solid-State (SSD: basically flash drive technology made more capacious)—that offers the full possibility of exponential exploration and techno-creative growth.

Most film is a series of still images played back at twenty-five images a second because this is the optimum speed at which the eye will trick the brain into merging them into movement, because the brain retains any image for a few moments longer than the eye has seen it. 

Early film left us independents out because of how expensive it was to produce and store as well as how much time and skill it required. Reel film is measured in feet. One hundred feet of 16mm film will run for barely three minutes when played at twenty-five frames per second. It also came with a bulkiness of equipment, necessitating large crews, more transport facilities, bigger storage facilities, and greater physical strength and able-bodiedness. In the mid-1990s, a can of 100 ft film would cost about £50. That was expensive then, and would be expensive now.

Until the invention of the camcorder, videotape was nearly as bulky. Critical differences were that video recording combined sound and image to one storage point, unlike with professional film, where the sound recording was separate. Also, with the shift to storing images as a convertible electromagnetic signal pattern, we finally had instant playback.

But tape lacked the relative permanence of film; the signal faded over time and each time it was copied. This in turn fueled two decades of a format arms race, whereby corporations jockeyed for their particular type of videotape to become the industry standard. Production houses allocated resources away from skills development, content research, and original production, and towards strictly keeping the most up-to-date format possible. 

Computers were originally brought in in a bid to get around “the fade problem” by systematizing the editing process and presumably making it quicker and more accurate. This would all be swept away once tapes were made to hold a digital magnetic signal, and then replaced altogether with digital drives. We supposedly do not need anything now: just a cloud and a device. But now that everyone can shoot and many can edit, and the Internet also means that everyone can broadcast, who is doing the storing?

Over-seen: Pitfalls of the digital universe

This brings us back, in a new way, to the challenge the OFTVC came to represent: where does all the material posted on television, social media go, when it is not on-air? Who is looking after it? How much of it will be replayable, say, twenty years from now, if some historian wished to see it?

Any African seriously concerned with historical knowledge will know this question. It is the story of the fragmented, pay- and visa-walled, miscaptioned, diffuse and white-curated records of their last 200 to 2000 years.

The historian Cheikh Anta Diop told the story of a class he was part of at the beginning of his studies in Egyptology. There was just him, and a white European lady working on deciphering hieroglyphics. Each student was required to take a turn demonstrating their latest interpretation on the blackboard. Diop recounted how his classmate, as soon as the lecturer had seen and noted her each letter, would immediately erase in a bid to not to let him see the whole sentence.

Over here, over there

You can either not exist, or exist only in the way others want you to, or exist as you want to.

The first condition is called genocide. The second is colonialism. The third is the struggle for self-determination. It’s all in the mind at first. The mind builds its decision from the memories it holds on behalf of its owner and records—including the question of who gets to make, keep and display them—in turn becomes a critical part of that.

Muscat and the Center were being defeated because the technology had not yet caught up with their trove of material, and by time it did, a whole new ecosystem of storage left the images still out of our reach. They were at once too far ahead and too far behind.

I began by making the collection part of my course research. I documented the entire Uganda section of the collection into an archive-friendly format. Muscat was most obliging. He and I were usually the only two persons in the space for days on end. 

My idea was to create a vehicle that could secure the entire collection intact while making it an accessible resource especially for Africans, but in such a way that Muscat’s concerns about the viability of his retirement were also addressed. Seeing as neither of us had any financial resources, we needed to first find other kinds of support. 

I invented an organization and gave it the name Africa Documentary Film Trust. I then developed a small brief, and used it to communicate to the offices of British public figures that may have some connection to Uganda.

I then sought to raise money. We recognized that perhaps an organization with charity status would be the best idea in the long term. But these take a while to set up given their legal requirements. Given the pressure Muscat said he was facing, not least from the landlord wishing to know if the lease was to be renewed, and on what new fiscal terms; we agreed that this could take too long to set up, let alone attract funds.

I collected letter support to the “Trust” from a few public figures, and then tried to find a lender willing to lend us money against the collection as collateral.

The long and the short of it was that none of this worked.


The Center eventually closed. I had reported my efforts back to Tony Muscat, and then after my course, I left London for Uganda for good. 

In the ensuing rather difficult years as a freelance documentary filmmaker, much of the time I cursed not being able to bring what I had seen with my own eyes, to whatever it was I was working on. The industry then was at the mercy of donor funding, and therefore donor themes. The documentary practice that emerged made little or no reference to the past. And where it did, there was very little archive material to back it up.

In my subsequent four years as Director of the Uganda National Cultural Center, I did try again to trace the collection. By then it was reportedly partially or wholly in the custody of three separate UK institutes. Nobody seemed to know for sure.

But now, over the last three or so years, with the ongoing digitization of everything into the cloud, I have begun to recognize snippets from my logging some thirty years before popping up on social media. A good visual editor (and I was a particularly talented one in analogue) can recognize a clip of footage almost instantly, no matter how long it has been since they saw it last.

Finally, I have come face-to-face with my fears: that if the collection did not become simply scattered and lost, then there would be a land grab by some big corporation, making it pay- and visa-walled for good; and that bad white historians would become the primary gatekeepers.

Of the bits and pieces, often mute, that keep on popping up on East African timelines, the most avid suppliers are two white gentlemen: one called Derek Peterson, and focused largely on Kenyan footage with occasional forays into (western) Uganda. The other, one Jonathon Earle, has established himself as a “Uganda expert” at one British university and specializes on Uganda, but with a very great emphasis on Buganda.

In general terms, their output generously shares whatever they find. And it is not confined to the former OFTVC records. However, their work suffers from first a sort of Social Darwinist perspective; that Western intellectual legacy in which the colonial experience was present as in neutral or even beneficial terms. This arose from the appropriation of Darwin’s theories of evolution, which were then applied to the human experience to suggest that certain humans (the Western colonizers) were more advanced than others (those they colonized). 

A second problem with their work is “topic nomadism” in which events, epochs, personalities and places are brought up in an eclectic manner.  I believe this to be due to desire to be “the expert” on all aspects of the history, and also a resistance to the reality and implications of a coherent African-oriented narrative of the same items. The result is a very uneven visual and book output.

Nevertheless, it enabled me to trace the origins of the footage. There now seem to be either a divided collection, or one shared by the UK School of Oriental and African Studies, and The Associated Press who seem to have bought the collection outright. But what did they get, the whole thing? What happened to the actual reels of film after digitization: were they sent back, or somewhere else, or are they stored with the current owner? Were the more fragile and brittle lengths of film among them also preserved? What about the separate soundtrack? Why, when an uncredited still from one of my father’s films appeared on Twitter, was the image (originally shot on 16mm film and then blown up to 35mm in print, and shot with a panoramic lens) squeezed into a box and discolored?

I. Don’t. Know.

When I had watched that film in particular, which he narrated, it was the first time I was hearing his voice in about fifteen years.  This was the one film Tony Muscat could not let me have, as it belonged to neither of us. And there simply were no means to copy it to video.

As Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes sang, I had it in my hand, and then I lost it.

I am still involved in archiving projects: creating and moving aural and paper records first, on to a digital platform. 

When I am done with that, maybe I shall return to this.

But until then, I am still “seeing” alone.

Kalundi Serumaga is a Uganda-based native activist who uses journalism, theatre, moving images, politics and prose towards amplifying African voices in global human affairs.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 20, "policy: seductions and silences". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.