For those who grew up in Kampala at least 50 years ago, Norman cinema – currently Watoto church (formerly Kampala Pentecostal church) – along Bombo road was a popular hangout space for entertainment lovers, especially for movies and music.
Built in the early 1950s by then famous Asian-Ugandan tycoon Norman Godinho who had come to Uganda in 1906, Norman cinema was the first large and lavish movie place in Uganda, which became a prototype for all the others which came after.
But during Uganda’s tumultuous years of the 1970s, the cinema closed indefinitely and in 1984, KPC took over the premises as a church, but kept much of its original architecture, and to a large extent, its arts importance. Every year, Watoto’s Christmas cantata is a sold-out event, hosted only at the Buganda road branch because of its setup.
Now with a history of almost 70 years, this historical building which was designed in a unique modernist and post-art deco architecture, the only one of its kind in Uganda, is on the verge of demolition by the current Watoto church management that wants to replace it with a 12-storeyed building, three-star hotel, 3,000-seater auditorium, a shopping centre and youth centre.
In October last year, Symbion Uganda Limited, on behalf of Watoto church submitted an architectural plan to KCCA proposing the demolition of this building that is among the 44 documented and listed historic buildings and sites in Kampala, and their plan does not reflect any measures aimed at preserving this historic building.
It is against this background that The Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), a local NGO that promotes the recognition of the role of culture in development of our national identity and diversity, condemns plans of demolishing this building given its historical, social and architectural significance.
According to the executive director of the foundation Emily Drani, Norman cinema was the home of the creative industry in the 60s and 70s and we therefore should not erase our history to simply replace it with shiny buildings.
“Our city is not just an eventful place; it is a place where things happen and the evidence of that are the buildings. If we are to say that we are a country that has a history and identity, let the markers of that history be retained,” she said.
She added that the building reflects how Ugandans used to spend their leisure time in the early 50s and 60s, an era that had no DVD players, computers nor mobile phones or Internet.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Simon Musasizi, the programme manager at Heritage Trust, says as KCCA is still coming up with an ordinance to strengthen the laws protecting historic buildings in the city; there are still relevant laws such as the 1995 constitution objective 25, which stresses the need to preserve any property and heritage of public interest.
There is also the Historical Monuments Act, 1967, which provides for the preservation, protection and promotion of historical monuments; and the Physical Planning Act of 2010 which emphasizes the need to preserve buildings of special architectural value or historic interest.
Section 56 of that Act states, “Subject to the Historical Monuments Act Cap 46, the Board may after consultation with the commissioner in charge of antiquities serve the owner or occupier of that building which in the opinion of the Board is of special architectural value or historic interest an order prohibiting the demolition, alteration or extension of that building.”
Musasizi also says that the lease agreement between the Kampala District Land Board (KDLB) and the Watoto church management states that the Watoto Church should not alter, modify or demolish the said building without prior consent of the KDBL.
According to the KCCA Kampala Physical Development Plan, a development plan is required for all new construction and development, earthworks for development purposes, demolition or changes to historic structures constructed prior to 1960. The Watoto church plan does not reflect any mitigation measures aimed at preserving this historic building.
WHAT THEY WANT
Emily Drani says they want the management of Watoto church to review their development plan to make sure that the integrity and authenticity of the building is retained.
“We are not against modernity; the interior of the building can be partly modified but the outside should be left intact so as to retain the main features of the building,” she said.
They also want the church to apply the relevant principles for the conservation of historical properties in the proposed redevelopment of the site including safeguarding the authenticity and the integrity of the current building and its environs.
The organization further demands that the department of Museums and Monuments urgently lists Watoto church building as one of the important historical monuments in Uganda reflecting the evolution of social life and performing arts in Uganda.
Drani also said they want the heritage tourism potential of Watoto church in particular to be developed so that the owners of the building not only see the historical value but also the economic value of it to provide income to the church.
But above all, they appeal to the management of Watoto church to not demolish the building.
“The original purpose of the building can be changed but you don’t need to demolish it. If they want to put up a storeyed building, they can do it anywhere else around Kampala,” she added.
Moses Sserugo, an arts journalist, shares his fond memories about the Norman cinema. He went to Buganda Road primary school (also built by Norman Godinho in 1933) and he says they used to use Norman cinema for the school’s music, dance and drama activities. To its credit, the school has maintained the original Norman Godinho structures and inscriptions, despite huge expansion works.
“While I was at Buganda Road primary school, Norman cinema was called The Centre and for me I have that string attachment as the building where I first got to perform on stage and it is one of the places that nurtured my interest in the arts,” he said.
The 46-year-old said that hearing about its possible demolition to give way to a swanky building is hurtful.
“Watoto church can put up a modern building elsewhere but leave the Norman building as it is because we still need to see the historical appearance of Kampala. The building should also be restored back to its original name, the Norman theatre,” Sserugo added.
Rose Mwanja Nkaale, the commissioner, Museum and Monuments at the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, told Uganda Radio Network they are engaging the church to see how to redevelop the property without destroying its cultural heritage.
Norman Cinema was built in the early 1950s by Norman Godinho, a prominent Goan who came to Uganda in 1906. He was the most famous city tycoon of the time and one of the biggest property owners in Kampala.
He is reported to have owned Speke hotel, half of Nakasero road and almost all the property on Buganda road between KPC and YMCA in Wandegeya, including Norman Godinho Junior School, now Buganda Road PS. The school remained for decades Kampala’s best in elementary education, until it was converted to a UPE school in 1996.
Godinho’s love for entertainment compelled him to employ the best architect at the time to put up an iconic building dedicated to entertainment, including the first lavish cinema in the country, complete with a gallery/balcony and folding chairs, a novelty then.
The building not only had a modern cinema, but also had space for retail shops on Bombo road and Kyaggwe road, as well as a posh bar and nightclub called Tablois which was later renamed Laquinta in the 1960s. Laquinta was even sang about by veteran singer Elly Wamala (RIP) in his single Ebinyumo Ebyaffe as one of the well-known nightclubs.
The cinema attracted people from all walks of life, but was segmented into three sections: the third class who sat nearest to the big screen, second class which sat in the middle and the first class that took the farthest seats from the screen.
The third class reportedly paid 50 cents and attracted mainly people from downtown, those who would shout and comment throughout the film. The second class was for young people mainly from high schools and universities and these paid 75 cents whereas the first class was for elite workers who could afford paying one shilling.
Many English blockbusters enjoyed great runs at the cinema, but also because Godinho was a major player in the Goan community, many Indian films were also shown.
In 1972 with the expulsion of Asians, Norman cinema, like many Asian properties, fell into the hands of one of Idi Amin’s henchmen, Hajji Edris Kasule, one of the richest Ugandans by then, whose brother Musa Kasule owned much of Wandegeya.
Kasule, however, failed to keep the cinema running after failing to procure new films, a process known for its complexity to date.
With the fall of Amin in 1979, ownership of the cinema switched hands to Francis Odida, who had been appointed the commissioner of Culture with Norman cinema added to him as a bonus by President Godfrey Binaisa as a reward for supporting his presidential bid.
Odida formed a committee to manage the cinema comprising Okot p’Bitek, the National Theatre director, Radio Uganda’s Apollo Lawoko and UTV’s Jimmy Dean. These renamed the cinema The Centre of Creative Arts but commonly known as The Centre. This alone defined their intentions that the cinema would no longer be just about films but a one-stop centre for arts.
The Centre hosted the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) delegates conference in 1980, shortly after which Apollo Milton Obote was controversially elected Uganda’s president. With this return of Obote to power, Odida got more involved in politics, gradually losing interest in the cinema.
In 1984, Odida was convinced by his close friend Jennifer Nabafu (a news anchor at UTV) and a follower of Canadian Pastor Gary Skinner of Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC) who used to hold services at Grand Imperial hotel, to sublet the cinema to him for their Saturday and Sunday services.
Later, Nabafu convinced Odida to sell The Centre altogether to Skinner, but surprisingly, Odida gave it to him for free and only told him to pay the workers their three-month arrears.
“Even Skinner could not believe I was giving it to him freely. He even tried to persuade me to sell it to him but I told him, ‘Pastor, you are the one preaching everyday, where is your faith?’” Odida told The Observer in a June 1, 2015 exclusive interview about the famous cinema.
And now this could be the final coffin in Norman cinema’s eventful life. Its vision bearer, Norman Godinho died before President Museveni extended an olive branch to the departed Asians that had property in Uganda.
His widow, according to Odida, returned and tried to start the process of reclaiming the Godinho estate, but when she suffered a bad fall during the tour of the property, she took that as a bad omen and left Uganda, vowing never to return.