12; it is a number with a lot of meaning. It was the number of Jesus’ disciples; it was the number of the tribes of Israel. For Mumbi Maina, it is the number of years she has been in the acting industry and surprisingly, her number of followers on Instagram (as of publishing this interview).
It seems like a long time and well it has been but she has carved her niche not just on the national stage but internationally. When I call her for this interview she gives off a vibe. She cuts across an aura of ‘you can ask me anything and I will definitely try and answer you‘ but at the same time, you can tell she has limits. She is bubbly and lively and chuckles when explaining things to me. She did this in the wide-ranging conversation that we had on the film industry, her 12-year journey in the field and her reflections thus far.
Your debut movie was Unseen Unsung Unforgotten. It was in 2008 and a lot of discussions were going on about HIV/AIDS. Do you think the film industry in Kenya plays a critical role in communicating what health experts cannot or say it in a way younger people are able to understand?
Of course, I think it is important. I think another reason it is critical to use entertainment as an avenue to the youth is because it’s more relatable as people relate more with the character or characters and are able to put themselves in those shoes.
I’m asking you this because there are so many films that have come out trying to make sense of the Kenyan health sector; 18 Hours, Shuga… Do you think they have made an impact?
Yes, I mean look at the reach for starters. I mean what you are trying to do is to draw people in. Everyone is trying to do that whether you are rallying behind a course or not. The reason you would do content about HIV is to draw in the youth and help them learn. In that case, your content is making an impact. You are attracting people who do not ordinarily seem concerned to talk about these things and entertainment is a big part in keeping them informed.
You have been in the industry for 12 years playing different characters. Which one stood out for you and which one would you say closely reflects you?
I cannot say one character stood out for me. I feel I have an attachment or soft spot for each one of them and they have been different from each other. Acting is something that is quite an intimate experience for everyone. We as actors get to explore different sides of ourselves that on a normal day we would not be allowed to or not conditioned to or what you would say “out of character.” Every role I have played has an aspect about me or something I lack or probably something I would go to jail for (laughs). I have gotten to experience myself through different characters.
I’ll pick one randomly; let us start with Jojo from Kati Kati:
(Pause) I think I learned the power of freedom and living life without experiencing consequences. It was a very small role I can only say what I felt in the environment of people living because of the choices they have made on earth and they are free but then they are not. So I guess freedom?
And Nandi? (from NTV’s Mali soap)
Oh my Lord (laughs)! I think what I learned from Nandi is that being insecure can make you react with fear constantly. Everything she did she meant well but it stemmed from fear and the fear is what made her insecure and do things without really thinking them through. She would just run off and do something and think later, ‘God, what just happened?’ I learned what fear and insecurity can do to someone from the character Nandi.
I know people might get mad if I do not ask this but, Zakia? (from Sense 8)
Zakia for me was one of the most powerful characters I did. I learned so many things; accepting people as they are, sexual empowerment and taking power in being African fully and authentically without any drama about it and anyone putting biases on me.
Still on Zakia, I would describe her as a firm and really open and strong-minded character. She faces a lot of challenges; she is bad-mouthed by her colleagues as well. So I was wondering if you were to have a conversation with her on workplace slander, what would you tell her?
I think she really handled it okay and her opinion is not conditioned by the opinion of others and I think she made it clear with Capheus at the bus stop and she says the people speaking about her are very small-minded I feel like Zakia is someone who is very whole and one with herself and really knows herself I feel I would tell her just keep doing you boo.
What are 4 words you would use to describe being an actor in Kenya?
4 words, gosh that’s such a short description; I would say exciting (pause)… I would add resilience, patience and passion. It is difficult to describe a job in four words but I think it is different for everyone.
A lot of people I talk to and do interviews with talk about being resilient and patient in the Kenyan scene. Do you think it takes longer to become an established brand compared to other countries in Africa?
Not necessarily because I really believe in the more you perfect your craft the more you get recognized. That is where I get patience and resilience from. I do not think I would be one to say that the Kenyan scene is slow or faster, it depends on your talent and how much practice you put into it until you get recognized. I believe everyone’s timing is different. When I started I got lead roles from the beginning of my career and it is not something I expected for myself, it is just different for everyone and how committed you are to it.
*We claim no copyright to images. Photography courtesy of rightful owners and Mumbi Maina*