Simiyu Barasa is not only a celebrated contemporary director and trail blazing indie, he is also a culture/identity activist. An analysis of his work reveal an advocate of creative approach on the discourse of the Kenyan identity and self-appreciation.
One can therefore only imagine how long this perpetual issue of Nollywood-idolization boiled in his heart before he spat it out and the whole acting fraternity made a lurch. He did not mince his words on his Facebook post. Discussion was still on going by the time I left to think deeply about it.
Below is a copy of his admonition.
F Simiyu Barasa: Something is terribly wrong. A Nigerian actor has journalists chasing after them from the minute they land at JKIA while ours remain ignored. It is not right when our home stars have to beg for coverage while some not so impressive foreigner is over hyped. So bad is this that local actors themselves fawn over them. Taking selfies to social- media-prove to us that they too are big. You can’t be big if your self-worth is measured by another’s presence. Have some self-confidence and dignity. Taking selfies with a star doesn’t mean you are one, we know the suffering you go through here. Grow some dignity get your local game sorted and aim international so that when Naija actors land in Nairobi they are the ones ASKING to take selfies with you. Right, our media neglects you. But learn from Vera Sidika about branding and visibility. She is a masters level study on hard work to market her brand, whether you like her work or not. And yes, she is probably the only Kenyan who lands in Murtallah Mohammed airport and Lagos media runs to cover her. The few actors who get to media are few and far between, in fact last I saw was Nyasuguta on citizen nipashe. Apana! This country too has actors that can be covered every week. Personally the rare selfies I post are 95% Kenyan actors kenyan artistes coz tuji support more. like Kalamashaka said in ‘punchlines Kibao’ doggy za mtaa ingine hazieji kuja kojoa hapa…’ lazima pia sisi tuwafunge mabao tumeji-armie na ma punchlines kibao…(*Hounds from a different neighbourhood are not invited to take a pis in our hood . We too must score goals…we are armed with punchlines.) ... this is the country that gave us Maumau. Where did this independent, self-love, dignified spirit dwindle?
It is a common assumption that Kenyan media rarely considers its own talents worthy of celebrity status. Artists complain that one rarely gets coverage until he has either made news or won an award abroad. So much so that serious artists even include touring abroad as strategy to make news back home. This plan may work but most of the time it doesn’t.
I remember a while back when we were invited as a theatre group to represent Africa in a huge festival in India. We asked TV stations to cover this story. Only one station replied. There was a catch though. For them to cover our story we had to pay air tickets for their journalists and pay for their food and accommodation in India. Keep in mind that this was going to be the first time boarding a plane for most of the cast members. In India we were instant celebrities. Our stage play was on prime time news, in all newspapers and by the time we were leaving, our faces were familiar in the Indian streets. Back in Kenya and we were nobodies, shoving through over- loaded matatus.
This experience gave me a tough lesson early in my career: For an actor, curtains will always fall, no matter how long your time on stage is.
Yet the question still remains. Who is responsible for our recognition and appreciation? The media as a business only sells what they believe will be bought. I however believe that Kenyan media has to play a larger role as this is an egg and chiken situation: We can’t be famous if people don’t watch enough of us on teli and people don’t want to watch us because we are not famous… yet again Nollywood was introduced to our people less than five years ago by the same media and quality was not an issue. We deserve the same opportunity.
Having said that, I believe actors must begin by appreciating themselves first. We must remember the now retired actors that once ruled the screens long before current stars like Jalang’o and Lydia Gitachu.
I will never forget one rainy morning, I saw an old man sitting at the back of a pick-up truck, his grey kangol hat shielding his soft head from the drizzle. A few people on the street cheered him. The tired man immediately wore a smile and waved back. I soon realized it was ‘Mzee Ojwang’. Many questions about this incident ran through my- mind including whether the driver was kind enough to give him a lift or mean to let our dad…one of the greatest Kenyan comedians ever – sit at the back of a pick – up truck in rainy weather.
The nucleus of the problem as Simiyu has pointed out is not the media or the people but we. During An Actor Develops Studio –forum that we facilitated a few weeks ago, I promoted the discussion on being called a celebrity. Most actors, I realized, still felt that being a celebrity is equal to being a famous spoilt brat. This is not necessarily true. As an actor you are an artist, entertainer as well as a leader. Many People will love and celebrate your work hence make you a celebrity and a role model. Quit the false humility and give a thank you back to your fans with humble dignity.
I say this because the problem of admiring other people more than ourselves begin by us not appreciating ourselves enough. We do not fight for each other enough and –to be honest- we only have each other’s back during funerals or medical needs. This is fine but we can do so much more. You can talk about your friend’s show until everyone in your timeline considers him/her a star. He or she ought to reciprocate. How about attending Kenyan cinema and theatre? Do not let quality be an excuse, I’d rather you go watch and afterwards complain to the producers, directors and cast. If they are wise they will accept your feedback and improve.
History has proven that victory is rarely given. You must demand what you believe in and what is rightfully yours. It seems clear to me that Kenyan actors have approached the gate of honor, recognition, financial freedom and appreciation. But alas it is locked! So you either bang hard until its open, knock it down if they refuse to answer or walk back and let the next generation start all over again.