‘Country Queen’ actress Mũmbi Kaigwa reflects on her dramatic 49 years in acting

While doing a press junket for Country Queen, a Netflix-commissioned Kenyan series, actress Mũmbi Kaigwa got very emotional as she tried to explain what that moment meant for a thespian like herself who has been acting for over 40 years.

“The platform allows the world to see us. The screenwriters, the producers and actors are from Kenya; everyone is homegrown… I feel what I’m witnessing right now is almost the beginning of something I never thought I would see in my lifetime… We’re spending a lot of time as Kenyans looking for the roles, partnerships, and funding but Netflix came to us, and that is extremely satisfying,” says Mũmbi, who has worked on a lot of international productions that she says were stories “about us written by people from another continent”.

In the Netflix series, Mũmbi plays Salome, the mother of the main character Akisa (played by Melissa Kiplagat) and the two don’t see eye to eye.

She felt intimidated by the publicity that the show had generated, admitting that she wasn’t aware of what they were carrying. In her opinion, acting has for long been neglected and underfunded, particularly by the government. Therefore, this was a big moment.

“So many of the people I look up to and who have come before me should have been here for this. We’re creating history, just like our sports people, in terms of where we fit in the fabric of society. Mzee Ojwang’, Tamaa bin Tamaa, Othorong’ong’o, the people whose shoulders we’re standing on, have not been commemorated nationally. There is value in arts and culture — artists, painters and performers,” she said.

Mũmbi Kaigwa is a performer, actress, coach and voiceover artiste, and archivist on YouTube.

She was born at the Pumwani Maternity Hospital in 1962 to Mark Kaigwa (who would become Nairobi Deputy Mayor in the 1960s, before unsuccessfully trying to vie for Member of Parliament for Kasarani three times) and Perpetua Wamuyu Kaigwa.

Actress Mũmbi Kaigwa./File | Nation Media Group

Her parents had come to the city in the 1950s from Nyeri where they were farmers and were now running a general purpose store in Maringo Estate. The family would later move to Garden Estate, where Mũmbi grew up. Mr Kaigwa had bought a farm, including a cattle dip, from some white dairy farmers and would deliver milk to Garden Estate and Ridgeways.

Mũmbi was the youngest of four surviving siblings after the first two children had died when they were barely toddlers. The gap between her and her elder siblings is quite big and she started creating friends and stories in her head. The seeds of storytelling and becoming an actress or performer were sown from having to entertain herself.

“Coming up after independence, the schools I went to and the teachers who taught me, the stories I read were all white. So, I wanted to be a mzungu (white person). The people in my storytelling were white. I was in love with them, I had flowing hair. It was quite terrible,” she says as she explains that she even wrote a play about an Anglicised woman (made to adopt European characteristics and mannerisms) who then transforms into having pride in her own heritage after she discovers the other side of her city while working with people in informal settlements.

Mũmbi enrolled at Hospital Hill in Parklands, a multicultural school, where her best friend was Finnish, and she had classmates from Peru, South Africa, Nigeria and the US. Back then, it was a government school. The grades weren’t strictly on academic work but included the arts. She got into verse-speaking and participated in a Kenyan schools’ verse speaking competition that entailed learning and memorising poetry. In 1973, she starred in Oliver Twist while in Standard Six as one of the extras. The school’s headmaster also used to play his guitar during assemblies.

Artistic uncle

Her uncle was a member of the famous University of Nairobi Free Travelling Theatre. Kenya was a haven for refugees from Malawi, South Africa and Uganda. He had asked her mother if she could play a girl in Wole Soyinka’s The Strong Breed, which they were working on, and she agreed.

Following rehearsals, the play was recorded at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and aired on Voice of Kenya (now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) and that’s how she was introduced to the world of theatre producers and creators Seth Adagala and Greg Adambo at the age of 10. Seth was the first African director of the Kenya National Theatre.

Her mother pulled her from Kenya High School, where they memorably performed Okot p’Bitek’s piece Oasis, after two terms and put her in Limuru Girls High School because she wanted her to be a boarder.

In Form Two, she joined the drama club, which would meet after class and on the weekends. In 1977, Mũmbi (Form Three) and her friend Betty Hinga (Form Four) adopted Wole Soyinka’s poem The Telephone Conversation into a play and won the inter-house competition.

In Form Four, their French teacher Kimaru Gicheri, wrote Man of God for entry into the Kenya Drama Festivals. Mũmbi played Sospeter Karui, man of God, whose wife cheats on him and he goes mad.

Actress Mũmbi Kaigwa./Pool

“Now that I think about it, that was a pretty deep subject: infidelity, drunkenness, mental health. We went all the way to the nationals and I won the best actress title in the national competition in 1978. We went to State House and had some white bread with Fanta. It marks you as elite; they gave me a cup but took it back, saying they were going to engrave it and I never saw it again since I didn’t go back after my exams,” she says.

At the time, she never considered acting as a job, even as she saw her favourite actors like Sidney Poitier on the screen.

The local shows like Vitimbi, Kivunja Mbavu and even others in English didn’t seem to have an avenue for her.

It felt like culture was “a bit over there” from her. Besides, her father wanted her to be a dentist after her siblings had chosen different paths from what he thought were the ideal careers. She picked Alliance Girls, and biology and chemistry as her electives for her A-levels, but she unfortunately failed the subjects and missed out on the school.

While waiting to join high school, she got a role in the cast of a play titled The Floods, organised by John Ruganda, which then went to Yugoslavia (which broke up in the early 1990s into Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia) and performed in four different cities at an international theatre festival.

Mũmbi’s mother went in search of a school for her and found Highland Girls School, currently Moi Girls High School, Eldoret. Everyone in Form Five and Six had come from different schools.

“Whereas we had been raised to speak up for ourselves throughout, at Highland we weren’t even to speak back after we had been spoken to, lest you get punished. It was a culture shock for me. But they had a wonderful drama programme and we did a play called Medicine for Love. That side of the school was wonderful,” she says.

She and some of her classmates got expelled for standing up for a teacher they felt had been wrongly accused. She sat her A-Level exams at Kenya High School since she had already paid for it. While waiting for her results, her mother enrolled her into Kianda College to do a secretarial course.

Mũmbi then went on to pursue a degree in French and Arabic at the University of Nairobi.

“Career advice is so important because I was good at languages. But that wasn’t structured for use in business and money-making. During the holidays, I would type stuff for people to have my own money to do stuff for myself,” says Mũmbi, who joined the travelling theatre as a student of the university.

She was in a play written by South Africans, a Cameroonian play by Ferdinand Oyonomba titled Three Suitors, One Husband and lots of other African theatre.

Reduced entry fees

After graduating, Mũmbi worked at the Canadian High Commission and French Service. Then she was asked to type up a report at a UN workshop. The person who had hired her asked her to interview for a position as his secretary to stand in for someone who was going on maternity leave. She worked at the water and sanitation department.

In 1986, she went to work for the stocks commodities section at Reuters as the secretary of the marketing manager, where they sold machines that allowed people to trade in pork, sugar and coffee. She went back to the UN two years later, in health and nutrition.

Here, she met Janet Young, a Gambian, who cast her in other African productions. James Falkland saw one of their productions and asked them to perform it at Phoenix Theatre. Falkland cast her in classical European plays by playwrights like Ipsun and Shakespeare, giving her an education in how to play in different forms of theatre. They would be paid Sh150 a night in 1989 when she was in the cast of For Coloured Girls, her first play and she still didn’t consider this a job.

“Funny enough, when we did the play again to celebrate my 40 years in theatre at Phoenix, the tickets that cost Sh900 in 1989, now only sold for Sh500 in 2013 because the theatre argued that no one would show up if they were any higher. When we did it later at Michael Joseph Centre, we charged Sh1,500.”

In 1995, Mũmbi got a role in her first “outside of theatre” role when she was cast to appear in a few episodes of popular Australian show, Neighbours.

World Vision is huge in Australia as a fundraiser and in Africa as a donor. They wanted to tell their story to get support from people who wanted to donate to their programmer outside of Australia. In real life, they had an essay writing competition in high schools where the winner would get to visit a World Vision project somewhere in the world. They wrote this into the script of Neighbours.

In the episodes, Brett is having a difficult time with his family while going through puberty. His teacher, Susan Kennedy has been a stay-at-home mum who is just getting back to work and has had issues with her husband due to that transition. The essay competition is being held at their school and Brett wins. He has to come to Kenya, chaperoned by Susan, where they are guided by Racheal (Mũmbi) who is a Maasai girl rescued from the jaws of female genital mutilation (FGM) who now works in the World Vision office.

“There’s a scene where we go to a proper manyatta because Racheal’s mother is suffering from malaria. The woman playing my mother was actually agitated and was saying in Maa that they should get the cameras out of her eyes because she had been told the shoot was only going to take a short while. But of course there were retakes with different camera angles,” says Mũmbi.

She loved that Neighbours depicted Africans as substantive characters. Usually, from her experience, white writers wrote Africans as just background to a scene. But this made you ask questions of what Racheal would have become had she not been rescued from FGM and where she is now (after the episodes). Her brother in the show was played by Kapaito ole Seleka.

“This was all new. I didn’t know we would be shooting a scene 16 times because in VoK, they just planted a camera and we shot in the widest, master shot they could get,” she says, adding that the experience was “delicious” as she was paid Sh160,000 to appear in 10 episodes. But she still didn’t view acting as a job. That became her benchmark for work she would be involved in.

“People get treated really badly in this industry. They work horrible hours for the least amount of pay. And it’s always the actors who get told ‘we don’t have a budget’, while the camera looking you in the face is a Red, the most expensive camera out there,” she says, adding that she’s declined many offers to be in different productions.

She had done a lot of European theatre at Phoenix and wanted to create her own work.

Quitting as a UN employee

After 10 years in the UN, with hopes of earning a promotion increasing, Mũmbi quit in 1999. She played lead in Dami Yambo Odote’s unreleased film Forgotten for 10 weeks and realised this was what she wanted to do. She was 36.

A man from Kisii running a volunteer-driven rehabilitation centre had come to ask for funding for their programme while she worked at the UN but his project was “too small for them” to support. This had hurt her. She rewrote a play about a raving alcoholic who’s a pastor’s wife to have a Kenyan angle. She’s out of control and even steals communion wine to satisfy her urge. She raised money for the project. She also got to see what a well-written play should look like.

“That’s when I realised I could use theatre for social activism,” says Mũmbi.

In 2004, she was cast in Fernando Meirelles’  Constant Gardener. Lenny Juma who was with local production unit Blue Line told her to audition for the role. Fernando directed three scenes where Mũmbi played an activist who goes to the UN and speaks up on pharmaceutical companies making generic medicine available to counter the expensive medicine in the markets.

During an artistes’ exchange at the French Cultural Centre (now Alliance Française), someone asked her how she could leave her “top job” at the UN. This led her to write her first play, which questions: “What would you do if you could do anything else?” She interviewed people, recording them, transcribed their words and performed them over a week.

“People would come to me over the next few months telling me they left their jobs. It told me that you can’t have a voice and use it lightly,” she says.

Country Queen also set another benchmark for her; it shows what can happen if people put money into productions. Although when they started shooting in 2019 she felt that not many people knew what they were doing, Vincent was an excellent director who knew how to coax a performance out of the actors; being an actor himself.

“Kikamba has been made beautiful and internationalised, even if we don’t speak it well. I’ve been in productions where I was told we can’t speak in Swahili because ‘we want it to be international’ and people won’t understand. Someone (messaged) me and said we actually prioritised Kenyans with this,” she says.

Getting noticed

Mũmbi has been an associate member of the League of Professional Theatre Women since 2006. In 2004, after attending Women Playwrights International, a triennial conference, the league got in touch with her and invited her and Ugandan Deborah Simwe on board.

It is based in New York and though the post is not an elective one, they are asked to vote when the league is giving out awards and also receives different material on theatre from them.

Mũmbi feels it’s important to be in spaces where one will get noticed, adding that if Country Queen had been shown on national TV, then they wouldn’t be getting the kind of feedback they are currently receiving.

“I’m just saying, when Lupita Nyong’o goes to America and you hear the name, you say ‘I want to see what my people are doing’. We consume so much foreign material but it’s so wonderful to have a name that you can pronounce and see yourself out there,” she says.

Mũmbi is in the middle of writing her biography, that’s why the memories are fresh in her mind. She embraces the fact that she is getting to learn Swahili and Sheng now. She is creating a herbal garden of indigenous herbs and trees at her half-acre land that was once part of her father’s eight-acre farm which is now a gated community. She also does some oil paintings when she wants to relax.

Her daughter Mo Pearson is a musician, formerly with Yellow Light Machine. She had to do the reverse with her, advising her that even though she doesn’t object to her being a musician, she has to have a fall-back for the times when shows won’t be coming her way. Mo does sports therapy now, but they are reconstructing the band.

Mũmbi hopes artistes will be given more than just monetary recognition but space in people’s hearts; space to perform and not being considered that they are doing this just because they have nothing else to do or they failed at something.

“That truth-telling, speaking truth to power, is at the core of everyone. But not everybody can tap into that. The artist does. When you see an artist being fearless, you feel seen,” she says.

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