It’s hard to pin Wanuri Kahiu down. With one baby who has yet to turn two, another one on the way in less than a month and a full-time job in her production company Awali Entertainment, even an hour of her time can be hard to carve out.
Luckily, with enough perseverance, you can sometimes get what you want and so here we are, one o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and in floats the woman herself, wearing a bright blue and orange print dress made of an unidentifiable African textile, held up by two large brass buttons and bright orange nail varnish to match.
Wanuri isn’t one of those people who get lost in descriptions. To the question: “What do you do?” she answers, simply: “I’m a filmmaker”. As part of her masters in Film at UCLA, Kahiu produced “Pumzi”, an award-winning science fiction short film set in a dystopic African future. Since then, Kahiu has gone on to produce another film: “From a Whisper” and more recently a television series “Statehouse”.
So at twenty days from her due date, is Wanuri kicking back and taking some well-deserved time off? “Absolutely not” she laughs, not a woman to let motherhood get in the way of doing what she loves. “I’m currently working on my second feature film,” she says, adding that she can’t tell us anything else about it. “I am also working on a documentary that will be rolled-out in schools with the organisation S.A.F.E. on identity in Kenya, finishing a documentary on Just a Band that I am producing with the Nairobi-based filmmaker Anjali Nayar and doing some commercials on the side”.
How on earth can she juggle all these things we can’t help but wonder? “When it comes to prioritising my work I would say that I spend most of my time focussing on my script” she tells us. “My producer and I set me regular deadlines to make sure I don’t fall behind. When baby number two comes along I plan to readjust my priorities. The idea is that I’ll focus my work energy on the script and then spend time with Ciku, baby number one, collaborating on a child’s book.
So does she spend alot of time reading with Ciku and how much of what they read together is made in Kenya? “Generally I feel that there are not enough Kenyan children’s books in circulation, especially not for toddlers,” says Wanuri. “Together we have read the Tinga Tinga Tales which she absolutely loves but for the rest, most of the stuff published for small children is a bit old for her. Generally most children’s books in circulation here focus on animal tales which is great but it would be nice to see a bit more variation.”
And what about Kenyan books for the older market? Is she excited about what’s out there? “Fundamentally I feel that although we have a lot of very talented writers, there are not enough genres that are being pushed. We Kenyans seem to be limited in our variety and can at times lack imagination. Ideally I would love to see more strong female characters in Kenyan stories and more fantasy and science fiction. That said, there are a lot of writers that are coming up with very interesting stuff. Lying on my table is the “Dust” by Yvonne Adhiambo Awuor. I’m loving it, although I find it hard to find the time to read it. In addition to this I am very proud that we have two Kenyan writers featuring in this year’s Caine Prize for African writing and do hope that one of them wins”.
Despite being a successful and recognised director, Wanuri explains that there are many difficulties faced by artists and writers in Kenya. Fundamentally, what it boils down to is a question of respect. She tells us that “for some reason writers, artists and musicians in this country are still not considered as having a ‘real’ job, even if we are earning enough and putting more hours into our work than anyone with an office job would.”
The job isn’t without joys however and Wanuri is happy to describe to us why she loves what she does. “The joys I get from the work I do are the ability to create new worlds” she confides. “A friend of mine once told me that his version of heaven is the one he presents in his films. I believe in creating utopia and in creating people who believe in something and are ready to fight for it. My films might seem dystopic but utopia for me is not about the world, it is about the people who populate it.”
Our sliver of time is winding up and to sum things up we enquire what else Wanuri would like us to write about her in this interview. After a moment’s thought she tells us: “I do what I do because I want to create something that I can leave behind for my children. I want to leave them something so that they can know and remember who I am. As one of my favourite playwrights Lorraine Hansberry once said: I wish to live because life has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful, and that which is love. Therefore, since I have known all of these things, I have found them to be reason enough and–I wish to live. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations and generations and generations and generations.”
This article was originally published on upnairobi.com in June 2014