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12 Years A Slave: A Kenyan Perspective.


[dropcap]I [/dropcap]follow a peculiar method to watching movies. Admittedly, it has every sense of voyeurism, a rabid adventure about it. I tend to be indifferent to the blockbuster hype. This means that all the YouTube trailers, the television ad spots screaming “IN CINEMAS NOW!” or the latest box office rankings in my inbox are just but constituent of the collage of the information: the numerous flashing lights of the 21st Century.

Instead, I scour through obscure movie buffs and cult-culture websites seeking to join the most low-key “I-have-watched-that-too” bandwagon. Sometimes I take up recommendations from friends on which movies to watch. A confession here: the most recent mainstream movie I have watched is Olympus Has Fallen. Opening this closet further: aside from live sports, news and business channels, my favorite channel on satellite television happens to be TCM. Most of the time though, I’d rather re-watch old favorites like Machete , Borat and the like. You get a sense. Don’t you? Moreover, I admit that it comes a time when a man must change his ways or his ways bend him.

So when one of the most grounded people I know, dropped a random Facebook update status- the poem in prose at the start of this post- inspired by a movie, it got me thinking: ” Wow! What a movie review that is. I’ve got to watch 12 years a slave. !”  Nonetheless, having broken from tradition, I wasn’t too keen to give up my pre-movie watching ritual that I love to call : The priming. The priming includes: watching the YouTube movie trailer; Googling up the cast, director, movie caster, screen writer and even the business behind the movie such as the studios that made the movie. Basically, a self tailored back stage pass.

Back Stage: What I came to Know About 12 Years a Slave

From writeups about Lupita Nyong’o to tit-bits about Kenya’s nascent film indurstry: Riverwood, my digging up opened up a world rich with superlatives. Satirical at times, paradoxical at most, thoughtful always, but all the same superlatives hyping 12 years a slave with all the pomp.

Having now watched and re-watched 12 years a slave, I now appreciate that the hype is/was not all hot air. By all accounts, 12 years a slave is a sad movie. Not tear jerking sad, but unsettling, heart wrenching sad. But for all sadness of the plot, and the realization that the movie is a dramatization of events that happened in real life, there still is reason to celebrate.

Of Africa and Her Feted Children

Africa and her feted children, some story that is. Lets consider this particular tale of how unrelenting accolades made Lupita Nyong’o the newest star off Holywood’s production-line. While at it, let us also appreciate how the media frenzy around 12 years a slave aided the percolation of the subliminal messages of prior – equally well done – thought provoking productions such as 500 Years Later, to burrow into the consciousness of mainstream psyche

I tell you, such unintended spin-offs are the countenance of the beauty of life in the 21st century.

It then gets all interesting when coincidences, such as the trivial realization that the film company that made 12 years a slave, River Road Entertainment, shares a name with Kenya’s nascent answer to Nollywood in Riverwood .The name Riverwood arises from corruption of the name of a street in downtown Nairobi, River Road.

River road is traditionally home to the indigenous run shops, modern day versions of Dukawallas ran by Asians in Peri-colonial Nairobi, that stocked pretty much everything and were frequented by locals. Today, River Road is an euphemism for anything- goes-black market where you can find anything from bootleg designer perfumes to love and non-electric, 70’s style clipper barber shops.

It Takes a Village To Make a Star

Could as well be an indication of those  times more seldom than that sacred happening, when the stars over Hollywood align, allowing for the screen writer to meet the perfect partner in form of an in-sync movie director; who in turn, blood and sweat brings out the best in the actor picked by the eye, nose, tentacles and guts of the casting director.

An actor whose persona is radiantly sublime in the costume director’s pieces and whose halo illuminates yet melts into the canvas painted by the cinematographer. Little wonder then, that Lupita Nyong’o, in all her Mary- mother-esque grace, thanked all these forgotten people on receipt of her award  at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) for female actor in a supporting role playing Patsey in 12 years a slave. Hollywood gossip has it that the Kenyan born, Yale trained  is the elect Oscar award elect recipient.


Now, scratch all that. I talk of trivial coincidental moments that signal more than the above described eureka moment in Hollywood (that is customarily denoted by the phrase:” It’s a movie! “) Consider this: Somewhere about the mid 10’s of this century, Kenya’s nascent film industry was awaken from it’s deep slumber by the colonization of Kenyan living rooms by Nollywood and other West African Pidgin English riddled productions.

Kenyans being a proud people reacted to type as nations do whenever there is an a front to culture by an ‘alien’ way of life. First they huddled in their living rooms whispering among themselves, pointing and dishing out the ‘eye treatment’. Given that these Afrosinema flicks were cheaper productions that offered a viewership pulling alternative to recycled Hollywood flicks and Mexican soap operas, to the profit chasing multitude of  to the free to air television stations, the simple ‘eye’ didn’t chase the Nigerians and Ghanaians away.

Nonetheless, not to be easily put down, in a change of tact, the Kenyans were soon laughing, laughing and pointing fingers and giving the eye at the hysterical English of West Africans (most having selectively forgotten the strain that their own mother tongue placed on their articulation of the Queens language).

However, the Naija movies were still there, getting massive airplay as more free to air stations joined the bandwagon, and the screening times shifted from 11 pm and 2 am to 11 am , 2 pm and later on as early as 9 am.


Not ones to miss out on popular culture, the diabolical fm stations were soon in it. There was even a spattering of Nigerian? comical co-hosts of the sex ridden morning drive shows. And then they stopped laughing. Why? Because they were busy following the show on Tv and listening to P-square and Dbanj on their car radios. The artistic scene in Kenya, and I believe most of East Africa, was shaken to the core. The conformists chose to cooperate, churning out collaborations with nondescript Nigerian artists.

A few West African acts found their way into entertainment spots with headlining concert debuts. Visiting Nigerian/ west African brothers had their way, literally, with Nairobi women. The most prominent of these tales being that of the public spat between a Nigerian pseudo-businessman and Kenyan gold digger (for lack of a better description). By the time a superstar Kenyan gospel music star got hitched to an elderly evangelist broda, Kenya’s domestic revolution was long complete.

Riverwood’s Spurts of Life

I have labelled it the domestic revolution as during the laughing and pointing phase, a common refrain was that Nollywood films were for the fodder of the ‘house slave’ types of post-colonial, emerging middle class Kenya. The mboches: the semi-educated, paid below minimum wage housemaids. Now even the Kenyan government had read the script and had established feeble attempts at supporting the nascent Kenyan film industry. At some point, filming equipment imports were zero rated, special government bank rolled film grants were made available, free to air stations were to comply to legislation that mandated a larger quota of prime time spots be reserved for local productions etc

Hell, even semantics came into play with calls for dropping the ‘derogatory’ term ‘local’ for homegrown. The most curious neologism though was in the fashion of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, the insistence of christening the Kenyan scene Riverwood. An uninspiring choice informed by the spattering of backstreet (re)productions that range from Jay-Z Magna Carta to 12 Years a Slave, to the government banned The Wolf of Wall Street to Toyo(d)ta. spare parts to Havard- all the way to Indian Universities- certificates of graduation; that are believed to be available at the right price in the streets that border River road in downtown Nairobi, yonder to the Nairobi river.

Long List of Hollywood Greats

However, the same cannot be said of the co-producing company of 12 years a slave, River Road Entertainment who seem to have a knack for society stirring productions. Notable among their screen rolls in the Oscar winner BrokeBack Mountain .If Lupita Nyong’o isn’t up for an Oscar, then the director Steve Mcqueen is. Consider this : On the official facebook page for 500 Years Later, I once chanced upon an interesting quote that informs my convictions:

A professional director will direct any film given with ease. They will do a film about slavery–if paid, with the same ease at which they would do a film about the glory of conquest. So a film does not always mirror the politics of the filmmaker. Our films, however, are our politics.


If the above quote explains the genius of Steve Mcqeen, Lupita Nyongo’s case is more curious. The daughter of a prominent Kenyan politician, her depiction of the role when interrogated, ought be a matter of conjecture. No need to elucidate the nature of African politics here, but it does bring to question the common maxim that great actors and actresses are empowered to their exploits by drawing on their life experiences to depict, if at all powerfully, their characters.

A controversial note is the mention that a peer shared with me while we engaged on talk along these lines. An unapologetic Africanist, he is of the conviction that all African politicians, present and past, inclusive of the great Mandela, have a bearing of ‘house slaves’ about them. Harsh? Well, as the concluding line of the treatise that prologues this editor’s note quips: ” Yes, they stopped selling the black man or so we believe, but has the black man stopped himself from being bought?

12 Years a Slave : A Poem

Children were torn from their mothers arms, Husband watched as the wife of their youth was raped, Flesh was ripped from their backs with whips meant for horses, Souls were crashed, hearts made to despair… But it is not the tattoos of whips, or the cry of the mother, or the agony of the husband that made my eyes wet when I watched 12 year of slave, Seeing hope burning out like a lamp running out of oil, yet the dawn still miles away, Seeing the heart struggle to beat fighting to pump energy and life into bodies so worn out from pain and tire, Looking into their eyes and watching the basic instinct of survival fading away two centuries later I ask myself….Yes, they stopped selling the black man or so we believe, but has the black man stopped himself from being bought?Kagwira Riungu
ABOUT THE POET: I don’t think she sees herself as one, but some injustices seem to get the poet out of Kagwira Riungu Like this random Facebook Post. We pray that one day she’ll pick up the pen for good. For now we appreciate her as a scientist by nurture, and a born nature lover. She is a mother who’s actively involved in caring for the environment. I know her as an avid tree planter. By trade, a molder of young minds. A sister, friend, doting aunt, a believer in the common good.

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