From the slum to the oscars

Slum life did not stop Joseph Kimani Wairimu, 28, from achieving his dreams. Through his role in the movie Nairobi Half Life, he made history as the first Kenyan to win an award in the Durban International Film Festival. He spoke to SHIRLEY GENGA

You recently won an international award for your role in the film — Nairobi Half Life, which is currently causing a stir in the Kenyan film industry. Tell us about it…

I won the Best Actor award at the just concluded 33rd Durban International Film Festival. When I went through the film festival catalogue, I could not believe my eyes because it also had big stars like Chris Rock, Antony Hopkins, Lionel Newton and Jude Law. The festival is huge in the film world and I made history as the first Kenyan to win the award.

How does it make you feel to know that the film has been picked to represent Kenya at the Oscars — the Academy Film Awards?

It is a great feeling and an affirmation that Kenya’s film industry is growing fast. We not only have great talent and the necessary expertise, but we also have great stories that can compete internationally. The Government and other stakeholders need to support this industry by putting in place systems that support growth.

Tell us about the role that earned you the award?

I played the lead character called Mwas. He is a young dreamer from upcountry who comes to Nairobi with stars in his eyes; with dreams of being a movie star. Mwas is faced with many temptations and challenges in the big city of Nairobi. But despite all the odds, he stops at nothing to achieve his dream.

How did you hear about the Nairobi Half Life film?

I was called for auditions by the casting director Kamau wa Ndung’u. The auditions were at the Kenya National Theatre and the Heron Court Hotel. The competition was stiff.

Did you expect to get the role?

I have a lot of self-belief and I was optimistic I would get it. I kept telling myself I was the man they are looking for. Confidence and a positive attitude are important in the acting industry because as an actor, you go through so many auditions and experience a lot of rejection.

Did you think the film would be this successful?

I wasn’t surprised because it had a well-written and an appealing script. The crew was also experienced and there was an amazing teamwork during the shoots. Nairobi Half Life called things as they were and did not shy away from anything. It was a unique experience.

Do people treat you differently now that you are star?

Yes, especially those who have watched the movie. They treat me nicely and others tell me I am their hero. I feel good because it makes me realise I am making an impact.

How do you prepare for your role?

In order to get into character, the first thing I do is go through the script and do an in-depth research to further understand the character. This enables me to bring the character to life and maintain the energy and image throughout the act.

Give us a sneak peek into your childhood?

I grew up in Mathare  slums, Nairobi, and was raised by my mother Kiana Wairimu. She is strong and wonderful. I am the lastborn in a family of seven — four boys and three girls. I enjoyed my childhood and like any other child, I was very playful and my biggest dream was to be a pilot.

Which school did you go to?

I went to Kiboro Primary School and later to St Teresa High school. I did a Media Lab diploma at the Nairobits School of Design, Nairobi in 2006. In 2007, I did a certificate course at the Shang Tao Media Arts College in Nairobi. I am currently pursuing a diploma in Information Technology at the Institute of Advanced Technology. I have also done Web and Graphic Design.  

?Is Nairobi Half Life your first attempt at acting?

I began acting in primary school and in secondary, I joined drama club. One of the plays I did in high school was Cyclones in which I played the lead role of Eddy. We competed to the provincial level. I have also featured in the award winning Kibera Kid film by Hotsun Foundation and Ndoto Za Elibidi by Safe Ghetto.

You also helped to start a youth group to initiate change in Mathare. Tell us about it…

The mention of Mathare a few years ago elicited fear and people would quickly dissociate with us. They considered us outcasts. This did not auger well with my friends and I so, we decided to be the change we wanted. We formed a group called ‘Uprising Youth Group’ to tackle the vices in our neighbourhood. Our vision was to use drama to tackle crime, drug abuse, rape and prostitution among many other vices. Since then, I have done many stage and screen performances to propagate our mission.

Does your mother support your acting?

Oh yes! In fact, she was at the premier of Nairobi Half Life, which was held in October. She is my biggest fan.

Is it hard balancing school and acting?

It is very challenging, but I am managing.

Are you dating?


What qualities do you look for in a woman?

She has to be understanding, open-minded, kind, bold and God-fearing.

What do you do for fun?

I love watching movies and football. I also enjoy swimming and hanging out with friends.

What advice do you have for young people?

We are the most vulnerable group in the society and we can easily be manipulated to channel our energy into negative activities, especially during election periods. We should refuse this and focus our energies and talents on bringing a positive change to the society.

Looking back at your career so far, what are you most proud of?

I am amazed at how my talent has been instrumental in creating, enhancing and fostering positive change and affecting the lives of many, especially the youth.

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Joseph Kimani Wairimu Durban International Film Festival Nairobi Half Life