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Wanuri Kahiu's quest to tell new African stories

Arts and Culture
 Filmmaker and producer Wanuri Kahiu. (Felix Kavii/Standard)

Wanuri Kahiu’s name comes up every time we talk about renowned filmmakers, producers and directors who hail from Kenya. She is internationally recognised and celebrated and with good reason.

“Wanuri’s first feature film From A Whisper, based on the real events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania won Best Narrative Feature in 2010 at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, as well as five awards at the African Movie Academy Award, including Best Director and Best Screenplay,” her biography, off her official website, reads in part.

The 43-year-old talks passionately about another one of her award-winning works, Rafiki, in an interactive session on Design Indaba.

Her poised confidence shines through as she gives the talk about how her art came to be and she looks artistic too. She is channelling her African roots in braids, a detailed kitenge-style dress, her sneakers dressing down the look, allowing her to pace up and down the stage as she animatedly explains her artistic process.

Her speech would be considered alarming, or unusual in Kenya because she is defending the fact that her Rafiki story was about two women falling in love.

In a country where homosexuality is outlawed, the film was heavily criticized and largely unwelcome by regulators- but well recognized and appreciated internationally.

“They wanted me to change the ending, to make it more remorseful. To make it less hopeful. That if I did so, they would give me an 18 rating. When I said that I would not change the film, they banned it,” Wanuri says.

When she speaks a year later at the World Economic Forum, the renowned filmmaker holds that, “We need a new image for Africa.”

“Africa is full of meek stories about desperation and despair. So when artists like myself offer an alternate vision, we are often asked to defend our imagination. Why do we feel we have the luxury to create? Shouldn’t we be dealing with more important issues like corruption or war, AIDS or poverty?” Wanuri poses.

She adds: “I think it’s because most people like to think of Africa as only the sum of its problems.  And the problem with this is that it’s created a single story, that has created only one perspective of Africa, which we have allowed to tell about ourselves. If the only stories about us are desperate and hopeless and lost, then how can we for ourselves imagine anything better than that?”

The filmmaker is on a quest to tell new stories about Africa and change misconceptions that have painted an unclear picture for hundreds of years.

From jokes and comments deeply entrenched in movies, films and even cartoons, the story has been the same- despair, poverty and struggle, and African storytellers have been fighting to change the outdated narrative.

Forbes Africa addresses this issue in a 2022 article, which notes that African storytellers are re-telling that story and the continent reclaiming its own.

“For centuries, the West has understood that to control the narrative was to control history, and to control history was to shape perception. It also learned that if storytelling could sell ideologies, it could also peddle goods and services. We live in the age of story. Every brand, every political manifesto, is built on a narrative architecture. Now Africa is reclaiming its own stories, and harnessing generations of storytelling craft to reconfigure how it is represented and perceived.”

Sylvia Arthur, the founder of the Library of Africa and the African Diaspora “a decolonised research library, archive, writing residency and research institute” based in Accra, Ghana, tells Forbes Africa that “African stories have rarely been told by Africans themselves and have been limited in their scope, primarily to serve a political purpose.”

Arthur adds: “The performance and experience of storytelling is key in African modes. It’s about moving the reader or the listener to feel as well as think, to act and not just be passive. It is communal, participatory, interactive, and engaging – a way to mobilise…The single-story narrative will continue to plague African storytelling in the Western context. The simple solution is to own more publishing houses, film and music production companies, and online platforms.”

As she pushes to change the narrative on Africa, Wanuri continues to live and pursue her passion, as she has done since she was 16 years old.

She tells Artists At Risk Connection (ARC) in an interview: “I think there are more instances of joy than remorse in Africa. If we don’t see more images of ourselves as hopeful, joyful people, we won’t work towards it.”

The report by ARC notes how the filmmaker has gone on to create Afrobubblegum, a platform featuring a collective of African artistes and creatives working toward a “new vision of Africa” that centres on joy, hope, and love. 

On Wanuri’s website, Afrobubblegum is described as “a media company that supports, creates and commissions fun, fierce and frivolous African art.”

Her biography lists more awards that she has bagged, including those from her short science fiction film Pumzi, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win best short film at the Cannes Independent Film Festival and the silver at Carthage Film Festival (Tunisia). Pumzi also earned Wanuri the ‘Citta di Venezia 2010’ award in Venice, Italy.

She opened up about her journey in an exclusive 2018 interview with The Sunday Standard, where she revealed that she is, besides a filmmaker, a wife and mother.

“It took seven years to make Rafiki because we had to raise funds for the film besides caring for my loving husband and our two children - five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter,” she said at the time, with the writer describing that her face lights up as she talks about her family.

The report notes that the ban on Rafiki did not stop the success that followed it, as it went on to feature at the 73rd Cannes Film Festival in France, becoming the first Kenyan film to receive that honour.

She and her cast received a standing ovation from the assembled award-winning filmmakers at the fete, a sign of the support she garnered internationally for her thought-provoking films and productions.

“Walking the red carpet as the first Kenyan woman in history to do so is no small feat. This was not just our achievement but also for Kenya as a nation. People saw talent from young Kenyan women and filmmakers,” she says of the accolade.

Later, she would give a TED Talk, breaking down her Afrobubblegum venture further, and speaking about her journey in writing science fiction.

“It’s vital and important art, but it can’t be the only art that comes out of the continent,” she says about crucial issues that Africans face.

“We have to tell more stories that are vibrant. The danger of the single story is still being realised. Maybe it’s because of the funding, a lot of art is still dependent on developmental aid. So art becomes a tool for agenda.”

She adds: “Or maybe it’s because we have only seen one image of ourselves for so long that that’s all we know how to create. Whatever the reason, we need a new way, and Afrobubblegum is one approach. It’s the advocacy of art for art’s sake. It’s the advocacy of art that is not policy driven, or agenda-driven, or based on education - just for the sake of imagination.”

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