Wakio Mzenge: I always wanted to be a performer
Actress Wakio Mzenge is a mother and home-maker first. Then, she is a Christian.
When she received confirmation that we were on our way to our interview at her Kajiado County home, she got everything in order, and in true generous ‘African mum’ fashion, slaughtered a celebratory kienyeji chicken for her guests.
The 37-year-old actress wears a bright smile that gives off an approachable aura, but when she speaks, that warm side is replaced with a more serious, professional one.
“There are two things I am loud about. Being a mother and being a Christian. I have always known, from an early age, that I definitely wanted to be a mother, and my faith is a big part of my life,” she says.
She adds that being a mother is a humbling role in which “one must be reduced to the level of a child” in order to raise young ones in a patient and understanding manner.
Mzenge has three children aged 10, eight and five.
Other than being a devout Christian, partner and doting parent, Mzenge is a busy woman.
Art, she says, is a never-ending job. “I am always working. I am working when I am filming for a TV show, when I am on stage during a live play, in the booth recording, or at home on the sofa going through my scripts.”
“No single day is the same,” she says.
“The one thing I do on a daily basis is my vocal warm-up. It is a crucial part of my morning that I purpose to execute because I feel that my voice is my biggest tool. The voice exercises energise me and they are like an actual workout in many ways,” She adds.
And the talented actress has good reason to train her vocal cords regularly. Apart from being a stage and film actress, she is a successful voice-over artiste who has lent her voice to brands in telecommunications and State corporations.
Her fans can currently catch her playing the role of a devious stepmother, Kristina, or ‘Mama Selina’ on Maisha Magic East’s soap opera Selina. Reruns of her 2018 series My Two Wives, which previously aired on KTN, are on YouTube.
She is also currently working with Back to Basics, a theatre production company and acts regularly in its productions, taking up roles in the Breathe 1,2 and 3 series, Freefall and The Debate.
She is also an experienced broadcaster with more than five years in media. The actress worked as a TV presenter on a local station between 2008 and 2010, then moved to work as a Cultural Journalist and presenter at Radio France International. She was also a corporate executive for SoundAfrica Limited, with whom she worked to produce a show on a local station.
Mzenge explains that her media experience was no mistake, instead, it was a strategic journey towards her true passion of performing and acting.
“I have always wanted to be a performer. Acting is something that has been inside of me since I was a child. It found me, chose me, and I am very glad I know what to do with it,” she says.
“I mean, even my birth was spectacular. A five-kilogramme baby being delivered by a mother with a tiny frame - that situation itself is quite theatrical, don’t you think?” she poses.
The actress narrates her path from a young girl reading out loud from newspapers and books in the toilet early in the morning, to a renowned artiste living her dream.
“I would do so (reading from the washroom) because I enjoyed the stage-like quality and echo of the walls. My dad always wanted me to be an engineer while my mum wanted me to be a teacher - I would say that my mother was more convincing.”
Mzenge chose to study education for her University education, focusing on English Literature at Moi University.
Notably, her relationship with the stage had started long before her undergraduate studies. She began performing as early as in Primary School when she participated in school plays and festivals.
The film, stage and voice actress was brought up in the coastal city of Mombasa. She reminisces at what she considers the real start of her acting, tracing it back to a prize-giving day in primary school where she played the role of ‘the Good Samaritan’ from the Bible.
Since then, she would often receive compliments and recognition for being the best actress. She took her craft more seriously in high school.
“I remember acting on a play called Safari in 2001 at just 17 years old. I could have never imagined the attention that came afterwards. A newspaper story was written about me and I could hardly believe that my story took half a page on the nationals.”
Mzenge says that her next big step was while pursuing her higher studies when she decided that she stood a chance to fulfil her ambitions in the creative field.
“When I was in Third Year at University, the Faculty for Creative Arts at my school was having a play, so they held auditions and I was selected out of 63 applicants,” she adds.
The actress credits this as the period in which she got into broadcast media when she was scouted by producers from the stage of the varsity play.
And the first time the actress recalls setting foot on the stage professionally was with Heartstrings Entertainment, a theatre production company in 2008. She says the feeling was of “pure satisfaction”.
“I knew for sure that I wanted to do this. At that time though, I did not know if it could be done sustainably - if I could survive off it.”
She says that her time in broadcast and media acted as a period of self-reflection and preparation before diving headfirst into her dream career.
“I was looking forward to having a family, raising children and living well - so in that sense, I was determined to find sustainability in my craft,” she says.
She adds: “In 2014 I made the decision to pursue art as a screen artiste, voice-over artiste and stage actor on a full-time basis.
There is no secret to success in acting, Mzenge advises. It takes focused, intentional networking and aligning with the relevant stakeholders in the industry.
“I took time to research and understand the various revenue streams that an artiste can have. While in media and production, I networked intensely and began doing voice-over work on the side.”
Mzenge beams as she talks about working on her first TV show, Pendo, a Swahili English Soap Opera that premiered in December 2014 and ran on a local station.
“My first time on stage as I kicked off my career is unforgettable. I felt fulfilled. Every time I take a bow on stage after a play I feel achieved. When the curtains close that is when I am satisfied,” she says.
She urges aspiring actors to be resilient in their quest to work professionally, as the film industry is one that requires a tenacious spirit.
“As an actor, you have no control of the people sitting in boardrooms deciding whether or not to do a show. You have no control of the characters they want to explore, and after that, you are not even guaranteed to hear about the auditions. After the auditions you cannot control whether you will be picked, whether the film will be short or long term,” she says.
She adds: “And after a project, you do not even know if you will get another role in future.”
The actress says that potential actors should actively participate in the various opportunities available for an artiste without being boxed into one source of income.
“It is an industry for people with a thick skin and those who are ready to weather the storm until there is a steady calm.”
The actress is nominated for a Kalasha Film and TV Award for the Best Lead Actress in a film, for her role on Tales Of The Accidental City, which she says is her first short film/feature style production.
“I hope to inspire people through my work and play a significant role in making what I do a career of choice. I live for moments when my work impacts people. Those instances when someone tells me they can relate to a character. If I can take them through their personal journeys and leave them feeling hopeful, surely I have done some good.”
“It is all about shifting perspectives, encouraging and lifting the spirit of viewers.”
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