Her fans know her as the famous Mama Kayai from the popular show Vitimbi but away from the limelight, she leads a simple life as Mary Khavere.
She speaks to Caroline Nyanga about finding her niche in Kenyan comedy, staying grounded and leaving a legacy for upcoming actors
Mzee Ojwang needs to send a present to his mpango wa kando, so he gets Mogaka, an illiterate young man from Kisii to deliver the gift.
But Mogaka, who has no idea, inadvertently takes the gift to Mzee Ojwang’s wife Mama Kayai, who discovers the truth and confronts her husband.
Mzee Ojwang tries to explain his way out of his predicament but Mama Kayai will hear none of it. The two get into a heated argument that prompts Mzee Ojwang to flee.
This is one of the most memorable episodes of Vitimbi, the popular situational comedy show that made its debut on Kenyan TV screens in the late ’70s.
Mary Khavere played Mama Kayai alongside the late Benson Wanjau who played Mzee Ojwang Hatari. On the show, they comically brought to life the challenges married couples go through. The two actors soon became known as the power couple of Kenyan comedy.
Vitimbi, which aired on the state-run TV station Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC, originally named Voice of Kenya, VOK), became a favourite among Kenyans over the years. When pay TV entered the market in the ’90s and viewing choices opened up, the show remained a must-watch for the masses.
Over the years, the show won numerous awards for its ability to entertain and educate Kenyans on social issues. In fact, the Vitimbi crew were favourite entertainers of all three former Kenyan presidents.
Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta often called them to entertain him at his Gatundu home. His successors Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki also regularly invited them to State House. They also performed at national celebrations at various stadia within the country.
“In particular, Moi was highly entertained by Mzee Ojwang’s acting skills. The former president often laughed to the point of shedding tears whenever we were on stage,” recalls Khavere, who also featured on Vioja Mahakamani alongside Wanjau. Vioja Mahakamani was a court comedy show that also aired on KBC.
Khavere reveals that Wanjau was not only a talented colleague who she respected, but also a good friend. She adds that the characters they portrayed on TV became so real that when Wanjau died in July 2015, many Kenyans called her to condole with her instead of his real wife Agusu Wanjiru Wanjau.
But behind the scenes, the two led ordinary lives with their respective families. Khavere’s husband, Saidiel Matano (currently deceased) clearly understood that her relationship with Wanjau was purely professional and was supportive of her acting career.
Khavere confesses her relationship with Wanjau’s wife was a little awkward at the beginning, “She was initially wary of our relationship and the misguided notion by a large section of Kenyans that me and Mzee Ojwang were married in real life worsened the situation,” she says, “but with time, it was clear that it was all acting.”
Making a mark
Khavere has five sons. Now a grandmother, she says that when she looks back at her life, she is glad she made it to where she is today.
“I started out as a traditional dancer and singer with a group, known as The Black Golden stars, in Majengo, Pumwani where I lived. They were so talented in singing and dancing to traditional music,” Khavere says.
Mama Kayai reveals she met Mzee Ojwang and Lucy Wangui (who played a judge on Vioja Mahakamani) during her acting auditions.
“They were very supportive of my career and took time to mentor me into following their footsteps,” says Mama Kayai.
Khavere made her first acting appearance on the television programme Darubini in 1980 before moving on to Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani.
“I believe my consistency on TV and the fact that I never jumped from one television programme to another enabled ‘Mama Kayai’ to become a brand,” she says.
Having been in the acting industry for close to four decades, Mama Kayai is happy that the local acting industry has improved in many ways. She advises young actors to emulate veteran actors and seek the right advice before opting to venture into the profession.
“Back then, we ventured into acting because we were passionate about it. That is why we lasted that long in the industry despite the little pay. Many young people get into acting for fame and money – that is why some productions lack quality and end up not making sense,” she says. “It is sad to see actors jumping from one programme to the next. That is why they fail to establish themselves as brands.”
She appeals to the government to continue helping the local film industry to recapture its long lost glory which a section of critics have termed as “dead and buried”.
“Although many years back we were leading in terms of acting in Africa, today that has changed with other countries taking over,” she says.
She is also appealing to various local televisions to be flexible when it comes to supporting veteran actors. She says some TV stations deny veterans opportunities for roles in their shows yet expect them to make cameo appearances, something she terms immoral.
Despite the challenges of the industry, Khavere disputes the notion that acting doesn’t pay and says her career enabled her pay her bills and invest in property.
“The spacious maisonette I own in Mwiki is a result of acting. I have plans of expanding it in the near future,” she says. She adds that just like with other careers, self-discipline, critical thinking and investing wisely are necessary for one to succeed in life.
“Apart from owning a car, I am able to educate my children single-handedly out of my acting career,” she says. “My secret has always been that if you cannot manage one shilling then even if you are given a hundred, you will not manage it well,” says Khavere who continues to make appearances on various local shows, having left KBC in 2014.
Rewarded with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 6th Annual Kalasha Awards in 2015, Khavere says she makes it a point to attend film and television award ceremonies to show her support for local talent. She adds that the best is yet to come with regards to the local industry.
Khavere disputes reports that she has not been well. “Without bragging, I thank God that I have always been healthy and fit as a fiddle,” she says. To stay healthy, Khavere says she makes it a point to visit a gym whenever she is free. “I believe in leading a healthy lifestyle. Besides I am not and never been a party animal,” she explains.
Keeping it real
Although Khavere remains one of the most recognised faces in local comedy, away from the limelight, she lives a simple life. When we meet her, she comes across as confident but down-to-earth. Because of her simplicity, she mingles easily with ordinary Kenyans on the streets. She says her fans love and respect her as a mother figure.
“I believe in portraying a positive image given the fact that I am a role model to many and a mother to my kids. The best one can do is leave a legacy behind when we are gone – something that young people are able to emulate and remember you for,” she says. “I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I strongly believe in leading a simple life because, at the end of the day, we are all equal before God,” she says. “I have always remained who I am despite playing the role of Mama Kayai.
She adds that it is important for young women to stay true to themselves. “They should avoid emulating the things they see on social media. Always try to be real. Avoid faking things in your life. Make the best of your life if you hope to be successful,” she says.
“Today, many get into marriage for the wrong reasons. Some think that money is everything in a relationship. They need to realise that a happy marriage is built on Godly principles. This means they need to put God first in every area of their lives,” she adds.