She grew up in an upper middle-class family but her fortunes changed just when her life was about to take off. NATASHA LIKIMANI spoke to SYLVIA WAKHISI about how life transformed her into a hustler, and going from TV show host to a woman to watch in Kenya’s film and television
When it comes to the film and television industry, Kenya is known to have a mix and an abundance of talent, from men and women to children.
And one Natasha Likimani is definitely a woman to watch in this industry. Her latest work saw her write 'Veve', a film that has and continues to receive accolades from many lovers of local dramas and movies. With the success of the movie, all eyes are on her.
"'Veve' is a drama about several characters involved in the infamous world of Khat. I always thought that the world of 'miraa' is culturally unique to Kenya. I also wanted to tell a story in a different part of the country and integrate our fascination with the political world," says Natasha.
'Veve' is a slang word for what is internationally known as khat or 'miraa'. Set in Maua, Kenya, Veve enters the lives of multiple characters trying to find themselves in a world of political intrigue, revenge, love and longings for success complemented by the background of the thriving yet unregulated khat business.
"It makes me very proud and elated that Kenyans are talking about a local film more than a Hollywood one. Kenyans are the toughest critics and to have them excited and going in droves to the cinema to watch a film done for them by them is phenomenal," says Natasha who has been a scriptwriter for the last six years.
Natasha is a striking woman, the kind who dominates a room the minute she walks in. She's beautiful, down to earth and friendly with a wicked sense of humour. She is passionate, talented and prolific.
Today, she has curved a niche in the art of scriptwriting and is one of the best scriptwriters in the country. The release of 'Veve' has seen her burst onto the limelight.
Though the art of scriptwriting in Kenya has long been viewed as little and given less attention, Natasha says there is a ray of hope as people such as her strive to leave a mark in the industry.
"We put up with a lot and barely get recognised for the important role we play in the industry. People (especially the 'important' people) don't realise the importance of having a professional scriptwriter for their productions. It doesn't matter how good you are, we are still in that phase of 'it's about who you know' but all that is slowly changing," she says.
Born 32 years ago in Nairobi, Natasha, the third child in a family of four sisters, had to endure a difficult childhood that perhaps shaped her into the strong-willed woman she is today.
"Life wasn't easy for me as people have presumed. My parents divorced when I was about three years old. For most of my childhood and adulthood, it was about living in different homes. I really struggled a lot as a teenager but I had God in me and that got me through the perpetuating darkness," she says.
"I've lived in about 34 different places in my 32 years of living. While I was still a young school-going girl, I had to set off for boarding school at the age of 12 where, I must admit, I found some peace. The divorce of my parents had taken a toll on me and I had to find some tranquillity. Boarding school was the answer hence, I joined Greenacres School in Limuru," she adds.
She later transferred from Greenacres to St Austin's Academy, which had been her primary school, where she sat for her Form Five exams.
After high school in 1998 at St Austin's Academy, Natasha didn't get a chance to go to university, something that she says she is not afraid to open up about.
Some of the courses she did included Desktop Publishing at Computer Pride Centre in Nairobi in 1998, Scriptwriting for Television offered by Mnet Africa in 2009, Feature Film Scriptwriting by One Fine Day Films in 2010, Scriptwriting for Short Films by Maisha Film Lab in 2010 and Scriptwriting for Pre-schoolers by Deutsche Welle in 2012 among others.
She offers: "Nowadays, I like to open up about it, perhaps to encourage young people not to despair in this journey of life. Even though growing up, we were wealthy, things took a drastic turn later on and I had to take the rough with the smooth. I did a course here and there and that was it for me. It was up to me to figure out what to do with this life of mine and movies were the guiding light. I hustled and bustled, reading scripts and books (free books and going online) to learn screen-writing. Many are the times I used to hang out at Alliance Francaise talking to fellow artistes, just to get a share of their experiences."
She alludes to the fact that right from a young age, she has always been fascinated by films.
"I love TV and film. I watched a tonne of it growing up and it was natural for me to want to be part of it any way I could. And since I loved writing in general, especially poetry, it's when I discovered screen-writing that I fell in love with it," she explains.
Her first breakthrough came when she got on a show called 'Uhondo' at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
"I had a tiny teeny role and the producer, the late Isaac Baru, encouraged me to go into broadcasting and got me an audition at KBC. It was here that I made even more connections with film makers," she says.
After several years of news anchoring, Natasha decided to quit in 2008 and go full-time into film making.
"At the start, it wasn't easy since getting even one contract was rare. I was still learning about the industry and didn't know how to break in. But as the days went by, thankfully, work kept on increasing. It was on a great show called 'Makutano Junction' that I got my first professional start as an actress and scriptwriter."
In the world of scriptwriting, Natasha says she has found great fulfilment and satisfaction, and would do it over and over again.
"Would you believe my days are so simple they could be viewed as boring? I wake up, have breakfast, look for inspiration, watch something then write, eat, sleep, dream. Then repeat it the following day. Few understand my job."
But according to her, one of the best parts about being a scriptwriter is telling stories in the most authentic way. One of her best moments came when her mother told her how proud she is of her after watching 'Veve'.
"I'm given a chance to show the world that Kenya is more than it's known for – not just wild animals and slums. Film is a universal language that all cultures can relate to and I am glad to be part of such a powerful impact."
As a single woman, she believes in setting values and living by them.
"I have learnt that not being myself is the worst thing I can do. I've had to work on not playing small so that I can fit in. I'm not interested in fitting in especially if it means putting myself, my capabilities and my dreams aside," she says.
"As a woman, you owe it to yourself to go for your dreams, even if you don't accomplish it all. It's better than doing nothing. "
Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri