For a woman who has made a career out of attracting admiration and controversy, life in the limelight can be rewarding yet challenging.
The Real Househelps of Kawangware actress, Winnie Rubi, who plays the role of, Awiti, a bully housemaid, sits down with Caroline Nyanga
It was a fine Wednesday afternoon and Winnie Rubi was walking along the streets of Nairobi’s Central Business District heading towards Muthurwa market.
Suddenly, four women and two men approached her demanding to know if she was Awiti, the bully character she portrays in the local comedy series The Real Househelps of Kawangware.
“I knew they were up to no good so I ignored them and kept walking. They kept shouting my name so I increased my pace and focused on getting to my destination,” Winnie says. “Suddenly, my phone rang and I got distracted. This gave them the opportunity to close in on me and, before I knew it, I had been surrounded by the group who appeared high on something,” she continues.
“Before I could even open my mouth to utter a word, one of the women began teasing me, probably hoping she could provoke the ‘animal in me’,” Winnie narrates. She remained calm.
“Awiti the bully, today I have met you. I need you to show me what you are really made of. Huwa unajidai Makmende,” the woman taunted her.
Knowing too well that this could be a trap to land her in trouble, Winnie says she chose to ignore her and quickly walked away amidst laughter and jeers from the rest of the group - and much to the chagrin of the onlookers who were eager to see what would happen next.
As she hurriedly moved away from them, she could hear a man shouting, “Awiti, don’t be shy! Show them you are not a coward. This is your chance to teach them the lesson of their lives,” The voice faded away as she hopped into a taxi, relieved to get away from the unruly crowd.
This wasn’t the first time Winnie had encountered a tough or embarrassing situation because of her TV role. Although she has become accustomed to it, she had never imagined that life as an actor would be like this.
Growing up, Winnie had a passion for acting. Just like many young girls who go through life and work towards their dreams praying to become who they want, Winnie hoped she would one day achieve her heart’s desire by becoming an established actress.
Born and brought up in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate, Winnie says her family and friends often described her as a born actress. She spent time watching many local actors and actresses on television and yearned to follow in their footsteps.
As a Standard Four pupil at St Tereza’s Primary, Eastleigh, she won an award for Best Actress in a local competition. She kept polishing her talent all the way through high school at St Teresa’s Girls, which she completed in 2010.
“My father, Hesbon Odhiambo, a long-time employee of mattress manufacturer Superfoam Ltd, would always encourage me and advise me while reminding me of the importance of education. He was seconded by my mother Grace Odhiambo, a fishmonger at Gikomba, Nairobi,” recalls Winnie, the third born in a family of four children.
After high school, she joined Zetech College for a course in Community Development and Social Work. But somewhere along the way, she rediscovered her ‘first love’ and declared to her family that she had decided to venture into acting as a part-time career. To her surprise, her parents easily welcomed her choice.
“I count myself lucky because my parents did not object to my new choice of side-hustle. Still, they would often stress the need for me to concentrate on my education -- they termed it the key to success,” Winnie says.
Back then, she says, society viewed acting and other entertainment careers suspiciously and didn’t believe people could make a living out of them. But her parents chose to view it otherwise. They encouraged her to follow her heart.
Looking back, Winnie says that perhaps her parents were simply being considerate of her because of the open relationship she had with them.
She adds that her parents’ support and encouragement gave her the peace of mind to balance between going to school, acting and doing a part-time job with an NGO that specialised in current affairs and reproductive health.
“Getting my parents’ blessing was the best moment of my life. I knew I had to make good use of the rare opportunity they accorded to me in order to achieve the best in life and make them proud,” says Winnie.
Into the deep end
In the beginning, Winnie mostly landed roles as an extra within Nairobi. Her big break came in 2012 when she secured her first professional role on the parody TV show Hapa Kule News.
“When he noticed my interest in acting, Mr Biladi, the director of the NGO I worked for, introduced me to Ben Mutua of Hapa Kule. Our first segment garnered 100,000 views on Youtube,” says Winnie. “I felt like I was living my dream.”
She, however, confesses that despite giving her best to her schoolwork (enough to see her graduate), her grades didn’t meet the expectations of her parents and teachers. She says that in spite of this, her parents remained supportive of her acting career, always encouraging her to aim for the best.
“Despite the challenges, I was not willing to give up on my acting career. I knew it was a matter of time before I could achieve my dream of making it big on the screen,” says Winnie.
Over the next few years, she continued to hone her skills in acting. There were occasions when she led a group of actors, with the support of the NGO she worked for, in relaying messages on reproductive health within various slums in Nairobi, mainly Mathare, Kayole and Eastleigh.
“We thought of no better way to use our talent than to entertain, educate and inform people living in the slums, in particular women, on the importance of reproductive health, HIV testing and counselling while offering free services and doing follow up visits to families,” says Winnie, adding that they reached out to thousands of people living in the slums.
Career well spelt
Today, as an actress who plays the role of a no-nonsense housemaid and bully in The Real Househelps of Kawangware, Winnie says her role and character is inspired by real life in Kenya.
“There are these interesting things that people do secretly in the homes tey live and work. For some reason, society for a long time chose not to talk about domestic workers or ignored them. Our show brought their issues to light,” she says.
The show portrays the antics of domestic workers in a city suburb when their bosses leave for work. Awiti, the character Winnie plays, has won fans over with her antics and never-ending scuffles with other house helps in the neighbourhood. Winnie says the show has turned out to be a huge success and a favourite among many Kenyans.
Two sides to a coin
Winnie adds that acting, like with any other career, has numerous challenges but she has always chosen to view them as a way of elevating herself into becoming a better person.
The actress says many times, she felt like she had to walk with her head down when in public places because there is a large section of people who ‘hate’ her for the character she portrays on television.
“Some people, who watch the show and don’t understand that it is all fiction. They believe that I am a bully in real life. Apart from the near-attack on the streets, I have fallen victim to gossip from all corners of the country from people who associate me with hooliganism,” says Awiti who admits that staying true to herself has not been easy.
“There are times when I am forced to explain to fans that I am different from the bully character I portray on TV,” says Awiti, who does not like watching herself on TV, unlike her three-year-old daughter Reila Sophie who adores Awiti the character.
Winnie says there are occasions when her fiancé, who is one of her greatest fans, has shown concern over certain roles she plays. An example, she says, was when she played the possessive girlfriend of a Nigerian conman who promised her heaven on earth - only to end up taking her money and running away.
“We appeared so intimate on TV, my fiancé who has otherwise been supportive of my career, advised me to keep a little distance. I knew he understood that it was only acting and nothing more, but I could see what he meant,” Winnie says laughing. Other challenges, she says, include not being paid on time and producers who would rather work with men than with women.
“Many acting roles are designed for men so the few women who are trying hard to make it end up being denied the chance to showcase their talent,” says Winnie, adding that despite the challenges, the local film industry has come of age in terms of talent and payment.
She mentions that being recognisable comes with a price.
“Most times, I am forced to lead a different life from my own. Bloggers and gossip columnists are always on the lookout for what we do, the places we visit and how we dress just so they can create a story to sell,” she says. She has learnt how to handle male fans and stalkers.
“My fans have made me who I am today so I try to explain to them, nicely, that I am a mother of one who is set to be married and hence the need for them to treat me with the respect I deserve,” says Winnie, who adds that many admirers tend to associate with her for fame and money.
She says that contrary to the character she portrays on TV, she is a simple and down-to-earth and believes in reaching out to the needy.
“My target is mainly women who run single-income homes within Nairobi slums. I mentor them according to their talent, hoping they can make their lives better,” she says.
Winnie runs a clothing and jewellery shop in Komarock, Nairobi that specialises in women’s outfits from Uganda. She also brags of being a good cook.
“I can cook a number of dishes well. Many of my friends and family members seek my services whenever they have functions or during special occasions,” says Winnie, who enjoys eating beef and ugali. She says that her secret to good cooking is watching YouTube videos for cooking tips.
Her advice to aspiring actors is to follow their dreams believing nothing is
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