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Telling African stories through film

Achieving Woman
 Telling African stories through film (Photo: R. Maingi)

Ruth Maingi is an award-winning, multitalented actress who combines acting, dance, voice-over artistry and costume design to cut her niche as an all-around star. She is the Ambassador for USA-based The African Film Festival (TAFF) and represents Kenya. Many know her for her acting debut win in 2009 when she landed a lead role in the TV series ‘The Team’​. She has appeared in over 40 films, including over six films in the Africa Magic Original Films Series. She was the lead actress in the original ‘Mama Duka’ drama series, which won the AMVCA Award for Best Indigenous Original TV Series and Film East Africa in 2014. She also played as a nurse in the film ‘18 Hours’, a drama film that won several awards including the best overall film at the AMVCA 2018. We bring you an exclusive interview with this icon who is flying the Kenyan flag high abroad.

You started acting 18 years ago. What was it like landing the lead role in ‘The Team’?

This was a breakthrough. I finally started to feel alive and that my dreams were coming true. Honestly, I didn’t have a clear strategy on my way up and no one prepared me for it. The only strategy I had was to bury my head under the sand and keep moving. After this, I was a lead actress in ‘Mama Duka’. I was the lead and the only actor in the first season. It was thrilling learning a whole script and running it from start to end in one take. It seasoned me as an actor. I loved the idea of storytelling and how we can appreciate and preserve our culture.

What genre or roles do you lean towards or feel at home with?

I wouldn’t say I (lean) to any particular genre. As an actor, I am versatile and should be able to deliver any role that I am entrusted with. In every character, I try to identify a little bit of my life and experiences in it and that’s how I am able to carry the character through. I am resilient, a go-getter, focused, ambitious, daring, a risk-taker, compassionate, mindful, warm and welcoming.  

Of the over 40 films you have featured in, your Gigi role in ‘Midlife Crisis’ brought you out as very emotional…

I loved ‘Midlife Crisis’; the story and the emotional rollercoaster that it took me through as an actor and prepared me for ‘Poker’. ‘Poker’ pushed me to the wall. I was able to dig deeper into my emotions to give Tamara life. It is one of the books so far. ‘Poker’ opened doors to the international stage. I won the Best Actress in People’s Film Festival in Harlem, New York. ‘Poker’ received an honourable mention as the Best international at the festival. It was also an official selection at The African Film Festival in Dallas Texas.

Talking of New York and Dallas, you are now in the US winning big. Tell us about this.

I thank God. It’s been a long journey of hard work, discipline, consistency, dedication and divine favour. In 2015 I was in the US to supervise and edit a Pan African Film ‘Sink or Swim’ that I produced and acted on in Ghana. In 2017 I received my first award as an icon in the African film industry at the Afro-Heritage Broadcasting & Entertainment Awards.

That was big…

In 2018 I received a humanitarian award at The African Film Festival. In 2013 I organised and supervised screenings at The African Film Festival. While in the US in 2023, I was privileged to work on three films, ‘Playback’, ‘Finding Joy’ and ‘Daddy’s Call’. I was honoured to premiere and screen a pan-African film I had shot in Nigeria called Family First. The turnout was massive. In 2023 I was also named as the African Cultural Film Festival. Now in 2024, I have been appointed as a judge by The African Film Festival in a selection of the films submitted for this year for the upcoming festival.

Congratulations on your new jury role. Tell us more about the award and how you landed this role.

Thank you. The African Film Festival is a huge festival that takes place every year in Dallas Texas and it’s recognised by the State. The experience and the wealth of knowledge that I have accumulated over the years make me a viable candidate for this position. 

What are the expectations placed on you as a judge?

To watch the submitted films, rate them from originality, creativity, direction, writing, cinematography, performances, production value, pacing and structure to sound and music. My team members will be unveiled in a press release coming up soon.

What does this mean to your career as well as the film industry in Kenya and Africa having you as a representative?

I’m thrilled. It is a stamp to consolidate and solidify the hard work I have put in over the years. It’s not a small feat to be entrusted with such an enormous task. It shows that Kenya and Africa have great talent indeed.

This gives you a bird’s eye on the film industry, internationally. How would you describe the industry from that viewpoint?

To be honest, the industry has really grown over the years. We are doing more films than before. There has been a lot of collaboration between Pan African films locally and internationally. Africa and the world are slowly becoming one big film village. We need to keep cultivating the cinema-going culture by producing more quality films. We can only win this by telling our stories and telling them authentically.

How is Africa placed when it comes to the film industry and what can we borrow from others, say Hollywood and Bollywood?

Africa is doing great and I’m so proud. What I love about it is our stories. We have so many beautiful and untold stories that are yet to be told. You will realise even Hollywood is helping us tell our stories. What we can borrow is the art of showbiz. Marketing and strategizing from when the production is at its initial stages upto the release of the film. It has to be business and entertainment. I think Nollywood is mastering this art well. We all aim to be masters of it.

You studied acting at a prestigious academy. Why is taking film professionally key?

This was one of my life’s sacrifices. I sold everything I had that was valuable to pursue this. I was so determined to hone this skill. I knew the only way to grow was to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to grow as an actor and secure my place in the industry. I also attend workshops because it’s never enough. I continue to learn because it’s the only way to grow.

You have toured the world. What are some highlights and memorable personalities you have encountered?

So much. The list is long. I will mention a few. Chiwetel Ojiofor, Richard Mofe Damijo, Prince Richard, Lancelot Imasuen, Emem Song Misodi, Desmond Elliot, Monalisa Chinda, Ike igbonna, Zack Orji, Adjetey Anang, Majid Michel, Rita Dominic, Uti Nwachuku, erry Mofekong, Yvonne Cherrie…so many my memory is failing me.

You also dance, how is this art key in your film career and how does it fuse with your creative works as a big-screen star?

I love to dance! I studied dance for two years at the Kenya Performing Arts School. It helped me book my first musical in 2017. After that it got me more roles in musicals like Kigezi Ndoto, Foot Prints on Me and Githaa. I travelled through East Africa, India, Ethiopia and Qatar to perform. Apart from that dance gives me stamina for performance and keeps me fit.

Share a bit about your life, that natural you, growing up, and family....

I was born and raised in Machakos. I come from a family of seven siblings; three boys and four girls. I attended Township Muslim Primary, joined Kathiani High School, went to College of Insurance, joined Kenya Performing Arts School and later joined London Academy for Film and Television. I am a mother to a very handsome boy.

Film pays. How is the investment like though before one breaks through?

This is not an easy path to take but it’s doable. Like every other business, there will be wins and more losses but you have to keep putting in the work. 

What is your main focus now?

My main focus is to unite the world through storytelling and pass my knowledge to my up-and-coming actors. I want to help grow the industry as a producer, director and actor, locally and internationally.

What is it that you do for fun?

I love travelling and taking a walk in nature. Besides, life does tickle me.



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