Category: General

‘Queen of Glory’: Q&A with Nana Mensah


Nana Mensah (left) in 'Queen of Glory'. (Pic: Peter Hurley)
Nana Mensah (left) in ‘Queen of Glory’. (Video still)

Hot on the heels of the successful web series An African City in which she plays a leading role, actress and director Nana Mensah brings us her first independent feature film, Queen of Glory, about a Ghanaian-American PhD student who inherits her deceased mother’s Christian bookstore in The Bronx, NY. Nana took the time to talk to Valérie Bah about her latest project, gendered expectations, West African investment in the arts, and the perks of having creative control.

Queen of Glory has an intriguing plotline. I understand that you drew a link to Lena Dunham’s project, Girls, about being young, having a “quarter-life crisis,” and finding oneself in New York City?

Nana Mensah:  Sure, but I think the Lena Dunham connection is closer to her independent film, Tiny Furniture (2010), which led up to Girls.  Tiny Furniture was a film of a comparable budget, which basically explored that quarter-life crisis idea.  My character is a prodigy, a PhD candidate named Sara Obeng, who is looking to leave her research to marry her former lover and married professor to Ohio when her mother suddenly dies and leaves her Christian bookstore in a neighborhood where she grew up – they call it “Little Ghana,” the Pelham Parkway neighborhood in The Bronx, which is steeped in West African tradition. The project centers on her return home and depicts all the things that come with that; seeing family and getting everything together.

Are you then looking at drawing more of an audience within the African diaspora?

NM: Well, we are focusing primarily at an American market, with an American distributor. So, we’re looking at a diaspora audience, but also white people who go to see independent films. We’re not speaking only in terms that a diaspora can understand. The hope is that anybody who’s had to return home in a time of crisis will be able to understand it.

Generationally speaking, that taps into the concern experienced by millennials, who may not have the resources to start off their lives as the Baby Boomers did; buying a house, finding employment, etc.

NM:  Sure, I mean, she’s a PhD student, so struggling financially, though her return home is brought on by her mother’s death. But yes, she’s also very much struggling in every way.  She has a boatload of intellectual capital, but very little capital capital.

And how much of you is there in this Sara Obeng character?

Nana Mensah in 'Queen of Glory'. (Pic: Peter Hurley)
Nana Mensah in ‘Queen of Glory’. (Video still)

NM: Oh gosh, no. Not much at all. She’s actually completely fictional. I just have a BA, I don’t have a masters from anywhere. My mother is still alive and well, though she is a small business owner, but she doesn’t own a Christian bookstore. My parents are religious, but certainly not Evangelical or anything of that nature. There’s a commonality, I would say, in terms of the general experience – and I was definitely not having an affair with my university professor [laughter] – in terms of the understanding of having parents from the “Old Country,” with a different value system.

There’s a fracture, especially for African women because our parents, unlike a lot of other recent immigrants, our parents really pushed us, and I’m speaking in mass generalities here, but our parents really pushed us as women to succeed, they push us to the best universities, the best experiences. We are told that we can do anything and everything, but, we must have hot jollof on the stove by the time we get home [laughter].

Here’s one thing that strikes me – the fact that you talk about the high expectations for second generation African women. In a TEDx talk, you mentioned that within the African diaspora, there’s this sense that you can do anything, you can be anything, but the arts and culture are considered off-limits and may not be promoted as a viable career. Can you elaborate on that?

NM:  I think that that’s a place that we have yet to go to as a people, at least Ghanaians. I think we really respect people with professional degrees; doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers. I think that because we have not yet had a burgeoning middle class, the arts do not factor in yet. How can you focus on art and portray the human experience en masse when people are hungry, and there’s no infrastructure? Art, in some ways, can be viewed as a luxury. I think of it as a necessity, but I recognise that in the face of hunger or political unrest or civil war, it’s difficult to say that art is paramount. Especially in Ghana, now that we have had a certain number of political changeovers, without any unrest, we have become a shining star in West Africa in terms of stability.

Mind you, we’ve come upon some hard times recently, but ultimately, it’s a very stable country, ripe for investment and you are seeing the development of a middle class with new foreign businesses coming in. I think in the next 10-15 years, what we’re going to see is a culture that’s already very heavily steeped in artistic traditions. I mean, Ghanaian carvings, weaving, the Kente cloth, and whatnot, those things are almost synonymous with Africa as a whole. I think as we get a more solid middle class, the arts will become a voice for us to tell our stories. If I may use the example of An African City, a lot of people gripe that it doesn’t portray everybody’s experience, but that’s the thing, we are not a monolith.

You’re a well-known face from other projects, such as An African City and Love or something like that (2014), are you switching one for the other?

NM:  Not at all. Much like Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling, I would love to have a versatile approach and be able to wear these different hats – producer, director, writer, actor – and I’m not a megalomaniac [laughter], I just want to be responsible for the stories I’m telling. I’ve been on other people’s sets; I’ve been on my own set. It is so stressful to wear hats, but also rewarding because any mistake is yours. If something goes wrong, it’s on me, and I like that responsibility. That, rather than being the star of somebody else’s project who didn’t think it through or have the artistic sensibilities that I do. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a premiere and thinking, “Oh my god.” I don’t want to do that. So, the more control, the better. Even being a writer and making sure that the words sounds true and flow easily out of an actor’s mouth.  So, I’m not necessarily saying that I’m excellent at all of these things, but I certainly like doing them. And I also see the burden of being a black woman doing these things, because there’s so few of us. And I shall do as I please until I don’t want to do it anymore.

It seems like this type of responsibility is good news for other black women looking for projects or stories that might not be told the same way by a white writer or producer.

NM:  And a male producer or director. In a lot of the stories that I see, the women are defined by their relationship to a man. They are somebody’s girlfriend or somebody’s wife, the object of a male’s affection. That is how they are defined. I’m really interested in pushing forward a dialogue that doesn’t have to do with that. A perfect example is the movie Wild (2014), starring Reese Witherspoon and based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, coming out in the States. First of all, the film is revolutionary because you see a woman onscreen doing her own thing. She’s not anybody’s wife or daughter. Her mother just died. She’s only owned by herself. That is already a huge step for feminism in the media. But then, somebody made the very astute point about what if that role had been cast as a black woman, a former drug addict who gets to hike the Pacific Coat Trail. Black women never get to tell that kind of story. It’s very rare for a black woman to be doing that type of role – imagine Taraji P. Henson in that role instead of Reese Witherspoon? You realise that there are some limitations to the kinds of roles that black women are allowed to tell, and it’s kind of mind-blowing. So we need to broaden the spectrum so that something like that wouldn’t be far-fetched.

An interesting exercise would be to look at this year’s past releases, to see whether they pass the Bechdel Test*, or even the Black Bechdel Test**?

NM: Yes, the Black Bechdel Test is a whole other story [laughter]…

* Bechdel Test: Asking if a work of fiction features two women who talk to each other about something other than a man

** Black Bechdel Test: Similarly to the Bechdel Test, asking if a work of fiction features two black people who talk to each other about something other than a white person.


From the slums to the silver screen: Uganda’s chess prodigy

Phiona Mutesi plays a game of chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala. (Pic: AFP)
Phiona Mutesi plays a game of chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala. (Pic: AFP)

Phiona Mutesi happened upon chess as a famished nine-year-old foraging for food in the sprawling and impoverished slums of the Ugandan capital.

“I was very hungry,” said Mutesi, aged about 18.

Now a chess champion who competes internationally, her tale of triumph over adversity is being turned into a Hollywood epic with Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o tipped to play her mother.

“My dad had died, and after the age of three we started struggling to get food to eat, my mum was not working,” Mutesi told AFP. They lived on one meal a day.

She was forced to drop out of school aged six when her mother could not pay the fees.

“You can’t just wake up and say ‘today’: you have to plan first.”

One day, Mutesi discovered a chess program held in a church in the Katwe slum districts in Kampala. Potential players were enticed with a free cup of porridge, and Mutesi began organising her days around this.

“It was so interesting,” she recalled of her introduction to pawns, rooks, bishops, knights and kings in 2005. “But I didn’t go there for chess, I went just to get a meal.”

As she returned week after week, something unexpected happened that would transform Mutesi’s life.

‘Incredible impact’
The young girl developed a talent for chess, which was only introduced in Uganda in the 1970s by foreign doctors and was still seen as a game played by the rich. And her talent turned into a passion.

“I like chess because it involves planning,” said Mutesi. “If you don’t plan, you will end up with your life so bad.”

The film, entitled Queen of Katwe, is based on a book of the same name about Mutesi by American writer Tim Crothers. It is to be shot in Uganda and South Africa, directed by Mira Nair. Filming will reportedly begin in late March.

Coach and mentor Robert Katende, of the Sports Outreach Ministry, remembers Mutesi wearing “dirty torn clothes” when he met her a decade ago.

“She was really desperate for survival,” said Katende, who is building a chess academy to accommodate 150 students outside Kampala.

Two years into the game, Mutesi became Uganda’s national women’s junior champion, defending her title the next year.

“Phiona Mutesi has flourished,” Vianney Luggya, president of the Uganda Chess Federation, told AFP. “She made history in the schools’ competition by becoming the first girl to compete in the boys’ category. It was certainly surprising.”

By the time she participated in her first international competition, Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan in 2009, Mutesi still had not read a book.

 ‘Believe in yourself’
“It was really wonderful because it was my first time abroad,” she said. “It was my first time to sleep in a hotel. We came back with a trophy.”

Since then Mutesi has competed in chess Olympiads in Russia’s Siberia, in Turkey – after which she was given the Woman Candidate Master ranking by FIDE, the World Chess Federation – and in Norway last year.

The teenager, who has two more years of high school left, hopes to go to the next Olympiad in 2016 in Azerbaijan.

Overseas, Mutesi has also played against her hero, Russian former world champion and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, and inspired school students in the US to start a tournament in her name.

Back home, her fame has had “an incredible impact”, said Luggya.

“The number of lady players participating in national chess championships has doubled,” he said, adding that each of the 26 schools set to compete in Uganda’s annual championships in April will have girls and boys teams.

Uganda’s female players have also been spurred on by the success of Ivy Amoko, who became east Africa’s first FIDE Master last year.

A recent week-long chess clinic, involving Mutesi, attracted more than 200 participants, most of them female, from Kampala slums and surrounding communities.

British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo – nominated for a  Gold Globe Award for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in the 2014 drama “Selma” -is also set to star in Queen of Katwe.

Luggya hopes the film will “open doors” for all players in Uganda, saying: “I think Ugandans realise that it is a brain game that can enhance their potential in all other aspects of life.”

Though the country now has east Africa’s only International Master, Elijah Emojong, and the region’s biggest number of titled players, Uganda still struggles with kit and trainers – normally volunteers – plus sponsorship for overseas titles.

Mutesi is aware this may hold her back ultimately.

But while her goal is to rise to Grandmaster, she also hopes to become a paediatrician and open a home for children, especially girls facing the same predicament she overcame.

“Girls are always under-looked, even in chess,” said Mutesi. “But I don’t think there’s any reason why a girl cannot beat a boy. It comes from believing in yourself.”

African Blogger Awards open for entry

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

Entries to the 2015 African Blogger Awards are now open to all African bloggers, Instagrammers, Twitter influencers, and YouTubers with the competition expanding this year to include Facebook pages and profiles.

Launched last year, the African Blogger Awards are the only pan-African event that measure online and social influencers’ reach and influence through data analysis.

“The inaugural African Blogger Awards in 2014 set the benchmark for the discovery of truly exceptional African content creators and their unique story-telling approaches. We are looking forward to seeing the progress made by entrants participating in this year’s event for the second time, while discovering new talent across the continent,” says Mike Sharman, co-founder of the African Blogger Awards.

Five overall awards for Africa’s Top Instagrammer, Top Twitter Profile, Top YouTuber, Top Blogger and Best Facebook Page will be awarded to entrants who stand head and shoulders above others in these categories.

An additional 36 sub-categories including; Lifestyle, Travel, Finance, Entertainment, and Technology and Gadgets among many others are also available for a diverse range of bloggers to enter.

“With over 520 entries from 26 countries in 2014, we’re anticipating close to 800 entries from independent publishers communicating to more than 60 million Africans across the continent and beyond,” says Murray Legg, co-founder of the African Blogger Awards.

The Awards also give brands and the marketing industry an objective measurement of the most relevant online and social influencers to include in their campaigns, making sure that they achieve the greatest possible impact for their marketing spend.

There is no cost to enter, but entrants, if they haven’t already, are required to register their blog, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook Page or YouTube profile (or a combination of these properties) on Webfluential (Facebook Page entrants will be required to apply via a Twitter account). This platform scientifically measures the reach, resonance and relevance of social influencers on these platforms with over 1000 active, legitimate followers. Evaluation of each entrant will be managed primarily through Webfluential on the following metrics:

•              Reach measures the size of an influencer’s audience (following) per social media network.

•              Resonance is a measure of how widely the content that an influencer shares reaches outside of their own community.

•              Relevance is a measure of the response from the influencer’s community in the form of likes, comments, retweets.

Any entrants who entered into the 2014 awards will need to update their profiles on Webfluential, as all participants and winners will be measured on the platform’s latest analytical metrics.

Entries for the awards close on 9 April 2015 at midnight GMT+2, and results will be announced on 5 May 2015 via the competition’s Twitter handle, @African_Blogger, from 11h00 GMT+2.

Winners in each category will receive a web banner announcing their achievement that can be personally leveraged through their social networks, and a commemorative trophy.

All bloggers, Instagrammers, Tweeters, Facebookers and YouTubers who are permanent residents of any African country are eligible to enter the African Blogger Awards.

Follow Gadget on Twitter: @GadgetZA


Grammy Awards: African artists deserve more than a ‘World Music’ category

Angelique Kidjo, winner of the Best World Music Album Award for 'Eve', at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards on February 8. (Pic: AFP)
Angelique Kidjo, winner of the Best World Music Album Award for ‘Eve’, at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards on February 8. (Pic: AFP)

The annual Grammy Awards took place last week, and the usual happened:  selfies were taken, everyone raved about the dresses and some stars possibly got wildly drunk at the after party.

There were also prizes, some possibly deserved and some not.

The Grammys, like the Oscars, is fixed and it’s been called out more than few times for not being serious about recognising real talent. See: Kanye West pulling a ‘Taylor Swift’ after Best Album was announced.

West then went onto speak in an interview about how the Grammys could not expect to attract proper artists if it did not respect them.

Alas, it continues to. One can only be happy that Iggy Azaela left empty handed.

But other than the perceived injustice of Beck stealing from Beyoncé, the greater institutionalised injustice is the bunching of all music coming from outside American shores as ‘World Music’.

What, pray tell, is World Music? And how is it that the entire world is said to seemingly make one genre of music despite the eclectic array of sounds our globe produces?

This year Africa managed to scoop the elusive title with Angelique Kidjo winning the Grammy for her album Eve, her eighth studio album. Joining her in the Best World Music Album category were artists Sergio Mendes, Anoushka Shankar, Wu Man and Toumani Diabete.

Even Sergio Mendes, who has collaborated with artists such as the Black Eyed Peas, could not escape the ‘World music’ curse.

From the names alone one can see that the sounds of these artists will not be similar in any way, shape or form. Surely to bunch them together is a cacophony rather than a symphony?

This all speaks to the constant ‘othering’ of anything that is not American.

Then again, what can we expect of the same people who consider the World Series in baseball to be an international event – that includes only their 51 states?

Despite the array of music within Africa (let alone the world), we remain all bunched into one category. Try as we might to be as diverse or as similar, we only have one shot at the crown in a realm that is said to be the highest marker of musical achievement: World Music. And we are competing with over 7-billion other people.

What this implies is that music that can be feasibly judged as falling into the categories of Jazz, Rock, Country, New Age, Pop or any other Grammy-defined category can only come from US shores.

This is problematic as the Grammys are considered the ultimate musical dessert and we are all made to share one slice of the pie.

It may be time to find another maker, or at least another slice of pie.

Not only because the Grammys are essentially American awards but also because awards like the Grammys disallow the nuance of artistic brilliance that exists globally and within Africa.

Within our borders we can cover every single genre of the Grammys without breaking a sweat.

In Kenya, there is a growing rock scene with bands such as Rash Band who draw inspiration from ancients such as AC/DC . Hip-hop is pretty much covered in every single country – one only has to look at our intercontinental love with the track All Eyes on Me by AKA ft. Burna Boy, JR & Da LES, which brought together South Africa and Nigeria.

You want some pop? You can find it with artists from Ghana to Lesotho to Zambia. And if you prefer some good ol’ tapping country I am sure there is a sokkie treffer an Afrikaans person can dig up for you.

This does not even speak to the host of other sub genres such as Lingala and sounds from Ethiopia. And we can also not forget our booming Christian music industry, with videos often filmed on beaches or in local public gardens.

If you doubt the musical prowess in Africa, you need only look at the range of musical festivals we have.  There are numerous ones on offer every year, yet year after year the ‘standard for music’ does not recognised this.

Kenya has the Safaricom Jazz Festival where Richard Bona from Cameroon headlined; the Sauti za Busara (along with the fringe events in Basura Xtra) held in Zanzibar each year is a celebration of East African music. There is the Oppikoppi, the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival and Cape Town International Jazz Festival in South Africa. Others include the Festival au Desert (Mali), Bushfire (Swaziland, Lake of Stars (Malawi) and Gnaoua World Music Festival (Morrocco).

The options are endless, I am sure we could find something to submit.

As it is a great honour to win a Grammy or other international award, we are simply getting the scraps. This is tragic considering we are offering a full-course meal.

It may be time to value a MTV Base or a Channel O music award more than a Grammy.

It may be time to consider going the European route and having our own continental awards be the highlight of the year and the Grammys be merely a nice holiday to LA where you may or may not be able to make out with Rihanna.  Or suffer extreme jet lag. Whichever comes first.

Maybe we should no longer consider the Grammys as the standard of musical success, because the only category we qualify for is ‘World Music’.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’s identity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter: @tiffmugo

Gay Ugandans launch magazine to ‘reclaim stories’

Since her university days, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, an openly gay woman and activist in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal, has been a victim of vicious tabloid gossip.

“They were writing about ‘secrets inside the lesbian’s den’,” Nabagesera (34) told AFP. She said she had been attacked and evicted “so many times” because of the media coverage.

Now Uganda’s gay community is fighting back with Bombastic, a new magazine published and distributed privately.

The free 72-page glossy publication features personal essays, commentaries and poems by “proud” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Ugandans, some using pseudonyms.

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera with an issue of 'Bombastic'. (Pic: AFP)
Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera with a copy of ‘Bombastic’. (Pic: AFP)

In the editor’s note Nabagesera said the magazine would “speak for the many voiceless”.

Uganda’s popular tabloid press has outed many of Nabagesera’s friends and colleagues, and regularly fills pages with invasive, prurient stories and lurid tales.

Politicians have stoked anti-gay sentiment by proposing new laws that appeal to the country’s conservative Christianity, the latest of which seeks to criminalise the “promotion” of homosexuality.

“They would target me a lot, they would cook up stories – how I’m getting married… I’m training people to become lesbians,” Nabagesera said.

“People have lost housing, jobs, families,” she said. “One colleague was beaten in broad daylight after appearing in the newspapers.”

Nabagesera said in the last four years, the local media had played a “big role” in the intimidation and harassment of LGBTI people, after naming and shaming them.

In 2011 gay activist David Kato – a close friend of Nabagesera – was beaten to death with a hammer a few months after a tabloid paper published his picture under the headline ‘Hang Them’.

Christmas present

Nabagesera came up with the idea for Bombastic in 2013. When she asked for stories on Facebook, she was flooded with over 500 contributions. Crowd-funding paid for its printing.

An editorial team of eight Ugandans worked on the inaugural issue and foreign volunteers also pitched in helping to build a related website,, which Nabagesera said attracts so many visitors that it is “almost crashing every two days”.

“We got a lot of support from around the world,” said Nabagesera.

Bombastic was launched in December as MPs were vowing to introduce a new anti-gay bill as a “Christmas present”, after an earlier statute was struck down on a technicality in August.

“So we said let’s give them a Christmas present,” said Nabagesera.

A total of 15 000 copies of Bombastic have been printed and distributed by hand to some unlikely potential readers.

“We took lots of copies to Parliament, government offices, everywhere,” said Nabagesera.

She personally delivered copies, concealed inside brown paper envelopes, to the pigeonholes of MPs such as David Bahati, the architect of an early anti-gay law that sought the death penalty for homosexuals, to the office of the Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, a staunch supporter of anti-gay legislation, and to the office of President Yoweri Museveni.

Nabagesera said she had not yet received any feedback from the politicians but had heard that, “the president’s wife refused even to open it.” First Lady Janet Museveni is an high-profile born-again Christian.

Big hit?

Churches, media houses, motorbike taxi riders and others across the country have also been handed the magazine, courtesy of 138 enthusiastic volunteers, some from the mainstream media.

“People are willing to be part of the project,” said Nabagesera.

Red Pepper, a notorious Ugandan tabloid which published a list of the country’s “top homos” a day after Museveni signed the first anti-gay bill into law nearly a year ago, was the first media house to be given copies.

“They refused to write about it, they were angry of course, because when you read my introduction I’m bashing the media,” said Nabagesera.

She insisted Bombastic had mostly been a “big hit”, adding that the magazine’s two telephone hotlines have been inundated with interest.

But some people have burnt issues after finding them in shops in eastern Uganda, while in the country’s west some distributors were threatened. Nabagesera herself was threatened with legal action after a copy was taken to a church.

Others told her they wished “a car could knock you down” while Uganda’s ethics minister Simon Lokodo warned she could face arrest for “promoting homosexuality”.

Nabagesera is undaunted. She hopes to continue publishing the magazine and to “stand up and fight for others who don’t have the support.”

“It is our wish, our hope, that if people read just one story it changes their attitude,” said Nabagesera.