Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has returned home to Kenya to spearhead a new campaign to stop the record slaughter of elephants for their valuable ivory.
More than 30 000 elephants are killed every year to satisfy demand for ivory in China and the Far East where it is worth more than $2 000 a kilogramme.
The 32-year old actress – who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the slave girl Patsey in 12 Years a Slave and will appear in Star Wars: Episode VII later this year – said on Tuesday her visit to a national park and elephant orphanage in Kenya had been “life-changing”.
“It was my first time to really have an intimate experience with elephants. What struck me was how big they are, how quiet they are,” she said. “It was really a breathtaking experience.”
The Hollywood star and model has signed up as an ambassador for conservation organisation WildAid, which engages celebrities to spread awareness of poaching and wildlife crime.
Nyong’o said she hoped her involvement would help save Africa elephants for future generations.
“I really do intend for my children to have that same experience,” she said.
For Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents, grew up in Kenya and studied in the United States, the visit was also a homecoming.
“I am proud of my Kenyan heritage, and part of that heritage is the incredible wildlife haven that is in our care,” she said, speaking with an American accent in English. “Poaching steals from us all.”
Nyong’o will soon feature in a series of WildAid adverts aimed at raising awareness of the elephant’s plight.
“It is time to ban sales of ivory worldwide and to consign the tragedy of the ivory trade to history,” she said.
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.”
The art of hair braiding has taken centre stage in pop culture in the past few months, from Chris Pratt’s surprisingly good French braiding skills to the return of the braid in Valentino to Vivienne Westwood Fall runway shows. In South Africa, a documentary by blogger Miss Milli B has served as a platform to discuss the politics of black hair in its various styles and textures. Most recently, Hollywood’s new darling Lupita Nyong’o highlighted hair braiding as a cultural practice in a video for Vogue.
Shot in a salon in New York, we see Lupita showing off her braiding skills on her friends’ hair. She learnt the technique from her aunt when she moved to the United States. She’s been doing their hair for years, and the camaraderie between them is evident.
Among Lupita’s group of friends is Nontsikelelo Mutiti, a visual artist whose recent exhibition Ruka (Shona for to braid/to knit/to weave) examines the social function hair braiding has apart from the aesthetic.
Mutiti is a Zimbabwean-born artist and educator who works across disciplines – fine art, design and social practice. Her Ruka project was exhibited at Recess, a non-profit art space in Soho, New York from June 3rd to August 2nd . It included an installation and an exhibition of hair braiding across traditional and contemporary contexts.
I caught up with her recently to discuss the project.
What was the source and inspiration for Ruka?
I accompanied my cousin to get her hair done one Sunday afternoon in 2010. We went uptown to Harlem, New York. Upon arriving at the braiding salon I was struck at how much it reminded me of hairdressing spaces back home in Harare.
The bright walls, loaded conversations, hair dressing posters, the vendors coming in and out selling small items like socks, candy and makeup. It was fascinating for me to realise the way the women working in the space had created a facsimile of something ubiquitous at home. The women working in the salon were not from Zimbabwe; they were form different parts of West Africa.
Future visits to Harlem revealed the multitude of women that do this work in New York City. They line 125th Street, soliciting business from potential clients from street corners to the doorways of multi-story buildings shouting out: “Braiding? Braiding, Miss? I give you good price!”
What has been the reception to your work so far in the States, particularly in light of actresses like Lupita Nyong’o promoting the tradition of hair braiding in popular culture? I was glad that Lupita chose to highlight this cultural practice through a platform like Vogue. Giving visibility to the craft and taking ownership of this skill is a powerful statement that assigns value to braiding and braided hairstyles. There was a wonderful sense of community on set. On and off camera we shared personal experiences, advice and memories. It was wonderful to get my hair braided by Lupita. She is very good and I know how long it takes to build up these skills.
Braiding is not just about beauty; it is also about perseverance, trust and creativity. It is also such a generous act, spending time with someone, working on them. I hope the audience learnt all these things from the video. These ideas were certainly reinforced for me.
What has been the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in the process of connecting with a theme so pertinent to black female identity?
When we speak of black female identity we have two important themes pressing up against each other – gender and race.
Braiding is a means of adorning the body. Because of my socialisation I tend to imagine it as something associated with women, but looking at a range of cultures we find that people that identify as masculine also wear their hair braided.
Whilst discussing braiding and gender during a studio visit, Andrew Dosumno (an acclaimed Nigerian film director), mentioned that there are tribes in Nigeria where men who are involved in certain spiritual practices can wear braids.
It has been interesting to do this project at a time when people that identify as black in America are going ‘natural’. Braiding has become a very important grooming choice. There is something that feels akin to the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. People are choosing to sign their bodies with an aesthetic that refers to or acknowledges African heritage.
My observations have led me to consider how we read images of each other and what it means to emulate or aspire to a particular aesthetic. We are really using hair to mark our bodies and sign specific messages to each other: ‘I am proud of my ancestry’, ‘I will not be defined by western ideals of beauty’, ‘I am cosmopolitan’, ‘I am sophisticated’, ‘I have a range and breadth that goes beyond my traditional culture’. In the context of my home, Zimbabwe, we use braiding most often to add in new hair colour, texture and artificial length.
What has the audience reception been to your exhibition?
People coming into the space have really felt like collaborators more than an audience. The project emphasises community engagement and artistic research.
People have signed up for braiding workshops led by an invited facilitator. We have all felt empowered by the skills we have learnt. There are some of my older works as well as new sketches and collections of objects like combs, movies, fabrics and books, Nollywood and American movies in the space. The different elements that make up the installation have become wonderful tools for starting extremely meaningful, open conversations. Visitors have been very generous, sharing personal narrative or memories sparked by an object or image in the space.
Some people come in and are confused because they think it is a real hair salon. The project is playing with the boundaries between a few things. It is a salon and classroom and art studio, film screening room all at once. In essence that is what an African hair braiding salon is.
Will the exhibition be travelling to parts of Africa? How much more or less do you think it will it resonate with the audience here?
Doing this work in different communities is very important to me because I am not just making artwork; I am learning and sometimes teaching and sharing. I am sure the project will look and feel different depending on each iteration.The community have a big role in shaping what I make and get out of the experience. Because braiding has different connotations in different communities I am sure the work will read differently in different spaces. A range of interpretations makes for an even richer body of source material for continued research and art.
Have you found inspiration for your next exhibition?
The braiding project is ongoing. I am looking forward to starting a related publishing project and continuing to make new artworks based on different braiding patterns. I am also thinking of creating a dedicated space for continued practice and research around this craft.
I am developing a new series of video works titled Black Hair Aesthetic Study with my collaborator Shani Peters.
Jeanine Meyer, a colleague from Purchase College, is assisting me with coding online tools to teach a wider engage a wider audience in thinking and learning about the practice and cultural significance of braiding.
One project I am looking forward to is inspired by Dutch wax fabrics, another is about names.
My goal is to make work that can live in the world. It is wonderful to have institutional support for this type of work because it is not easy to fit all projects within a traditional gallery or museum setting. I look forward to other opportunities to share my work with people in formal and informal settings.
Following this year’s Oscar awards, the media was abuzz with John Travolta’s mispronunciation of an Oscar nominee’s name. He introduced Idina Menzel as the “wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem”. American-born Menzel, whose ancestry is Russian and Jewish, subsequently laughed off this faux pax, calling it “funny“. However, Travolta’s actions are indicative of a wider and more problematic practice of westerners regularly butchering international names that they are not familiar with. It has become somehow excusable for them to consistently get it wrong – and many will not even make an attempt to pronounce the name correctly. When it comes to African names in particular, this propensity to towards pronouncing foreign names ‘any old way and how’ seems to increase.
Africa has been treated with so much indifference over the years that a type of mental block emerges when Western journalists, talk show hosts, African country ‘experts’, and the general public are confronted with the African name. Africa is still very much the exotic ‘other’ in popular Western imagination. Therefore, names associated with Africa are perceived as somehow more exotic and different than other foreign names – leading to the perception that they are more so difficult to pronounce for Westerners. Consequently, it has become even more acceptable to accept the mispronunciation of African names.
Typically, people take great care to make sure they pronounce another person’s name correctly unless they don’t care or they make the error deliberately. African names are consistently placed outside of these social norms because they are the African ‘other’. In Sigmund Freud’s studies, he noticed that the aristocrats would subconsciously mispronounce the names of their physicians more than any other group. This was interpreted as a way for the aristocracy to keep physicians in their place and remind them of their own social prestige. In doing so, they were also effectively relaying the message that doctors were not important enough for them to bother pronouncing their names correctly. The continued mispronunciation of African celebrity names sends a similar message. Therefore the common practice of pronouncing a stranger’s name correctly seems to be lost, either because Africans are the exotic other with “difficult” names or because an individual simply doesn’t care enough to make an effort to get an African name right.
Lupita Nyong’o While much attention was paid to the grotesque mispronunciation of Menzel’s name at the Oscars, few paid attention to the continued mispronunciation of Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o’s name. It’s mispronounced on a daily basis by people in American media that either don’t bother – or make a half effort – to learn how to correctly pronounce it. Some have argued that the mispronunciation of her name stems from the way it is spelled. The apostrophe in Nyong’o has proven to be troubling to journalists who are thrown off by it and often omit or misplace it. However, they have no problems with foreign apostrophised Irish names such as O’Reilly and O’Brien.
Western media has somehow taken to pronouncing Lupita’s surname with a hard ‘g’ as is commonly used in Germanic languages such as the word ‘God’ in English – or ‘Gott’ in German. When prompted, Nyong’o has repeatedly informed the media that the ‘g’ in her surname is a silent or soft ‘g’ – as with ‘song’ in English or menge (crowd) in German. Logically then, if you can say “Song of [Solomon]”, then you can correctly pronounce Nyong’o. Perhaps out of desperation over the mental block adopted by the Western public who just can’t seem to “relate” to the exotic silent ‘g’, Nyong’o has gone as far as releasing a video to guide the media. This fell on deaf ears as media experts continued to pronounce it the way that is most comfortable for them. So it was almost inevitable that on one of the biggest nights of her life, her name was announced by Austrian Christoph Waltz with a hard ‘g’.
If it’s African, I can’t pronounce it Other African names such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and even Germanic African names such as golfer Louis Oosthuizen cause fumbles. Even African presidents are not immune. Many will recall how journalists struggled to correctly pronounce Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the name of his birthplace, Qunu. Those that could not pronounce these simply left them out. Omission seems to be a ready remedy to “difficult” names. Some may have noticed that the name of the so-called “fake sign language interpreter” at Mandela’s funeral, Thamsanqa Jantjie, was rarely used in media headlines and some television reporters avoided saying his name – they simply erased his name and hence identity.
In extreme cases, Westerners take insulting liberties with the pronunciation of African names to the point where they are not recognisable. Although he spent nine long months in the desert with Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, Irish actor Peter O’Toole did not make an effort to learn the stage name of his co-star. Rather than taking the time to ask him how to pronounce what can be considered a typical name for an African of Arab origin, O’Toole decided to call Sharif “Fred”, saying “no one in the world is called Omar Sharif”. His arrogant attitude is a clear example of how African names quickly become completely negated using ethnocentric lenses and justifications.
What’s in a name? A person’s name is important marker of their identity and it should be treated as such. One’s name is of enormous significance to both the individual and the naming system in their society. The Ashanti in Ghana give names based on kinship, day of the week and circumstances surrounding the birth or occupation. The Yoruba in Nigeria, give names based on the physical condition of the baby at birth, birth order, the family’s social status or professional affiliation. In other cultures it may have religious significance such as warding off evil spirits. In the Senegalese Muslim tradition, names like Malik (King) have religious symbolism. Similarly, Mahmoud (fulfillment) – another popular North African Muslim – has significant meaning. Regardless of when, why, or where it happens, the giving and receiving of a name is of major importance. To simply omit or mispronounce them is extremely problematic.
Since one’s name carries such significance, people generally resent the mispronunciation of their name. It amounts to a distortion and misrepresentation of their identity. Accidental distortions or mistakes in pronouncing a name can be irritating. However, deliberate mispronunciations and distortions of a name – whether conscious or not – are sizable insults. As more African celebrities appear on the international stage, Western media should familiarise and educate themselves on how to pronounce African names correctly.
Sitinga Kachipande is a blogger and PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech. Her interests include Africana studies, tourism, development, global political economy, women’s studies, identity and representation. Follow her on Twitter: @MsTingaK
Lupita Nyong’o, winner of the best supporting actress Oscar on Sunday, stunned Hollywood in her big-screen debut with her searing turn as an abused servant in 12 Years A Slave.
The Kenyan actress and Yale School of Drama graduate, who turned 31 on Saturday, has risen in a year from relative obscurity to Hollywood’s A list, winning plaudits for both her efforts on screen and her impeccable fashion sense.
Nyong’o has already picked up the Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards for best supporting actress for her turn as Patsey, a slave brutalised by her sadistic owner, played by Michael Fassbender.
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” a tearful Nyong’o said Sunday upon accepting her award, after receiving a standing ovation from the audience.
“When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
12 Years a Slave, by British director Steve McQueen – won the coveted best picture Oscar, beating eight fellow nominees – American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Unusual career choice Born in Mexico – the source of her Spanish name, and where her father was teaching political science at university – Nyong’o grew up in Kenya as the second of six children.
Acting is hardly a common career in Kenya for the child of a powerful politician, but her father, one-time health minister Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, said the family had always supported her dreams.
“She started acting very young, right from kindergarten, and even at home with just the family, she would come up with make-believe stories and perform them for us,” he told Kenya’s East African newspaper.
“She was always imaginative and creative.”
The career of Nyong’o – who now lives in the United States after studying at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and later at Yale – has been avidly followed by the media in her home nation, who remember her first major role on a television show.
She was inspired to follow an acting career after working as a production assistant on the 2005 drama “The Constant Gardener.” Actor Ralph Fiennes then told her only to get into acting if she couldn’t live without it.
“It’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s what I needed to hear,” she told Arise Entertainment in a recent interview.
First time lucky She struck gold with her first major role in 12 Years a Slave – a role she says she almost did not get because director Steve McQueen thought she “might be too pretty.”
Critics have hailed her turn in Patsey, which included some very difficult scenes, including one in which she is viciously whipped while tied to a pole.
“Acting is an exercise of deep trust in yourself and an exercise in letting go: Do [all of your preparation] and then trust that when the [filming] day comes, and you’re in the room with Michael Fassbender, what you need will come through,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
Nyong’o – who is now appearing in the thriller Non-Stop, starring Liam Neeson – faced many challenges at the start of her career.
“She told me there were already actors and actresses in the US, and the odds were against her. Her dark skin tone, her short hair, her Kenyan accent, her name,” recalls Kenyan actor Antony Mwangi, who worked with her in Nairobi.
Ahead of her triumph on Sunday night, Nyong’o said she hoped to inspire a new generation of black actresses.
“In many ways, me being on the scene is doing for little girls everywhere what Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg did for me,” she told Entertainment Weekly.
“My world exploded by them being on screen. Hopefully I will inspire and be meaningful to other people. But I can’t take on other people’s dreams for me. I can only dream for myself.”