The story of the late actor Jastorina: Why are Kenyan actors dying poor?

Jastorina, Mzee Ojwang and Derrick Amunga [Photo: Courtesy]

Following the deaths of actors Nancy Nyambura (Justorina) and Derrick Amunga (Master Sugu) in 2014, details emerged that the two were ‘doing badly.’

The sad thing is that fans believe that anyone who regularly appears on TV must be doing well financially.

It thus came as a surprise that the two artists were being housed by other people – Nyambura by her uncle, Amunga by a friend, Samson Odhiambo. Amunga had returned to Nairobi after six weeks in his Kakamega shagz.

Besides entertaining Kenyans on the silver screen, our performing artists lead a life of penury. What went wrong? What is it with local actors always languishing in poverty?

The Nairobian went behind the scenes for a peek into the rough and tumble of theatre and film industry.

Jastorina [Photo: Courtesy]

Kamau wa Ndung’u, who was involved in the casting of the award-winning movie, ‘Nairobi Half Life,’ says that artists cannot afford to rest on their laurels at whatever cost.

“You have to keep on working at it, even when you think you are successful,” he says, adding, “There is a problem among some local artists, who after a few appearances here and there, think they are big stars and should just sit back and wait for projects to automatically come their way.”

Kamau, currently with Film Crew In Africa, gives the example of Hollywood stars who enlist the services of agents who are continuously on the lookout for projects.

“Some artists, once they start getting recognised, think they are now ‘celebs’ and become big-headed,” says Kamau. “I have come across actors who think they should not be subjected to auditions.”  Kama adds that, “Then there is the issue of perceptions, where artists tend to live beyond their means simply because society expects them to lead a flashy lifestyle.

A snippet from Nairobi Half Life [Photo: Courtesy]

“They end up accumulating huge debts in an attempt to impress and be seen to living in the ‘right’ neighbourhood and  driving the ‘right’ cars. In the end, no producer or director would want to work with such conceited artists. Soon, they find themselves without shows and without money,” explains Kamau.

James Chanji, aka Mshamba, says alcoholism is one other thing that brings down careers in theatre.

“I have seen brilliant acting careers go down the drain when artists turn to alcohol,” he says. “Alcohol has never solved any problem, if anything, it makes things worse. When the money is not coming as expected, and they are unable to live up to the public’s expectations, they turn to alcohol for solace.”

Mshamba [Photo: Courtesy]

He adds that artists need, as a matter of urgency, training in financial literacy, if they are to keep their heads above the water.

“Occasionally, artists get paid good money, however, there are dry days when good money is hard to come by,” says Chanji. “They should invest this money wisely instead of squandering it on showy lifestyles.”

Kamau and Chanji agree that stage acting, as opposed to appearing in movies and TV, does not pay, and that the only people who make money are the producers and directors.

“Ideally, artists are supposed to be paid for rehearsals – which can take up to a month – but the reality is that they don’t get paid for that,” says Chanji, “and when the show runs, the most an actor can get, assuming the show has been successful, is Sh16,000. That is not good enough for a month’s effort.”

Kamau is of the opinion that Kenyan actors need counseling on how best to manage their celebrity status and public perception that is complicated in that their status never corresponds to their earnings.

“We need to be humble since you are the same person you’ve been before becoming a big name. If Clint Eastwood is in his 80s and still acting, where does that leave those in the business in their 20s?...It means you have not made it yet.”

Lack of humility, Kamau discloses, sees local stars avoiding auditions because they think they are famous, yet “David Craig consults the director, attends auditions, reads scripts, with all the James Bond films to his name. Living in a fool’s paradise won’t take us far.”