Today on Man Around Nairobi we feature actor and director Martin Githinji. Martin Githinji is currently acting on the award-winning Show ‘Sue Na Jonnie’ as the title character ‘Jonnie’. His skills and experiences range from Acting to Directing, Script Writing to TV Presenting. Martin is pursuing an Education degree and he has majored in Theater Arts and Film Technology. He is now a creative and performing artist on stage and screen. With a performing history that spans a period of at least a quarter a century, he is one of the few artists who has wholly embraced the stage and the screen as a career choice in a country still setting a foundation in performance arts.
As a passionate storyteller and holistic individual, the 14 years of professional engagement in theatre and film has equipped Martin with the relevant skills to execute stories with a local, regional and international appeal.
Did you grow up in Nairobi?
No, I grew up in Texas. Yeap. Mimi ni wa kukam. Oh, and by Texas I’m referring to Isiolo county, not USA. But I was born in Nairobi’s Uhuru Estate. My parents lived in Eastleigh at the time of my birth, but I have no memory of the place. My youngest memories are in Isiolo. FYI, this should have been Man About Kiambu in my case, because I’m yet to move back to live in Nairobi since I reside in Kiambu County, but Kiambu Nairobi, Tomato Potatoe.
Growing up in Isiolo and coming to work later in Nairobi presented an interesting contrast of experiences. The people and the cultures. If you could visit Isiolo for a while, you’d know what I mean. (Isiolo County Tourism Board, let’s talk ?). Isiolo is a county filled with different and evident cultures unlike the City where the cultures erode in the name of modernity. Experiencing Borana, Somali, Maasai, Samburu, Turkana and or Meru traditions was a daily dose of joy. I see it as a daily dose of joy now that I don’t get to enjoy it in the city, back then it was my daily normal. I really do miss my childhood.
Something interesting I came to realize, the games we played in Isiolo were almost the same as the ones in Nairobi. I wondered when the children committee of games would meet, decide on the games and the names of the games and then distribute them to the various provinces, districts and divisions at the time of my childhood. Bano, rounder, kati, kalongo longo, etc. But a unique game I am sure only existed for us was ‘Shika Sungura!’ Take that in the literal sense of the name itself.
So, our school (Isiolo Hekima Primary School) happened to border a bushy savannah with wild animals (Snakes and burukenges included) that would once in an unfortunate while wander into the compound. No wild animal attack casualties reported in my years there thank God. If any wild animal found its way into the school, it was captured dead or alive. Capture alive was a category only reserved for the Hare. Note, not Rabbit, Hare. Google the difference, we got to experience it.
Picture this, it is 12:45 pm, the meanest baddest science teacher is boring us with a breakdown of the digestive system when a shout of “Sungura!” from 12 blocks away in class 3 would get all the way to our class 8 block and every pupil in the entire school of 3 streams each class would be out chasing the hare. It was more of luck than speed that contributed to capturing it if it ran towards you and tripped. Whoever would eventually catch it got to carry it home and enjoy it with their family. No teacher would be foolish enough to stop an entire family from enjoying a hearty wild hare dinner. Good times.
2. What do you love about Nairobi?
The variety. It’s the entire country squeezed into a small city. You find interesting characters from all walks of life. And the neck-turning, step-missing, eye-pleasing beauty of Nairobi women (cheza chini marto…) But where else would I have gotten the opportunity to be an actor if not for the Kenya National Theater and the growing theatre and Arts industry?
Nairobi has grown the careers of Size 8 to Njugush, Mtoto wa Eunice to Kate Actress. Nairobi values the content above all, and it forgets to promote outsiders at times, but when Nairobi loves you, the entire country will love you. Remember me mentioning that Nairobi is the entire country squeezed into a small city? That means we have representation from every corner of the country. You carry their hearts and minds, and Nairobi will reward your talent.
3. What would you change about Nairobi?
Is this a trick question?
The lack of confidence walking in town with a nice weave without risking your head (Sorry ladies) and or ear from a phone snatch (kwanza me and my ears, sigh)
The systems that govern activities in the city.
Did I mention the traffic? Oh. Ok. Just for good measure, the traffic!!
Also, as an artist, I’d hope for more people to invest in our craft more. As opposed to waiting for free YouTube videos, can we just buy the album and pay for it full price? Can we go watch plays? Can we subscribe to platforms like Showmax, Viusasa and Iflix that have local content as opposed to asking for YouTube uploads? The platforms will pay ensuring the actors are paid better. Can we pay for pay tv platforms as opposed to only depending on the free to air stations for local content? If you want good quality, pay for it, you will get it. Let’s circulate money within the city. That 100 bob you spend on me might end up back in your pocket by me spending in your business.
4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi?
I am glad I ended up in Nairobi at the time I did, otherwise, I don’t think Isiolo had at the time a budding performing arts industry. I have really enjoyed the advancements I’ve made in my work (thanks Nairobi) but the small victories did not come without their struggles (thanks again Nairobi)
First, there’s the hustle to get your first job where those more experienced than you will always have first priority.
Long side note alert. Many up and coming actors really complain about this; the preference by directors and producers of choosing those that have been there and with experience against giving new ones opportunities. It is a very one-sided complaint. Wacha nirushe mawe hapa. So you wanted them to get that experience and use it at home ama? Wewe ni mgeni kwa sasa, your next job hautakuwa. Ukatolewa hata wewe juu ya up and coming utafeel aje? Na sio eti juu you’ve done anything wrong, they just tell you to move aside for the newbie. Let me ask, what’s the need of gaining the experience if you’ll be told “Ah, wewe ni celeb tunakuonaga sana, kaa kando, they want new faces.”
Then later after audiences watch the product, they complain about lack of quality in the show and the producer and director complain about lack of professionalism in the actors. But you sidelined the professional ones! They cannot offer their professional experience to your product and also can’t mentor the up and coming ones. See the cycle? Hey, there is space for everyone in this here industry. Let your work sell you. This industry is one with no official retirement age or entry age. Don’t come in with the intention to push someone out so as to get their spot as yours. Can’t we all just get along?! I digressed, where was I? Oh, the hustle.
So you get your first gig, do your best then you choose to either let that job you did speak for you or you intently continue looking for more jobs. Option B is the best. By the time the first gig speaks for you, you should have 5 of them already in your resume.
This is the industry where to start out, you have to do a lot for nothing (then again that’s common in all jobs I guess). By the time you get to be a household name, some of us have had to do a lot of jobs, while some got that 1 big job that grew them to where they are right now. Sheer luck. It’s a coin flip in most cases, but one thing is for sure. Your hard work and determination to improve your skill and talent will definitely pay off in this industry. The audience is very smart, passion can be detected from a mile away.
Then we have those who succeeded, got the big bucks and have nothing to show for it. Big money can shock you if you don’t have the capacity to handle it by the way. We’ve had artists dealing with addiction to drugs and substances, others are not very good financial managers. That’s why artists need agents and managers, we handle the craft, they handle our lives. Multitasking is hard mazeh!
The other challenges are in terms of policies and guidelines. Things like minimum wage, welfare, etc. The arts industry is all over, for example beyond the streams of acting vs music, we have within acting itself stage and screen acting. Within screen we have TV and Film, which now we have options of the internet platform, pay TV and Free to air. Different issues are handled at different levels, hence a government hand in securing our rights would be a welcome improvement. As it is now, we are slowly tackling the issues we can using our guilds in collaboration with government bodies that can help in policy formulation and actualization.
On the upside, it is great to be a performer in Nairobi especially when it comes to audience feedback. So far Nairobi is the most open to the arts, brutally and honestly to a fault, but we could and can do better in terms of support as mentioned earlier. Don’t wait for Sauti Sol to hit in Norway or Martin Githinji to hit in Naija and SA for Kenyans to say, “That is our person by the way, we know and love them.” But so far, we have people living off of the Arts, buying Range Rovers and BMWs and Proboxes from Kenyan money by Kenyans! Weh! It is amazing to think that this was an area that most of our parents shuddered at the thought of their child being engaged in. Some of us have struggled to convince our parents that it is viable as a career and what’s wrong with passion feeding us? It has been a struggle, but again, we have overcome!!
5. If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?
I want to avoid saying the National Park because Nairobi is more than that. Ah, here we go.
Live Bands performing somewhere in the city every weekend is apparently a big deal to the western tourists – I think we got used to the hustle of it and don’t sit to treasure that. I discovered this from an European visitor.
The opportunities of business ventures on River Road would definitely excite a friend from the Eastern part of the world, those not already building our roads and railway at least.
Drats, the National Park I guess. It is a spectacular experience I must admit.