She was seated at a spot on a feature movie set busying herself with her script as any actor would. Her feet were up and it would have been a good time but the sun was scorching so hard, slowly sapping the much needed energy for her next scene. After contemplating between comfort and conserving her energy, she decided to move to another spot. Just before she did, a crew member, Atoni, came and asked her to remain seated. He and other crew members pitched up shade for her. This only got her pumped for the scene. The next day she took to Facebook to share her experience that was celebrated by those who know of her or her work. The gesture by the Supa Modo crew took her by surprise.
“It’s not something I had experienced before so I didn’t know it. It’s not the norm. Another friend called me after she saw the post and reminded me that that’s how I should be treated as an actor. At first I was surprised then I got to the point where I agreed that I actually deserved it.”
It was only fair for the team to take care of their lead character.
Marrianne Nungo is a prolific actor who has been in the scene for the last decade. She started out as an extra and went ahead to play lead and supporting roles in feature films, plays, movies and TV shows. With that has come experiences on different sets some of which she was not treated well.
“On some sets you are not fed. Sometimes there is no drinking water.”
When she got the call to confirm her role in Supa Modo, she was excited and she had all the reasons to. The movie was produced by One Fine Day film in partnership with Ginger Ink who together have a track record of successfully, producing quality and high budget films like Nairobi Half Life and Soul Boy.
The company was also part of the highly acclaimed but now sadly cancelled Sense 8. The movie provided a platform for her that she prays will thrust her onto the international scene. Supa Modo was born out of the inaugural writers’ workshop, ‘Brain room’ that was held at the beginning of this year (2017). The movie whose release will be in 2019, had one of the highest production budgets seen in the Kenyan film industry.
“When I think of every Oscar award winning actor, they begin with a good script, an amazing director and a good team behind them. I had that opportunity with Supa Modo to be the best version of myself as an actor.”
Nungo is a method actor, a skill that involves drawing emotion from personal experiences so as to be as close to the character as possible. In 2015 Trizah Wahinya and I shared the Phoenix Players Theatre stage with Nungo in a thriller directed by Martin Kigondu. In the play Nungo was the more sensitive daughter who came back when her mother fell sick, only for her to bear her elder sister’s anger (played by Trizah).
I was the demented mother who lost her mind and eventually died. Being on stage with Nungo kept me on my toes because I could never predict her move. What that did for Trizah and I, was push us to continuously be better as we fed off her energy. On one particular night, just as we edged closer to the climactic scene in the play, where I die, Nungo bit me. I am not talking the little nibble that lovers use to tease. No. The hard, going-for-the-jugular bite. No blood was shed thankfully. That is who Nungo is when she is on any set or stage. Intense.
It is a skill she has perfected since the inception of her career.
Nungo completed her high school in 2005 after postponing it from 2004 due to financial strain. Her mother became a single parent after she was separated from her now deceased father. Following his death they were not entitled to his wealth because Nungo’s mother had not borne any sons. Her mother walked away without a fight despite being married in a traditional wedding. Nungo sat at home awaiting her results before deciding on her next move. When they came out she had failed miserably.
“I can count how many times I was in school throughout my high school. It was not because I was rebellious or anything sinister, it was just the lack of finances”.
Poor results meant that she needed to bridge some courses before being admitted to any college which they could not afford. Her cousin who worked at Unity College of Professional Studies (UCPS) got her a sponsorship for an IT packages course which got her off the couch for a while. She then tried for a job in the service industry as a waitress.
In one of the jobs she made Kes.150/- a day by washing the dishes. She soon quit after she met a couple of her late father’s friends who got handsy with her. They had prodded her on her background and that’s how they discovered that she was her father’s daughter. They called her father ‘Lord’ because he was a wealthy business man. He came from a long line of money that it was rumoured that his great grandfather lit a jiko using money. Pablo Escobar style.
“I saw my father in them. Everything I had heard about my father was confirmed at that point. That is the last day I worked there. I remember they kept saying nyathi Lord (daughter of Lord) cannot work here as a waitress. They did not do anything after that besides leave me a Kes.70 tip.”
“After I left my job a friend had a catering business where she delivered food to offices. She asked me to help her out and that is when I learned how to cook chapatis, mukimo and things like that. Sadly, that business closed down because most people were on a tab and did not pay up.”
After that went down the hill she was back home. Afterwards a friend informed her that there were auditions being held at the Kenya National Theatre. When they got there, not only were there no auditions on the day, but the cast had long travelled on performances across the country. On the notice board they saw a poster for a DaFactory club event organized by Kenya Performing Arts Group (KPAG) that was held every Friday. They joined the group immediately.
At DaFactory Club one presented their craft to fellow artists. There they were afforded a platform, an audience and feedback on their craft. It is in this space that she interacted with top talent like Jonhson Mwakazi and Eko Dyddah. That was their acting school. The group became bigger so they moved from Ukumbi mdogo where DaFactory was hosted, to the Mugumo tree right in the heart of the compound of the theatre.
Together with her two friends they continued to script, act and produce zero budget productions to showcase at the club. It was while performing at the Mugumo Tree that Elly Yang (Elly Buliba Omukubi), her childhood friend who was seated at the Wasanii restaurant spotted Nungo. He introduced her to Eric Ndung’u (Fanaka Arts).
Eric had his set book productions at the Kenya National Theatre that year. The auditions ran concurrently with rehearsals that included daily eliminations leaving the chosen few. A process that took three months.
“My name was always last on the list and I only had one line from the book Coming to Birth and they hardly ever got to my scene.
One day the lead actress in the different set book plays got a better job with the magazine, Insyder, two weeks to the opening show. One of the directors resigned to the fact that only Nungo was there to step into the roles for by literally saying, “Acha tupatie iki kidame hatuna otherwise. (Let her have the roles we have no choice)”
Being an extreme introvert Nungo had no say in the matter. She went home and worked on her lines with her mother who was excited that her daughter’s shell had begun to crack. Nungo had the lines when she went for rehearsals but she could not utter a word on stage. Her failure to be exceptional pissed off the whole cast and crew. By some odd luck she retained the roles till the opening of the show. That’s when all hell broke loose, in a very good way. Nungo got on stage and lost herself in her characters.
“People on stage with me looked at me like I had lost my mind. Other actors watched me “from the wings. My voice and body did things even I cannot explain. For the first time my voice was bigger than me or anything I had ever heard. That’s when I knew I could pursue it without fear”.
“When did you know you could act?”
“When I was 11 years old. I was picked by the teacher in charge of drama but I refused to do it. I asked my mother to step in but she never showed up the next day. I ended up doing it. The adrenaline I felt while on stage was so good but I never pursued again till I got into it professionally at Kenya National Theatre.”
One of her surreal moments in her career is when she got to be on TV with her mother. She described the feeling as bittersweet because her mother got to see her do what she did best. The downside was her mother hearing set lingo that is sometimes littered with profanities. Also the director in Nungo was paranoid about her mother’s performance that she subconsciously wanted her mother to be excellent at the first go. However Nungo’s mother did not have as much experience as her.
I asked her on what the most memorable thing that she has done so far. For feature film she said that Supa Modo took the cup for how it pushed and exposed to another level of excellence. Her performance in the play Killing Time that was directed by Gilbert Lukalia, her mentor and co-star in the play, is one she holds very dear.
“I am always asking him what content he is engaging with so that I learn from him.”
Her role in Lies that bind (Stacy Juma) was her longest running character on TV and one that she has tried to shake off. To date if someone calls out Stacy she turns to check whether it’s her who is being called. Acting with Hollywood actor Benjamin Onyango in the series The Wives as the lead character is also one of her most memorable characters.
Having shared a stage with her, I always wondered memories she channeled that allowed her to lose herself in her performances. She has had her challenges but one of them was a tough loss that almost broke her.
Nungo did not start dating till she turned 19 years old. Unfortunately, before she did not enjoy their relationship as her boyfriend died when she was in form four (April, 2005). She met him towards the end of 2004 that was perfect timing as she had promised herself not to date till she turned 18.
“Of course that messed me up”.
He worked for a top company in their Nairobi offices and was later transferred to their Kisumu branch. That was followed by an opening in South Africa and being aggressive, he was given the position in South Africa. He was scheduled to move down south in April when he met his death.
“He was supposed to come back home, be with the family for the Easter Holidays, pack and leave.”
His pending promotion pricked a few people among them Ken (not his real name) his colleague, who had been in the company longer. Ken began feeding him small doses of mercury in his food. Brian never suspected anything. Ken was a friend who usually invited him for dinner like bachelors do. They were released from work on a Wednesday to give them ample time for travel back home. On the very last day Ken asked Brian to remain behind and help him with some work. Brian agreed. On that evening he fed him the largest dose of mercury. After the dinner Brian went back home and that is when his body began to act up.
He called the office for help but everyone had left for the Easter holidays. Brian managed to get himself to Aga Khan Hospital. When he got there he could not get surgery done because he did not have someone to sign a permit for surgery. His family being too far away, no one could help him besides Ken. He called him and when the latter showed up he refused to authorize his surgery.
Brian eventually called home and got a hold of his mother and sister. Being a holiday there were no buses to travel to Kisumu. They managed to get a ride on Sunday only to get to Kisumu on Monday morning. Brian died in his sister’s arms on a Tuesday morning. He threw up black substances that were as a result of burned intestines. The post mortem results confirmed the burns and that is how the family knew that he had been ingesting mercury that had slowly eaten him up.
“How did you know Ken killed him?”
“Luos have a belief that if your death is not of natural causes, you can ask the deceased who killed them. The belief is that the ear is the last body part to die. So the aunties will come and speak into the ear of the deceased and ask them to reveal their murderer. That’s what his aunties did.”
Six months after Brian was laid to rest, Ken went bonkers, walked into Brian’s rural home and confessed his wrongs to his (Brian’s) mother.
After the burial Nungo was back home in Nairobi when she heard someone call her thrice in the house yet she was alone. She shared the incident with her mother who advised her to go back to Brian’s home and grieve him. She lived with his sisters up until his family was ready to come back to Nairobi. Brian had once shared with Nungo that he felt he would never make it to his 26th birthday owing to his family’s history of sickle cell anemia.
How they met
It was a Sunday on one of the many times she had been chased home for school fees. While taking a walk on 3rd Ngong Avenue, Upperhill towards Loreto Convent Msongari, she was catcalled by a group of young men.
“Hey you,” One of them beckoned her. It was Brian.
She ignored them but he decided to catch up with her. He quickly apologized for being rude, introduced himself and expressed his interest in her. She said that she was just visiting family and would soon leave for her home in Uganda. He gave up.
That was a half-truth. She schooled in Uganda as she could not get a spot in any of the high schools she had picked. Her KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) results though fair did not meet the required pass mark to join her schools of choice. The schools that considered her, asked for a hefty bribe that her mother declined to pay. With that she was shipped to a Ugandan Muslim school.
Six months later she bumped into him again early in the morning as she was coming from escorting her mother to the bus stop. At this point he did not remember her even after she greeted him. Weeks later they met again at the bus stop on a Saturday. This time he remembered her and engaged Nungo and her sister. That was followed by him doing research on Nungo since he only saw her on that one path that led to the bus stop.
Brian only knew of Nungo’s younger sister Melissa. The catch however was that there was two ladies named Melissa in the area. After going to the wrong house the first time, he showed up at their door. Nungo opened the door. Brian was comfortable in their home and used the ‘I was around the neighbourhood’ pick up line. Nungo had never brought a boy home so after they chatted for a short while she asked him to leave. That only worked for that day because after that he came to their home every single day.
Nungo did not warm up to him immediately. Brian countered that by charming everyone else in their household besides her. He was jovial, lovable and a great conversationalist so it came easy for him. At one point he offered to pay her school fees but she declined. That did not deter him from his usual routine of leaving work, going to Nungo’s home till midnight and then proceed to go home. Even if he had been sent for bread for the four o’clock tea, it would be delivered late in the night. They were together for nine months before he met his death.
“How do you feel about Ken right now?”
“I hated him for a very long time. I would not know his face today. What aches me to date is that Brian left without saying something to me. We wrote letters back and forth when he moved to Kisumu. He refused to write them because he felt his handwriting was bad, so he typed them. In the last one he said that there were three words he wanted to ask me in person. He had said ‘I love you’ so many times and a marriage proposal is a four letter word so that’s not it. I will never know”
In the middle of our conversation we deviated to some girl talk and laughed our hearts out in our little corner. As intense and pleasantly unsettling as she is, once comfortable, Nungo glows in laughter. I quickly drew us back. The story was not done.
Brian treated Nungo like a queen. He is the benchmark that many have tried to follow. She admitted that though she tried to move on, there are still subtle reminders of his life, including one of her email addresses in his name.
Let’s talk faith
When I asked her how she stays grounded despite traumatic memories and every day challenges, she attributed it to her faith. Nungo is a born again Christian who gave her life to Christ on the 2nd February 2014. She loved God as a child and teenager but took a 9 year detour due to the influence of the theatre culture. The only time she went to church was for funeral services and one wedding. She either buried a friend, colleague or relative. Death lingered everywhere around her.
“I knew one day it would be me in the casket and that is when I chose to pursue God. I reached out to my friends and asked them if we can pursue God and just get to know him. We planned to go for a service and agreed on the details. As we got closer to Sunday they slowly bailed out but I knew my conviction was personal. I applied the famous saying our teachers’ shared, alone you came through this gates and alone you will leave.”
Before the shift, she had a yearning that no one or nothing could fill. Her family transitioned from having a bit of money to being broke and eventually homeless at one point. They went through a period of rejection from people she thought would help them. The silver lining was when she got so much love from unexpected people. It is during this time that she knew something had to give.
“I never found what I was looking for. Not in money, alcohol, nothing. I once downed 19 bottles of Black ice and over 20 shots of Tequila and Sambuca and I walked home without losing my way. I would wake up to vodka in the morning. I lived in anxiety and fear of death. I was scared of sleeping for fear of not waking up. That was a reflection of the turmoil in me. “
She lived in Ruaka and at the time she did not know of any church near her home. She however recalled that on her route to town she always saw a group of people headed somewhere.
“It was a lonely long road with many women walking together. I was in the shower when I saw the lonely road with women in my mind just as I had seen it before. I made the decision to follow them on the Sunday I had purposed to go to church. I did not have any details besides that fact that the road was always on the left side of the bus.
I got to Stima Plaza and screamed at the conductor to stop the bus and I followed the last person till I got the church. I found the second service just about to begin. The pastor that day was Pastor Morris Gacheru and his sermon title was Alone with Christ. That was it for me. My confirmation. I still remember the sermon word for word. I felt a quenching that I could not explain.”
Prior to going to JCC Nairobi on that day, she had never heard or read anything on the church and did not know who Bishop Allan Kiuna and Reverend Kathy Kiuna were. This was at a time when there was a lot of buzz on the church both for and against it. After church, she checked her phone as she would any other day only to find her newsfeed with featured stories that painted the church in bad light.
“I did not know who they were before that day. It’s like there was a shield from any negative stories about them. I watched them both preach and it just did not reflect what I read.”
“Have you turned down any roles because of your faith?”
“Yes but it does not bother me. It’s my choice. It’s the path I chose. I do not do kissing roles, sex scenes or anything that does not feel right. This does not come from a point of judgment, it is a personal journey.”
Despite her streak of good performances, Nungo is still hard on herself. She has always felt that she can do better. One of her biggest worries is monotony. I differ with that because Nungo is an intense actor and sometimes your roles pick you i.e. Voila Davis who she would love to work with.
“One mistake you made any actor should avoid.”
“Always ask for your copy of the contract. Do not start a job without a copy of the contract. My very first commercial did not pay well but I knew more would come. I was new at it so when I asked for a contract but did not get it, I did not push. To date my friends send me shots of the images from the Ad on banners and calendars. I saw it on a magazine once and pursued it but they could not follow it up because I do not have my copy of the contract. I am thinking of approaching them again.”
The Ad that she referred to here was dubbed ‘Kata Shauri’ and was done under the ministry of health to raise awareness on the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV and STIs.
Nungo wants to own a production house one day. She wants to do different. Create a world where she would comfortably let her children choose the arts without fear of finances or disrespect. She knows that in her she carries a vision that will change how art is done in this country. I don’t doubt that.
“For me I am proving that I can do this, whatever you give me.”
With that we dashed to another restaurant for a cup of tea which changed to ice cream.
We have been nominated for a Bloggers Association Awards of Kenya (BAKE) award under the Creative Writing category. Can you believe that? Even I feel like I am dreaming. Let’s bag this thing. On the Home page, top right column you will see a BAKE nominee badge, click on it and you can vote. Thank you. Your time and support is appreciated.