Recent news of veteran comedian Benson Wanjau ‘Ojwang Hatari’ being sickly and ‘abandoned’ after 40 years of entertaining Kenyans tugged at the heartstrings of many.
Although the government has pledged to clear all Mzee Ojwang’s bills, the situation has, once again, exposed artists as the perennial ‘people of the abyss.’
They are high-flyers one moment and rock bottom strugglers the next. But this case, however sad, is not unique. Last year, Nancy Nyambura ‘Justorina’, who in life, could not afford to pay rent and was being housed by her uncle. In another heart-wrenching case, Derrick Amunga was found dead after being knocked by a hit-and-run car at night.
Amunga had returned to Nairobi and was living with a friend after a stint upcountry when he found himself in between the cracks of life. “The biggest problem with many actors is the fact that they don’t invest in their future while they are still doing well, and that is the reason why we have so many cases like this,” Ainea ‘OJ’ Ojiambo, a veteran actor, told The Nairobian. “They don’t invest in medical insurance, property or business yet some are paid really well,” he added. “The problem is that some actors spend on expensive household goods and live large,” notes OJ who featured in the Hollywood movie The Constant Gardner.
“All directors should emulate Eppie Matere who used to save some of the actors’ salaries on their behalf during the shooting of Kona.With every actor getting Sh250,000, Eppie would pay the actors half their salaries and retain the rest for them, so that they all had something substantial after the project,” says OJ.
He highlights the sometimes wasteful nature of the actors through the story of Sidede Onyulo, famed for his role as Owuor in Caroline Link’s 2003 film, Nowhere in Africa. Sidede would reportedly book himself into presidential suites in five-star hotels until he had no money left. He died a pauper.
Another actor said to have led a similar lavish lifestyle was Joseph Olita after appearing in Sharad Patel’s 1981 film, The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin. Part of the Sh25,000 he was paid at the time was spent at the then New Stanley Hotel.
In his last days, the actor had to hawk DVDs on Nairobi streets just to get by. But Ojiambo’s fellow actor Raymond Ofula differs and says that blaming Mzee Ojwang’s, or any other actor’s misfortune on failure to invest is unfair. “I have seen comments that Mzee Ojwang’ is suffering because he did not invest, but I don’t agree with that. Kenyan actors are paid peanuts and Mzee Ojwang’ might not have had the money to invest in the first place,” Ofula points out. “Acting on television or in movies give actors this larger-than-life image, with society expecting them to lead particular lifestyles.”
“Actors are enactors of ideas that make us relax and enjoy ourselves, which is not an easy thing to do. They bring new light to people,” explains David Mulwa, an actor and lecturer at Kenyatta University. “We have developed a culture of glorifying politicians yet actors and entertainers rank higher than politicians because they unite rather than divide the nation.” He adds: “We all wait for them to die for us to sing their praises and shed crocodile tears at their gravesides. We have relegated our artistes to an afterthought.”
Others whose careers ended in misery include Sammy Muya ‘Masanduku arap Simiti,’ the former star of Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani, who died in 1998; Othorong’ong’o ‘Danger’ (Joseph Anyonga); Amka Twende (Benjamin Otieno) and Otoyo Obambla (Samuel Mwangi).