Today on Man Around Nairobi we feature William Wamae. William Wamae is an actor, comedian, Emcee, voice artist, scriptwriter and filmmaker based in Nairobi, Kenya. His passion for acting has seen him appear in numerous local films and series such as Mother-in-law and briefcase Inc. He has appeared in the International Netflix series Sense 8 and appeared in Commercials for CBA, Radio Maisha and Google just to name a few. He was also a part of biggest storytelling event in Nairobi too early for birds and part of the critically acclaimed play we won’t forget. He also appeared in the Academy award qualifying short film Watu Wote.
He is the founder of Friends of comedy that has allowed him to organize comedy events with him appearing on stage as a stand-up comedian and an improviser. He organized such an event in 2016, Comedy/Improv night with Upright Citizen Brigade (UCB) performer Cara Hayes that was successful in showcasing the growing comedy scene in Nairobi.
- Did you grow up in Nairobi?
Yes, I was born in this great city. I’m what people refer to as born tao. We first lived in Dandora and I had the best time of my life there. I remember I would leave very early in the morning to go play and my mum would joke about how I took it seriously as if it was my job. Dandora had many kids at the time and we always had different games happening simultaneously like three sticks, chobo ua, kati and there was Kafunix that involved hitting a coin on the wall and if it comes close enough to the coins placed on the ground you win the money. Kati used to be my other favourite because I was always playing with girls. Now I play the game of life (I apologize to anyone reading this interview).
Our adventures involved buildings under construction, swimming in the river and abandoned tyres that we’d pour water inside and use that as lubricant to race each other. We were one big family. We knew each other’s parents and wherever lunch time found you that’s where you would eat. I feel bad for kids growing up now because you can tell they have no fields as any open land is used for real estate purposes.
Early 2000s we moved to Pumwani as my dad got housing where he was working. It was a controlled setting compared to Dandora but we still had fun the few homes that were there. Most of the kids were around my age and we’d spend most of our time outside playing sports. This is where I first fell in love and broke my arm, they are not related. Answering this question has been a nostalgic trip for me. My childhood was a lot of fun.
- What do you love about Nairobi?
I’ve grown up with this city. We are on a journey together. My age dictates what I discover about her. The city of dreams.
I always feel like I have a shot as long as I’m in Nairobi. If I work smart the dream is achievable. In terms of filmmaking, the essential stuff happens in Nairobi like Pre-production and that’s where you come in as actor. Most production houses have set camp here so it’s very easy to network and find out what’s happening and what new projects are coming up. This is also where most of the auditions take place. Unless the script demands a different location most of the shooting happens here.
It amazes me how we can have so much happening in such little space. We live in a very tight ecosystem so one is treated to extremes on a daily basis. You’ll find a kibanda opposite a five star hotel. The rich and poor sometimes occupy spaces that are very close to each other. You just need to leave Nairobi to realize how important it is to your success. Nairobi demands you to be better and to improve every day.
Girls. Anyone will tell you we have really beautiful women here.
I grew up around Gikomba so I love thrifting. Clothes are a form of expression for me. As an actor it provides the best place to go costume shopping. You can find anything. There was this time I was into the rocker look and it provided me with everything from boots to the leather jackets. It was there with me through the skinny jeans phase. It allowed me to look stylish on a very tight budget. Some of the most stylish people in this city started from Gikomba or second hand clothes.
- What would you change about Nairobi?
People’s perception to filmmaking. It’s very hard to have a set running smoothly in Nairobi unless it’s a big budget project. Locations and licenses are very expensive and this directly affects the quality of the work produced because you end up having to compromise. People need to stop seeing filmmakers as cash cows and more as business people creating opportunities. This goes out to city council officials. They are known to always harass creatives working in the CBD. The truth is these are young people that are trying to be better at what they are doing and grow their art form.
The transport system and our attitude towards change. We have a growing city that keeps receiving people but we keep giving our problems a blind eye. Transport is one such area. We all want to own a car and in the end we spend so much time on the roads it’s sickening. We are losing essential time and money in traffic. This has brought along with it lack of courtesy and general lack of discipline on our roads.
We also don’t like change and this can clearly be seen in our leadership choices. This in turns affects everything about this city from crime, cleanliness, justice, efficiency of services and development projects. We have so much working against us on a daily basis and it’s time we realize that we deserve the best.
- As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
It can be better. It has improved a lot in the last few years and I see more opportunities for artists but the pay has not improved.
The acting scene is unregulated. As talent we’re always the least protected when it comes to con producers and bad contracts. It’s very easy for one to be duped especially when they don’t have someone advising them on what to do.
At the moment Nairobi is the only place you can make a living as an actor. Everything happens here. It offers a ready audience and the appreciation for art has been on the rise in the recent past. Opportunities are more as foreign filmmakers are coming to set up shop here like the way Netflix did with sense 8. We should take it as a challenge to start looking at film as a way to grow the economy. We can certainly improve the structures in the different art forms when it comes to representation and collecting royalties but we are on our way there. We have the actors’ guild so we’re working towards better representation, compensation and recognition even from government.
Pay creatives on time. It’s frustrating to wait months for payment.
- 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?
Food. I’m constantly thinking about food so this would be the first thing I tell them. Ronalo restaurant is one place I always make sure to take a first time visitor to Nairobi. The array of delicious African food on offer is mind-blowing. Always ask for chapati. People are always talking about Sonford but I’d like to bring their attention to Rogers chicken and chips on the same street as you’re headed towards khoja. Their fries and bhajia are addictive. Try it out.
Thrift markets like Gikomba that have everything under the sun.
The Nairobi National Park. You think you’ve seen the city until you make your way to the Nairobi National park and you see all these animals so close to the city. There is nothing like it.