• Industry

Authentic African Women’s Stories: Animator Ng’endo Mukii

Animator Ng’endo Mukii found her authentic African voice outside her home country of Kenya. She left Africa to study at Rhode Island School of Design in the US, and also holds a Master of Arts in Animation from the Royal College of Art in London. Coming home to Kenya, she saw her country and her people from a new perspective and was able to tell their stories in her animation work – like Yellow Fever, Nairobi Berries and now Kesho Pia Ni Siku (Tomorrow is Another Day) – in a more authentic way. As she says, “I feel I understand myself as a Kenyan and as an African more by being outside.”

Today, she is excited about participating in the 10-part anthology project Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, coming out on Disney+ in 2022, which is inspired by the African continent’s diverse histories and stories. We spoke to Ng’endo Mukii (accompanied by her cat Chairman, who takes his name literally and believes he is in charge of everything) from her home in Nairobi.

You are part of the 10-part anthology project Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, which is inspired by the African continent’s diverse histories and stories and comes out on Disney+ in 2022. What can you tell us about this collaborative animation project?

I’m super excited to be part of this anthology. I cannot speak in detail about my story, Enkai, at this time. But I can say that it’s the first time in my life that I have a big team working around me, and it’s very exciting. I have never felt so validated and appreciated as an artist. Usually, I’m fighting with myself and arguing with myself over the script, the storyboard, the animation. Debating with myself “can I do it better?” and I am like: “No! I am tired, leave me alone!” (laughing.) But now, I’m working with these incredible artists and I have my own vision. We have meetings and we discuss back and forth, and, slowly by slowly, something begins to form. Then one day my characters are there, and they’re so beautiful. They encapsulate some sort of divine Grace – or power, femininity and African authenticity. It’s the kind of animated character I would have absolutely loved to have seen when growing up. As an African girl or woman, it’s the kind of imagery that reminds us that we deserve to be celebrated.

Your first film, Yellow Fever, came out in 2012. You have made the films This Migrant Business in 2016, the 360 virtual reality film Nairobi Berries in 2017, and now Kesho Pia Ni Siku (Tomorrow is Another Day). Do you feel there is a common thread in these films?

If I had the choice, my films would focus on aspects within my family and the experiences growing up in Nairobi. I feel like the process of making my work is very therapeutic for me. It allows me to look at things that can be very difficult to look at directly. But when you’re making a film, it creates a bit of distance and puts you in a space where you can ask questions that you would never have been able to ask in a regular conversation. The people that you’re speaking with also take you seriously. Before they might have dismissed awkward questions with “Stop bothering me about that,” or “Let’s talk about this later.” But when you’re making a film, people make space. They want to be heard, to be documented. This process helps me understand myself and my communities better.

You’ve also released a short film, Far from Home. Tell us about it?

Last year, I made a super short film called Far from Home, which looks at what happens to migrant African women when they go to work in the Middle East. One of the things that I discovered was that Kenyan women are leaving home with the promise of making $200 – $300 a month. What amount of money is that to make you give up your life here? It means that the $200 is significantly more than what they are earning in Kenya. If I was making $150 a month, I would not leave home for $200 – so are they earning $100 a month? Are they earning less?

One thing I noticed when I came back from studying in the US was how our Kenyan middle class is over serviced. We experience so many luxuries here that are not available in the West except to the super-rich: nannies, drivers, cooks, there are grocery stores where attendants will carry your basket and help you pick your vegetables and fruit. We are over-serviced here because people are available to work. As a middle class, we feel entitled to these services but are not paying people equitably for them. This is why Kenyan women and men will go to the Middle East and elsewhere despite the risks. It’s not OK to see ourselves as separate from the abuse of migrant workers when we hire full-time nannies at minimum wage. I don’t know any country where the minimum wage is actually sustainable for a dignified life. Anyone who considers themselves middle or upper class in any part of the world should understand that we enjoy the luxuries of our lives because someone else is paying for them. We need more equitable systems.

Yellow Fever is a film about African women using skin bleach. It is about beauty standards that make women do harmful things to themselves. What inspired you to make this film?

I had been working on my dissertation at the RCA and was looking at the “othering” of indigenous people – Africans especially – in ethnographic filmmaking and photography. I was considering the history of Sarah Baartman (also known as the Hottentot Venus) and realized how this history of othering has trickled down into our own creation of media. At one point, women with natural hairstyles did not exist on Kenyan TV. This aversion has strong connections to Christianity and the perception of which bodies were dirty, and which bodies needed to be saved and cleansed by being converted and leaving behind their “savagery,” as missionaries saw it. So, our natural hair is part of that history and we have been expected to straighten it to look more respectable, purer, more European, more Christ-like. 

What did you discover while making the film?

When I was interviewing my niece, I realized that this cycle is now generational. You don’t need the missionaries to perpetuate it directly. We are the ones doing it. Our media is doing it. Our churches are doing it, and it just continues. I used to have my hair in locks, and my mum’s church friends would tell her, “Your daughter is great, but no man will take her with that hair.” But I was like, “Have I come to your house to ask for your son? No! I have no interest in him, so your concern is really oddly placed.” Another church colleague called my natural hair “primitive.” Many women are bleaching their skin and straightening their hair because we live in a society that makes it exhausting to simply exist in our natural bodies.

Why did you call it Yellow Fever?

One, because of Fela Kuti’s song “Yellow Fever,” which so violently attacks women who are bleaching their skin in Nigeria. I found this such a hyper-masculine reaction to a social problem; you attack the people who are victims of the society that they live in rather than questioning why they are doing it. So, I use the name to show that the issue is still there, and also to show that instead of shaming women – which people do here and online – I want people to question why, decades later, this song is still relevant in Africa, in Asia, in diaspora communities around the world, and to offer a more empathetic approach.

Did you find that the film had a big impact?

Different women got in touch to tell me that the film helped validate the experiences they had had all their lives. These were experiences they had been told were “normal.” For them, the film stood up and declared that nothing about colorism, and colonial-based beauty standards, is normal.

Who had told them that these things were normal?

Everyone. A friend once told me that he used to call one of the girls in his primary school Mercy Makaa. “Makaa” is charcoal in Kiswahili. The children would sing it on the playground, “Mercy Makaa! Mercy Makaa!” One of my friends in primary school had a very deep skin tone, and I remember one teacher yelling at her “You’re black and you’re stupid!” He connected those two things, echoing racist eugenicist theories of race and intelligence. These are ideas that have trickled into our society through colonialism and conversion. Paler skin tones are connected to class, intelligence, and wealth through advertising in our media. You get the messaging from all sides. It just seeps into you constantly. This is why my niece, who was four at the time, could say the things that she said in Yellow Fever. At that young age, she already understood the value society has assigned to different skin tones.

What are the challenges for you as a woman in the world of animation?

Your workspace reflects the society you live in. That is what it is like for everyone, you react to your space. So, it changes depending on where I am and who I am working with. I’ve been quite lucky because animation is a space in which you can bubble yourself and really curate the people who are around you. I do feel that in terms of independent filmmaking on our continent, women are greatly appreciated in general. There are women’s grants, grants for African women specifically, and when you attend film festivals, especially in Europe, they want to hear what you have to say. There are some festivals where I have felt it was just tokenism and exoticism, and your presence is mostly for the benefit of the image of the festival, and not truly about empowering the people they are “celebrating” to create their work. But most of the time, it feels very genuine; people want to see your stories captured and want to help make that happen. In the independent film industry in Kenya, women are really at the forefront. It’s very exciting and it challenges all of us to keep pushing ourselves.

Which women are at the forefront of Kenyan filmmaking?

Judy Kibinge, Nyasha Kadandara, Toni Kamau, Jackie Lebo, Naddya Oluoch-Olunya, Wanzilû Maingi, Wanuri Kahiu … I could keep going! There are so many women, who are pushing filmmaking and it is not necessarily films about women – they make films about wider society. I do think I have a particular interest in the stories of young Kenyan women, because those have been skipped in a sense, and not considered in diverse and holistic ways. That’s what I want to see! I think it is interesting to have different perspectives, more diverse focuses.

You have created your own production company, Ng’endo Studios Ltd. What are the advantages of having your own studio?

It’s about making a commitment to myself as an artist, taking my craft seriously. It applies to all the art that I create: photography, printmaking, writing. It helps put myself into a mindset where I can take myself seriously. It is not a hobby – it is a way of life and my bread and butter. It deserves to have this structure to work within.

You are a multitalented artist and very accomplished as an animator. How did you get the idea that you wanted to be an animator?

Thank you! My dad taught me how to draw when I was a child. He had wanted to be an artist himself and won drawing competitions in high school. But he was advised to “get serious,” and get a respected job like engineering, medicine or law. So, he became a lawyer. However, he never forgot his first love, and literally tested his children to see if any of us could draw. I really enjoyed it and stuck with it. I also enjoyed literature and learning languages, and all these eventually led me to filmmaking.

You are from Kenya and yet you were educated in the US where you went to Rhode Island School of Design and London from where you hold a Master of Arts in Animation from the Royal College of Art. Why did you choose to go abroad?

In high school, my parents transferred me to a British system school, so in a sense, as students, we were already pointing outwards and away from home. There was a book in the library listing 4,000 US universities, and I literally just looked through the rankings and wanted to get into one of the top ten art schools. And there was RISD! I guess I was quietly conceited at the time! You know, when you are in high school you are in a small pond and your ego is a lot more protected. So that’s what I did and how I ended up in the US.

When I went to RCA, I had been working in Kenya for a number of years and I felt that I was losing a part of me. I was doing a TV series for children that was fun and beautiful and was making an impact, but for me personally as an artist, my voice was not being heard. I felt, literally, that I needed to get out and find my voice. I also wanted to improve on my education so I could get better payment and access to work.

I call RCA an incubator for artists. This is because of the students there – it attracts very diverse artists, and everyone is very dedicated, which makes you push yourself. I don’t think I could have found my voice the way I did without having been there. I went to a documentary animation conference in Edinburgh and I finally realized the validity of using animation, and how honest animation can be in documentary form. As an artist, it is clear that I have created the imagery the audience is consuming, and that the story shared is from my personal perspective. I feel this makes it more transparent. In live-action documentaries it’s not often clear what is true, staged, fabricated, “nudged” etc. Going to Edinburgh allowed me to make Yellow Fever.


As an artist, you reflect your own cultural heritage in your films. How did being abroad help you in this?

I feel I understand myself as a Kenyan and as an African more by being outside. Even with Yellow Fever, I became more tuned in to these questions of beauty because I had been outside and come home to visit. I was like: “Wait a minute! Why do we have rows and rows of bleaching creams in the supermarket? Why is it that the ‘ethical’ brand names I’ve been buying in London don’t offer ‘brightening’ products at Waitrose, but that is their main focus in Kenyan supermarkets?” I needed to be outside to be able to see the space that I fit into in a more contrasting and sensitive way.

What is great about animation as a storytelling tool?

In US universities, you’re required to take a lot of courses outside of your major to have a more holistic education. I was studying illustration and took a video class outside my major. Everything changed from there! It was so exciting for me that I could play with and manipulate the dimension of time. This is one of the things I love so much about animation and filmmaking in general. Sometimes I imagine that when I shut down my computer, my little characters in the worlds I have created go out and have tea and talk and bicker and live their lives. But when I come back to work, I find them waiting, in position. In my imagination the little worlds I create exist even when I am not there.

It’s such a powerful medium. When I made Yellow Fever, it was the first time I really felt the impact of the work I had created. It’s a conversation between my mum, my niece and myself, about how we feel in our bodies as African women and girls. The film turned out to be a microcosm for our wider society. Much of its power comes from the animation of our histories, the animation of our bodies in dance and pixelation, the animation of our voices. My work so far, it’s my most intimate love letter to animation.