Actor and spoken word artiste Elsaphan Njora has made all the right moves in television and film, and has received international recognition. But the success does not seem to be paying off the way he expected. The Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards nominee tells JOSEPHINE MOSONGO why
You have a unique name; what does it mean?
Elsaphan (Elzaphan in the Bible) means “whom God protects”, and Njora is the sheath of a sword. I inherited it from my grandfather; he fought during the Mau Mau rebellion.
Sounds like you have a legacy to live up to
(Laughs) I must either end a war or start one.
Did you have to audition for ‘Kati Kati’, or you were sure you’d get the role since director Mbithi Masya and script writer Mugambi Nthiga are your friends?
I had to audition and it was rigorous. Mugambi, K1 (whom many people know as Makmende), myself and one other person auditioned for the role. There was some bitterness at the end (laughs). More so for Mugambi because he knows the character so well, since he wrote it. As the casting was going on, drafts were still being made. The writing went on to the day of the shoot. It was stressful.
Has anyone ever written a character with you in mind that you didn’t have to audition for?
The film Indulge Me, which won the first Machakos Film Festival. The guy wrote it with me in mind, though I still had to audition. I don’t think the series Groove Theory was written specifically for me but that guy was just me; Kati Kati as well.
What was your reaction when you heard ‘Kati Kati’ had won a prize at the Toronto Film Festival?
I was pleasantly surprised. But I can’t remember where I was; I’m not one of those people. But I feel that, with the way our industry is, if you get recognition out there, it’s hard to translate it into money here. With that reality in mind, your reaction is reined in a bit. You appreciate it because it’s amazing, but you can’t take it anywhere. If, for example, I went to negotiate something and I showed people that our movie won a prize at TIFF, it wouldn’t mean much because they really wouldn’t care. We are not yet there.
That is just sad
Think about it, I’ve done Briefcase Inc., Groove Theory, Tinga Tinga Tales, and I’ve been nominated for major awards like Kalasha. I’ve also been a lead actor but I’m not on local television. Someone may think I’m not pushing myself out there, but ask any producer... I think the industry is structured in such a way that, the better you become, the fewer jobs you get.
You have done plays as well
Yes, my plays are called 51, based on anthologies of my poems that I’m yet to publish. I take poems that I would love to perform then put transitions in between with the help of my director. It’s a genre of plays we call Zaphan, it incorporates poetry, spoken word, audience participation, improv comedy, singing, dancing and I even change on stage. I’m the main character on stage, but a cast would still come to maybe do a choral verse with me.
You can act, sing, dance and do all these things? What can’t you do?
Well, I can’t sing that well, but I’m taking vocal classes.
You are in a band, too
Yes, it’s called TNK, for Tim, Njora and Kendi.
What are you auditioning for next?
I have personal projects I’m pursuing. Last month on Valentine’s Day, on my social media pages, I asked, “who would like to hear a love poem”, since I didn’t have a valentine. Nine women affirmed, and I went around Nairobi reciting poems for them. I also have a theatre project called “This is My Protest” that I pray I’m able to do. It’s like exhibition theatre. Come April, you’ll also see me in Sense8 season two.
How did you land that?
I auditioned. Nini Wacera was the casting agent.
Do you think it’s luck; getting roles in big productions?
Yes, and I’m really fortunate because I’m surrounded by very talented people. The Village Musicals are the reason I got Briefcase Inc. I’ve been doing spoken word for 10 years. I’m a performing artiste, that’s my hustle.
You use your bicycle to get around; do you cycle everywhere?
Not everywhere, but I do it because it’s cheap.
Which is better, Nigerian or Kenyan film industry?
There are two sides to the Nigerian industry, the “Oga-ooo” side and the other with very good films. But they are way ahead of us, they have figured out the business. Even in Kenya, we have two sides; films like Kati Kati and the other side of River Road which has its own market.
Note, there are some good films from River Road.But this is the issue I have with entertainment writers; I was recently at an interview and I asked a simple question about spoken word and someone replied: “I’m not interested”, and that’s an entertainment writer saying that. I’ll understand it if you’re not interested, but can you speak on the topic? Entertainment writers have been burdened to tell our story, just like we the artistes are burdened to tell society’s story. It’s a gift that comes with responsibility.
How did you feel when you were nominated for a best supporting role, instead of the best actor?
I was offended, but I didn’t dwell on it too much. It goes back to, how does this affect my grind? I could either boycott the awards or go to Lagos and have the time of my life and tell people to watch our film. Also don’t forget, they had Kati Kati in the East Africa category instead of Africa since we had won a TIFF award already. Eventually, East Africa will take over.