As she spends the first week of her two years in prison for the death of her boyfriend, it is perhaps safe to bet this is one script Tanzanian actress Elizabeth “Lulu” Michael, one of East Africa’s most recognisable faces on screen, would not have picked for a role-play.
Lulu’s striking beauty has over the years been the metaphor for feminine perfection on social media and her acting skills earned her a place in the inner sanctum of the continent’s “celebrity villa.”
No wonder Kenyan gospel musician Bahati (Kevin Kioko), now newly married, once publicly expressed his love for her — but was rebuffed — and rapper Prezzo (Jackson Makini) was once romantically linked to the Tanzanian.
But it was the thousands of fans who proved their admiration in about 30 films and programmes she featured in.
With at least four awards to her name, she was also a brand ambassador for several products.
Born in April 1995, Lulu’s achievements at such a young age mapped out a bright career for her.
For example, in August Africa Youth Awards named her among Africa’s 100 most influential young Africans alongside Liverpool FC striker Sadio Mane, Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja, NTV presenter Larry Madowo among others.
But for the next two years, she will have to stay away from her glitzy life to cool her heels at Keko Prison, a maximum security facility in Dar es Salaam.
SENT TO JAIL
She was sent to jail on Monday after a judge found her guilty of unintentionally killing 28-year-old fellow actor and boyfriend Steven Kanumba in April 2012. Lulu was barely 17 years on the night the incident happened.
On that fateful night, there was an altercation at Kanumba’s house and after his death a post-mortem showed that he had sustained head injuries.
In court, Lulu said there was a scuffle but she denied causing Kanumba’s death.
“I admit that we had a quarrel on that night but I deny causing his death,” she said.
In the end, Judge Sam Rumanyika said the actress had mounted a poor defence.
“I was left with no choice but to convict the defendant,” he said in the judgment he read for over 50 minutes.
“The accused admitted that she was the last person to be with the deceased who was her boyfriend for four months,” said the judge. “That circumstantial evidence alone is not enough to make her guilty.”
The judge poked holes into Lulu’s defence that Kanumba was a drunkard and that it was possible for him to fall down and hurt himself.
“The accused was supposed to provide vivid details on what happened but she failed to do that. She said that the deceased chased her for some 27 metres, got hold of her and dragged her to the bedroom but failed to say whether during that chase the deceased ever fell in the process. What happened? We are left with only two people either the accused or the deceased,” the judge reasoned.
Lulu’s parents and lawyers consider the jail term too harsh while Kanumba’s side believes it is too lenient.
“I am not satisfied with the sentence because even if she killed without intention, a two-year sentence is like a year. Days and nights are counted separately. She did not kill a chicken; she killed a human being. Even if it wasn’t intended, still she killed,” Kanumba’s father told the Millard Ayo YouTube channel on Tuesday.
While explaining why he handed a two-year sentence, Judge Rumanyika raised questions about Lulu’s upbringing, an observation that will spark worldwide debate about raising people who become famous while young. Lulu’s rise to stardom started at the age of five.
“We could say that at the time the accused was 17 and therefore a child who was not aware of what she was doing. This case has different circumstances. The accused was a child but it is also confirmed that the deceased referred to her as his wife, a tag that she accepted,” said the judge.
He added: “She was a child who dared to do things against her parents’ wish. She was the kind of child who would leave her parents’ home to go out with friend in the late hours of the night. She goes to her lover, therefore this is not the same child who is meant to be protected by children’s law.”
The Tanzanian judge quipped that if a child of her age can behave like an adult, “there is a possibility that one day this court will be filled with adults involved in some childish thing asking for protection by children’s law”.
At the time of Monday’s ruling, Lulu and the late Kanumba’s mother were no longer on talking terms. The actress at one point felt she was being a bully.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Mr Kanumba had risen from humble beginnings to become the father figure of the nascent Tanzanian film industry which, despite a myriad of issues, had started earning global recognition.
After several stints with Nigerian actors such as Ramsey Noah in Devil’s Kingdom, there were reports that Kanumba the Great (as he called himself) was destined for movie assignments in Hollywood.
His death shocked many. The then president of Tanzania Jakaya Kikwete put off a foreign tour to pay homage to Mr Kanumba while people flew all the way from Kisangani and Bunia in DR Congo to attend his funeral.
“The irony of Mr Kanumba’s death is not lost on those who saw it coming in the many films and TV soaps he created and acted in, that revolved around passion and jealousy resulting in the murder of lovers,” art commentator Nick Oyoo wrote in The East African of April 30, 2012.
“Opinion is divided on whether Mr Kanumba held up a mirror to a lovesick society. In his stories, the protagonists use money and wealth, property, position and power and not least, witch doctors, in the pursuit of love. One has to understand the role love and weddings play in Tanzanian society to understand why these stories have been such a favourites among fans,” said Oyoo.
Lulu, on the other hand, was and is still considered the Bongo movie princess. She became an instant sensation on television from the age of five.
Her talent was nurtured from her involvement in the Kaole Sanaa Group in the early 2000s. The group also had Kanumba and perhaps that is where they built the acquaintance that later became a relationship.
For her acting prowess, she has scooped many awards including carrying the day in the “best movie in Africa” category at the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards in Lagos in 2016.
Such a feat has eluded many of her compatriots in the Bongo movie industry.
She was also named the style icon of the year during the 2016 Swahili Fashion Week Awards. In 2014, she was declared the best actress at the Tanzania People’s Choice Awards for her role in Foolish Age.
A year earlier, she had won the best actress award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
The awards won are proof that her acting career was not dented by her involvement in Kanumba’s death.
In fact, the 2013 premiere of Foolish Age was rare occurrence in Tanzania’s film industry as celebrities from all walks of life attended the event at Dar es Salaam’s Mlimani area.
The red-carpet affair marked her return to the screens after spending 10 months in remand. Her release on bond was out of the efforts of her legal team led by prominent lawyer Peter Kibatala.
Her release from remand saw her engage in various movie projects as her trial went on. And she did many interviews in-between, including the one with Sporah Njau in 2015 where she confessed about her attraction to elderly men. She also said she loved money.
“I love money, man, I love money,” she said when asked about the projects she was involved in besides movies.
“Do you think money can buy happiness?” the host asked.
“I don’t know; but I love good life,” she replied.
The host asked her why she had a penchant for having relationships with married men and she just fell short of admitting that she had dated a married man.
Her response was that there was a lot of focus on her because she was famous. In her opinion, the ordinary womenfolk engage in such extramarital affairs very often but nobody notices.
“Nakuambia wanawake wa kawaida wanatuzidi kutembea na wanaume za watu. Wanatuzidi. Nani anamjua? Nani atamfuatilia? (The ordinary women exceed us when it comes to moving with other people’s husbands. It is only that nobody knows them and nobody follows them),” she said.
Such confessions fuelled rumours that by the time Kanumba died, she was already involved in many other relationships with high-profile individuals, leading a lifestyle that many girls could only dream about.
As wild as the rumours were, close sources say that she maintained these relationships as she cosied up with Mr Kanumba.
This, they say, was the constant source of squabbles between the two and even on the fateful night it is believed that the quarrel was sparked off by a phone call that the actress received while at Mr Kanumba’s house in Sinza suburb of Dar es Salaam.
But despite the controversy, she still has many fans. Her Instagram account had 2.5 million followers by Friday. It is through the account that she has been reaching out to her supporters.
Her army of backers includes Tanzanian showbiz heavyweights. On Monday, some of the celebrities who expressed their empathies to her included Diamond Platnumz , Wema Sepetu, Hamisa Mobeto and Zari Hassan.
And for Kenyan gospel singer Bahati, there was a time he was totally love-struck for Lulu — probably before he met his wife Diana Marua.
During an interview with the Mambo Mseto show in 2016, Bahati said, “Nikiweza mpata Lulu Elizabeth Michael nitatulia kabisaaaaa , mtaacha kusikia nikiitwa single boy. (If I get Lulu Elizabeth Michael, I will settle down completely. You will no longer hear me being called a single boy),” he said, later adding during a separate interview that he unsuccessfully tried using Tanzanian artiste AY to reach her.
Prior to Lulu’s sentencing, the court was packed with crowds as relatives, artistes, and the general public strived to hear the judge’s ruling. It remains unclear if she will appeal.
For now the contrast between Lulu’s life in one of Tanzania’s most notorious prisons and her glitzy past is a scene even the most imaginative script writers would not have dreamed of as the young woman’s career thrived. But it is her storyline for the next couple of years.