Uhai Eashri

2 Stories

Wanja Muguongo &
Tigist Helen Schmidt

Stories of our Lives

Tigist & Wanja for NeueJournal

Very few times does the intention of a narrative film get told with such honesty that one forgets it’s not a documentary. Such is the case with Stories of our Lives, a poignant and raw film that has been regarded too controversial to screen in Kenya. Created by members of the Nairobi-based art collective, The Nest Collective, the film is an anthology of five real stories from members of the LGBT community that have been adapted to live in the big screen. The stories highlight the difficult spectrum of oppression that members of the community face, and, consequently, how this develops each person’s lives. Following the screening of the film at NeueHouse Madison Square, we caught up with Tigist Helen Schmidt, one of the founders of Salem Productions, and Wanja Muguongo, one of the founders of the UHAI EASHRI organization, to discuss identity, sexuality, and the perils of patience.


NeueJournal: How does this movie balance true vs. fictional elements?


Wanja Muguongo: It was a project about people telling us about them being queer and what that means to them. They are all true stories told by folks in their own words. It’s the kind of stories you really can’t make up.


Tigist Helen Schmidt: It’s a very specific experience that you have in Kenya and in every country. But then in that specificity there is also the universality, and that’s why people can relate to that. I think that’s what the beauty of film can portray. The film is very simple and very intimate in many ways. It’s black and white, so there’s not a lot of lighting and artificial set building. It’s on a shoestring budget, which makes it even more documentary-like; you actually forget that you’re watching a so-called feature film and you’re just watching people telling stories. And that’s all it is.


Still from ‘Each Night I Dream’

NJ: What is this movie’s overarching message about gender and sexuality?


WM: What’s powerful about it is that it was queer Kenyans gathering the stories of other queer Kenyans and then making a film out of it. It wasn’t meant to be anything except the stories of people’s lives. These are people of different genders who experience and express their sexuality in different ways.


Still from ‘Athman’

THS: That’s why you feel so drawn to all of them – it’s so real. Even when you do address gender, and homophobia, and all these different things, it comes always from a personal place first. I feel we pigeonhole films a lot, and always say “it’s an issue film.” It becomes this gender film. This queer film. This African film. We’re trying to push forward from these binaries. Everybody just wants to live their life the way they want to live their life. In the film, you really get to see that. That’s all people want to do. They don’t want to be on the frontline. They just want to love who they want to love.


NJ: What is the trait you most deplore in others?


THS: Falseness. When there’s a certain kind of phony-ness, I don’t even know what to do with you. It puzzles me because I can’t get through that person. There’s no basis for any conversation. There’s nothing there.


WM: The one trait I deplore the most in people is apathy. Somebody who has absolutely no analysis about anything. I don’t know how to relate to somebody who has no politics around anything. There’s so much about the world that’s messed up. How can you just live in it without thinking about privilege, about power, about race, about sexuality? Even if I disagree with you I’d much rather you be someone who has something for me to disagree with. Live your life in a way that shows that you care about where you are.


NJ: What trait do you most deplore in yourself?


WM: I wish I got less upset by things because it’s not healthy. It’s exhausting. It can sometimes make me a very difficult person to deal with.


THS: I have a hard time letting go of things. Its very difficult for me because I’m very skeptical afterwards. And it’s a conscious decision to let go. That’s the thing. I’m like, “I’m going to let go now,” and I don’t.


NJ: What is your greatest fear?


WM: I’m afraid of dying poor. I want to live on my own time and it’s very hard to do that when you’re poor.


THS: My fear is not living my true highest self in this lifetime. Not being present. I want to make every moment count. Every encounter count. The sea helps I think. There’s something so cleansing about salt water. And even just the breeze, and the sun, and the sand.


NJ: What are some of your favorite African writers?


WM: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing writer and thinker. My favorite book is This Thing Around Your Neck, because it’s a collection of short stories, so I don’t have to choose any one in particular. Binyavanga Wainaina is another one. The first article I read of his was “How To Write About Africa,” and it’s so easy to see that he was pissed off. He was actually responding to something he had read. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is a very interesting book about this guy who has four wives, and the stories about his four wives. There are very many that I could go into. I love Teju Cole…


THS: Teju Cole is definitely one of my favorites. He gave me the German version of Open City, and it’s a completely different read than in English. It has a lot more gravitas. I can’t put it down. To me it’s very visual and very cinematic in many ways. It’s very descriptive and depicts loneliness in a way that I think you don’t really see in black male characters in New York City. There’s also Dinaw Mengestu. He has this amazing book called Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and it’s about the Ethiopian-American experience that I can relate to so much. It’s very real, very beautiful, but also heavy in many ways. It hits home.


NJ: What living Africans do you most admire?


THS: There are so many nameless and faceless Africans, specifically African women, that I’ve come across doing a lot of philanthropic work. It breaks my hear that our attention goes to certain people and things that really don’t deserve our attention that much. They’re truly my heroes, and they’re the ones that inspire me day to day.


WM: The one African I really admire the most died a few years ago; Wangari Maathai. Everything about her life inspires me. But I think the people who inspire me the most are the LGBT activist. People put up with a whole lot of shit, and to be able to do that and still live a life that is full and always pushing back against things, but still being a human being. That’s a thing that inspires me; people who are able to do the mundane things of life, even while doing all this other fighting.


NJ: What words or phrases do you most overuse?


WM: Interesting. I use that all the time.


THS: I say ‘you know’ a lot. I want to say, you understood? It’s really important for you to understand me. You know?


NJ: What do you consider to be an overrated virtue?


THS: Patience. My name actually means Patience in Amharic. My mother, she never had patience, so she gave me patience as a mantra – a daily reminder of what she needed in her life. I think there’s a fine line between being patient and being complacent, or passive, and actually putting up with certain things and certain behaviors of people that you don’t have to be patient with. You could actually walk away, or gracefully back out.


NJ: Especially as a woman, we’re always meant to be calm and accepting and not be drama queens. You have to not be patient sometimes. You can’t just accept everything.


THS: I think a lot of women are very afraid of expressing themselves fully because of preconceptions, like, oh she’s on her period… she can’t be all that… who does she think she is?


WM: I also find patience really overrated. I think we need to be a lot more impatient and angry. It’s a good thing, because then you shift things. I feel like the reason why so many things remain wrong over centuries is that there are not enough people that just get out there and say no. Very few accepting people ever changed anything. Most of the changes come from people who are really pissed off. It shows you care, and you want to do something about it.


Portrait Photography: Joshua Woods for NeueJournal 

Wangechi Mutu



Simply put, Wangechi Mutu is one of the most important African artists of her generation. She explores art as more than a tool of expression, but as an inspiring and catalyzing force of change. Her work delves into issues of race, gender, sexuality and more, successfully functioning on two planes: As a means to an activistic end but also as an artistic end in its own right. We caught up with Mutu to discuss her recent endeavor, AFRICA’SOUT!, and learned a bit more about what inspires her in work and life.


NeueJournal: How can you best summarize the goal of AFRICA’SOUT!?


Wangechi Mutu: As a visual artist who has been extremely fortunate, working in my practice for about 15 or 20 years now, one of the most astounding things about art for me is its capacity to change people. Art can make people slow their judgments and make them address their prejudices.

So, AFRICA’SOUT! is actually born out of the idea that you can take art and present it to an audience that is ready for a special kind of change. In this case, it was Uhai Eashri and I, coming together to think about a way to address homophobia and other issues that are plaguing my country, all the way from gender inequality to sexuality inequalities. I also know that I’m not gonna stand on a pulpit and convince anyone that they shouldn’t be prejudicial. I have my own prejudices and my own things that I want to work on. I’m not a perfect person — that’s why I make art.


Wangechi Mutu — Family Tree (detail), 2012 Suite of 13, mixed-media collage on paper 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.


NJ: Who is your favorite hero of fiction?


WM: I guess right now it is Storm. She’s awesome. For very silly reasons, I love the fact that she is a superhero in the X-Men Mutant Family but she’s also an East-African woman with superhuman powers and such a fierce costume.


NJ: Who are your heroes in real life?


WM: My heroes in real life are Arundhati Roy. I think she is a very interesting writer and I think what she has been able to do, as an activist is also tremendous. She’s an incredible scholar, someone who does a lot of research and thorough historical work when she speaks about a social issues. She is amazing to listen to because she knows her shit. I also love Zaha Hadid — the amazing structures that she is working to bring to life. There’s something about the fluidity in her buildings that appeals to me so much. And Toni Morrison, the great Toni is like a godmother to everyone, but especially, black, ambitious, creative women.


NJ: What is your motto?


WM: Get up and address your fears every morning, and do it through your art.


Wangechi Mutu — Family Tree (detail), 2012 Suite of 13, mixed-media collage on paper 16 1/4 x 12 1/2 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.


NJ: What is your greatest extravagance?


WM: My home. I bought a home.


NJ: When and where are you happiest? Why?


WM: In my studio. In my house, near my family, my cat and my extremely hardworking awesome team. Just working.


NJ: What is your greatest fear?


WM: Not getting things done that I know I am capable of. Not working to my highest capacity. That freaks me out — I am here for a reason and I should fulfill it.


NJ: What are your favorite holiday pastimes?


WM: I like dressing up, so anywhere I can dress up: Halloween, Gay Pride, dinners. I like dressing up.


Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal