This month, Lucy Munene sat down with writer, director and self-proclaimed lover of taste Mbithi Masya at the cosy Tribe44 to talk film, creative journies and combis.
We did not arrive at Tribe44 ready to be schooled but Chef and owner Jasraj Jandu was ready to present with facts and fusion food. The name of this restaurant comes from the declaration in 2017 that the Indian community was recognised as the 44th tribe in Kenya. This was the inspiration behind the menu as well which we all stared at in complete confusion. The descriptions provided by the chef raised all the eyebrows at the table (including a samosa/mandazi combination fondly known as a combi). So as we sat down, we talked about cultural fusion with food and art.
“I’m boring when it comes to food. I like to keep things simple. I prefer cooking steaks, stir fry and stuffed chicken breasts. Nothing that requires stewing for 2 hours. That’s why places like Sierra are my favourite. They are purists like me. Food doesn’t need to come with pomp and glamour. You know my brain is always preoccupied with other things so I’m the kind of guy to go the whole day without eating then just have a very heavy dinner. However, as more time has gone by in have found myself appreciating home-cooked African food more. I’m at that weird stage where going out to restaurants doesn’t excite me as much.”
We laughed at the irony that this interview is exactly that, took healthy sips of our brandy dawas and steered the conversation towards the Kenyan creative scene and his journey through it.
“With my whole creative journey, there has been no destination or plan, everything has just evolved and seamlessly moved into itself. I was in Justaband while studying Business & IT so we were making music and shooting music videos then one day those videos take you to New York where you have video exhibitions. After that because of the nature of what we do, I thought let me try and tell a bigger story which led to a feature film that took off on its own (it was confusing). It’s all been kind of fluid.”
This is where the food came and threw us all out for a loop. The
and honey garlic pepper wings not only looked delicious but tasted so good that plates were cleaned before we continued talking.
“I think the Kenyan creative scene is in a dope space right now. I know this is a cliche phrase to say but it feels like a renaissance of sorts artistically. There had been a kind of a lull in the 90’s with some artists keeping the spirit alive however in the early 2000’s there was a rush of new artists who found a more open space and who probably had more supportive parents than we had. We basically did this as rebels. I remember there was a time we were at Bill’s house during the early days of Justaband and we were chilling outside of his house, his mum gave us a lecture about wasting our lives and then earlier this year I shot a video for him in his house and you could see how proud she was. Before we got there we had to disregard all the advice and prove them wrong.”
There is much to be said about the Kenyan creative scene and as we moved tables for the main course, Mbithi added “What I love most about the Kenyan creative scene is the people. For lack of a better comparison, I’d say Kenyan creatives are like malaria, they aren’t going anywhere. No matter how much the world tries to destroy malaria, malaria is there. That’s how we are. Kenya is not a hospitable place for creatives even though we are here and are surviving.”
Mbithi’s passion for film is clear, and that was visible as we discussed his history with the industry.
“My first favourite film was Terminator 2 and it’s still in my top 5. The main thing that keeps it there is how it made me feel. Most recently though I watched Last Black Man in San Francisco which came out in July, it was a movie that doesn’t fit in one typical genre. The subject matter can be heavy but it’s treated in a light way that why it seems like it’s all over the place. There’s something about growing older and things aren’t as you thought they would be plus things have changed from what they used to be so you can’t go back to what you knew. There is just that kind of lost space in there and that’s what the movie touched on. I’m drawn to films where I can feel someone was trying to process something themselves. It’s like a book, you can tell when a book was just written for the audience and you can also tell when the writer’s personality or life has bled into the book so for me, what is most interesting is feeling what someone else is feeling. That is what I love about film.”
So what about cinematography? What is the easiest and hardest thing to learn in cinematography?
“The technical stuff with the camera can be difficult but for me, the hardest part is learning how to express something through the pages you capture. Its like photography, anyone can learn how to click but knowing what you’re putting in that frame and why is the tough part. You have to get on enough sets to learn and grow.“
You were involved in shooting the Justaband videos and that’s where you worked on your skills. You just jumped straight into videography!
“For me, I was led where the ideas took me so it would be like I have an idea and I have to shoot it so i’ll teach myself how to shoot it for the sake of my idea.“
That determination is impressive. Usually, you would pass the idea on to someone and they would help you bring the idea to life.
“Yeah, it’s just that at the time there was no one to pass the idea on to otherwise I would have shared more. Now however I collaborate a lot more with film crews. I don’t have to do everything myself as a one-man army. Everyone was with me and we all learned at the same time.“
Do you consider yourself a big foodie?
“I can’t say I am but I do know good food but my brain is always preoccupied with other things so I’m the kind of guy to go the whole day without eating then just have a very heavy dinner. However, as more time has gone by in have found myself appreciating home-cooked African food more. I’m at that weird stage where going out to restaurants doesn’t excite me as much. However, there are a couple of places I would recommend for great biriyani: the biriyani place in the centre of Malindi Town called Majid’s, Coast Dishes in Old Town and Swahili Dishes in Nairobi.“
All in all, between the creative food from Tribe44 and Mbithi’s witty banter and dry humour, I learned that sometimes you need to stick with what you love because it just might surprise you and lead to greater things.