Kenyan-International Actor Who Keeps Low Profile
If he was not an actor or an accountant, Lung’aho says he would be a writer. “Telling stories is my forte,” he says…
Imagine walking around a mountain while feeling hot larva bubbling under your feet. To add a twist to the knife, imagine thinking that you must hang around such environment to shoot a movie. The situation exacerbates when this mountain is an active volcano which could erupt any time.
This scenario defines an epic moment in the career of Kenya’s renowned actor Raymond Ofula. Many know him by the face, but they do not know his name, despite gracing our TV for decades.
For a man whose fear for heights is unparalleled, being at the peak of Tanzania’s Mt Oldoinyo Lenkai (Maasai for ‘the mountain of God) while shooting Lara Croft Tomb Raider II, was no walk in the park. However, his passion for acting managed to suppress the fear in him, enabling him to do the first scene of the movie.
“We had one more scene to shoot with the rising sun in the morning thus we had to spend the night at the foot of
the mountain. Here, temperatures could go as high as 40⁰C and fall below 0⁰C at the peak,” recounts Ofula.
Unfortunately, a very thick fog that lasted eight hours covered the whole mountain the next day, causing them to postpone the shoot. Unknown to those who have watched the film, the remaining part of the mountain scene was replicated at the James Bond Studios, in Germany, with terrible exactness.
A couple of years after shooting the movie, the mountain, which is an active volcano, erupted sending shockwaves across the East African region.
Ofula, 69, has crossed borders and represented the country in the international film scene, but he never forgot his roots. Locally, he is famous for films such as Noah Meli’s Heart, Better Days, Makutano Junction, Nairobi Law, Mali, Tabasamu, and Changes. He is currently working on a television series called Monika, but he remained tight-lipped on divulging further details.
On the international arena, Ofula has featured in The Constant Gardener (2005), To Walk With Lions (1990) Wintereiss, (a Germany TV series) and, a South African-Nigerian TV series, Jacob’s Cross.
To him, acting is a passion that developed into a hobby, which he later carved into his lifetime career. “As artists, we are a lucky lot. We enjoy what we do and get paid for it,” quips Raymond who started acting on immediately after finishing his secondary education.
“I staged my first ‘serious’ play at the Kenya National Theatre in 1973, dubbed The Queen and the Rebels,” adding that he was among the first Africans to join the Nairobi City Players, an acting club that mostly comprised of Whites.
“Between 1994-1995, I attended regular theatre workshops conducted by the renowned French director Bruno Meysat at the French Cultural Centre as the present Alliance Française was then known.”
Early life and family
Mr. Ofula is the second born in a family of seven. He left his ancestral home as a child and relocated to Nairobi with his eldest brother (now deceased). They lived with their father who worked as a chef for a White settler in Karen. After Kenya attained her independence, his father was appointed as a councilor (defunct) at the Nairobi City Council.
“My father was a no-nonsense man who never believed in having a conversation with my brother and I; his word was final,” recalls Ofula, who reveals that his father lost his job, making life hard for him and his brother.
“My father sank into depression and I was forced to get employed after secondary school to support the family, thus putting an end to my academic ambitions,” he adds. Ofula had been a portrait painter in his early days as a youth. However, this did not last long as he lost the mojo along the way.
Hailing from the Luo community, he had a rough time speaking his native language.
“Growing up in Nairobi, I tried speaking Dholuo at first but the other children in the neighborhood would laugh at me. Over time, I became resentful and ceased to speak the language to date,” recounts the staunch Catholic. English became his first language and Swahili the second.
Different from other city dwellers, he hates Sheng’ (slang). “If you address me in slang, I will pretend I did not hear you. Sheng’ is a language for the lazy,” he sniggers, adding, “it is a slum language which is fast substituting the beautiful Swahili language in Kenya.” Ofula married the late Ann Wambui in 1976 who was a news anchor at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Together, they were blessed with four children; three sons and a daughter. His first-born seems to have taken after his artistic nature. He boasts a successful career in writing signages, designing bracelets as well as creating artifacts.
Education and first job as a hotelier
The seasoned actor has another face of his career which is barely known to the public. Soon after completing his secondary education at Pan-African Secondary School (it has since seized to exist), he joined Kenya Railways (KR) as a clerk where he worked for over 13 years. During these years, he stuck to his passion, using his free time to appear on stage.
It was during his hay days at KR that he met the general manager of Norfolk Hotel (formerly part of Block Hotels) and out of the normal chat an opportunity arose.
“We were having lunch with a friend when the General Manager joined us. He asked
whether I was happy with my clerk job to which I responded that things were not moving as fast as I had wished. There was a vacancy for the assistant storekeeper and he offered me the job on probation. I was elated!” narrates Ofula.
He would work from eight to five, and then stay behind in the office studying the storekeeper’s books to learn more about the job. At the close of probation, he was well-equipped with the skills, becoming a department head.
Interestingly, the training that preceded him being given a managerial role in the hotel is the only formal post-secondary education that he ever received. Before he could complete his one-year training, a vacancy arose at Nyali Beach Hotel and he was transferred to Mombasa to take up the post. His stint at the coast was short-lived as he soon requested a transfer due to the hot climatic conditions.
Slowly, he rose through the ranks to become the group-purchasing manager. In 1990, there was an overhaul at the top management. The new management brought in some ‘politics’ that led him to lose his job, what he terms as an ‘early retirement’. The termination of employment came as a blessing in disguise. He decided to plunge himself into acting full-time, and he has never looked back ever since.
Acting career and awards
Soon after venturing into the film industry in the 1990s, Ofula started bagging awards starting with the
Second Runners Up for Long Service in Theatre at the Mbalamwezi Awards in 1997. In 2011, he received the Best Lead Actor Award for his role in a local series, Nairobi Law at Kenya Film Commission’s Kalasha Awards.
A couple of years later, he was inducted into the M-Net Africa’s Wall of Fame alongside the famous Oliver Litondo and the late Mzee Ojwang’. To him, this was a new motivation that would give him a platform to continue inspiring upcoming actors and actresses.
In 2017, he received yet another accolade during the Riverwood Academy Awards. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award and got installed as a film warrior. He, thus, became the second person after Oliver Litondo to receive the award following his extensive contributions to the country’s film industry.
Apart from the awards, Ofula says that acting has been the most satisfying career in his life.
“Acting has taken me places more than my job (hotel industry). I have been to South Africa three times, Britain two times, several times to West Africa and so many other parts of the world,” he says.
Last year, he received the Afro Heritage Broadcasting and Entertainment Awards (AHBEA) in absentia in Texas U.S. The award is given annually to Africans who have been in the entertainment industry for over 20 years. Unfortunately, Raymond missed his flight to the United States, but he is expecting his trophy to be sent into the country this year.
Like any other actor, Raymond too has had a feel of the downside while on stage. “The worst moment is when you lose your lines on stage and you do not seem to remember a thing. It pains to see that you have lost the audience. It has happened to me and other prominent actors. Nevertheless, you need to compose yourself and you get back to the game,” he explains. Potential of the Kenyan film industry The film enthusiast believe that the Kenyan industry has great potential if the few hindrances are cleared and the industry is streamlined. His major concern is the tax regime.
“The tax regime is punitive and cannot favor any growth. The local rates are not healthy for industry player. Kenya is one of the best destinations for movie shooting, but the taxes scare investors away. We should follow the South African way of giving incentives and making the process easy. The film industry is a money minter, but the government is killing the goose before she lays the golden egg,” he says.
He suggests that the government should instead reduce the taxes to reasonable levels to accommodate more investors into the industry, who shy away due to over taxation. “The government should also rehabilitate theatre hall to create a movie culture in Kenya. In these halls, people can watch movies made locally,” says Ofula.
He also calls industry players to produce quality Kenyan content without copying the western culture (Hollywood).
Ofula lauds the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) led by Ezekiel Mutua, noting its efforts in sanitizing a once disorganized industry “We need morals. We do not have to go the Hollywood way. We do not need to have steamy bedroom scenes to make our movies captivating. Philippine movies are very romantic and captivating, without such scenes,” he adds.
Retirement and future plans
“I am in a career where there is no retirement. Art is about portraying human life, which starts at conception and ends at death. A young man cannot play the role of an old man, so when I get the role of an old man I will play it,” he chuckles.
Soon, Ofula intends to venture into continental filmmaking with a bias of activism and historical aspects. Richard Nwaobi’s, Sink or Swim is one of his first strides in the line of activist films. He plays a major role in the film which will be released soon.
“I want to produce activist-like movies for the greater good of the continent and the country. I need to tell the African story, and nothing would give me more satisfaction than re-telling the political history of this country through a film. Even though I may step on some toes along the way, I am determined to achieve it,” he says. I am also mentoring a group of upcoming actors and actresses,” adds the legendary actor.
The fitness enthusiast believes in having enough sleep, eating right and engaging in physical exercise. He
enjoys farming in his free time and has since started a greenhouse project where he grows his own groceries.
His daily routine includes an exercise regimen without lifting weights. Whenever he visits the gym, his advice always comes in handy to fellow gym goers.
Ofula who lives alone, his children have grown up and moved out, enjoys cooking and his favorite meal is brown ugali with traditional vegetables (managu).
He terms himself as an indoors person, who only goes out for production or shopping, and occasionally to social gatherings. On a typical day, you will find him at home reading historical novels, the Bible or a script. Currently, he is reading a book on how the brains functions. Surprisingly, he does not like watching movies despite being in the film industry.
Whenever he makes a public appearance, his stylish and sharp looks cannot be overlooked. Ofula, who has a discerning eye for fashion, describes his sense of style as ‘conservative and trendy.’
He has an everyday dictum: “Do good, stay healthy, have peace with everybody and do not burn your bridges”.
On being called Kenya’s Denzel Washington, Mr Ofula says: “That is a tough call but I will try my best to live up to it to the delight of my fans,” says the seasoned actor who likes to keep a low profile, dislikes being introduced as a famous guy, and you can easily cross the red line by calling him a celebrity.
If he was not an actor, he says, “I would be a historian or a lecturer or maybe I could follow my passion for classical music. In fact, Wolfgang Mozart is my favorite composer.” On his advice to the youth, Mr. Ofula says: “In every career, passion and integrity are very important. Of these two, passion comes first.”