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SNAPPY 7: Benjamin Onyango – I got X-Files role by saying ‘I speak Swahili’

Benjamin ‘Benji’ Onyango, the renowned Kenyan-born, Hollywood based actor, was recently back home to shoot a Hollywood TV series.

Best remembered for his role in the movies Tears of the Sun and God’s Not Dead, Benji has also appeared on TV hits like the X-Files, General Hospital, Two Worlds, The Shield and Dysfunctional Organized.

Nairobi News caught up with Benji for a chat. Excerpts:

1. Who is Benji? – Second boy of eight boys, you can imagine what my mother went through. We all had chores growing up and I had to learn how to cook because we had no girls. I can cook a storm.

They were tough days because we ate the same food every day except Saturdays. Saturday mathe would throw in chapos and we would be like yes! That’s why I’m crazy about chapatis because that was the only time we would break this monotony of eating ugali and sukuma wiki everyday.

It was rough but we didn’t realize we were poor because we eat every time. I’ve never really thought that we were poor because we were a happy family. I’ve seen families that look all together, but they are really dysfunctional.

2. Any thoughts of ever going back and restoring your old neighborhood, Jericho? – If I became a really rich guy, I would start some foundation and I would go back to Jericho, not everywhere, just Jericho, because that’s where I came from. My old hood has changed, back in the day I remember the City Council cleaning the streets every week. When kids broke the streets lights with their catapult, they would fix them within a day. It was amazing, but that does not exist anymore. Its kanda sad, so if one day I become a rich man I would bring a few friends from Hollywood and make sure all the work goes to the people of Jericho.

3. How good is your Sheng? – I have the original Sheng. For now I have no idea what they are talking about, things have changed. Back in the day when we used to compose Sheng, it made sense. For example, when we said punch, it made sense because you have five fingers. I have no idea where kobole came from. It used to make sense how we formed words in Sheng. Nowadays, I can hardly keep up.

4. How has your journey as an actor been? – I was an extra for a long long time. I did a lot of extra work. Every time I went on set I would say I speak Swahili, but it never ever worked for me. They would just say “You speak Swahili, so what.” Then one day on the set of X-Files it worked. I was bumped from being an extra to a principle player in the show. For the next three days I was the principle, taught everybody what to say in Swahili and all that. And that’s how I started. Then Tears of the Sun came and the rest of it just followed.

But it was not an easy journey, because in Tears of the Sun I didn’t have an agent, but my kids had agents. They are the ones I took to audition. Then my little girl became my agent. She started yapping, “Hey, my dad is also an actor”. So when I came to pick her up, the casting director asked me to read for a role in the movie. And that’s how I got Tears of the Sun. Then came God’s not Dead. And that opened a whole other avenues for me.

5. What do you think about promoting Kenya as a movie making destination? –Every single time I hear a big movie going to South Africa, I ask why? And yet we have everything here. It’s a sad situation but I hope things are gonna change. That’s why I said I’m gonna have a TV series shot in Africa. That’s why I’m here. (Editor’s note: The TV series Benji is shooting is called The Wives )

6. Would you advice people to use social media as a platform to reach their audience? – Look at Gangnam Style, that wasn’t even a great song, I’m sorry. But the song made it! It was a huge hit. If he (singer) hadn’t put it on YouTube, he’d be nowhere. But he did.

So yes, put your stuff out there, coz you never know who is watching. There are lots of people who are making tons of money on YouTube, social media and all that. Yes, put it out there.

7. Any advice for aspiring actors? – Kid, whoever you are, and acting, singing or writing is what you feel is your thing, follow you dream, do not give up. The example I always give is me. If I stopped saying that I speak Swahili, if I had given up, I wouldn’t have gotten that X-File role which was my break out role. Keep doing what you are doing, keep it busy!