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Kwame Nyong’o shares insights on his animation Series, ‘Twende’

Kwame Nyong’o, a pioneering figure in Kenyan animation, has taken on the role of casting director and executive producer for “Twende,” the inaugural Showmax Original 2D animated series set to premiere on December 1, 2023.

This groundbreaking series takes place in the vibrant, fictional East African city of Milima, following the adventures of a boda-boda-driving pangolin.

His mantra, “Life is about the journey, not the destination,” often clashes with the demands of his profession.

Kwame’s passion for animation, along with his commitment to telling fresh and uplifting stories rooted in African culture, has guided his journey.

Whether through his children’s books that spotlight African children and employ African food as a medium for cultural exchange or his award-winning short film, “The Legend of Lwanda Magere,” which delves into the story of a remarkable Luo warrior with superhuman powers, Kwame seeks to bridge the past, present, and future of the African continent through captivating narratives.

In an interview, Kwame shares insights into “Twende,” its significance for African animation, and his criteria for selecting the ideal Kenyan voice cast to tell a truly African tale.

“Casting for Twende was very exciting and super fun, and I am so grateful for all the amazing, all-Kenyan voice talent we have on the show. They have turned it out; the chemistry is palpable,” Kwame said.

Q: Have you always been interested in animation?

A: Yes, I have been interested in animation ever since I watched the short film “Anansi the Spider” by Gerald McDermott. As a Fine Arts major in university, I majored in painting but loved and delved into all the other mediums offered, like drawing, photography, and sculpture. My painting professor used to say, “I see you like all these mediums; why don’t you mix them all somehow?”. I found that mixture with animation.

Q: How did you become involved in ‘Twende’?

A: I met ‘Twende’s’ co-creator Mike Scott at the UNESCO ‘Africa Animated!’ project in the mid-2000s. Mike reached out to me around 2018 after being approached by Braintrust at Annecy, the largest animation festival and market, to develop an animated concept about a pangolin boda boda driver. That piqued my interest. A pangolin? A boda boda driver? A laid-back character navigating Milima’s bustling traffic? It sounded like a recipe for fun and a fantastic opportunity to elevate African animation’s profile. After discussing with the team, we were all in.

Q: How did you approach the voice casting for ‘Twende’?

A: Casting for Twende itself took time because it was a challenge to find the right balance for a laidback yet active character to drive the story. We considered many talented artists, but none quite fit the character we were seeking until Junior (Nyong’o) came into the picture and proved to be the perfect fit for the job.

Q: What stands out about the main leads, Junior Nyong’o and June Gachui?

A: Junior and June worked out exceptionally well. It was amazing to discover that they had known each other as neighbors growing up. This connection added authenticity to their performances, creating a genuine sense of old friends, which is ideal for their roles as best friends Twende and Nuru.

Q: ‘Twende’ is Showmax’s first 2D animated series. What sets it apart?

A: ‘Twende’ boasts world-class animation quality that competes directly with some of the best animation projects worldwide. What makes it stand out is its local storytelling, relatable to African audiences, features local voices. It was essential to use East African talent, as ‘Twende’ is very much an East African story, even in a fictional setting.

Moreover, ‘Twende’ introduces unusual animals not typically featured in children’s cartoons, including a pangolin, mongoose, and Kenya’s national bird, the lilac-breasted roller.

Q: What does African animation like ‘Twende’ mean to you as a parent?

A: Yes, I am excited to watch ‘Twende’ with my kids, and they love it! They get particularly excited when characters speak Swahili or when they encounter references to uniquely East African elements like mandazi or boda boda. Projects like ‘Twende’ dispel the myth that ‘the West is best,’ bringing joy and contributing to a fairer world.

Q: How did the team balance the appeal of ‘Twende’ for both children and adults?

A: We engaged in extensive discussions about tone and word choices to ensure ‘Twende’ primarily targets the 7+ audience while making the world, themes, and dialogue accessible to older viewers. We aimed to create a show that resonates with a broader age range.

Q: What does ‘Twende’ mean for the animation industry in Kenya?

A: The Kenyan animation industry is still growing, but it’s moving in the right direction. ‘Twende’ will hopefully transcend African borders and be seen, heard, and felt worldwide, further advancing the industry.

Q: What do you want African audiences to take from ‘Twende’?

A: I hope that Kenyan and African audiences understand that our stories are as exceptional as any foreign narratives. They may be even better because they resonate more deeply with African people.

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