The Unwritten With: CLAIRE ONEKO – ON LIFE BEYOND HER FAMOUS POLITICAL SURNAME

Claire Oneko is a dreamer, a creative, and a film producer. She has with her, an extensive South African education and work experience under her belt. Her work has, over time, involved  some very impressive clients, this including KFC, the fast food chain.

On the day of her interview, Claire arrives at The Carnivore right on time. It’s mid-morning and she tells me she needs to get back home in good time, because they’re having a family gathering with her in-laws. She would also like to beat the rains.

As we walk into Carnivore from the parking lot, I ask about her surname, seeing as on her blog and on emails, she’d interacted with me using her brand name: Claire Ash Meadow, a name I found interesting.

She reveals, to my surprise, that her full name is Claire Ashlee Oneko. She is from the famous Oneko political family, and Achieng Oneko, who was a member of the historic, heroic and admirable Kapenguria Six, was her grandfather.

So why doesn’t she use her surname? She promises to explain once we are seated and settled.

We talk about a few other things that incidentally lead us to Love. This prompts Claire to ask if I know anything about the Five Languages of Love.  I do.

“The Five Languages of Love include: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Physical Touch and Receiving Gifts. Those are the five languages of how people receive love. I think everyone should make time and learn about them. They’re worth reading about,” a confident, articulate, Claire advises.

I then ask her, now that we are on the topic of love, of the one thing she would say to the one person who ever hurt her the most, when it came to love. Claire unreservedly says, she’d tell him to: “F… off!”

We laugh for a few good seconds.

I ask Claire if she’d like me to omit the cursing from the article, and she says: “No, why would you do that? Put it in! Make sure you put it in.” We laugh again.

Claire is sure of herself. As she speaks, she comes off as someone who has no time to live anything but her truth. To be herself. To run her own race. And to find people who embrace her as she is.

As Claire sips her Dawa, while we’re seated at Carnivore’s beautifully landscaped Beer Garden, she looks at me and says:  “Please don’t judge. It’s past 10 a.m, I can have alcoholic Dawa, right?” She takes another sip. And smiles.

Claire is confident, free spirited and self-assured. She remembers what we were laughing about before the waiter arrived and then says: “But you know, time really is a wonderful thing. In the beginning, I would have definitely cursed the guy out, but now, I’m in a good place.

I’d tell him, thank you for putting me in a situation where I had to depend on myself, and for making me realize that I had enormous strength within me. Thank you.”

Claire talked to me some more about love and relationships, then she opened up about her time in South Africa, her return back to Kenya, her struggle with the local media industry, her disdain for classism, and the unending love she has for her art.

Here’s more, on my conversation with Claire Oneko:

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Claire, you don’t use your surname too often, why is that?

I’m the first one in my family to venture into film. I’m the one who isn’t a doctor or a lawyer or a politician. As a result of this, I felt the need to have a name or brand that was detached from politics.

Okay, so how did, ‘Claire Ash Meadow’ come about?

Ashley, my middle name, is Old English, It refers to a meadow of ash trees, and I figured “Claire Ash Meadow” would be a great play on the name.

Apart from being a creative artist, is there any other reason you don’t prefer to be politically associated?

From a very young age, I was treated differently. In school, at the playgrounds, everywhere I went, people would walk on egg shells around me based on my name. There’s a certain respect that’s given that’s completely unwarranted, that’s not what I want anymore.

Do you think this is a Kenyan mentality, the respect for anyone with an influential name?

Yes. Kenyans and Africans are like that. It’s all about who you are and what you have. I had a similar experience in high school.

Where did you attend high school?

I was at Riara High School, before going to South Africa. I attended Midrand High School, and then AFDA, which is the South African school for film and motion picture.

Did they consider you a celebrity in South Africa?

Well, I did use the name Oneko, but no one really made anything of it. Until this kid, this boy, who was a bit quirky and different did some research and found out who I was.

He went around telling people: “She’s a princess. This girl is royalty back home. That’s why she’s always on her own. That’s why she drives a car to school.” It was a bit funny, actually.

How was it living in South Africa?

Studying and living in South Africa gave me great exposure. The exposure was invaluable.

What’s the education like in South Africa, as compared to Kenya?

In South Africa, the education is something else; they take the creative industry seriously. In my 2nd week at AFDA, which is potentially the best film school in Africa, we had all kinds of equipment at our disposal. We were put in teams, given different responsibilities based on our disciplines, and then we were asked to produce a one minute film. That was hard!

But I think that’s what film school should be. Not what I’ve heard of here, where there’s Mass Communication, and what you get to do is very many years of theory, very little practical and then you graduate. It’s a great disservice to passionate students.

Does your South African experience and knowledge make it challenging to work with those who pursued creative studies here?

To an extent, yes.  I think this is definitely why I struggle hiring people. Because I give them a camera, and the instructions: “I want this shot, and that, and the other one,” and then I see them fumbling, and I’m confused. I look at them and wonder: “Are you okay?”

I feel like a lot of the times I have to do everyone’s job. And it’s unfortunate.

How was it being an intern in South Africa.?

It was a great learning curve and I used it to my advantage. I worked as a receptionist, answered phone calls for the director, I did everything.

I just wanted to be a sponge and soak in as much knowledge as I could while I was there. It was quite interesting though, because Kenyans get to South Africa and work diligently. They put in a lot of overtime. But the culture there is different, a lot of the nationals work from 9a.m – 4pm. Strictly.

Did this cause a rift between you and the South Africans?

Definitely. They didn’t take it too well when they felt like my aim was to out-do them. They started claiming I like favors, and I was on a mission to make them look bad. It kind of created animosity in the work place.

But for me, I was just like, I have a goal, and this is what I’m trying to achieve, and to get there, this is what I need to do. Maybe the drama is also just part of human nature.

Did you get to work in South Africa? 

I did. I applied to be an intern for a production company while I was in school. I tried to push myself and work extremely hard, so that by the time I was done, they would hire me, and that happened.

I then worked for two production companies, Egg Films, and Bouffant; this is how I ended up being involved in the KFC commercial. That involvement was really validating.

How was your transition back to Kenya?

I came back to Kenya just for a holiday, like a gap year, looking for work, just to see what the Kenyan market is like.

It was during that gap year that I met Jason Corder. He’s a visual artist. We met and started talking through mutual friends, like Kwame Nyong’o, the animator.

And then?

I fell in love with Jason and I came back for good, with two suitcases (laughs). We then started Corder Productions which produced Stay and Coffee With Milk.

Stay is highly geared towards interracial relationships. It was his concept to begin with, because he’d never been into an interracial relationship before he wrote that script. We teamed up, went to Nokia, they gave us funding and Stay was born.

What was the experience of producing Stay in Kenya like?

We took Stay to a local media house, they aired Season 1, and with the surplus money we had, we shot Season 2 immediately thereafter. But, sadly, we’ve been trying to sell Season 2 for the past two years.

We’ve really been struggling to sell our work here. It’s for this reason that we are considering some partnerships with South African media. We are considering San Francisco, in the US too.

What happened to the partnership you had with the local media house? The one you sold Season 1 to?

We didn’t have a good financial relationship with them.

They didn’t do public relations, they didn’t push the content out, you know, there are just certain things that are to be expected, known and done. But I’m quickly finding out that that’s not how things are done here in the media industry.

What do you think will instill the change that’s needed in the local media industry?

(Pauses) I feel like someone has to take the initiative to bring in some rules, some defined processes of how things are to be done, how to sell content, and how and what you get in terms of returns on investment.

For instance, I believe PR (public relations) is worth way more than money. PR now, should be digital, and it’s a digital footprint that would last. That understanding has to be known and appreciated here.

Can one survive as a creative in Kenya?

You can, but it’s tough. (Shakes head) It’s tough, to be a creative artist in this country. In South Africa, we would work and earn a very decent income. In fact, for a young person, I accumulated quite a lot of savings.

I’m quickly realizing that to survive here, I need to start thinking of selling clothes, or jewellery or get into farming to supplement my income. But then again, I think about it and I’m like, I don’t want to do any of that, that’s not my passion. It’s tough.

What do you find the most difficult to deal with in Kenya?

I am really struggling with labels and classism in this country. I would like to be able to go to Buru Buru and just have my camera and immerse myself in my craft, without feeling as though I’m invading someone’s space or as though they want something from me.

There’s a silent requirement to stay within your class, and I’m struggling with it. Why should we be labelled and classed and placed in this space that we are not allowed to go outside of? Why?

Do you experience the same with your blog, this sense of classism?

I do. I come across irritating questions as a result of it.

Questions like?

Questions like: “Why are you talking about your child? Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?”

I’m doing it because I want to.  This is me!

Where do the questions come from exactly?

(Pauses) They come from the people who don’t know anything about me. You know, those keyboard heroes. The noisemakers.

And also, the people in high school whom I didn’t get along with so well. In fact, I just found out about this the other day, a friend of mine is in this group chat, and literally, as soon as I post anything on my blog, a screen shot is taken and then they discuss.

Wow.

Can you imagine? Like, they actually discuss. They discuss! “Discuss, 5 marks!” (Laughs)

But then again, these are people who never quite knew me. They weren’t really my friends. They were always like: “You’re weird, you’re different.”

But you’ve got to move on from those kind of things. Now I’m just like: “My life, you’re entertainment.” (Laughs) That’s my tagline.

What’s your greatest achievement so far?

My son (Smiles) I never wanted to be a mum, but then I met Jason, and we had a baby, and (pauses), he’s my biggest achievement. I never wanted to be that sappy mum, but, it’s a beautiful thing that happens once you have a child.

Anything else you consider a great achievement?

Having pushed through with my art, I haven’t backed down from it. I didn’t give up and decide to do International Relations instead or anything of the sort. I have friends who tell me: “I can do camera for you, but I’m doing Information Technology.”

And when I ask them why they won’t just focus on their art, they say they’re going to be broke for starters, then they’ll be shamed. They’re afraid people will be like: “You thought you could, look at you now.”

And that’s what I’m struggling with everyday; having people who are constantly trying to bring me down.

How do you handle that, all the negativity and criticism for your art?

I push myself through it. I just have to. And I also have support. I have incredible support from my family: financially, emotionally, physically, they’re there for me. They tell me to just try it out, to keep at it.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew when you were 21?

That love won’t pay the bills. You have to put in the work. You have to put in the work in your relationship and you have to put in the work in your work.

And, what’s your advice to high school teenagers who are hoping to get into Film?

They can do it. When I was growing up, we never had a career adviser in Film visit the school. Now, I go back to Riara and I tell them they can do it, but I also warn them that fame, this fame they desperately want, it’s not that pretty.

Any last words?

That thing we talked about in the beginning, the Five Languages of Love? They’re extremely crucial. So many misunderstandings can be avoided in relationships, if the Love Languages are well implemented. So, for those you really care for, remember to love them the way they need to be loved.

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