Ugandan actress and screen writer Leilah Nakabira has urged women to be fearless in going after their goals, telling them, “You don’t need validation, just do it,” in a message to mark African Women’s Day, on 31 July.
The 26-year-old, who only got into acting three years ago, loves “representing her country”.
It hasn’t always been an easy task. The Ugandan film industry, like its peers, still struggles with storytelling and quality issues.
However, that didn’t put Nakabira off from pursuing her childhood dream of becoming an actress. Her mother, though, nearly did.
“My mother raised me as a single mother, and like every parent, she wanted the best for her child. In Africa, parents don’t believe you can succeed in art until you’ve made it,” she tells RFI.
Nakabira’s first breakthrough came in 2016, when she was picked for the movie Dream America, a film encouraging Ugandans to chase opportunities at home rather than wasting them on lofty dreams in the US.
“We went for an audition and we were around 400 people. I was put on a shortlist of 10 people, and, I thank God, I emerged the winner,” she says.
From there, the actress went on to appear in two TV series before bagging the lead role in the feature film The Forbidden, exploring the quest of a young girl to find her long-lost father, but loses her mother along the way.
In a cruel twist of fate, Nakabira too lost her own mother, exactly two years ago.
“Today, on the 31st of July, she is marking two years in her grave. But before she passed on, my mother allowed me to join the industry.”
The sad anniversary coincides with another big date — that of African Women’s Day, which celebrates the remarkable achievements of African women across the continent.
The day was established in 1962, following the very first Pan-African women’s conference in Dar es Salam, Tanzania.
At the time, women were fighting against apartheid in South Africa and to promote real independence and gender equality in Africa.
Nearly 60 years later, Nakabira reckons there is still a long way to go, especially when it comes to stamping out sexual harassment in the film industry.
#MeToo and Lupita Nyong’o
“It is common for male directors to harass upcoming actresses,” she says, adding that the global #MeToo movement that engulfed disgraced film director Harvey Weinstein, could spring up too in Kampala.
That is on condition that actresses play their part. “Some actresses are desperate and they put up with sexual harassment. But it is not their fault, it is not so easy to start up as an actress in Uganda, because there are so few productions,” Nakabira says.
The actress and screen writer has launched various online platforms to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the industry, together with a video on YouTube on how to conquer the world of cinema.
Giving back is important, says Nakabira.
Redefining ‘black beauty’
“I feel very honoured. I get a lot of people who tell me, ‘Leilah you’ve inspired me.’ And I’m also thankful for people who have inspired me like Lupita Nyong’o.”
The Kenyan-Mexican actress, who has played in blockbuster movies such as 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther, has helped transform stereotypes on black women, with the traditional standard of beauty geared towards lighter-skinned women.
“Africans still have a problem with self-love, loving our skin colour and loving our culture,” admits Nakibra, who has herself faced prejudice from directors who preferred light-skinned girls over her complexion.
But not her.
“I’m actually proud of my mother, my mother was chocolate skin and I was told to believe in myself, and to believe that I was enough.”
Her message to aspiring actresses on African Women’s Day?
“Don’t wait for anyone’s validation, start today. It’s not easy at the beginning but you have to stay on it and do it,” she said.