You probably know Joyce Wamwirua from her acting days on KTN’s hit drama series Better Days and her share of adverts and Yafesi Musoke from a host of adverts for some of the biggest brands and a couple of TV shows. The two, however, made their on-screen debut together when they featured on the famous Ilara ‘mawowowo’ ad. Many people must have been surprised to learn of the fact that they are actually a couple in real life.
Married for 14 years now, Joyce, 39, and Yafesi, 41, had no idea what a couple of projects together would lead to when they met 19 years ago. Even without their knowledge, they clearly spoke the same language, something that was clear from their first-ever conversation.
“When a mutual friend introduced us, Joyce said something that left me thinking ‘wait…she sort of thinks like me’ and that’s when I really noticed her,” starts off Yafesi to which Joyce, in mock accusation, says, “You never told me that!” and they burst out in laughter.
Such is the dynamic of the two and a few minutes into the interview, you can easily tell that they have undeniable chemistry, a testament to their history, which spans almost two decades with Daystar University being its backdrop.
For Joyce, it was probable that she would end up acting as since her early years, she had been exposed to the theatre. Her father, Joseph Gachanja, a veteran actor who now stars in the popular TV series Machachari as Mzee Kobe, had inducted her into the world of theatre and TV from a young age. He would take her along to shows and productions and it piqued her interest.
“Everywhere I went, I was always looking for my tribe – the drama club – and I ended up acting from primary school all the way to campus although I studied communication hoping to be a journalist,” reveals Joyce.
For Yafesi, the script reads almost the same but with a slight plot twist. “I’d been on stage since nursery school but after high school, I didn’t want anything to do with theatre. I wanted to study medicine but being in the drama club had really affected my grades. I figured I still had some creative juice in me and decided to pursue advertising, only to be told that it was under marketing. That’s how I ended up in Daystar University studying marketing,” says Yafesi.
A hiccup saw him return to the world of theatre. He had gone for what he thought was a meeting for marketing students not knowing that the venue had been changed and ended up not only staying for a drama club meeting but also becoming the club’s chairman.
“I think the fourth year students just wanted to offload that responsibility to someone else and it fell on me,” he laughs.
As he went about acting, producing and scripting for the club’s productions, Joyce was acting in the same productions and being friends, it was easy for them to work together.
They were both earnestly doing what they loved and as a result they spent most of their time during their undergraduate years together. It was only a matter of time before everyone else noticed that they hung out a lot and started wondering if they were dating.
“We were probably the only ones who didn’t think we were dating. We were always busy so there was no time for looking into each other’s eyes,” confesses Joyce as Yafesi adds, “Eventually, we also started to wonder if we were and I asked her out a few months later.”
Getting into production…
Having finished school, there was pressure for him to go into marketing professionally so he started off with the first job that he got, which was in sales where he had a short stint before eventually scripting for promos. It was on one of these gigs that he was thrust into the world of radio after he voiced a commercial for someone who was on leave and he ended up being a presenter at Hope FM for about five years. This, he says, was the genesis of his career in media which would see him script for several shows including Tahidi High.
Eventually, he joined an advertising agency where he also perfected his copywriting and production skills. “We were also staging musicals in church and through that we picked up a few things along the way,” he says.
Joyce, on the other hand, landed in production. “I had tried getting an internship at a broadcasting house after school but since that was taking long, I ended up in production,” says Joyce of her entry into the world of lights, camera and action. “I was a behind-the-scenes girl,” she quips.
She eventually ended up working at two TV stations and while on her third job, she shot her first film. “After we shot that film, something sparked within me and I knew what I wanted to do – acting. A friend of mine heard me going on and on about it and invited me to audition for Better days and I got the lead role,” she says.
Better Days was an instant hit with Kenyan audiences until unfortunately the 2007/2008 post-election violence threw a spanner in the works. “We were left in limbo because we didn’t know whether we would be called back for the show, so I applied for a job at a TV station as an editor. During the interview, I was asked what would happen if we were to be called back to shoot Better Days and I realised that I needed a job that was flexible; and that’s how I started our production company, Cheese Pictures,” shares Joyce.
In the midst of running a business, which neither of them had a clue about an idea struck them.
“I was working from home one day and I was talking to an important client when our cat decided that it wanted some attention and would not stop meowing, which the client obviously heard,” says Joyce shaking her head as Yafesi offers some meowing sound effects to put the embarrassing scenario in context.
“When I came back home, Joyce proposed that we just tell a story about us – about running a business without the slightest clue. We decided to shoot a movie but we had so much to say that it ended up being a series,” says Yafesi, revealing the idea behind their sitcom, Briefcase Inc.
The problem was, however, that as much as Yafesi had been scripting before, he had never scripted a TV series.
“I had no idea how to go about it so I auditioned for an MNet series, got casted as an extra for three episodes and in the process I got to see how a script was done. I didn’t even know that there were scripting software!” discloses Yafesi.
Fortunately, he got the drift and work on Briefcase Inc. began and was a success.
Having been in business for over a decade, the company specialises in TV and film production where Joyce mostly directs as Yafesi scripts, putting their collective skills and experience to good use.
To date, they have worked on several shows, plays and sometimes partner with others when the need for resources demands combined effort. The company also trains and holds workshops on acting, writing and other intricacies of production such as copyrighting intellectual property.
So what’s it like working and running a business together?
“I don’t think there’s even a clear demarcation of where work stops and our relationship starts. We’ve been doing this since we met so there’s really no difference and it’s not a new space for any of us. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses which even makes it easier to work together,” shares Joyce.
“Of course we have creative differences, which are always there in any scenario. Sometimes I script something and Joyce tells me ‘no one actually says that’ and I have to change it because being more of an actor, it’s easier for her to critique. My craft improves when she corrects me and it elevates both of us,” explains Yafesi.
“Exactly! If one of us wins, it’s a win for both of us. Plus, we complement each other’s strengths. For instance, I am usually notoriously geared to start a project but in the middle, I either get bored or frustrated and I want to abandon it, which is where Yafesi comes in. Without me he would never start and without him, I would never finish. He has to see things to completion and is consistent and very patient, which I love about him,” Joyce asserts.
Working together, it seems, suits them as after their ‘mawowowo’ advert, they were also contracted to be an on-screen couple for another major advert. Surprisingly, for their first advert together, which was a hit especially with kids due to its catchy tune, the two auditioned separately.
Speaking of complementing each other, the couple divulges that having each other’s back is what makes their marriage tick. That and the friendship, is the foundation of their relationship.
Despite the merging of work and their relationship, Joyce and Yafesi are, however, clear that there are boundaries to be kept. “We don’t bring work problems home and if anything will potentially have a negative impact on our kids, we avoid it,” states Yafesi.
They are also keen to keep them out of the media unless any of them expresses interest.
“Our kids are very understanding of the work that we do so to them, it’s nothing new. I even directed Briefcase Inc. with a toddler on my hip. Even then, I wouldn’t want them joining this industry because being on set is intense for children, especially because of the hours and working with adults. That’s why I’m usually strict on my sets if there are children around. There’s no smoking, drinking or cursing if there are kids,” declares Joyce.
Two of their children, Tendai ,10, and Sanyu, 7, however, seem to be charting their own paths with Tendai playing chess and Sanyu inclining towards drawing. With their three-year-old Ng’ang’a, it’s still too early to tell.
Aside from letting their children pursue their interests, Joyce and Yafesi want to ensure that their children always feel their presence and that they always strive to do their best.
Their parenting style also involves switching between ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ and they admit that there is no blanket treatment for all three kids as they have totally different personalities.
Despite Yafesi’s Ugandan roots, the couple reveals that there has never been a clash of cultures. “He was brought up in Nairobi so our experiences are similar. The only difference is how they make a ceremony out of meal times,” shares Joyce.
They also share that even with their marriage being somewhat intertwined with their work, they ensure that as they grow together, they also support each other’s individual interests taking into account that even their identities have changed since they met.
According to them, marriages need respect to thrive and as such, they know which roles to take up and which ones to turn down. “It comes down to constant negotiation with the producers if there’s something that you really want but may harm your family. You try and negotiate an alternative way of doing it, which of course comes with time,” says the father of three.
“The problem with the audience is that they sometimes are not able to separate the person from the character so, for example, you find people asking why we didn’t have our wedding rings on TV and we have to start explaining the characters we are playing,” says Joyce on some of the challenges of being on-screen.
While Joyce’s interests lie in theatre and dance, Yafesi does voice acting and improv comedy with his friends through an event dubbed ‘Because you said so’ and also emcees.
Having been in the industry for a long time, the two have seen Kenya’s creative scene evolve and are appreciative of the growth. They are also quick to dispel those who compare western productions to local productions.
“It’s not fair to compare industries that have been in existence for centuries to ours. We are still young and are still growing. We also don’t have the kind of money they do. Don’t forget, also, that sometime back the arts had been quashed so we are still recovering. But can we get there? Definitely,” declares Joyce.
They also encourage young people getting into the industry not to be dismayed by the state of things and instead aim to improve it.
“There’s limited to zero access to funding for films in Kenya and most of the time, young people come in with a zeal to actualise their brilliant ideas and make a killing of it as soon as possible and when that doesn’t happen, they get frustrated. The point is to learn the ropes and how the system works and make it work to your advantage,” advises Yafesi, adding that there is no shortage of talent or ideas in the country.
Nodding in agreement, Joyce adds, “I’m actually starting to get used to the idea that I’ll probably be the oldest person in the room. Entertainment is very youth-driven so I have to be humble enough to learn.”
“We used to be those young people…” says Yafesi feigning anguish and for a few moments they talk about grey hair.
So why do they keep at it then?
“I feel like if I wasn’t doing this, I’d go insane. I love the process of creating something and how we are able to rise from despair when things don’t work the way we wanted. That’s what I actually consider an accomplishment. It used to be the awards but I think getting back up is a big deal for me. And of course acting is my first love so I would not hesitate going back,” Joyce remarks.
“I’ve tried running away from the arts but I always find myself back here. Finding that balance is what keeps me going. In our case, we take on client projects on designated months and the rest of the time, we let our creative juices run and we produce what we love doing. If we decide that we’ll only follow one thing, the other will suffer. If we chase our passion exclusively, we may not be able to pay bills,” says Yafesi.
“And today you are so wise. Ah, I married well,” teases Joyce as we conclude, to which Yafesi responds, “It’s the breakfast.”