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Terry Pheto: From Community Theater To The World Stage

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If you close your eyes, you may remember this. It was a historic moment for Africa’s film industry. For the second time, a South African film stood a chance to win an Oscar. Millions anxiously glued to their TVs, crossing fingers in hope. With a white envelope in hand, American actor Will Smith took to the stage. Without hesitation, he announced Tsotsi as the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film award in 2006.

The Kodak Theatre in Hollywood was packed with the who’s who of America’s film industry. You could see Terry Pheto, a newcomer in the industry who played Miriam in the film, clap her hands and sigh in relief as director Gavin Hood accepted the award. History had been made and Pheto’s life was never to be the same.

For Pheto, this was a world away from the streets of Evaton, the township 50 kilometers south of Johannesburg, where she was born on May 11, 1981. Here, she found her love for acting.

“My love for acting came from the love of storytelling. My grandmother was the best storyteller and I looked forward to story time every evening. My cousin, Siya, even nicknamed me storyteller because I also started telling stories like my grandmother,” says Pheto.

It didn’t end there.

Pheto says she knew she wanted to tell stories for a living. At the age of 20, she left home to study acting in Johannesburg. It was tough. She lived in a shack until she was 21. One day, while acting in community theater, she was discovered by Moonyeenn Lee, South Africa’s casting agent extraordinaire.

With a talented agent by her side, Pheto thought the road to stardom had finally arrived, yet she went to audition after audition for over a year and had no job.

“I had roles that had been offered before but they never worked out. Sometimes the filmmakers would decide to go a different direction,” she says.

READ MORE: The World’s Highest-Paid Actresses 2017: Emma Stone Leads With $26 Million

She was ready to pack her bags and go home when she received the script for Tsotsi.

“I am thankful that I trusted the process because I feel like God wanted me to be in Tsotsi which was my first film and was massive for my career. I was introduced to the industry by the right project.”

From left to right: Actor Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto and director Gavin Hood with the Oscar that Tsotsi won. (Photo by Getty Images)

It was the perfect role for Pheto. Miriam is an attractive, young, single mother. She lost her husband, who was murdered on his way home from work. Despite her pain, she maintains her dignity and runs a small sewing business to support herself and her child.

It marked the rise of who many see as the leading lady of film in Africa. Everyone wanted a piece of her talent. International roles quickly trickled in.

In 2008, Pheto joined the list of beauties endorsing L’Oreal.  It set her as the first South African face for the cosmetics giant. She then left South Africa to try her luck in Hollywood. It was the right decision. She landed a recurring role as Dr Malaika Maponya on The Bold and the Beautiful, an American soap opera watched by 35 million people every day.

“I got a call from the SABC and I thought it was a joke… Because I didn’t audition for the role, the role was given to me… It was such an honor to work with people who have been doing this for such a long time and being chosen was dream come true for me,” she says.

READ MORE: ‘It’s Africa’s Time For Animation’

Pheto says working on a soap was a culture shock. She was used to films where there is more time to work. On a soap there are multi cameras and everything is done at lightning speed.

Her acting career was progressing just as quickly.

In 2017, Pheto also became the first South African to play Winnie Mandela, a character that has been played by American singer and actress, Jennifer Hudson, London-born Sophie Okonedo and Naomie Harris, an award-winning Cambridge University educated actress. These are big shoes to fill, but Pheto nailed the role in the miniseries, Madiba.

Pheto says she always felt like she knew Winnie Mandela, even before she met her because of how people admired her. In preparation for the role, she read books and watched interviews and documentaries of the struggle icon.

“Playing Mam’ Winnie Mandela has always been my ultimate dream. She is powerful and remains a beacon of hope considering all she has been through. …I have met her before but Mam’ Winnie hasn’t been too well so I couldn’t spend time with her to prepare for this role. There is no greater blessing than living your dream. I am very lucky to be doing what I love,” she says.

Terry Pheto

Terry Pheto (Photo by Jay Caboz)

At home and abroad, this leading lady always steals the show. Hard work mixed with talent has won her more awards than we can count.

This September, she added two international accolades, at International Achievement Recognition Awards (IARA Awards) in London, to the list. She was the biggest winner of the night bringing home the Best Actress 2017 award for her role in A United Kingdom, and the Best Actress TV/ Drama 2017 for her role in Madiba.

“Both A United Kingdom and Madiba portray very important stories. Seeing these stories travel globally has been a beautiful journey. It has been an absolute honor to be in a position to have played strong characters in both roles. Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for example is one of the strongest women I know. I’m in awe of her strength and resilience after all she’s been through. She inspires me to believe that I can overcome any obstacles or challenges in life and still remain human, kind and unshaken,” says Pheto.

A United Kingdom depicts the true story of Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president.  Pheto plays his sister, Naledi Khama, alongside British-Nigerian actor, David Oyelowo, known for playing Martin Luther King Jr in the 2014 awarding winning movie, Selma.

Oyelowo is not the only international star Pheto has worked with. Among them, she counts Idris Elba on Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.

“It was fun working with Idris. He is very humble and very talented,” she says.

READ MORE: Trailing Charlize Theron?

Pheto says her mind is always working in overdrive. It means she can wear many hats. In addition to her successful career in front of the camera, she is also an entrepreneur.

“I knew it is important to also be behind the scenes and know what happens there. I am able to produce and also act and do other things. You just have to surround yourself with the right people.”

Ten years after Tsotsi, Pheto produced her first film under her production company, Leading Lady Productions. The production company has just finished working on a short film shot in Los Angeles.

“I am working on developing enough content. There is a library of scripts I am going through for next year,” she says.

There is more.

This year, Pheto and her best friend, actress Mampho Brescia, cofounded, Let’s Learn Toys, an educational toys company to help prepare children to be leaders. Although not a mother yet, Pheto says, in a statement, she is a devoted aunt who tries to give children around her more than she had growing up. The company has 2,000 different toys for children between 12 months and 18 years.

Surely, there should be a secret to this success?

“One thing I learned from a very young age is to be humble and always respectful. These are the principles my mother and grandmother taught me and they were right because people can see through you. Working hard and everything else just adds to that,” she says.

Clearly, this is not the last we will see of Pheto.

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Quote Of The Day

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”

– Unknown

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’

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Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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