In conversation: Ellah Maina on acting as “Shi”, mental health and making happiness

It is hard moving to the city when you are young. The life moves fast, the air suddenly does not feel so fresh, you have heard so many things about the city that you just want to know exactly happens here. Do people always have money? Are there robbers seated in every corner? Do people party till dawn? Is Githurai really there or is it just a made up version of Kenya’s crazy town?

That was the role Ellah Maina was going to be doing for the Trap House. She plays the role of Shistabu “Shi” Kikana a naïve girl from the village who is excited to be going to campus. Her life is not so great; she is bullied, judged for her style and at one point locked in a toilet. Everything just seems so hard for her but she decides to get up and get going.

Ellah; got adjusted to it and when we talk about it she seems to like playing this role. What has she learnt, what makes her happy about playing this role? We sit down with her for this interview and try to get her perspectives on her life and so many things in a conversation with David Mwenda.

What was the most exciting thing about your childhood?

(Pause) hmm my childhood was a bit boring nlikuwa nimetulia sana. I was with sister all my life so my childhood was pretty normal. I played with my friends it was just a normal childhood.

How would you describe yourself in 4 words?

(Laughs) Smart, talented, caring and passionate

A lot of people who get into acting say it is about the passion not the pay check do you agree?

Come on it is about the paycheck everyone is trying to get the money. However you get the money if you do what you love passionately. If you are money motivated you will get so frustrated because it is not enough to get you to where you are going. Do what you love that won’t stop you from where you are going.   

How did you get into acting?

I always love watching movies as a child. I liked cooking shows and cartoon and for some reason I was curious about how they did it and I was not too sure about what they did? In high school is when I got more fascinated by it and decided to take it up. in university the course I took was film and theatre arts then I started getting the hang of it and loving it and then I found myself on a TV show.

What was your first role on TV?

My first role on TV was Shi of The Trap House on TV

Once you got the part how did you envision Shi in your head what related with her to you?

I was made to understand that Shi is a very simple girl, from a very humble background. She goes to university and finds it a bit different from what she is used to. She is also very intelligent and she adapts pretty quickly and finds a way to quickly interact with people.

I relate with Shi because there is nothing too much going on in my life I am very simple, straightforward girl (laughs).

You say Shi is from a very humble background is it something that you also relate to also?

Well I haven’t gone through anything major. I can’t say I am from a humble background my mother is a teacher I’ve never had a boujee life very simple. We are well off but not very well off nothing too much.

I’ve watched the show a couple of times (The Trap House on NTV). Your character is constantly conflicted about whether to settle with the other girls and trying to have fun. Was it something that you guys wanted to show as much?

It is a very common problem for people our age and more so in university. There is a lot going around you and you have to deal with it. You are trying not to make wrong decisions and such.

What do you love most about Shi?

 Shi is just a naïve character and still amazing. I love the way she is so strong. Every time she is down she finds a way to pick herself up and dusts herself up and tries to move on. She kinda relates with me a bit.

Let’s move away from your character. You also model; let’s start from the beginning how did you get into modeling?

Well I am not really a model I don’t shoot that much as a model, model. I don’t do fashion or such I do photography a lot with my friends for fun and a bit professionally. I joined an agency recently it’s a good agency has a good reputation. I haven’t gotten any major jobs yet but we are hoping for the best.

So I am still experimenting, wait let’s not say that let’s I am growing into it.

Thanks for that clarification, Allow me to take you back a little to acting. Shi has a very religious aspect engrained in her. Is it something that you relate with a lot?

(Laughs) I wouldn’t quite say I am as saved as she is but I do believe in God I was raised in a Christian family, I am Catholic I go to church I believe I pray. I wouldn’t say I am as religious as Shi going out quoting the Bible to everyone but I do relate with her religion wise.

If you were to play a movie character off the top of your head what would it be?

Ever since I started acting I have been doing roles that I am kinda used to. They are people you can interact with on a day to day basis. I would like to do something out of that I really like Halle Berry in Cat Woman those are two characters I would like to really be.

Cat woman?


That’s interesting I am not a fan of comic movies

Neither am I but if I had to be in a costume I’d choose that one (Chuckles)

Now that you’ve gotten to TV what would you say you have achieved your purpose with within 5 to 10 years from now?

I mean Hollywood is in the picture there are so many people who have done it. Lupita continues to inspire me, I’m insane about her. We are from different backgrounds and from different upbringing but she reminds me that no matter who you are your dreams are valid. So acting and directing are in the picture for me and I really want to get into Hollywood. 5 to 10 years from now I hope I will be there.

You have mentioned Lupita and I think about the standard she has set in Kenya, and Hollywood, Do you think women in Kenya are being given space as she is to grow?

I do not think it is about being given; it is about them taking it. If we continue to wait for someone to make our dreams then they won’t come true. Do not limit yourself, I feel if we had support from our governing bodies we would be a bit better but because they aren’t does not mean we should be comfortable. Let us spread our wings and fly and think about how we can get there without that support even. However it is very crucial.

Are you a reader or a watcher?

(Cheerfully) I like watching (laughing) I like reading too also but I like watching more. It is good to watch someone’s envisions come to life and it makes you feel entertained and feeling good.

What is the last Kenyan movie you watched?

(Pause) Give me a moment I watched it a while back, I’m forgetting the name sorry but the story is about the afterlife you die.

Kati Kati?

Yes Kati Kati I watched it a while back

What stood out for you in Kati Kati?

The acting I really loved it. Every time I watch a movie I am fascinated by the acting. I try to understand the character and trying to understand what it is about it. The girl who died and went to the afterlife she is an amazing actress. (The character is played by Nyokabi Gethaiga) the story was also so good and captivating the whole thing was mind blowing.

Something heavy now, it is mental awareness month and you are in a TV series that is talking about the youth. Is enough being done in the education sector, to talk about mental health?

 Personally I would say I could have gotten a little bit more. I did not know too much about mental health.           It is not something a lot of people talk about. A lot of people do not get what it is all about. If we got more we could have been a better society and help us work on this mental awareness and addressing this problem and issues. So I do not feel like I got enough, I really hope it is different currently in schools. We need to put in more effort in addressing it and it is not just about mental health there are so many issues we can work on in our system.

From what I’m hearing your solution is we should talk about it more?

Yeah let this things be let out in the open I don’t know if people find it embarrassing or it puts them in an awkward position. If you meet someone with Down Syndrome you may want to treat them differently and have all this questions in your head. If we talked about this more in the open and the type of health they need we should try to educate ourselves.

Are you happy?

(Laughing) yeah I am very happy 

What makes you happy?

I think you create happiness, make everything about your happiness. Do not let the bad things get to you. If you are happy you stay young and that is what we are aiming for right (laughter).

   You do a lot of singing on The Trap House is it something you are planning on doing professionally?

It is not something that has crossed my mind. I do sing for fun but I cannot turn down a good chance. I’ve just started doing a song for the Trap House as Shi while we were doing it I found it fun. It crossed my mind a few times I guess something is in the works. I am not too sure about.

This conversation was edited and condensed. This interview was done in May which is Mental awareness month


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