Articles - January 2017

Humanitarian: Lupita Nyong'o

A Shimmering Star Who Leaves an Indelible Impression . . . on the Screen, on the Stage and on the World

Lupito Nyong'o seemingly rose to fame overnight winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2013 for her role as Patsey in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. That may have been her breakthrough role as an actor, but it is not in her make-up to rest on her early laurels. Nyongo has used her initial success to build a multifaceted career on screen and stage and in humanitarian service, everywhere leaving her mark as a stunning young woman and emerging fashion icon, a passionate actress who invests roles with her soul, and a committed conscience for human rights and environmental awareness.

She has appeared in a remarkable variety of roles. Her body of work already includes everything from an early MTV Base Africa/UNICEF sponsored Kenyan television soap opera dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention to the latest Star Wars adventure and from a TONY nominated Broadway play to two recently released Disney films.

Nyong'o is as daring as she is talented, willing to tackle everything from sharing the live stage with five African co-stars in Eclipsed to wearing hundreds of pinpoint lights to record her motions and emotions as she was turned into a computer generated galactic muse Ð Maz Kanata Ð for Star Wars: The Force Returns and soon its sequel. She hesitated not a moment to lend her voice to the animated mother wolf, Raksha, who raises the young Mowgli in The Jungle Book, and she has taken on the maternal role once again in Queen of Katwe as the mother of a young Ugandan girl from one of the poorest neighborhoods of Kampala who discovers herself as a chess prodigy and becomes an international champion.

Nyong'o has focused her awareness on questions of identity and enhancing the lives of women and children.

Beyond Beauty to Experience
Lupita Nyong'o is a daughter of Africa and a child of the world. She was born in Mexico while her parents were in political exile but raised in her family's Kenyan homeland. She holds both Kenyan and Mexican citizenship. Her first name, Lupita is a diminutive for Guadalupe, a name honoring the temporary political refuge offered her parents by Mexico. At the same time, she received an African name - Amondi, meaning one born at dawn. The two names sum up not only Nyongo's heritage but her commitment to using her fame to highlight issues of global justice and human development.

Nyongo has focused her awareness on questions of identity and enhancing the lives of women and children. She has spoken movingly of the realities of color and discrimination and the nature of beauty. What is fundamentally beautiful, she has observed, is compassion for yourself and those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul. And, it is that kind of beauty she has attempted not only to embody, but to live. Lupita is known for not only adopting bright, vibrant colors in her wardrobe but for blending global fashion with a variety of African and Asian head wraps to produce a distinctive and intellectually striking as well as beautiful wardrobe.

Transforming Art into Power
But, Lupita Nyong'o's commitments go far beyond her performance, her personality and her beauty to project her heart. She has devoted herself to the cause of women's health by promoting the work of Mother Health International, an organization working to help pregnant women in underdeveloped countries and areas of disaster by teaching safe birth practices, providing sheltered birthing places and offering training classes for midwives and birthing assistants.

Her Broadway play, Eclipsed, tells the story of five women who have been brought together by the ugliness of two decades of civil war in Liberia. Nyong'o explains that Eclipsed explores how these women's bodies have been reused as tools of war, as sex slaves, as wives of officers, or as soldiers themselves. What emerges from their traumas is the reality that being thrown together has also offered them the chance to heal.

Maternal Health International works to offer care to the needs of war survivors and women with trauma. Its mission, she explains, is to ease away the trauma, to provide a compassionate, loving environment to give birth, so that women might in some profound way go about the business of ending the cycle of violence and transforming their pain into power.

Nyong'o has extended her compassion to environmental issues and species conservation as a spokesperson for WildAid. Her presence as a voice actress in The Jungle Book, where her wolf mother character Raksha turns her nurturing instincts to raising a human child, transfers itself to a real world concern for protecting elephants and rhinos from the ravages of the international ivory trade. I want to encourage people all over the world to learn more about these incredible animals,  she pleads. It is time to ban ivory sales worldwide and to consign the tragedy of the ivory trade to history.

And Power Into Light
Nyong'o's newest project derives directly from her role as Harriet Mutesi, mother of a burgeoning chess prodigy who struggles with her coming of age and her learning while surviving in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Kampala, Uganda. Queen of Katwe, says Nyong'o, is a story about commitment to a dream even in the most discouraging conditions. The slum of Katwe is a very difficult place to live, but you see these people living there with dignity and making it day by day. To go there and have that environment to work from really did sober us and enliven us.

So much so, in fact, that Nyong'o has now become a patron of Soular Backpacks, an intentional play on words and a deliberate respelling of the term solar, designed to assist children's learning and underscore a synergy between Disney's new film and the needs of children like Phiona Mutesi. Soular is a start-up social enterprise created by Salima Visram, like Nyong'o a child of Kenya, and a student in International Development Studies at McGill University in Canada.

What Visram has done is to develop a school backpack that includes solar panels and a small storage battery. The backpack is utilitarian not only in the sense that it can carry a student's books on the often long trek to school and back, but after dark at home it can be connected to an LED lamp to provide light for homework and reading. This saves the cost of expensive kerosene, improves student health and helps to protect the environment. Nyong'o has even devised a slogan for Soular Backpacks, The Power Is in Your Step.

A New Lens on African Identity
Lupita Nyong'o is more than an actor, more than a woman of color, and more than a symbol of beauty, fashion and accomplishment. She is an ethicist who acts on her commitments to the cause of dignity, human potential and responsibility for cultural and natural heritage. Her goal is to change the narrative and offer a new lens on Africa.

Storytelling says Nyong'o can offer a kind of catharsis, a cleansing that breaks stereotypes and nurtures originality. She believes in the power of stagecraft as an expression of universal myth given life and interiority. I love the idea of people of color participating in mythical, magical stories, whether that's as a hero, villain, sage or sorceress.

That is liberating and empowering. And in her career to date, Lupita Nyong'o has played them all. More than that, she has acted on the lessons of human experience she has portrayed in theater to turn them into commitments to action designed to heal a broken world.


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