The engineer who became a creative

The crew stage a performance during an Easter Musical, Legacy, by International Christian Centre(ICC) Nairobi on March 28, 2024.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

If papers could talk, the degree declaring that John Jumbi is qualified to be an electronics and computer engineer would be asking him where it all went wrong.

It would be wondering why he is not keen on matters of circuits, code, bytes and all that. It would have asked him why he chose the arts as his source of bread and butter whereas he spent years at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, graduating in 2008, as an engineering student.

But rather than throw “Engineer” before his name as his classmates are likely doing, John Jumbi wants to be known as a writer and director of film and theatre. Just call him JJ.

“I am the engineer who became a creative,” says the father of two boys aged eight and five. “I pay my bills through art.”

It must have started in university when he produced plays that audiences loved.

“We had some quality shows when we were on campus, and that fuelled that fire. Before I knew it, I was taking it up professionally,” he says.

Perhaps this began way earlier. JJ takes us back to his primary school days when his teacher of English, Mr Lwangu, would demand that his compositions be at least three pages long when most other classmates were required to write shorter ones.

“(The teacher) selected me as one of the best writers in my class and made sure that any composition I wrote was not less than three pages. When the rest of the class was writing one or two pages, I was in an elite group which was required to write not less than three pages. He probably saw something that he fostered. I’ve never met him since then but hopefully one day we’ll cross paths,” says JJ, adding that he was also at home during arts classes.

Cast of the Easter musical “Legacy” on stage at the International Christian Centre in Nairobi on March 28, 2024.  

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

Critical acclaim

We had an interview with JJ just days after a musical he had scripted, titled Legacy, had been staged eight times over the Easter weekend at the International Christian Centre in Nairobi to great critical acclaim. Each time the musical was staged, the church’s main auditorium was filled to the rafters.

Legacy is a story whose conflict is built by an over-protected preacher’s child who becomes rebellious and quietly moves out of their home to pursue stardom as an independent young woman. She, however, later comes face-to-face with the exploitation and betrayals that are rife in the music industry and eventually reunites with her parents.

JJ was elated when he attended the staging of the play on the eve of Good Friday.

“When you write a script, you don’t know the end product you’ll get. You’ve given them the raw ingredients, so to speak. But just watching the play today, seeing how they’ve put together the story, the music, the acting, the dancing, I mean, everything came all together so well, so beautifully. It was a beautiful work of art. I couldn’t be prouder of them,” he said that day.

He scripted the musicals staged over Easter at the same church in 2022 and 2023. These are among the many plays he has written for different audiences.

“I’ve written about 15 full-length plays,” he says.

Award-winning scripts

Bei ya Jioni (2017) and Lwanda Rockman (2019) are among his recent plays. He started off with plays before branching into filmmaking, releasing short films such as Wakamba Forever, 318 and Wembe Squad. Wakamba Forever, which he co-produced, and 318 have bagged awards in the previous editions of the Machakos Fest.

Cast of the Easter musical “Legacy” on stage at the International Christian Centre in Nairobi on March 28, 2024.  

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

Currently under development is his first feature film, titled It’s a Free Country. For an engineer who is perfecting his art through hands-on training, his portfolio tells the story of a self-taught maestro.

“I’ve never done any formal training for scriptwriting or production. I think this just came from learning on the job (and) learning from one another. I did work in advertising for about three years. So, I think there I learnt the fundamentals of what I would call creative economics or creative entrepreneurship,” he says.

Setting up a production firm

He works on theatre and film productions through Chatterbox, a company he founded. He is a writer and director and there is a producer in the company that also has a producer, individuals in charge of costumes, makeup, and editing, among other areas.

“It’s a full team with specialists,” he says.

So, how does life treat you when you bank on the arts for survival? What does the future hold for JJ? Those are among the issues JJ addressed during the interview.

A man you are likely to find wearing shorts and a T-shirt — and a box haircut with tufty hair — it took quite some days to find him for the interview, as he was busy pushing the production of It’s a Free Country to its completion. To start this project, JJ’s company launched a crowdfunding call on M-Changa.

It entailed seeking support through advance purchase of tickets in various packages that start from Sh1,000 (tickets for the premiere weekend) to Sh10,000 (for a chance to attend the watch party, attend filming and be an extra in the film).

By April 16, 2024, they had raised Sh397,537. “We didn’t have any finances to do it, so the first thing we did was to crowdfund,” says JJ, noting that the support they got was from those who have liked previous projects done by him and his team.

Fine-tuning film financing

One of JJ’s Facebook posts entails him encouraging brands to support films through brand placement, where a product is part of a scene but isn’t mentioned or promoted any further. He lists instances where brands have done so in Hollywood.

JJ says they have got one brand to advertise by placement in their upcoming film.

“A client’s brand will be in the film as part of the narrative,” he says.

However, from what he went through while pitching the placement idea, it was not an easy sell.

“Brand placement in film is not a new thing, but in Kenya, it’s still not as deep-rooted as it needs to be, simply because the film industry is growing. The more it develops, the more brands and partnerships like this can see value both ways,” says JJ. “Most of our corporates are used to the agency model of advertising where if I’m putting in money in my brand, it has to be front and centre.”

Problem areas

One of the problem areas, he notes, is that it is hard to collect data on film viewership. What helps social media advertising, he says, is the fact that a company can show how many views an item got. That is not always the case with film.

“I think, as filmmakers, we need to get to a point where we have hard data on audiences and eyeballs, so that by the time I’m pitching to a client and I’m telling them I am going to have such and such number of people watching my film, they are convinced that it is worth their investment,” he reasons.

JJ admits that it is not the plays and films that sustain his business, as they barely break even.

Scriptwriter John Jumbi during an Easter Musical "Legacy" by the International Christian Centre(ICC) Nairobi on March 28, 2024.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

Riding the growth curve

“There’s a struggle to break even. On that one, I’d be honest. In fact, most of our financing comes from our clients, not from the work we do. It’s a labour of love, but we are glad that at least we are able to put together products. It’s like any business: there’s a growth curve, and you have to ride that growth curve until you’re able to break even,” he says.

“We are very new in film. We’re five years into film; and we are growing as the industry is growing. So, right now there’s a lot of commissioned work that’s happening and we hope that the work we are doing can also put us in contention for a lot of commissioned projects,” he adds.

“Most of the profitability that comes from our industry is commissioned work, because such work has the financial backing.”

He notes that at the moment, the backbone of Chatterbox is work done for non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

“My production house offers services to clients. The same way we do content for audiences, we also offer similar services to clients. We shoot video content, we shoot documentaries, we’re able to produce media content and also offer media training opportunities for NGOs. NGOs are our biggest clients.”

Crucial lessons

His experience in the field has taught him that a film is a long-term investment. For instance, the production of the yet-to-be-released feature film began in 2022.

“By the time a movie is debuting, work has been done for two years. So the money that you are (earning) in the first week, you put it in two years ago,” he says.

“By the way, a film should return your money within the first month. Everything else now becomes residual income, unless of course, you are launching it in streaming, which is a whole different conversation,” adds JJ.

The big dream

He dreams of a day when his company will be a leading film and theatre production “in the region”.

“(We plan) to develop more and more innovative ways through which the creative economy can benefit from partnerships and growth opportunities,” he says.

He hopes that the government can work towards encouraging collaborations with global filmmakers so that more can come to shoot in Kenya.

“One of the biggest things about film is collaboration. You cannot grow your film industry if you don’t work with others. In fact, most of the big films you see are not made from one country or one studio or one office,” he says.

JJ’s wife is into the sciences.

“She’s the opposite (of me),” he says.

The wife, like his parents, has however accepted his career choice. His parents, he says, are always the first to buy tickets for his shows.

“They’re very practical people. They know life changes. They know things are not always as they are on paper. They always come for my shows,” he says of his parents.

JJ calls himself a student of life. He looks at society with a keen eye and, every day, he spots something that may become a scene in his script someday. Whenever anyone comes asking for a play, he will be sure to rise to the occasion. It takes him two to four months to write a play.

“Wherever there’s a market for stories, I will be there,” he declares.

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