Lupita Nyong'o's Father On His 'Wise' Daughter, Her Rising Fame

Peter Anyang Nyong'o is a Kenyan senator. He's also the father of Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o. He talks to host Michel Martin about his own history and his family's newfound fame.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. So who am I thinking about right now? She is on the cover of this month's Vogue magazine. She signed up for the next Star Wars film, and people magazine crowned her the most beautiful woman in the world this year. And yet a year ago we barely knew the name, Lupita Nyong'o. That was until her role as Patsey in the award-winning film "12 Years A Slave" earned her an Oscar for best supporting actress and fans who somehow escaped her riveting performance were captured by her heartfelt acceptance speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY AWARDS)

L. NYONG'O: I want to thank my family for your training and the Yale school of drama as well for your training. When I looked down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child, that no matter where you're from your dreams are valid.

MARTIN: You might have wondered about the people she was talking about. One very important person thanked in the speech was Professor Peter Anyang Nyongo'o. He might be known most popularly as Lupita's dad. But in his own right he is a political science professor and a senator in his home country of Kenya. He happened to be in Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival which features Kenya this year. So what a great opportunity to meet with him and hear what he's year has been like. Senator, thank you so much for joining us, welcome.

P. NYONG'O: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: When you heard your daughter thank you and the family for her training, first what went through your mind and what was she talking about?

NYONG'O: Well my wife and I were there. We were sitting a little bit far from her and our little boy, Junior.

MARTIN: Yes we saw Junior in the famous Selfie with Ellen DeGeneres, the host of the Academy Awards. He made quite a striking figure there as well.

NYONG'O: Yes, but we were as moved as everybody. I mean I couldn't believe that was Lupita talking, we call her Amondi (PH). But of course her most well-known name is Lupita. So, you know, as a parent you get kind of taken aback at how wise the little ones have become and we almost shedded tears when we heard those words of wisdom and really it was quite a wonderful evening.

MARTIN: Well it capped off on quite a remarkable year for her. I mean she had been recognized by other professional groups as well for - as you mentioned not just for performance but also for her common sense and for her inspiring words. And you said as a parent- you're saying you sometimes don't - think, is that really my child? I mean had you seen her as all that?

NYONG'O: She started rather early. I mean I remember in kindergarten, when she was five, we went to a parents day and she was leading a bunch of kids on the stage, singing and entertaining parents. And then she came on stage singing this Swahili song, which we recorded, I think we still have a version of it somewhere I hope. And she just did wonders and that's when we realized that this child is in for something. And of course when she went to primary school and then High school her acting career just blossomed.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking but sometimes parents aren't always thrilled that their children desire a career in acting. Do you remember what your thoughts were about it when you realized that was her course?

NYONG'O: Well, one good thing that - I myself was an actor when I was in high school. And we are thespians really in the family. We loved going to plays, I mean I use when we were in the car going to work, recite to them some lines form Shakespeare, which amazed them, especially from "Othello" you know. When Othello is wooing Desdemona, before her father, I'm telling her these stories or these adventures in Africa. The Anthropophage, men whose heads grew beneath their shoulders. She was just amazed and so, I mean these kinds of things amazed them and inspired them. And say, we can also go on stage and all of them, kind of took to the arts really, because I myself was a student of literature, political science and philosophy in college. And I kind of didn't see that it is necessary to steam roll a kid into a particular career, (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: You still a Shakespeare fan?

NYONG'O: I am, and she still is.

MARTIN: No, you. I was asking you.

NYONG'O: Oh, me. Of course, yes, definitely.

MARTIN: What's your favorite play?

NYONG'O: My favorite play, believe you or not, is "Richard II." That is a play I've really liked ever since high school.

MARTIN: Do you remember any of the monologues?

NYONG'O: Oh, yes, I think - you know Northumberland, kind of came against the King, King Richard and this particular Duke in Northumberland - no it's actually King Richard himself, who tells Northumberland, who was his close confidant but turned against him to support Bolingbroke against him. And he had already surrendered the crown and tells Northumberland, Northumberland time will be many years from now and the governing head shall break into corruption. And thou shalt think though he give you half it is too little, helping him to all.

MARTIN: Oh, bravo.

NYONG'O: And I think that is something that is very reminiscent of politics.

MARTIN: I was going to go there next. Actually that's where I was headed.

If you are just joining us I'm speaking with Peter Anyang Nyong'o. He is a professor of political science, a senator in Kenya and you might recall that famous name, he is the father of Lupita Nyong'o, the Academy award winner.

Many people have noted Lupita's interesting background. She was born in Mexico, do you mind sharing why she was born in Mexico?

NYONG'O: Because in the 1970s and '80s, we had political repression in Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978 in August. And we all expected the new president, who was Jomo Kenyatta's vice president, Daniel arap Moi, to be kind of more liberal and expand the political space. Unfortunately he became even more repressive and we were teaching at the University of Nairobi the and as students and lecturers we were kind of opposed to this kind of political repression - this kind of presidential authoritarian regime.

MARTIN: You and your wife were both professors.

NYONG'O: : My wife was not a professor, my wife - actually, (laughing) let me confess, when I started teaching my wife was in the third year of undergraduate and I spotted her and then married her two years after that. So maybe I was raiding the cradle, but that's OK.

MARTIN: It's OK now. Anyway you were teaching?

NYONG'O: I was teaching at the University of Nairobi, and we were organizing against the regime and caused a lot of repression, and I was put every so often into police custody and so on. And it became really rough. My younger brother disappeared mysteriously at the coast. So I pleaded with the University to let me go, and fortunately I got an invitation to Mexico - to El Colegio de Mexico - to go and help them establish an African studies center and teach there. So we took off - my family and I - small family - my wife and the eldest daughter, Zawadi. We went there in December '81, and in March '83 Lupita was born. And the name Lupita is very important because it's a kind of a combination of these two names Lua and the name Peter - the word Lu in Lua means to follow, and Peter is of course my name, Peter. So we got this name which is really a diminutive form for Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexicans. So we called her Lupita.

MARTIN: Well, that's lovely. And she is truly a child of both Mexico and of Kenya. I think she seems to be equally loved by both.

NYONG'O: Yeah.

MARTIN: And of course, well - as Americans as well. At one point you went back to Kenya, and the repression continued, if you don't mind my mentioning.

NYONG'O: Yeah, you see...

MARTIN: This was not an easy time. I think is not a store that is, perhaps, as well know in the States. But you were subject to many of the tactics of a repressive regime - constant harassment, arrests, so forth.

NYONG'O: Yeah, well, Lupita says a little bit in the current issue of Vogue, in July. I was reading it this morning over the internet. But, you see, what happened was that when we were in Mexico, Mexico is rather far from home. You see in those days there were no e-mail - no OS app. These things were not there. So you had to write a letter or call. Now, calling was very expensive. And unfortunately when we were in Mexico, my wife lost her grandmother, and that was a quite terrible experience because we can't even go to the funeral. It was too far. We knew two weeks after she was buried. So we said, look, we have to move near our home. We can't stay here for too long. And we loved Mexico. We wanted to stay for a longer time, but then I (unintelligible) the United Nations organization. We moved to New York in December of '83, but my family didn't like New York. So in April of '84 I leave my U.N. job and go back to teaching, but then we couldn't keep away from the politics. (Laughing) So it started all over again, and I think in the '80s it was really rough before we got the Democratic opening of the '90s - yeah. But those days were not easy.

MARTIN: How did you cope with that? May I ask how were you treated while in custody?

NYONG'O: Well, fortunately for me I didn't get physical torture - I mean the kind of beating that many of my other colleagues got. I was a little lucky in that regard. What one got was psychological torture. I mean being kept in isolation - being interviewed, harassed - all kinds of things - humiliation, really. I mean for example, I remember a place called the narrow dungeons. This was the basement of the narrow building. You go there, you're kept in a tiny, little cell - dark with a bulb up in the roof. And you don't go out, and you can't go and wash - cold shower, no soap. There was no way to brush your teeth - no way to comb your hair. So really, it makes you feel bad about yourself. And then, of course, there's no towel to dry yourself, so you go back to the little cell and you have to run around the cell several times to get dry. And that is good because now that I remember, it was good exercise because if you had sat down it would've been terrible. But that was kind of the conditions that we were kept in.

MARTIN: Its remarkable because I think people who have seen 12 years a slave will remember this pivotal and just horrifying scene of humiliation involving Lupita's character, Patsey, not having soap. It's about her not being able to wash herself. It's horrible to consider, even now. I wonder, did she know about your experience? Did it inform, you think, her performance, knowing that you had experienced something not the same, but reminiscent?

NYONG'O: Yeah, reminiscent. That - I always tell people that really...

MARTIN: Yeah.

NYONG'O: ...when I saw "12 Years A Slave," ours was like a dinner party. I mean "12 Years A Slave" was really, really horrific. I mean when I saw it, then I said, well, we didn't really go through this kind of hell. But nonetheless, we told the kids the stories - not everything but - 'cause I remember one day when I came back home from about a month of incarceration, the kids were really shocked because when I came in the hair was unkempt. I mean they could see the disheveled condition. But we had to tell them the stories. I think they grew up, particularly Lupita because she was very close to me, knowing what was happening. They knew that life was not that easy. Especially if you stand for something, and I think it also helped us instill in them some principles and not take life for granted. And also it was time down for themselves because we knew that very often the family was isolated. People couldn't come to visit us because in those days, when you are known as a government dissident, a lot of people kept away from you. So that also helped the family come closer together.

MARTIN: Well, also the uncertainty - as you mentioned, your brother disappeared.

NYONG'O: Yeah.

MARTIN: And his - forgive me - his body was never found.

NYONG'O: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: And there was never any definitive account of what happened to him.

NYONG'O: No.

MARTIN: So it must have been terrifying to have you be taken away,

NYONG'O: Yeah, that was...

MARTIN: And not knowing when you would return.

NYONG'O: Lupita was still very young. And I think she didn't say much, but I think these things were just - sat in her mind, you see? So I think that amount of uncertainty - of not knowing whether Daddy would be there tomorrow or not - I think these things - I think these did really stay in their conscience.

MARTIN: You know, sometimes when people have gone through all the things that you have gone through - and you are back in public life as a senator - it puts certain pressure on kids to follow the example set by their parents, and I just wondered, you know, for you - I'm interested in your decision to go back into public life after all that you went through. And also did you - do you have some expectation for your own children about whether there's something you feel is expected of them as a consequence of all that you have experienced? Do you understand?

NYONG'O: I do understand what you're saying. Well, you see, my going into public life was something that came logically. I mean, we were struggling against this authoritarian regime. So when Mali party politics came, we had to take the responsibility of shepherding the democratic process. It was not just me. We were in a group who - in those days we were known as Young Turks. (Laughing) I think now...

MARTIN: Now just Turks.

(LAUGHTER)

NYONG'O: Now just Turks. Now we're just Turks. No longer, yeah. But anyway - but we had to take the responsibility of carrying the struggle along, and of course one of the things that pleases me is that now at least we have a new constitution, which is a much more progressive constitution than any we have had before. And I hope that the struggle continues. When it is implemented, life will be very different from the past. Of course, that sort of depends on politics. But to come back to your question, I don't think that I want my kids to follow my footsteps, no. My wife and I were very clear about that. Our feeling that the kids should follow what they feel is their calling.

MARTIN: Obviously as a parent you must be very proud of your daughter - all of your children, but we're talking about, you know, Lupita now. But what do you think is the meaning of what has happened with her? Not just the awards for her acting, but all of the acclaim about her beauty and her style and her elegance. Does it have any importance in your view?

NYONG'O: Well, it does. I mean, the beauty and the style and the dressing, however, that will never - we never really expected. I mean, look, that came to us as a surprise. I guess as a parent you don't really appreciate this. But I was surprised. I never knew but when all of this happened, then there came this conversation she had been having with her mom about beauty. They never told me. I learned like everybody else that it was something that was important in their lives. And of course the mother kept affirming to her that she was beautiful. So I think when this happened at her level, it was a fantastic affirmation of what her mother instilled in her - to believe in herself. And I think, to me, it helped give us strength - that there is more to you than you think, and that you should give the best of yourself to the world. And I think that the thing that she's trying to strive as is always to do her best in whatever she does, but do it in the service of humanity.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming in to speak with us.

NYONG'O: Yeah.

MARTIN: Of course you're a very important person in your own right as a professor, as a scholar and also as a senator. But, you know, I do have to ask, are there any special perks to being the father of an Oscar-winner? Do you get, you know, special treatment?

NYONG'O: Not a jot.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Not a jot?

NYONG'O: If anything, I have lost my identity because now - thank you for calling me professor and Senator. (Laughing) Everybody else says Baba Lupita.

MARTIN: Baba Lupita - Lupita's dad.

NYONG'O: Lupita's dad.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Baba Lupita.

NYONG'O: I'm losing my identity - so, an endangered species as it were.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I'm sure some dinner reservations will be easier to get now, perhaps.

NYONG'O: I hope so.

(LAUGHTER)

NYONG'O: I hope so. I hope so.

MARTIN: Baba Lupita, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o is a Kenyan senator and, as we mentioned, the father of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o. He is, as we've mentioned, a member of the Kenyan Senate in his own right and a professor of political science. And he was kind enough to join us in our studios while on a trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is presenting Kenya this year and the culture of Kenya as a part of its portfolio. Thank you so much for joining.

NYONG'O: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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