Famous & Kenyan: Personalities You Didn’t Know Have Roots in Kenya
Strictly speaking, a Kenyan is currently the leader of the free world and has been holding the fort for the past six years because, you know, he won both of them. A Kenyan is also the current holder of the Academy’s Best Supporting Actress award and also shaping up to be the biggest fashion icon of our age. Before both of them was another Kenyan who traced human evolution back to Africa.
But this piece is not about Barack Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, Louis Leakey or the many other celebrated figures who have a Kenyan heritage. It’s about the others. Many less heralded but just as influential. Others very famous but you probably didn’t know have a Kenyan connection.
This is a noble quest to recapture Kenya’s romance and an attempt to shed the overwhelmingly negative image the country is presently getting (school ground grabbing, doping scandals, international criminal cases, etc). Or maybe it’s just a braggadocious, meaningless list of jibber-jabber. You decide.
1 | The Olsson’s
This awesome trio is born of a Swedish father and Kenyan mother. The footballing twin brothers who play for English teams even come with Kikuyu names! Martin Tony Waikwa Olsson plays for Norwich City and Marcus Jonas Munuhe Olsson for Blackburn Rovers. Unlucky for the Harambee Stars, they both chose to play for their European nations – just like Liverpool’s Divock Origi. Their older sister Jessica is the missus of NBA megastar Dirk Nowitzki.
2 | David Otunga
A WWE professional wrestler born to a Kenyan father and an American mother. He’s branded “The Kanye West of WWE” and once shared a Tag Team Championship with John Cena. He is also American singer Jennifer Hudson’s fiancé.
3 | Sir Ben Kingsley
The legendary English actor’s link to Kenya is quite loose but the fact that his father Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji was born and practiced medicine in Kenya makes Sir Ben Asian-English-Kenyan.
4 | Gurinder Chadha
Seen Bend It Like Beckham? Well, it has the Kenyan stamp all over it courtesy of director Gurinder Chadha. She was born in Nairobi, Kenya and her family was part of the Indian diaspora in East Africa.
5 | The Katana’s
Names don’t come any more Kenyan than that. Ok maybe Wanjiku and Otieno but Katana must be up there. However, duets definitely don’t come any hotter than Hope and Millie Katana. The Kenyan-British singers, songwriters and actresses were born in Kenya to an English mother and Kenyan (obviously very Mijikenda) dad.
6 | Roger Whittaker
He sang ‘My Land is Kenya’ so I don’t care how many times Wikipedia attempts to label him Kenyan/British. The folk music singer-songwriter was born in Nairobi and even spent two years in the national service during the 50’s.
7 | Zena Marshall
A uniquely striking beauty during her lifetime, Zena was born in Nairobi of a French mother and English/Irish father with Kenyan ancestry. She was cast as the the first ever Bond girl in Dr. No.
8 | Sir Tejinder Virdee
Prof. Sir Tejinder Singh Virdee is an experimental physicist and Professor of Physics at Imperial College London. He was born in Nyeri into a Sikh family. Virdee went to school at Kisumu Boys High School.
9 | Anne Wafula Strike
Kenya’s first ever wheelchair Paralympian and 2014 inductee to the Member of the Order of the British Empire. She’s now officially a British citizen but very much Kenyan made.
10 | Khadambi Asalache
A Kenyan poet and author educated at Mang’u High School and later settled in London. Now deceased, Khadambi donated his wondrous, extraordinarily beautiful London home that he single-handedly hand-carved over 25 years to the National Trust. It was open to the public in 2013.
11 | Sir Nilesh Samani
Nilesh Jayantilal Samani is currently the Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester, and consultant cardiologist at Glenfield Hospital in the city. He was born in Nanyuki and educated at the Lenana School. I’d guess he’s still getting used to the title ‘Sir’ as he was just recently knighted in the 2015 New Year Honours for “services to Medicine and Medical Research”.
12 | Susie Figgis
A British casting director born and partly bred in Kenya. She’s casted for big films including Gandhi, The Pirates of the Caribbean Movie Series, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter movie series. I’ll credit the cool morning Kenyan air for gifting her the calmness and vision that’s necessary for unearthing young talents like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Will Poulter (‘don’t go chasing waterfalls’ kid from We’re the Millers).
13 | AG Dolla
A North London based rapper and MC of Kenyan origin, real name Amit Shah. He’s slowly started to establish himself in the African market since early 2014 under the alias ‘Slim Muhindi’ so keep your eye (or ear) out.
14 | Kiran Shah
He took Kenya to Hollywood way before Steve McQueen thought about putting Pansy in a screenplay. And he starred in Star Wars the very same year Lupita was born. Named the Guinness Book of World Records’ world’s shortest stuntman, Kiran is our international equivalent of Mwala. He’s been in everything from Superman, Braveheart, Titanic, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy.
15 | Deep Roy
Often mistaken for Kiran Shah and vice versa. Roy is also a Kenyan born actor of Indian descent with dwarfism. He’s starred in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Star Trek, The X-Files, Planet of the Apes, Transformers and more.
16 | Célena Cherry
An English singer. She is the lead singer of the girl group Honeyz. Nothing much is known about her roots but Wikipedia says her parents are East African and hail from Kenya.
17 | Johnny Rozsa
Born and raised in Nairobi Rozsa is a New York-based photographer, specializing in fashion, portrait, and celebrity photography (Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Jackson family, Nicolas Cage). He said of his childhood here that every day was an adventure and “living in Kenya made me curious”.
18 | Lamya
Lamya Al-Mugheiry was a Kenyan-born British female dance music singer. An American magazine called her “the Kenyan Björk” but sadly she passed on at the height of her career.
19 | Dipak Patel
Kenyan-born ODI, Test and World Cup cricketer for New Zealand.
20 | Chris Froome
Born in Kenya to Kenyan parents, schooled at Banda School, Nairobi and the first ever Kenyan participant at the Tour de France. Unfortunately his 2013 Tour victory was largely a British one since he said earlier on in 2008: “Although I was riding under the Kenyan flag I made it clear that I had always carried a British passport and felt British. It was then we talked about racing under the Union Flag...”. Buggers!
21 | Shay The UK Bombshell
Believe it or not she's Kenyan...partly. She’s also Italian, Arabian and Portuguese. The London-based international model was born in Mombasa and was rumoured to be Kanye West’s main squeeze back in 2010.
22 | Imran Yusuf
A British stand-up comedian of East-African Indian descent, born in Mombasa. He was raised in London with a brief stint studying illegally in the USA!
23 | The Sood’s
Siblings Manoj and Veena Sood are Kenyan-Canadian actors. Manoj, born in Mombasa has starred in Canadian hit series Little Mosque on the Prairie, Dead Like Me, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland and Disney’s Tomorrowland also starring George Clooney which releases in May, 2015. His sister Veena on the other hand has been seen on The X-Files, Supernatural, Bates Motel and Smallville.
24 | Barkhad Abdirahman
You saw him in Captain Phillips, no not “Look at me: I’m the Captain now” dude - that’s Barkhad Abdi, he was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. Barkhad Abdirahman plays Bilal, the barefoot teenage pirate who’s toe gets sliced open by broken glass. Abdirahman was born in Nairobi in 1994.
25 | Jared Okeyo
Jared is a hunky Atlanta-based model and son of a Luo pops and Kisii mum. He was born and raised in Ahero. He’s making a name for himself and has even scored parts in The Real Housewives of Atlanta and rapper T.I’s reality show, T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle.
26 | Owuor Arunga
You know the dreadlocked, flag-waving, camel-riding, trumpet player on Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us. If anyone has earned the name Pied Piper, it's definitely the Kisumu born Owuor. He described to Nation’s Boniface Mwalii his childhood in Karachuonyo and Kisumu as pure bliss.
27 | Richard Dawkins
Probably the most outspoken atheist of our time. Just Google “What if you’re wrong?”. Less known for coining the popular word "meme", he was born and spent his childhood in colonial Kenya, where his father was an agricultural specialist.
28 | Dipna Anand
A celebrity chef, recipe book author and winner of the coveted British Curry Award (announced by PM David Cameron). Her family-run Brilliant Restaurant- started in early 50’s Kenya by her grandfather- offers North Indian Punjabi cuisine with a Kenyan twist. It later opened in 1975 London where here family had moved. They’ve since got Gordon Ramsay’s nod in TV’s Ramsay’s Best Restaurant series and a visit from Charles, The Prince of Wales.
29 | Charles Gitonga Maina
Remember the basketball prodigy in that movie - what was it called? Yeah, The Air Up There. The 6'10" star of the "Jimmy Dolan Shake and Bake" has since gone quiet but keep an eye out for a towering figure the next time you’re walking around town - it might just be him.
30 | Wangechi Mutu
Born in Nairobi and educated at Loreto Convent Msongari, Wangechi is an artist and sculptor who is based in Brooklyn, New York. She is considered one of the most important contemporary African artists of our time- and Beyoncé says so too. You may have spotted her in the shortened video of Jay-Z’s six hour performance of his song Picasso Baby at the New York gallery.
31 | Dev Patel
Yep, 2008’s world favorite chai wallah also features in the list. Both of Dev’s parents were born in Nairobi but emigrated to London where they first met. But that doesn’t make the star of Slumdog Millionaire, The Last Airbender, The Newsroom and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel any less Kenyan.
32 | Iman
She may not be a Kenyan but the Somali-American ex-supermodel owes her breakthrough to Kenya. She was discovered in Nairobi by an American photographer in the 70’s when a student at the University of Nairobi. She was falsely but successfully sold to the American press as “an illiterate tribeswoman, discovered while tending to her family’s herd on the Kenyan plains.”
33 | Don and Derek Pringle
The father/son cricketing duo were both stone cold ODI fast-medium bowlers. Don settled in Kenya in the 50’s as a landscape consultant and later represented East Africa in the inaugural 1975 World Cup. His now journalist son Derek, who was born in Nairobi but played for England for whom he also played Test cricket.
34 | Shailja Patel
She might be a child of the world now and the mouthpiece for global migrants but Kenya is where this acclaimed poet, playwright, theatre artist, and political activist sharpened her talents. Shailja is a third-generation East African of Indian Gujarati heritage born to a mother from Mombasa and father from Pemba. She was raised in Nairobi.
35 | Simon Shaw MBE
A 6'8", 122 kg frame of Kenyan-born steel. The now retired superstar English rugby player was born in Nairobi to an expat father and lived the better part of his first nine years in breezy Lavington. In a 2012 interview with Rugby World he said, “I used to speak Swahili...but remember little of the language now.”
36 | Warsan Shire
A 26 year old prolific Kenyan-born Somali poet and writer who immigrated with her parents to the UK at only the age of one. She is the recipient of the 2013 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her poetry pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, was published in 2011 and has been acclaimed by literary critics from Europe to North America.
37 | Tom Morello
Hold on to your hat! A list of astonishing facts about this legendary rock guitarist and former Rage Against the Machine member ensue. His estranged father was a Mau Mau hero who served as Kenya’s first UN ambassador, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta is his paternal great-uncle, which makes Uhuru Kenyatta his cousin. Tom was also a stripper way before he worked with greats like Springsteen and recorded soundtracks for blockbusters such as Pacific Rim and Iron Man.