Lupita Nyong'o's father reveals family torture in Kenya: 'We were harassed'

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Lupita Nyong’o earned universal accolades for her Oscar-winning portrayal of a tortured slave named Patsey in Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave — but new interviews with members of Lupita’s family reveal that some of the cruelty and agony the actress portrayed onscreen also reflected a reality they lived through years ago.

Lupita’s father Peter Nyong’o spoke out for the first time about the torment and torture he and his family faced in Kenya due to opposition from a former regime led by then-Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

In an interview with British newspaper, The Independent, Mr. Nyong’o said that the family’s rocky relationship with the Kenyan government resulted in the disappearance and death of Lupita’s uncle 24 years ago.

“My brother disappeared in 1980. It was a very difficult time politically. We never recovered his body and it was never resolved who was behind the murder,” Mr. Nyong’o told the paper.

“Even now, no information has come to light. I know he was on a ferry in Mombasa and witnesses who I managed to talk to told me clearly that it was not an accident and he had been attacked and pushed off the ferry. But the witnesses were too terrified to testify to the police… I spoke to members of the Kenyan Special Branch and someone informed me that they knew what happened. They were not willing to help in any way whatsoever because of that.”

Mr. Nyong’o, who is now a senior Kenyan politician, and his wife later moved to Mexico where Lupita was born in 1983. The family returned to Kenya four years later only to continue to be victims of ongoing harassment by the ruling regime. 

“It was a very insecure time. We were moving from one place to another, which was not good for Lupita and Peter Jr.,” he said.

“I was being picked up monthly and weekly. It would depend on the period. It was as often as they wanted. It was mainly psychological for me, although it was physical for others. You could not wash for days, you were harassed, threatened, you couldn’t sleep and it becomes unbearable.”

The fear and distress the Nyong’o family endured was common in many parts of East Africa during the late ’80s when countries faced severe civilian retaliation due to government turmoil.

“We were traumatised,” Mr. Nyong’o said. “The children were too young to understand, and it would not have been advisable to explain because you could be causing them unnecessary trauma.”

However, he told the paper that he thinks the constant change and exposure Lupita faced at a young age may have attributed to her ability to become a strong actor.

As for his thoughts on Lupita’s performance in the Oscar-winning film, Peter said: “Lupita was very, very captivating. I don’t know how she did it. It was a tremendous performance.”

 Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works