OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Photo courtesy of Kelechi Okafor.

100 Women: Meet Kelechi Okafor—the Nigerian-British Fitness Powerhouse Reclaiming Twerking & Pole Dancing for Black Women

Kelechi Okafor is a force—here's her story.

Two things are clear about Kelechi Okafor: She does not mince her words. And true to the Nigerian way, she is unapologetically about her business. Currently, said business includes becoming an artist and an activist. And she will not be deterred from either.

The Nigerian-British fitness maven behind the flourishing studio, Kelechnekoff Fitness, is a trained actor with directing chops (and a podcast on deck), who pivoted to personal training due to the lack of representation and opportunities for black actors—black women especially—in the UK. It's not a conversation held too often across the pond. "Rather than being frustrated and waiting for these roles to appear, I decided to do the next thing that I love as much as performing, which is fitness," she says.

Her fitness business took off in no time, and soon she was ready to master another area within her chosen trade—pole dancing. It wasn't long before Okafor was good enough to instruct pole dancing classes thoroughly impressing the owners of the studio where she taught. But they had something else in mind for her. They approached her and asked if she knew how to twerk. Taken aback initially—the studio owners are white—Okafor decided to accept the challenge, researching the dance to better teach it. "I began to understand that there's a kind of mainstream, white-washed version of what we see," she explains. "It really made me think about studying it more and looking at the links in terms of the diaspora, where it aligns with other traditional dances, and using that as a way to contextualize this thing and to reclaim it."

Photo courtesy of Kelechi Okafor.

Through her quest to reclaim twerking, Okafor also began reclaiming her sexuality and sensuality—aspects of humanity many African women are reared to suppress. "You grow up being told that it's off bounds," she says. "People love to talk about us as strong. That's the adjective that we always get. Now, there's nothing wrong with strength, and vulnerability is a part of strength, but not the kind of strong that they label us with. They label us with a kind of strong that's void of emotion."

From a young age, Okafor took to choosing her own labels. Born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised in Peckham, a district of southeast London, the eldest of three siblings always knew she was born to be a performer. From participating in every school play since primary school, to fusing drama and theater in her professional studies, Okafor found joy in submerging herself in performance art. And her career in fitness through dance has only added to her craft. "It's actually provided me more opportunities in terms of acting and directing because people are seeing me in another field, and finding out that I do all of these others things. It's definitely been a winding path, but towards the right destination."

However, it was not the path of least resistance; her passion for the arts was met by a lack of support from her parents. Her mother even went as far as lying to other parents. "She would always say to them, 'Yeah, she's about to do her master's in law,' or 'She's about to go to law school.' All of these were hot lies. I had no intention of doing anything like that, but I felt that pressure that she needed to prove to her friends that I was doing something worthwhile," Okafor recalls. It only fueled her desire to map out her own life journey and remain true to herself. "We are all created with certain characteristics that some people might tell you is a burden or is not so great, but depending on how you use it, it can be your driving force," Okafor says. "I'm very, very stubborn...but if it hadn't been for that, that resilience, that stubbornness, I would've ended up swaying and doing what she wanted me to do. I want to do things that make me happy, not just for the sake of it."

Photo courtesy of Kelechi Okafor.

While her mother is now one of her biggest cheerleaders, Okafor's earliest support came from her drama teacher, Ms. Parrott. "She remains to this day one of my favorite people ever because she was one of the only people that encouraged me and said, 'No, you have a unique talent for this thing. You should continue doing it,'" Okafor says. "That was coming from a white woman, when we were usually taught that these people don't see value in us. A lot of them don't in the grand scheme, but she was possibly one of the only ones who said, 'Do not ever stop doing this.'" But her village has since expanded exponentially to include a growing sisterhood of African women. And the limitlessness achieved through the power of the collective is in no way lost on her. "That recognition from other African women for what I'm doing means more to me, I guess, than any other type of recognition ever could," Okafor remarks lovingly. "There's the shared experience there. There's the understanding of just how much work it does take to do the things we are doing in our respective fields. To know that I'm seen, I'm acknowledged and celebrated; that's incredible. It's only through that kind of sisterhood as African women that we can continue to kind of break these barriers. It matters so, so much. If it hadn't been for [their] support, I wouldn't have been able to open the studio. My voice really wouldn't have been heard."

I want to do things that make me happy, not just for the sake of it.

Okafor provides as much as she receives. More than exercise, her classes are therapy for those who attend. She is included in that number. "I just didn't think there was a way to heal," she says referring to her personal experience of childhood trauma from sexual abuse. "People talk about therapy, and therapy's wonderful. I definitely advocate having a therapist, but I felt for me that there was something else. There was a kind of cathartic release that was necessary for me." She discovered that release in dance, and immediately recognized the need to share her story with others. Of course, it resonated. "When I started adding those kinds of aspects to what I was teaching, talking about how it was helping me and having conversations with the women who were coming to the classes, I could see that it was also helping them to release," Okafor describes. "I started to structure the classes more to aid the emotional and the spiritual, so it could meet the physical." The sisterhood, the energy, the art—all cyclical.

When Okafor forecasts her accomplishments over the next five years, they include everything from film and theater productions to using her platform to evoke larger community change to opening her own performing arts school. And for young African girls who want to explore their creativity, the passionate pathfinder assigns this homework:

"Just start writing," she says. "I'm not someone that really enjoys sitting down with the pen and paper, so I would jot things down often on my phone. But it's through committing something to words, whether it's spoken or written, that we can start to create the world that we want. I have an email address that I send myself letters to. Every once in a while, maybe once a year, I go and pick a random letter and I just look at it and think the intention has always been the same. The manner with which that has manifested has been varied, but the intention, what I want to do, the change I want to affect, has always been clear. I wouldn't have had that to look back on if I didn't just write something down."

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women. Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Still from "Kasala!"

Meet The Nigerian New Wave Director Behind the Film 'Kasala!'

One of Naija cinema's new wave, Ema Edosio talks about what it took to film her exciting new film in the streets of Lagos.

Ema Edosio is the director of "Kasala", a comedy set in present day Lagos and centers on the lives of four young men who go on a joyride to a party in a Honda Accord one of them has taken from his boss Taju without permission. Their evening is ruined when one of them crashes Taju's Honda breaking the windscreen and denting the car's body. With just four hours before Taju returns home, all four boys hustle around Lagos to raise money for the car repair.

Taju, who is a struggling butcher, is faced with a big problem of his own: his debtor has just given him an ultimatum to pay back money he's long owed. Bitter and frustrated, Taju's retribution will be double-fold, if he returns home to find his Honda is damaged. The four friends do not need more another reason to expect the worse from Taju if they're not able to fix his Honda before gets home in the next four hours.

"Kasala" is a vivid portrayal of contemporary Lagos and a riotous combination of physical comedy, inventive turns of phrases combined with fluid camera work and committed performances from some of the young and bright African acting talents.

Written by Temi Sodipo and directed by Ema Edosio—who is also the cinematographer and editor—"Kasala" was chosen for the closing gala of the 2018 edition of Film Africa in London this November, out of a total of 39 films from 15 countries.

Edosio flew into London for the film's UK premier at the Rich Mix cinema to a largely pan-African crowd who lapped up the rollicking comedy. Ahead of her trip to the UK, Okay Africa spoke to Edosio about her debut feature, the joys and challenges of shooting on location in Lagos and the rise of Nigeria's so called "Naija New Wave" cinema.

Photo courtesy of Ema Edosio

The fast pace and energy in Kasala is constant all through the film. Was this a deliberate injection or did it come as a result of the writing?

I worked as a video journalist for the BBC and I would go into the streets of Lagos to film, and I would see everything that made Lagos what it is: the traffic, the smell, the dirt, the vibe, the energy, the people. And I wanted to make a story that is authentic and that is the reason why I decided to make Kasala this way.

All the four friends and main characters jell naturally it would seem. How did you get them to work well together?

When I conceived of the film, I knew that I didn't want to work with any "known" faces. I knew that I wanted unknown actors. So I put out an audition call and these boys worked into the room and I told them to read together. And immediately it was like magic.

Why do you think they're largely unknown to the majority of Nigerian movie watching audience?

I think one of the reasons is there's not a lot of movies written about young people. Most of the scripts are for a certain kind of male character: the superhero who goes to save the damsel in distress, and the hunk and a lot of roles are not written for these amazing actors and that's why they're largely unknown.

Tomiwa Tegbe who plays "Effiong" is a good comic actor and has been in "On The Real (Ebony Life TV)" and "Shuga (MTV)". What does Kasala bring out in Tomiwa Tegbe that these other directors and film material that do not?

The thing that made Tomiwa Tegbe and the rest stand out in Kasala is that I gave them freedom to act and I wasn't micromanaging them. They became very comfortable in order to do their best to the film.

The cast as a whole is largely new and young with Jide Kosoko easily the most experienced. Why did you cast him for the role and not yet another "unknown" face?

The reason is I couldn't afford to hire known faces to work in the film and I honestly didn't have the budget. I [also] wanted to bring in a sense of familiarity and that is why I got Jide Kosoko. Even though they're guys are unknown, and they're are fantastic "here is someone you know who is in this movie playing with these amazing actors" which is why I worked with Jide Kosoko.

The different locations in the film are those of back corners, mechanic garages, meat market, communal flats most of which have the red and brown of rust and decay gives the cinematography a visual harmony. How much attention did you give to finding the right locations?

I think I made Kasala with a vengeance. I've had the privilege to work with Ebonylife tv which was beautiful but Kasala kept pulling me in: the people I met in the streets, the things I'd done on the streets of Lagos, the visual aesthetic kept pulling and I decided to make that. I wanted to see Lagos, I wanted to see barbwires. I wanted to see gutters, I wanted to see the people. I knew that the location was a character on its own. And I wanted to be able to find the right location that would be able to represent that boys and the lives they live in Lagos. I'm forever grateful for the people there who let us film there.

Your camera adopts the often frenetic pace of the film and is rarely still for long. Why this visual approach?

I'm very influenced by Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. And I would always say to myself that "these characters in their films can be Nigerians". I think that the camera should be fluid, breathe, move with the audience showing us "oh yeah this is a wide, oh yeah this is a close up". My influence by these directors was what I put into Kasala. And this is what made the film dynamic.

Are there any interesting, unplanned events during shooting which you could share with our readers?

Shooting in Lagos is one of the hardest thing to do. You have these agberos [louts] who come to you and literally want to take your equipment. I went with a very small crew and I'm very petite and they would see me and say "who is this small girl? She doesn't have money. Leave her alone, let her shoot". I started bringing them into the film to act and it was very beautiful seeing them react to it. One of the most interesting things is the children in the estates [on location] who act in the film, the joy and the playfulness. In some ways we brought back some joy and some fun into the neighbourhood.

Still from "Kasala!"

Did you worry much about what may be lost to foreign audiences who may not be clued up the pidgin English and "Nigerianisms" used in the film?

You can't come to Lagos and make a film about the slum in English. I felt like the pidgin English was as important as the location. My mind was not about where the foreign audience would accept it or whatever. My mind was "how do I make a film that is authentic to Nigeria? How do I make a film that would show of Lagos?" It would do no justice to use English.

Who are the other key players in Nigeria's "nu wave" film and tv you would like to highlight?

When you talk about new wave key players you're talking about Abba Makama whose film "Green White Green" inspired me to make "Kasala". CJ SeriObasi, ImoEmoren, Jade Sholat Siberi, Kemi Adetiba. So many new directors are springing out nollywood. And they're new directors making amazing stuff. I'm really really excited about the future.

How did you raise the funding needed to make "Kasala"?

When I wanted to make Kasala, it was not the kind of story people would fund. I decided in order to bring this story to live, to use the skills I'd gained over the years—to produce, direct, shoot and edit. Not because I wanted to be in control, because I didn't have the budget. That is the sport of new director coming in now. We're fighting against all odds and it is now beginning to be clear that it's way beyond nollywood. Kasala has been to over 20 international festivals and counting. And there an audience for our films, there's an audience for our voices.

What are you expectations for it at the festival?

I really don't know what to expect. I just hope that they love the film. For the Nigerians in the diaspora,I hope that it brings back memories of Lagos. For black people I hope it gives them a sense of how we are back home to help them connect with us as Africans. For the foreign audience I hope that they see a Nigeria of passion, of community, of tenacity, of brotherhood of love.

"Kasala" will be released worldwide on December 7th


Indomie: Unpacking a Nigerian Tradition

What does Nigeria's way of preparing this beloved brand of instant noodles say about the country as a whole?

Before I came to Lagos in September to begin a collaborative performance project, I imagined all the ways the place would challenge all I had read and heard about it, and all the ways it might remind me of my home, Trinidad and Tobago. Of all the kernels of similarities I've encountered so far, Indomie is perhaps the most intriguing.

Indomie, a brand of instant noodles originating in Indonesia, has become the household name for all instant ramen noodles in Nigeria.

As a child, I would make Top Ramen, but ours was far less intentionally adorned. I had never seen anyone add anything but Golden Ray. I would try to be fancy with my own and add eggs, but they never quite attained Naruto ramen standards.

Indomie was my first meal in Nigeria. I had arrived in Lagos about two hours earlier. In those two hours I had seen something of the character of the city. In the midst of the clouds of dust and engine exhaust fumes I saw a woman almost fall out the car she was getting into, I saw men sitting atop a truck, like wrinkles in the night sky fabric, I saw selling, so much selling and buying and haggling. It seemed to me that everything was happening here.

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Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' Is Coming Out On Limited Edition 8-Track

"Zombie" and "Mr. Follow Follow" are available in the nostalgic 8-track cartridge.

"Zombie," Fela Kuti's 1976 protest anthem and scathing attack on the Nigerian military, is getting an 8-track re-release.

Knitting Factory Records, Kalakuta Sunrise and Partisan Records have made 300 limited editions copies of Zombie/Mr. Follow Follow which you can pre-order now ahead of its December 7 release.

Fela Kuti's classic song uses zombies as a metaphor for soldiers mindlessly following orders. The song is thought to have triggered the Nigerian government's horrific assault on the Kalakuta Republic, in which the compound burned to the ground, Fela was brutally beaten and his mother, Nigerian feminist icon Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was murdered.

You can pre-order Zombie/Mister Follow Follow on 8-track now and read more about each song from Mabinuori Kayode Idowu's text accompanying the release below.

Purchase Fela Kuti's Zombie/Mr Follow Follow on 8-Track

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