Uzoamaka Aniunoh: The Girl Who Did Everything

By Tochukwu Precious Eze

- 15th December 2023

About Us

© NZUKO Brand. Nigeria. May 2023.

“I want somebody to think of Uzoamaka Aniunoh and think, this girl did everything. She wrote her script, she directed the script. She acted amazingly, wrote beautiful stories, did music this one time that she just absolutely loved. She painted something, and she travelled the world… I want people to be able to see that I did all the things. And beyond that, I want them to feel art in every single thing that I do.”
The lady wakes up in the morning and freshens up. She makes herself a cup of tea, softly swaying along to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It is the morning rush, and she has to hit the road soon or risk being late for work. She makes it to the office just before 9 AM and settles into her day. Working in Communications for a mobile network provider, she loves that the work allows her to connect with customers every now and then. She will get through the day and be home by 6 PM, like most days. Oh, how she loves her long evening showers! In an hour or two, she will make her way to her reading table, with a pen in hand. And for a brief moment, she will be consumed by this recurring feeling: I’m not where I’m supposed to be.

Uzoamaka Aniunoh is from Umuoji in Anambra State but was born and raised in Onitsha. She got her first degree in English and History from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and then proceeded to get an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham, England. Since then, she has made a career out of her many passions, excelling in various forms of art, from writing to acting and directing – and from every indication, it seems she is just getting started.

Growing up with a stern and somewhat protective father, Uzoamaka admits that she did not go out much in her younger years. This, she says, made her all the more observant and curious about her environment and the people in it. Seeing as the balconies in their home faced different parts of Fegge, Onitsha – a city she describes as having a lot of character – there was always a flurry of activity and plenty to see through a window or from a balcony. “It was just amazing to observe life in the way that I did. I would wish that I had more access to the outdoors but my dad did what he could to protect us, and I applaud him for that. So, yes, I am who I am because of Onitsha; you can’t take that away.”

Uzoamaka struggles to pinpoint exactly when her interest in film began. As a child, her mother would rent Nollywood videos which the family would enjoy together, but young Uzoamaka harbored dreams of becoming an actress, and with each new film she saw, the drive and motivation grew until eventually… She could hardly picture herself as anything else. As early as primary school, she was already performing for her friends in class, and by secondary school, she had taken to writing.
“My classmates in secondary school would go through my list of movies and pick one. And I would go on to tell them the story, acting it out. Everybody would be so engrossed while I performed. There was also this thing with one of my classmates who wanted to be a talk show host, and she would interview me. I would play Stephanie Okereke while my bunkmate played Genevieve Nnaji. We would be in the hostel, granting these interviews, and everyone would clap as we answered the questions. So I knew that I was going to be an actor, I just didn’t know how to go about it yet.”

The path to directing, however, seems clearer. “With directing,” she recounts, “I wrote something that I loved, and I wanted to bring it to life. I started writing Love Language in 2020. It went through many drafts, but eventually, I finished and it felt amazing. I also knew the exact ways that I wanted it to be shot, and while I went over the details with Josh Olaoluwa, my producer friend who was interested in bringing Love Language to life with me, he said, 'Well, you’re literally directing it. It makes no sense to hire someone else and then go on to explain everything you want in the direction when you could just direct it.' And when I said I wasn’t a director, he added, 'Every director starts with something.' This was how I decided to direct the film.”

Love Language is a short film that mirrors the complexities of an intertribal relationship, through a Nigerian couple. It has done well at the festivals so far, also bagging a nomination at the AMVCA for Best Short Film. Uzoamaka mentions that she is writing her second work, a feature-length film that she plans to direct as well.

“Art and stories are boundless. I want to be able to tell whatever story feels honest to me. To tell beautiful, human stories that I connect with, and people in my world connect with as well.”

The spark returns to her voice as she highlights the movies and actors that influenced her as a child. It is no surprise to find that her list features classic Nollywood films, like Living in Bondage, Worlds Apart, Rattlesnake, Nsogbu, Igodo, Ikuku, among others. “I may not remember the entire story,” she says, “but in each of these films, there were specific scenes that stayed with me.” Veteran actors Nkem Owoh, Kenneth Okonkwo, Hilda Dokubo, and Patience Ozokwo are mentioned as her favourites.

“I could go on and on about the old Nollywood days. I feel like we need to go back to the drawing board. These people had stories for days; they were not recycling anything. They didn’t have the flashy cameras, the cool editing and colour grading tools that we have now. They just had the stories, and they held us with these stories.

“I knew Kate Henshaw in Onitsha, somebody else knew Kate Henshaw in Enugu, in Abuja, and even abroad, just because we were renting CDs in our homes and watching. How could you not have known Genevieve Nnaji, Pete Edochie, Enebeli Elebuwa, Rita Dominic, Chinwe Owoh, Victor Osuagwu, Sam Loco Efe (bless his soul)? These people had a real impact. Many of their films were done in our native language, and we watched, connected, and loved it.”

She relates the Korean drama of today to what Nollywood in the 90’s did for their actors and the culture. Korean drama is done unapologetically in their language and is watched and loved all around the world. Viewers are forced to read subtitles to follow the stories, and some even go as far as learning to speak Korean. Their actors are popular in countries they have never heard of, and all of this is achieved through classic storytelling. Even though it is different now with Nollywood, one has to wonder how the industry would have grown had we stuck to telling homegrown stories without sacrificing so much for global appeal.

“Define what success means for you as an artist and find a way to make it happen for yourself.”

With her natural charisma and a good number of awards and accolades already tucked under her belt, Uzoamaka Aniunoh is clearly a star (although she would rather not own up to this status). “I don’t see myself as being in the limelight, to be honest,” she laughs. “I am just a girl who loves writing, acting, film, and the arts generally. I don’t know about stardom and limelight. I mean, it comes with the job. You act in some projects or you do certain performances that resonate with the audiences and somehow, stardom is bestowed on you. You become this person who should live a certain way as a result, and I’m just like, nah. I’m just really happy and thankful for the opportunity to do the work that I love.”

Most rewarding about her work, she notes, is the privilege to become a whole other person for the film to become whole; the individual roles, major or minor, and how they all come together, like pieces of a puzzle, to make a story into a movie. Having to do the work to understand a character, their motivations, and the workings of their mind, all without judging them.

“Murder is bad! She’s an evil murderer, blah blah blah! Leave that for the readers and audience to decide. Your job is to empathize with her; to hold her and decide, yes, I understand why you murdered this man. So, let’s go on screen and murder the hell out of the man. You have to believe it.”

Somewhere along the line, she finds the right word for what she loves: process. “It’s the process,” she says, “all of it. The entire thing.” From the first read to the final execution on set, how it all aligns.

The more we get to know Uzoamaka Aniunoh, the more difficult it is to imagine her outside the film industry. Curious to know if anything else could take the place of storytelling and filmmaking in her life, a simple question is posed: what would she be doing today if she wasn’t in the film industry?

“I would feel like I’m missing something.”

Assuming that the film industry did not exist, one might envision Uzoamaka in some other performative art like music, or perhaps even politics – seeing as so many Nigerian actors have turned to these paths in the country. But from Uzoamaka, we get a shocking and unexpected reply.

“I think I would be in sports, in a fair, beautiful world where being an athlete can take you places in Nigeria. When I was in primary school, I ran― I did the 100m, 400m, relay races― I did the long and high jumps.”

It turns out that in a parallel universe, the name Uzoamaka Aniunoh, might have been known for sports! However, it would likely not have been any easier for her to pursue athletics. “During the sporting events, I would come back home with lots of medals and gifts, which were usually plastic buckets. My father would look at them and say, ‘We have enough plastics in this house. Go and read your books!”

On the most valuable lessons she has learnt as an artist so far, Uzoamaka takes a minute to think. Then she offers us a mouthful: “Your ideas are probably better than you think they are, so don’t sleep on them. If it requires writing, write it till the end. Remove what people will think from the equation. Leave people alone, and create. There are loads of mediocre people making lots of money from their work because they are not overthinking it.

Uzoamaka in a car
“It is okay to worry that your work might not be good enough, it shows that you care about your art. But you can’t worry to the point where it paralyzes you and you’re not even creating at all. So create your work anyway. Make it the best that you can and put it out there, you just never know.”
There is no telling what Uzoamaka Aniunoh will do next. If she has made anything abundantly clear, it is that there are no boundaries or limits to the ways she can express her art. As long as it is honest and she can feel it, she will do it. She is out to do it all.