Lupita Nyong'o's father recalls years of torture in Kenya

Mar 20, 2014 at 6:40 p.m. ET

Lupita Nyong'o is now a worldwide celebrity, but her father has opened up about their family's beginning and what they endured under the former Kenyan regime.

Lupita Nyong'o
Photo credit: Apega/

Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o has stolen America’s collective heart with her breakthrough performance in 12 Years a Slave, but it turns out the brutalization her character endured in the film wasn't too far off from her family's experience in Kenya.

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Nyong’o’s father spoke with the UK Independent about their years in Kenya and an uncle who disappeared and whose body has never been recovered. That uncle reportedly opposed the former Kenyan regime, and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o told the newspaper he was also regularly tortured.

"My brother disappeared in 1980," he explained. "It was a very difficult time politically. We never recovered his body, and it was never resolved who was behind the murder."

Nyong'o, who is now a senior Kenyan politician and academic, said their last years in Kenya in the 1980s were unbearable, and losing his brother was what made them finally move out of the country.

"Even now, no information has come to light," he continued. "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."

The family moved to Mexico before Lupita was born in 1983 but returned to Kenya in 1987. Peter Nyong’o said it wasn’t much better.

"It was a very insecure time. We were moving from one place to another, which was not good for Lupita and Peter Jr.," Nyong’o 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."

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He said he also found it unbearable to watch Lupita’s film because of the torture endured by slaves in the U.S.

"We were put into prison and the torture chambers by the regime, but it was like a dinner party when you compare it to what the slaves went through."

However, he did enjoy watching his daughter give such an amazing performance, which he called “very, very captivating."

"I don't know how she did it. It was a tremendous performance."