In her popular 2009 TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to the problems of poverty, illness, and famine that are often associated with Africa as a single story.
She talks about how much reducing people to a single story dehumanises them.
Speaking about her first time in America to attend college, Ms Adichie said her American roommate was not only shocked that she could speak English so well but was also disappointed that no tribal music was forthcoming as the writer had a Mariah Carey tape.
Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, in his satirical essay titled “How to Write About Africa”, also aptly describes this single story of Africa by the Western world.
“Among your characters, you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West,” he writes.
On May 3, we were served with generous helpings of what both Ms Adichie and Mr Wainaina were lamenting about.
In an interview with Ellen of the popular American TV programme The Ellen Show, 21-year-old Kenyan girl Achieng Agutu claimed to be pitiably needy, with a father who “had to sell his land and borrow money” to make sure she was comfortable and that she got an education.
How this was even a story worthy of a TV show baffled many Kenyans. Isn’t this true for almost every middle class parent in Kenya?
Ms Agutu, whose LinkedIn profile indicates she studied at Braeburn International School, told an appreciative Ellen audience that she learnt English by watching the artists who came to the show, Googling the lyrics at a cyber café and cramming them and “therefore learnt English”.
Unlike Ms Adichie, who set her roommate straight about English being the official language in Nigeria, Ms Achieng was happy to credit the TV show for her English.
The Ellen Show producers might be interested to know that Kenya is a hotbed of academic cheating as thousands of jobless graduates from Kenya help lazy university students in developed countries to cheat by writing papers on their behalf. They should know that the papers are not written in “tribal” languages. They should also know that English and Kiswahili are official languages in Kenya.
In the academic cheating expose carried by the Daily Mail, Dr Thomas Lancaster, a senior fellow at Imperial College, London, was quoted by the British press as saying Kenyans have “good English and low overheads.”
While these are not attributes we are particularly proud of, it proves to a large extent that Ms Agutu did not need The Ellen Show to learn “some English”, after all.
Kenyans on Twitter (KOT), of course, could not get over the irony of a Braeburn-schooled Kenyan girl claiming she learnt English through the TV show. In an arsenal of tweets and memes, they roasted her, with some suggesting she did it for the $50,000 (Sh5,000,000) the show’s host was giving away.
Maybe the family will use the money to give back to the community as Ms Agutu said that her parents are paying for the school fees, uniforms, books and “all that fun stuff” for over 10 children.
We may never really know the true colours and shades of her life but one thing is for sure: Ms Agutu knows how to play her cards right. By pandering to the whims of the Western world who often have a single story about Africa, she managed to benefit from their benevolence. One wonders what would have happened if Ms Agutu had told the show producers that she could hardly speak a word of her “tribal” language as she has spoken English since she checked into Baby Class in Miss Eileen’s class at a Montessori Education System kindergarten.
Oh, wait, she would probably not make it past the bouncer hired to man the studio door to keep pesky, English-speaking African guests away. If nothing else, Ms Agutu’s story serves to remind us the Western world is still submerged in a single story about Africa.