On the morning of March 11, 2021, Elsa Majimbo, rising Kenyan comedian and pop culture star, tweeted that Kenya Airways left her luggage behind and only informed her after she had been waiting at the airport for 30 minutes.
“No apologies were issued. The plane was incredibly small it looked like a domestic flight one. I would not recommend this airline tbh. For travelers avoid it if you can,” the next tweet read. Just like that, Elsa opened a can of worms. Soon, every Kenyan was in Elsa’s replies and retweets. Some told her she had ruined the business of her country’s largest airline. Others ridiculed her, telling her to use her newfound fame to get onto a better flight: “Ask your best friend Rihanna to get you a private jet,” one tweet read. The fiasco continued for a few hours, until Kenya Airways’ own Twitter page stepped in to apologize for the delay in getting her luggage.
Many accuse Elsa of abandoning Kenya in order to become famous. She has the South African flag on her Twitter and Instagram bios as a way of paying homage to the country where most of her views come from. She seems to mention Kenya only as a way of attracting negative attention — when asked about her home country, she pointed to the colorist stereotypes that exist in Kenya, and she said that she became successful despite and not because of them. Once again, Kenyans on Twitter weighed in, arguing that it’s not that they didn’t like her because she had dark skin — they didn’t like her because she wasn’t funny. Even though Elsa has attracted international fame and is carving the foundations for what looks like a lasting career in the entertainment industry, she seems to have alienated what would ordinarily be her strongest fan base: those at home.
Two years ago, my cousin Achieng Agutu was a guest on “The Ellen Show,” where she was reunited with her parents and her brother after years apart as she studied in America. Kenyan Twitter proceeded to take Achieng down step by step, starting with outrage at the fact that she told Ellen she had learned English by watching “The Ellen Show.” They found that she had attended private schools, reshared their fee structures, took images from the Instagram profile of her service trips abroad and used them against her.
Some called her anti-patriotic. Others called her a sellout.
I myself couldn’t help but react to Elsa’s statement. She pretended to be South African to get likes, and now she wants to expose Kenya Airways? Everyone’s got their own personal horror stories about flying KQ, but just like family secrets, we keep them among ourselves.
But there’s a fine line on the internet between disliking a person’s attitude and disliking that person.
Kenyans expect our Kenyan celebrities to be grateful to their country. We’re not alone — it’s expected worldwide that celebrities will perform their duty and honor the places where they grew up. Yet in Kenya, there exists an expectation of something more: a demystifying, even glorifying, of the Kenyan experience. Look at our celebrities! Look at their style, eloquence and talent. We’re not the poor, gross country that everyone thinks we are.
Could it be, perhaps, that we yearn to be seen in a positive light by those we perceive to be better than us? When our homegrown celebrities travel to “majuu” — Kenyan slang for “overseas” or “higher” countries — is there an expectation that they bring us with them?
The desperation with which we cling to any famous Kenyan person, however tenuous the relationship, is a symptom of a larger issue. The same systems that segregated and colonized us have morphed into the way we value Kenya itself — that is to say, primarily through a Western lens. Celebrities, with their connections to Western culture, become an extension of this ever-judging Western eye. Elsa, for example, is friends with Rihanna. She’s been interviewed for many popular fashion magazines, like Vogue. Elsa — and her success — puts us in the good graces of the Western gaze. So when she complains about poor service on our national airline, she’s not just an angry customer — she’s jeopardizing our country’s reputation.
But why does a celebrity’s review of a national airline diminish our national identity at all? There is clearly a larger problem here. The Kenyan national identity is weak if it is rooted only in the approval of outsiders.
The Kenyan experience is about more than being famous and becoming friends with Rihanna. Our society contains many people and cultures that make us proud to be who we are, irrespective of how the West views us. We shouldn’t expect Elsa to speak for Kenya — she should speak for herself. And we shouldn’t let her opinions define who or what we are.
Building national identity should be about more than making tweets. It should be about coming together to celebrate ourselves, for ourselves.
AWUOR ONGURU is a first year in Berkeley College. Her column, titled ‘Wild West,’ runs every other Tuesday. Contact her at email@example.com.