Outrage Is The New Black: On Vera Sidika and The Campus Diva

Brenda Wambui
17 June ,2014

This essay was written before the occurrence of the Mpeketoni Attack. We as Brainstorm extend our deepest condolences to all those affected by the attack, and to Kenya as a whole.

Outrage Pornography: Memes, news articles, TV segments, email forwards, or other forms of media that are designed to invoke outrage. This is especially true for political-related topics. Viewers of outrage porn often become addicted and spend many hours per day trying to seek new outrage highs.

Many Kenyan citizens of the internet seem to constantly be on the lookout for things to be outraged by. We are professionally furious. Media outlets, which are in it for the pageviews, are only too eager to give it to us. Outrage sells. We live in an attention economy where eyeballs on articles are the main currency online. Nothing is easier than putting up a post that will shock people, make them feel sad/disgusted/pray for whomever is concerned then share it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

On Friday 6th June, I was at NTV studios to comment on Vera Sidika’s skin lightening and lifestyle, as well as the campus diva, Catherine Aluoch. As Murphy’s Law would have it, my microphone and camera both failed, and the only thing I managed to get out was that “Society has been forced to look at itself in the mirror” before I got tuned out. What I did not get to say was that I feel that we are great fans of outrage porn – addicted to feeling morally superior and righteously indignant – and that we are very hypocritical.

At the heart of the criticism directed towards both was a sense of both being right, and wronged. Catherine Aluoch spoke on being a “kept woman” – maintained by old men (conflated with married men, as if old men are definitely married, and vice versa) in exchange for sexual favours. She is a student at the University of Nairobi’s Medical School, and she lives in a large three-bedroomed apartment in an upmarket area – a feat apparently unachievable by any other means.

Many Kenyan commenters felt that it was wrong for this girl to live this way – the men were married, and old enough to be her father. Her lack of shame also grated many – it was shocking that she could show her face on live television and admit to her using men for their money, and not caring about their marital status. People also wondered how/why such a smart girl (she could not have made it into medical school if she were daft, apparently) would be a “gold digger”. Vera Sidika, on the other hand, has spoken of her rich Nigerian boyfriend who “treats her like a queen”, buys her gifts and affords her a fine life. Even then, she says, she still makes her own money and invests it wisely. This also seems to grate many Kenyans.

However, what happens when we set our sense of moral superiority aside and revisit the situation? We see a man expressing interest in a woman because of her body, and a woman expressing interest in a man because of his money. Why are we seemingly okay with the men in question (I saw very few comments shaming the man) but angry about the women? Is it that biological determinism trumps economics? It is fallacious to say that “men are predisposed to such behavior” since we know that we are a product of both our genetics and our surroundings. We have learned to be this way. Why are men forgiven for wanting women based on a single characteristic (their bodies) while women are maligned for wanting men for their money? Why is there a word for women who only want men for their money (gold-digger), but no word for rich men who only want women for their bodies/beauty?

When it comes to the issue of extra-marital affairs, it is extremely hypocritical of us to act shocked and offended by this young woman, yet this is the very same society where we have advertisements running on TV asking us to use condoms in our extra marital affairs, since the famous Jimmy Gathu advertisements asking us to “wacha mpango wa kando” clearly did not work. The rate of HIV/AIDS infections among married people is the highest in the country, so pray do tell, what makes us morally superior to Catherine? Let us remember that she is not the one in a covenant of marriage, the man is, so I wonder why she is the one we are outraged at.

When it comes to criticism on gold digging (regardless of marital status), we have to remember the roots of the marriage institution: marriage was, and in some parts of the world still is, about the exchange of property and power between two men (the father of the bride and the father of the groom). The women are the chattels, and in exchange, the father of the bride receives gifts, sometimes in form of dowry. Marriage as an institution was created solely to allow wealth to pass directly outside the patriarch’s lineage. Marriage for love is a relatively new concept. We still view women largely as chattels, so it may be argued that gold diggers are doing relationships/marriage right: they are merely playing the system, which is slightly more progressive but still outdated at its core, to their advantage.

We are still telling women that finding good men who can take care of them should be their top priority. Why are we angry when these women listen? We sneer at the idea of women who provide for themselves, and fault them for being “too independent” and looking for companions out of a desire to be with someone rather than need. Is it so hard to do away with the notion that women should rely on men? In our rush to shame people and feel superior to them, can we please pick one thing to be outraged about? Is it the fact that women are becoming more independent, or the fact that some are openly relying on men for their financial security? We can’t have it both ways.

Vera Sidika was also criticized for “bleaching her skin”, though she later informed us that it was skin lightening, not bleaching. She was accused of having low self-esteem, having a colonial mindset, not appreciating her black beauty among many other things. There is more to skin bleaching than self-hate/low self-esteem, this paper by Dr. Christopher A.D. Charles shows that. Humans are extremely complex, there cannot possibly be a one size fits all explanation as to why (black) people bleach.

Vera spoke of having done it to improve her business, seeing as her body is her business. She reports having been able to get more business and charge more money, and people all over have been telling her how great she looks. She even has people cursing at her on public fora, then messaging her privately to ask her how she did it since they would like to do it too. To make matters worse, many people online were taken aback by her openness on the matter, since they expected her to be ashamed, or to lie about it.

The idea of beauty in many countries has been conflated with whiteness. White is beautiful. Black, not so much. This image is both overtly and covertly reinforced by the media we consume, and can be seen in the endless “lightskin-darkskin” wars on Kenyan Twitter. Why, then, are we outraged when people succumb to our immense pressure to be “lightskins” and lighten themselves? Is this when it suddenly becomes a joke and we shake our heads and say that they should have known better?

Why is it that Vera’s earnings power has increased, rather than decreased? If it were true that we hate the act of skin bleaching, her earnings power would have reduced. She would not have made money off it, and perhaps others would not do it after learning from her experience, but that is not the case. It is so easy to label this low self-esteem or colonial mentality. However, we are part of a society that has, and continues to offer more privilege to whiteness.

Why do we penalize people like Vera for merely acknowledging this and acting accordingly? Why do we take away her agency, with which she decided that she wanted to change her reality, and instead make her an object which should “know better”? Why is it that only the bleaching of women is reported, making it a gendered issue, yet it is known that some men participate in the process as well? Why do we ignore the part we play in laughing at dark women and preferring light ones? Instead of asking women why they bleach, why can’t we ask the men who proudly declare so why they “prefer light women”? We make these women out to be crazy and naïve, and as having betrayed their culture, yet we continue to project images of female beauty everywhere we turn that look nothing like Kenyan/most African women. Who is the fool here?

This cycle of outrage needs to end. Outrage pornography is an outlet for us, it allows us to feel smug/good about ourselves, while making others look and feel bad. There is a large element of self-gratification in it – the outrage is not for others, it is for us. We feel good after having lashed out. We feel that we have done our bit, and can move on to the next one. We are brought together by a common cause – righteous indignation – and it feels great. Don’t get me wrong, there are many times when outrage is justifiable, but not in such times. Outrage at non-performing leaders is perfectly fine, in fact, it should be a must. However, outrage at people we have created and elevated to glory is not, so why are we outraged?

When Kenyan society looks at Vera Sidika and Catherine Aluoch it hates what it sees, and thinks it is ugly, yet what it sees is itself.

Discovering Women

Brenda Wambui
11 March ,2014

I used to be a boys’ girl. The type of girl who said things like “I have more guy pals than girl pals. In fact, over 90% of my pals are guys. I prefer guys to girls cause guys don’t have drama. They don’t waste time discussing non-issues like nail polish, shopping and guys. They don’t gossip (false!), and they discuss real things, like sports. Guys are chill, not dramatic like women.”

I cringe every time I remember those days. I remember once even joking with a friend of mine about being an honorary member of “the boys” to which he responded “Do you have a penis?” I said “I have one in my soul” and proceeded to laugh until I was tearing and coughing. He was mainly shocked, and said it was the scariest thing he had ever heard. I was told never to say that to anyone again. It was a joke. Thinking back now, I can’t help but contemplate the loaded nature of the emotions behind it.

When I was four, I discovered that I was a girl. I was playing with my neighbours, all little boys my age, when they laughed at me for wearing shorts. They told me girls should not wear shorts – girls wear dresses. I always knew I was different from the boys I played with, but this was when it really hit me. I felt terrible – I did not go out to play for a month because I did not want to get laughed at for wearing shorts, and spent that time wondering why this girl-ness had to come between me and my life of adventure. My mother eventually managed to convince me to go outside and play. I got over the incident, but it left me with some scars.

I learned that being a girl was a liability.

In my primary school years, I made friends with both girls and boys, but preferred the boys’ company because I was a tomboy. I felt like the girls never really understood me, nor I them. I preferred to talk about cars, the NBA (my favourite team was the San Antonio Spurs) and later on, football. I liked that the boys liked me and said I was cool, one of the boys – “not like the other girls”. I did not care much what the girls thought.

High school made this situation even worse. I was into football, reggae, reading prominent African writers and my usual being “one of the boys” while my classmates were into what teenage girls are usually into – romance novels, talking about boys and creating exclusive groupings. This was made worse by being in a boarding school – it made everyone the worst version of themselves. I clashed frequently with my peers, and firmly decided that I disliked women. When I was friends with boys they liked, they had a problem. When I spoke my mind, they had a problem. The question “What do these women want?” was constantly on my mind. I left that high school with one friend, and wanted to throw up whenever I encountered my former classmates.

In university, I got to choose my friends – I made it out of there with four close female friends and several female acquaintances, but still, it was because these ones were cool. Special. They were not like the others. I still preferred my boys. They understood me. We could hang out “drama free”.

Thankfully, this madness left me in late 2011. It took a lot of reading and reconditioning to rid myself of this mindset. I have always read like my life depended on it – it did, but now I was done with formal education. I had to find new material to read, so I did. I read almost everything I could get my hands on – fiction, non-fiction, magazines – heck, I even read self-help books, and I did not like what I found there. I did not like a majority of the women in those stories – they felt plastic and one dimensional. Like the women I had learned to dislike. There were no women like me – women who were just “the right amount of cool”. Women who did not like heels. Women who did not see the point of nail polish. Women who loved watching sports. And if there were, they were always that cool girl in the friend zone. They were never the main character.

I also began to spend much more time online, and interacted with women who were then unknown to me, and I was taken aback. The women I discovered took everything I thought was special about me and took it to the maximum. I was smart, and they were smarter. I liked sports, they ate them for breakfast. I could not speak about sexuality publicly, they had no such problem. I was no longer a special snowflake. I listened to these women, learned from them, read the links they posted and continued to be amazed.

Women were not one dimensional. I had been wrong all along. I was not “the special one”…but how did I end up here? So wrong about women? So blind?

In retrospect it was an intricate system of teaching and series of experiences that led me to dislike women. I never once thought that, in disliking women, I disliked myself. I disliked my identity. I thought I was different, better – special. I could climb walls, hike, run, fall and get injured without crying, and hang out with the boys without getting grossed out. Most movies I watched had the angle of a woman needing male approval of some kind to feel validated – from her father, boyfriend or colleague. The music I heard had women who wanted to please men and men who wanted to be pleasured. The same applied to a lot of the literature I encountered. There were few alternative stories. This taught me to seek male approval, both consciously and subconsciously. How could I not?

This is changing, however. Slowly but surely, and it makes me happy. We are discovering women, I am discovering women. Discovering that they are not one dimensional. More women are taking back their agency, and they are receiving support from their peers, and from popular culture. We have films, TV series, songs and other media empowering women more than they have in the past, at least according to my memory.

During this year’s International Women’s Day Celebrations, I was part of two events that gave me hope: The Atieno Project, an unconference open to both men and women, and The Edge of Womanhood, a play written, narrated and performed by women. Both events questioned the need to label/categorize women – as though they are one dimensional creatures. Slut, Gold digger, Wife material, Bossy bitch. Is there not more to women? Moreso, how do pop culture and the media we consume enforce this image, because they definitely do? We need to continue the push for a realistic representation of women – be they black, brown or white, size 8 or plus sized, short or tall, whether or not they can cook – you name it. In the material we create, let us represent the many types of women that we encounter, and in the material we consume, let us be discerning.

Now, I spend many of my days just amazed by women, both those in my life and those I hope to emulate – their strength, their diversity and the fact that each of them has such a compelling story.

We are actively, and passively, taught to dislike each other. Whenever we say or do something that grates society, we are put in line with statements like “You’re not wife material” or “Now who will marry you?” We look at fellow women as competition, be it in the work place or in social situations. “That one will steal your man” is a statement one hears often, as well as “I hate female bosses, they are so petty! I prefer a male boss.” We are portrayed as all loving the same things – shopping, gossip, pleasing men – when we are as different as the colours on the spectrum. We take statements like “You’re not like them other girls” as positive reinforcement, as if those other girls are such horrible people. We are constantly in search of approval from our male peers, without the realization that we are amazing regardless. Maybe we do not hear that enough.

We need to unlearn this dislike of other women, because inherently, it is a dislike of ourselves – of our identity. Wonderful things happen when you discover women. Discussions about nail polish are no longer useless, they are interesting. You learn that just because she likes shopping and shoes, does not make her any less intelligent than you are. Just because you prefer to wear flat shoes, shorts and watch sports does not mean you should have been a man.

You too are a woman.

I have opened up to women, and they have taken me in with warmth and open arms. I see beauty in the moments where I lend or get lent a sanitary towel. The kindness with which it is given to me warms my heart. I see beauty when women support and engage me online, be it when we discuss real estate, structural injustice or politics. I am grateful when they mentor and guide me in my career, as well as life in general. I listen keenly when they tell me about their men troubles, because they have enough troubles as it is already. They don’t need any more. Neither do I.

The Africas And the Complexity of Our Media Problems

Michael Onsando
7 January ,2014

I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending.

– Teju Cole

An article in Al Jazeera talks about how the Western media is always getting the story wrong. It is, more importantly, asking why we instinctively turn to Western Media outlets – as if the rest of the media on the scene is full of monkeys at a typewriter who are yet to figure out who dies in Hamlet.

I’ve been arrested by the idea of how the Africas (the term ‘the Africas’ was coined by Ann Daramola to demonstrate the diversity within Africa) and, more specifically, Kenya (doesn’t) work. I’m wary of the media, all of it. Media from the West, the East, the North, the South and, sometimes, even dead in the Middle. Every media outlet has an agenda (I realise the irony of writing this, and posting it on an online journal). This skepticism of the media is what keeps me out of the media debate on how information is gathered and disseminated. While I agree the Western media gets the Africas horribly wrong, I think we err deeply as well when telling our stories.

Allow me to go back a little, in order to move forward.

A lot of my friends have dropped their English names. The argument is to be reclaiming their heritage. Getting back what was, authentically, African. While this argument is sound and the intent exists, I believe dropping the English part of one’s name is, to a large extent, to deny the complexity of the times within which the Africas exist.

As much as we reject the ways of the acquired part of our identity, we cannot deny the fact that it is deeply embedded within us as well. We would love to find our way back to our roots, to our culture, but the extent to which this culture has been eroded, changed, vilified and manipulated does not allow us to go back. At least not back in the way we imagine it would be. One cannot speak as to how culture within the Africas would have grown or changed had we remained unperturbed for those decades.

The identity of the Kenyan is, as much, defined by the West as it is defined by us. I grew up listening to Eminem, alongside E-sir. On TV I had to sit through hours of Oprah till my sister came in and sat me through hours of Shaka Zulu.

This is the crisis we have.

While we do rigorously fight to define ourselves – as we must – we mustn’t forget  that a definition has successfully been imposed upon and within us. We are not just who we are but who we have been told we are.

And it is not only the personal that is a struggle. We have nations that have to deal with defining who they are and what democracy and survival mean for them while trying to keep from being exploited. Kenya, for example, thought we had it down with our valley of peace under Mwai Kibaki then he was kicked out. Then, five years later, peace was no more. Then, five years later, peace was the tool that was used to bring Uhuru Kenyatta  into power.

Identity is a hard enough nut to crack without having to deal with the surrounding pressures of a global demand for product and a history of colonization.

The burden of identity is always upon the identified.

Chuma Nwokolo

The thing with identity is as individuals and, indeed, as states we must be allowed to find it on our own. One of the most powerful tools of identity is the media. The stories that we read, see, hear and discover all shape the identity formed of others. By virtue of the media being such a powerful tool for identity we must think about how that tool is used and, in effect, what identity we have created.

Upumbafuness has set about trying to start tracking misogyny in the media in Kenya. They work on user submissions and haven’t gained much traction. This is not to say that the media isn’t full of misogyny – it is. One can only guess that the administrators had problems keeping up with updating the blog. However, it has become an interesting digging ground with the few articles it has managed to gather. They range from defending rapists to overt homophobia.

I think what makes me wary about the essays that insist we tell our own story isn’t that they are wrong – they aren’t. It is very important that we have this story told by people who understand the layer, nuances and histories of a place. It’s even more important that the Western media gets the whole superiority complex out of their minds. No, what bothers me is that they all seem to stem from a place where we assume that the media houses here will do such a great job of telling those stories even when we have no evidence of the same.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a famous TED talk called ‘The Danger of a Single Story.” In this talk she speaks of how shocked a roommate of hers was shocked that she listened to Beyonce. As if somehow a young lady from Nigeria must only know of cooking pots and trees. Aamer Rahman in a skit called ‘Workshops for Whitey’ talks about being ‘complimented’ on his English and how condescending and dumb it is. Teju Cole (quoted above) talks about the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. The idea of the Africas being a dark continent that struggles for survival is dumb, and is exactly how the Western media would like to portray it.

However, the reverse  is false as well.

I get particularly uncomfortable when people counter poverty stories with stories of cities and metropolitan areas. While I understand the origin of the reaction, and what work it seeks to do, I don’t think it does that work.  I think the one facilitates in the erasing of the other of vice versa.

All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country.

– More Teju Cole

I’m wary of media – all of it. I think the code of conduct that is taught is just another piece of paper that they read, in order to receive another piece of paper. The idea that an institution owned by the rich and powerful will expose the rich and powerful is slightly laughable. However, if we must think critically about the media (as we must about everything) then we must.

The Western media gets the Africas wrong – all the time, and that sucks. We should point it out and give them hell. In the same breath, media within the Africas gets them wrong as well and one can only hope that we do the same.

What Are You Reading?

Michael Onsando
27 August ,2013

Thin slicing, contrary to what the word may sound like, is not a way to come out with a crunchier and more fragile piece of bread.  Coined in 1992 by Nalini Amabady it is the ability to find a pattern based on small bits of information. In Blink, the power of thinking without thinking, Malcolm Gladwell goes on to expand on the concept of thin slicing. In particular he talks about an experiment by Samuel Gosling. Gosling gave a questionnaire to people and, using this questionnaire, they were to answer questions about people who they had never met before. They were to answer these questions using only what they had seen while walking around their rooms.

Gosling’s results were very interesting. When ranked against the people’s friends the strangers who had just been in their rooms were better at finding out 3 out of five major aspects.

My room has lots of books.

And this is where Gladwell would be wrong. To assume that someone who spent time in my room would be making a judgment about me based on a small bit of information would be incorrect. By seeing what I am reading. And that would be a relatively simple observation to make seeing the books that are open, bookmarked and so forth. It will  be very easy for someone to know what kind of space my head is in at the time. And, by going through my bookshelf one would find it easy enough on understand what I am generally inclined towards. This information would, by no standards, be seen as a small bit of information. By being able to see what I am reading these people are able to reside within the same headspace that I reside in. That is more information than you could get by just seeing me for five minutes at a coffee shop. Perhaps even more than you would get from 5 years of irregular meetings and small talk.

And this is not just to be said of books.

The old, largely overused acronym, gigo, rings true to date. The consumption will, for the larger part, decide what the product of any said individual is. That is why, for example, walking around a room where all the books are written by Paulo Coelho and all movies by Tyler Perry may lead one to imagine a very new age, self motivated, in touch with the earth human being. No matter what this person looks like in person, the contents of his(her) bookshelf(movie cupboard?) would give you all the information about the mind space within which  this person resides.

In a recent conversation with a leading individual in out entertainment scene I heard statements like “Kenyans won’t watch that” being thrown about. In retrospect, I have heard that statement being said many times. It has been quoted, as a fact, that Kenyans don’t read and/or watch too “smart” things. Even before the inception of brainstorm we were warned against it. “Kenyans don’t have time to read lengthy pieces of writing,” was a statement I heard more than I heard “how are you?”

This bothers me. It seems that this assumption is an excuse to feed the people within our country with mediocre content within out print, audio and visual media. In this way Kenya finds itself stuck within this self sustaining cycles where we say Kenyans can’t consume a certain type of media. In turn this media isn’t produced and without the production of this media this media isn’t present to be consumed thus confirming the idea that Kenyans won’t consume a certain kind of media.

In the minds of the marketing people it makes perfect sense to keep this particular cycle in force. If a market has been trained to think and react in a certain way it becomes predictable, if a market is predictable it is easier to sell them a certain good. If, say, Kenyans have been trained to think that luhyas should be the brunt of chicken jokes (as, indeed we have) then it becomes easier to sell chicken. Make a joke about chicken and include Wafula – voila, chicken has been sold.

While this is in line with the business and happenings of the media we have to ask ourselves about how this is affecting how we think. With this cycle so firmly in place it is easy to keep tribal stereotypes, homophobia, misogyny (both banal and jarring) among the rest firmly in place.

In The Newsroom one of the characters – I forget, and can’t be bothered to find out which one it is- says that the biggest mistake the (US) government made at the inception of television was not to tell them that they cannot make money off the hour of news that they run.

The profit making nature of the news – and by news I really mean media in general – means that they have a vested interest in keeping people’s minds locked inside a certain box. The box that allows suspected gangsters to be shot down at will. The box that lets, and defends, misogynist articles. The box that carries homophobia to the point of repulsion. This same box of the media we consume that encourages us to violently react when shaken out of them.

I’d like us to imagine Kenya as a university student and run the Gosling experiment on ourselves.

In this particular exercise Kenya, as an individual would be that person who appears to have everything together. We may be a little bit volatile, but everyone is. It would be hidden because of our natural social nature.

This is the Kenya that our ‘friends’ will know. And, indeed, it is.

The question is; what would someone see if they came to the dorm room of Kenya as a university student, apart from a mountain of filth under the carpet?

It is a great thing to think that we, as human beings, are capable of independent thought. However, it would be prudent to realise that independent thought is not our strong point. In fact, we a very much the sum total of our experiences, friends, enemies, idols, environs, societies and anything else we may come into contact with.

Once we become comfortable with that idea it becomes increasingly apparent that, what we need to do, is control what we consume. In Kenya any method of effective control would involve an entire media blackout. The question here is, why must one have to block out the principal sources of information within ones society in order to have a steady flow of reliable, non-biased information?

All schools of thought and, indeed, most people agree that a responsible media is key to growth as a society. However, it seems unfair that a great number of people feel the need to self-police in order to maintain a certain standard of living in this country that is non- oppressive.

I think we need to push back. It is time to challenge the narrative that Kenyans won’t watch/read/listen to something that isn’t oppressive or in perpetuation of a particular stereotype. And, indeed, it has been happening. Already the Business Daily was forced to force Frank Njenga into a half hearted apology, albeit it turned out looking more like a book sale than anything else.

A friend asked me “what happened to our collective conscience? Twitter, for example, should be self regulating, but instead it helps further the insanity.” I thought of answering but he kept going “I think it is because all the good people refuse to engage, and so the bad people take up all the speaking space, making it appear like there is no collective conscience.”

I agree

The media has a responsibility to take themselves and, indeed, their work seriously. If they feel that they don’t have to then it is upon us, as a society, to call them out on their faecal matter. It’s time to change what we have lying on our nightstand, so we can change how we think.