By Patrick Gathara
As the saying goes, success has many fathers. The meteoric rise of actress Lupita Nyong’o from relative obscurity to global sensation has spurred a bitter exchange within Kenya as to what her success means.
Most have celebrated what they see as the triumph of a can-do Kenyan attitude in the face of massive odds, and proof that all is possible if only one stayed true to oneself and was prepared to do the hard work. Others, while acknowledging and celebrating her admirable effort and undeniable talent, however point to her privileged background as a scion of Kenya’s elite and see in her story evidence of the massively skewed access to resources that denies many other “Lupitas” their chance to shine. Unfortunately, the latter take has been interpreted by some as an attack on the actress herself.
Interestingly, this debate did not attach to that other global start that Kenyans have laid claim to. When Barack Obama ran for and was elected President of the United States, there was near universal celebration of the achievement, despite the obvious fact that his association with Kenya is rather tenuous. There was also near complete unanimity that had his father brought him up in Kenya, his chances of rising to the highest office in the land would have been close to nil.
Just compare his fate to that of his younger step-brother, George. They share a biological father but have different mothers. Both were raised continents apart by their mothers and grandparents. While one went to ivy league schools and ended up in the White House, the other dropped out of school, joined a gang, went to prison and dwells in rather more humble surroundings on the outskirts of Nairobi. As would write: “If there was a leading light in the Obama clan, then [Barack] was it; and if there was a shadowed place that no one liked to talk about, then I guess that was me.”
Of course, as Lupita demonstrates, living in Kenya is not necessarily a sentence to the hard labour of poverty (or a one-way ticket to criminality). However, for very many, and perhaps for the majority, it comes very close to that. Dr Alex Awiti, director of the East African Institute and assistant professor at Aga Khan University, describes Kenya’s as “a tale of three countries: the obscenely rich country; the gasping middle-income country, teetering on the precipice; and, the miserably poor country.” It is a country where two-thirds of the population survives on less than 3 dollars a day and the lowest ten per cent of households control just one per cent of national income. On Lupita’s side of the fence though, the outlook is much brighter. Here, where the richest ten percent who control nearly half the national income live, opportunity abounds.
Needless to say, none of this is her fault and neither does it detract from the magnitude of her achievement. But having stated it anyway, one must also admit that she has benefited handsomely from this set of circumstances. Acknowledging this is important because it is necessarily because it allows us to understand that behind the beautiful Kenyan facade she presents to the world lies a “shadowed place that no one likes to talk about.”
The existence of this dark place, where most Kenyans are condemned to eke out their existence, is a direct consequence of the existence of Lupita’s world. The Kenyan elite’s history of theft, oppression and marginalisation has produced this state of affairs. It is a terrible and a terribly unfair burden to place on her young shoulders,but it is nonetheless one she will have to bear along with the accolades. It is the unfortunate shadow of her success and cannot be divorced from it.
Given that, is there a connection between the Kenyan discomfort with acknowledging privilege and our reluctance to confront the elite who benefit from it? I think there is. The depredations of the elite have created an impoverished society where most operate on the brink of existence and must constantly court their largess and patronage. In this circumstance, the many are reduced to sycophancy not only to curry the favor of the wealthy few, but also to vicariously experience the material success that they are too often denied. The conspiracy of silence is abetted higher up the food chain with few wishing to rock the boat. As one of my tweeting friends put it, acknowledging the privilege “is facing it & for most of us, admitting we accrue some benefits from the system that we just don’t wanna give up.”
Like it or not, Lupita’s success, and the dispute it has engendered, are therefore symbolic of the contradictions inherent in Kenyan society. She is both an inspiration to millions of young people who dream of joining the stars, and a reminder of the system that suffocates those very dreams.
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