Achieng Agutu lit up screens on “The Ellen Show” last week. She was wearing a red pantsuit which popped in a gorgeous contrast with her black shoulders. A large cloth adorned her head and she had a fly-girl nose-ring that was twinkling in the studio lights. Ellen introduced the segment on her by cutting to footage of her dancing with joyous abandon on the stage. Then she invited Achieng down to sit opposite her. Ellen faded into vanilla blandness while Achieng looked like she had just arrived at a casting call for Fenty models. She literally stole the show.
Ellen was grinning from ear to ear, as only Ellen can. Her first question was straight out of the white savor playbook. “I hear that you learned English from watching my show?” The subtext was clear: Ellen was thrilled to know that somewhere in a dark corner of Africa she had inspired a child to learn English. It is one thing to touch American hearts, but quite another to change the entire life of a poor African child.
I cocked an eyebrow as Achieng detailed how she had watched the performers on Ellen’s show and written down the lyrics as a way to learn the white man’s language.
English is the medium of instruction in Kenyan schools. Even sheng—the nation’s Swahili-based creole, is full of English words. Anyway, I ignored the red flag waving in front of me as brightly as Achieng’s jumpsuit because it’s Ellen and you only watch Ellen to smile and also, to be honest, Achieng’s exuberance was as infectious as her Ellen-inspired twang.
She didn’t come across as inauthentic, or even like she was running a hustle. She was clearly working multiple jobs as so many of us have done in America, and who was damn excited to be in the spotlight. She was also—undoubtedly—a middle class child who was busting her butt was in no way impoverished. In other words, she just seemed like a young woman who was adding a bit of spice to her story; some salt to her nduma. In general though her story seemed legit. I don’t doubt that it is .
The problem was of course that Ellen simply could not process Achieng without imposing a narrative on her. The notion of Achieng learning English in a cyber café and the idea of her parents selling everything for her to go to school—these are apocryphal stories, the kind of tropes that make Africans legible to white people. These tales adorn us like garments. Without them, we are worse than naked; we are invisible and indescribable. Achieng’s socio-economic equivalent in America would never have captured Ellen’s attention. Achieng—bright, bubbly middle-class kid—found herself being cast as a plucky impoverished heroine who had overcome great odds to make it to America. Meanwhile check out her Instagram and its clear that Achieng is living her best life. She’s no elite kid but she’s certainly not the villager Ellen assumed her to be.
There was nothing egregious that transpired between Ellen and Achieng—no gaffes, or horrible racist moments. Still, as Achieng sat in the chair exuding energy and vibe, Ellen looked at her the way all of us have been looked at by adoring white women who have decided to make us the main character in their story (for a minute). Ellen beamed and she gasped and she grinned and cooed over Achieng. “You’re just so happy,” she said.
Ellen was really, really feeling Achieng. She looked like she loved everything about her. She loved the idea that Achieng’s parents had sold “land” to pay for her college education. She loved the idea that Achieng was working five jobs and hustling her African butt off. It was all so cute and perfect in a made-for-television kind of way and I swear I was shedding a tear too because here was a young African who embodied everything wonderful about the American dream. Even me, who doesn’t even believe in the American dream—I was tearing up. So for Ellen it was just all too much. More than anything else it seemed like Ellen loved saying “Kenya.”
In her excitement, Ellen lost all criticality. To be fair, being critical isn’t exactly Ellen’s strong suit. Still, there were unanswered questions. How could Achieng’s parents have sold everything and still be blessed enough to be supporting a village? Did the Safari browser in the internet café in Kisumu operate in Swahili or in Luo?
In the end, the facts were inconsequential. What mattered was The Story. The facts were boring, and they included the reality that Achieng is part of a growing African elite for whom a US education is not completely out of reach. The Story on the other hand, The Story Ellen wanted to hear about, and that Achieng played along with a little, was about a village full of playful and suffering children for whom the $50,000 Achieng and her family won, which was donated by Walmart (which is another story about corporate greed, predatory pricing and labor-busting practices for another day) will surely make a huge difference.
In the days following the show, Kenyan media began to investigate Achieng. It didn’t take long for Kenyan Twitter to drag Achieng for her small-small hustle. I can’t say I agree with their condemnation. Achieng certainly put some hot pepper in her jollof, but how could she have done otherwise when Ellen was clearly looking for spice?
In the end Achieng’s smartest move was choosing to go on Ellen because we all know what would have happened if she had come telling Trevor those stories.