The Kenyan reality TV show Nairobi Diaries has got a lot of people tutting but shouldn’t we celebrate these women for their liberated selves?
The 2012 Kenyan hit song, You Guy featured a well-timed swivel in high heels that turned a little known voluptuous babe into an instant celebrity.
There’d been many video vixens before and since but Vera Sidika is unique in her commitment to building a brand. A string of steamy photo shoots, strategic video appearances and vibrant social-media accounts fuelled her notoriety. Together with contemporary, Huddah Monroe, the pair paved the way for other brave and curvaceous girls to join the ranks. These ladies began to be commonly referred to as socialites by the media and society at large.
Newly launched reality TV show, Nairobi Diaries hopes to capitalise on whatever scandals can be drawn from these women’s lives. Stoking a fire that had since died down, the show follows seven women (Ella, Pendo, Silvia, Gertrude, Kiki, Marjorlein and of course Vera alias Miss Vee) in their presumably glamorous and drama-filled lives.
The show is meant to be racy and outrageous.
These seven are a mixed bunch. There’s a set that courts fame in some combination of video vixen/actress/model/singer while the rest are white collar career women who’ve befriended the first lot.
The show is meant to be racy and outrageous. It borrows from the well-worn template of most reality TV shows with a black, female-heavy cast. Admittedly, after watching a few episodes, I laughed at their antics and moved on, shelving it under ‘live and let live’.
However, reading Candace Simpson’s essay Woke Ain’t Enough: Towards Collective Consciousness Building got me thinking about potential blind spots in my laissez-faire approach to those women who document or produce content of a sexual nature.
Candace put up four challenges for the ‘enlightened’ who often don’t go beyond rhetoric. One of which was asking us to question: what should a reality television programme look like? What do we learn about gendered economic exploitation through the story of *insert powerful producer man* and *insert vulnerable artist woman*? We may whine about the presence of these shows, but perhaps it’s actually time to ask some better questions.
I’m not denying that reality shows are designed to be pointless. They’re edited for drama and/or unabashedly manufacture it.
The cast of Nairobi Diaries themselves sometimes look visibly uncomfortable and play up way too much for the cameras on a show with low-production values. But reality TV survives on hyperbole. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t find pockets of truth within these strictly structured spaces if we look close enough.
In an early episode of Nairobi Diaries, Ella asked Miss Vee to consider how her skin bleaching can affect ideas of beauty among young women who look up to her, such as Ella’s own sister.
In that segment Ella herself admits to looking up to Miss Vee up until the pigment alteration. Predictably, there was a huge blowout after but that moment still happened. As one ‘working girl’ to another, Ella asked: did you really have to do this?
And I remain in awe of Pendo. She may be problematic but whenever English becomes an inefficient vehicle of expression, she unconsciously switches to witty and colourful Sheng (local slang) smashing the trope of the polished, accent-having Nairobi socialite.
Viewers must watch for those nuanced moments. Sure, these women seem to be arguing for argument’s sake and there’s hardly any love between most co-stars but how about those unguarded instances? Those times Nairobi Diaries passes the Bechdel test (where two women talk to each other about something other than a man)? Or when we learn of the broken relationships that result out of an adult woman’s career choice?
Even the very existence of the show and Kenyans’ religious watching and dissecting of it is important. The show is mainly greeted with ridicule and a belittling of their achievements despite the fact that very few women, like the Kardashians and Nene Leakes, manage to leverage their fame to launch successful side ventures and make their shows top-rated.
I’m guilty of seeing these women in a purely negative light too. That’s how patriarchy works. We’re taught to revere and defer to men and only place value and respect in the ‘good girl/woman’. And yet I know I’d kill to have half the body confidence these women exude. Not to mention their sexual agency and general refusal to be governed. Where’s the space for those considerations? How are they not powerful?
What intrigues me the most about Nairobi Diaries is that these women do not operate from a place of shame.
Yes, these ladies go by the term socialite and perhaps that can be deemed indecent. But what intrigues me the most about Nairobi Diaries is that these women do not operate from a place of shame. Despite having their existence despised or wished away in some quarters, they’ve found a court in which to thrive, where their thoughts and world views take centre stage.
We must not lose sight of their humanity. We must always see women as whole individuals capable of making sound private and public decisions regarding their lives. We must also not overlook the misogynistic and capitalistic frame these women dare to operate and thrive in. We should aim to not be their roadblocks but instead celebrate their liberated selves.
And, if there’s anything we should immediately demand as viewers it should be that these actresses speak in a more natural cadence (an argument I’d extend to most Kenyan productions) and for Ink Productions Limited to improve on overall scene lighting, sound and those godforsaken fonts.
Let them slay, okay?