Supermodel Alek Wek and Wanjiku’s exotic view of Uganda and its people
There was no mega earthquake, tsunami, war, massacre, or outbreak of rebellion last Christmas and this New Year.
Just as well, because I took time to explore one of my pet subjects; the conflict between how a country sees itself and how others view it.
I don’t know about you, but over the last year, I have noticed many women at East Africa’s airports, and on flights out of our region, who look like the South Sudanese supermodel, Alek Wek.
Most of them are usually with a European or American man aged in the late 40s to mid-50s.
On a flight from Entebbe to Nairobi on Tuesday, there were two such couples hugging all the time.
It seems over the years of Ms Wek’s stardom in Europe and the US where she plies her trade, she has become the model idea of African “exoticness” for some men.
So when the war ended in South Sudan and the country became independent, there has been a rush there by men seeking to fulfill their Alek Wek fantasies, and get themselves a clone of the supermodel.
The interesting thing is that Wek is most definitely not many African men’s idea of a beautiful woman. If nothing else, they would consider her “too thin”.
And if you want peace, never start a debate about whether Wek is beautiful. I just read an interview of her in Time magazine, and there is no doubt she is an intelligent and remarkable woman.
The thing though, is most women in South Sudan do not actually look like Wek.
Her case came to mind because, over the holiday, some good citizens of Kampala told me that Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka has some “interesting” views about Ugandans.
To start with, I have hardly met a Kenyan man or woman who, when the subject came to Uganda, didn’t remark about the “polite Ugandan women, who kneel when they greet and call you Ssebo”.
That is true, but only in a very few cultures, especially the Baganda in the southern part of the country.
Which brings us to Kalonzo. Last October when there was that big Africa Cup of Nations clash between Uganda’s Cranes and Kenya’s Harambee Stars, Kalonzo organised bus trips for Kenyan fans.
Before the convoy left, he warned the Kenyans.
“Those Ugandan sisters of ours are known for kneeling and greeting sweetly”, he said. “If we are not careful, by the time we get to the stadium to cheer Harambee Stars, only 600 of the 1,000 of us will show up”.
The rest, presumably, would have been ensnared by kneeling wily Ugandan women.
This story is still being told in Kampala, and it has actually won Kalonzo a few friends because the folks got the light-heartedness in it.
That said, I wish Kenyan men looking for these polite Ugandan women who kneel before their husbands, smother them with gentleness, mop their feet and sweaty foreheads, and bring them breakfast in bed a lot of luck.
Their best chance is in the village, because even among the middle-class Baganda, they won’t find them. When they do, they should share their discoveries with their Ugandan brothers. They, too, are looking.
These images are rarely the ones that tourism and Brand Kenya, Brand Uganda, Brand This, want to promote.
There were two big conferences on South Sudan recently; one in Geneva the other in Washington D.C.
There is a famous “Gifted by Nature” campaign that was run by the Uganda government, and we didn’t see anything of the country’s kneeling women.
Indeed, in Kenya’s case, you can be sure when an image from the country is used by international brands abroad, it will not be its marathoners. It will be “Maasai” warriors (Maasai is used here guardedly) jumping sky-high.
I have seen that on Landrover Discovery’s international ads, and on campaigns for all sorts of mobile and satellite phones in many countries.
However, when Kenya’s Vision 2030 does its campaigns, it touts the “Thika Superhighway”, M-Pesa, and the future technology city, Konza. It is just not politically correct to throw a Maasai warrior into the mix.
It’s hard to beat the power of prejudice, and the appeal of what we might call “Wanjiku’s narrative”.
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