Kenya’s Tourism ministry has named black British supermodel Naomi Campbell as its brand ambassador. Naomi was a trailblazer in an industry dominated by white models.
That she continued to model well into her thirties when other younger models were, er, let’s just say, overtaken by events, attests to her enduring physical charms.
No one knows what Naomi will get in return for her brand ambassadorial duties. But that is beside the point. The point for discussion is whether the ministry should not have picked Kenyan Hollywood star Lupita Nyongo or star athlete Eliud Kipchoge to market Kenya to the world.
First, Naomi’s star power, legend as she is, is waning, while that of Lupita or Eliud is rising. Lupita won an academy award for her role in 12 Years a Slave and has gone on to play critically acclaimed roles in other movies. On his part, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to run the marathon in under two hours watched by an audience of billions around the world.
These performances are the stuff of history and folklore. Therefore, to have either of the two Kenyans market a product is to couch the product with the authority of history and the magical appeal of folklore.
Also, bearing in mind the distance the two have travelled to be where they are, would intertwine the product with the story of their impossible journey.
Lupita Nyongo would also bring something vitally important to the equation. She wears her black skin and kinky hair unapologetically, thus normalising these attributes of blackness.
No African-American or black British star would dare show her real hair. As a matter of fact, African hair is frowned upon and mocked by black people themselves in America and Britain. This shame of black hair is so deeply ingrained it has generated one of the biggest beauty industries in the world — trade in straightened hair, mostly from India. Therefore, no one can better market Africa’s natural beauty than a brand ambassador who embodies that natural beauty.
This debate highlights another vexing issue. Why are people like Micere Mugo, Ali Mazrui or Ngugi wa Thiong’o honoured by foreign governments, universities, and institutions and not by the same entities at home? Instead, the national honours list in Kenya reads like a politicians’ roster, people who have impoverished the country and divided us along ethnic lines.
I’m certain that the memory the outgoing American ambassador to Kenya, Kyle McCarter, will treasure most was jogging with Kipchoge, not his meetings with President Uhuru Kenyatta. With us, a picture with an MP is what we treasure.
Abroad, people scrambled to interview Wangari Maathai. Here, she was hardly in the news.
This inferiority complex that makes us ignore our own stars, even when the rest of the world celebrates them, is what informed the ministry’s choice of brand ambassador.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator