Achieng, the Ellen Show and US-aided gullibility

The famed US insularity makes Americans quite gullible.

In Summary

• The general ignorance of cultures, ideas and peoples outside the US makes Americans easy to fool on world affairs.

A TV set
A TV set
Image: FILE

By the time you read this, about a week will have passed since the Ellen Show launched a new Kenyan celebrity into the stratosphere.

For at least two days, my Twitter timeline (TL) was blazing with videos, photographs and stories of Achieng Agutu, a young Kenyan woman studying in the US.

She appeared on the Ellen Show and was randomly picked, or so the makers of the show would have us believe, to be interviewed by DeGeneres.

Achieng said she was studying in the US, while at the same time holding down a number of jobs on and off campus (not unusual if you studied abroad; it’s only in Kenya where, as far as I recall, university students looked down on part-time jobs, though things may have changed).

So far so good. It was when Achieng told Ellen she had taught herself English in Kenya by watching the Ellen Show and cross-referencing words she came across with Internet searches, that the Kenyans on my TL called BS.

#KOT CSI detectives swung into action, looking for Achieng’s files, and soon her whole “real” history was being spread all over Twitter.

While some people were mad with Achieng for supposedly telling fibs about herself and her family, others from the “fake it until you make it” school of life were cheering her on.

I think Achieng was only taking advantage of that notoriously widespread US illiteracy about the rest of the world. This famed US insularity makes Americans quite gullible. I have heard many stories from Kenyans who studied in the US about this gullibility and how it amused them to tell tall tales about life in Kenya.

One of my cousins used to tell us about the improbable story she told her US university friends. She sold the idea that she sailed to the US in a canoe fashioned by her father, using a map drawn by the US Ambassador to Kenya, who lived in the tree next door to her family’s tree in the African bush. Her American friends, all of them freshmen at a leading US university, bought the story hook, line and sinker.

This general ignorance of cultures, ideas and peoples outside the US is also what is behind the fact that by 2016, only 36 per cent of Americans held valid passports, compared to 75 per cent of Brits or Australians, for instance.

One would have thought that the producers on the Ellen Show or even Ellen herself, who visited Kenya last year as part of her 60th birthday celebrations, might have seen through Achieng’s story, but then again, why would they?

Ellen was in Kenya as a tourist and as such, had minimal contact with Kenyans outside of the places she stayed, and those who drove her to game parks. And this would have been nothing like enough exposure.

On the other hand, Ellen fooled viewers, too, in that if her picking of Achieng was so random, how did she manage to fly her family into the US for a reunion so easily? We all know how difficult it is to get US visas. The whole stunt must have been planned long in advance and just shot to look spontaneous.