I don’t know the exact origin [or spelling] of this word, but ‘barbie’ – as used in Sheng – has very little to do with blonde dolls. It’s actually a mildly derogatory word for black people who are … you know … white. It’s loosely applied to people who grew up in the suburbs, speak English more than Swahili, and listen to Capital FM.

Of course, that was in the 80s, and I’m not sure what defines a barbie now. Last time I checked, the term had morphed into ‘odinari’ though again, I can’t tell why. It used to be that everyone born in LA was a barbie. That’s Lang’ata, by the way. I grew up here, and moved back in January, so I definitely qualify.

But the LA of 2010 [Wessaaa-iiiiiiid!!] looks more like Zimmerman, with flats sprouting everywhere and mad traffic despite the dual carriageway. The double road helped, but with all the houses going up left and right, and just one road to find your way out, traffic is back to 1989.

When we were little, we had this place called Picture House. It was a video library in Hurlingham, and we’d take 10 videos a week. That was just for the kids. The teens in the house would get 5, mum would get 3, and dad would get 2. Mum’s choices were classed as bestsellers, and were usually ‘based on a  true story’. The teens would pick Top of the Pops and Danielle Steels, while dad would pick old westerns. So despite being born in 81, I know the lyrics to Rick Asley, I can quote lines from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and I have a brother nicknamed Blondie. He doesn’t like reggae or have yellow hair.

The 10 movies we picked were mostly cartoons, and there were hundreds to choose from. We always got the latest releases, so by the time anything animated showed up on TV, we’d watched it decades before. We also got children’s movies, and occasionally picked films for random reasons like, ‘It has Crystal in the title’.

We didn’t watch Dallas, ABC Moonlighting, or Remington Steel, because we had to be in bed by 7, but we spent hours watching movies, and reading books by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, so we ended knowing a lot more about western culture than the average Kenyan kid. We knew about Halloween, The Easter Bunny, Summer Camp, Tap dancing, Piano recitals, Thanksgiving – stuff no ordinary kid would care about. . And we became … barbies. Also, we really suck at Sheng.

Barbies of the 80s were more likely to say spleng than supuu, and would ask for a sock or a red instead of soo moja anchwani mbee. Years later, I still don’t know what that means. It might be two hundred and fifty … ?

I knew that we don’t celebrate Halloween, but I knew what I’d wear to a costume party – if we ever had one. We sometimes had duck and stuffed turkey for dinner, with custard and vermicelli for dessert. To the regular kid, that’s just really thin spaghetti with sugar.

Princess was born here, in a house about 500 metres from the flat where we live now. She likes to dress [and undress] her dolls, and she’s a big fan of Hannah Montana. But she’s anything but barbie, and I realised this because she had no clue what Halloween is. Also, she’d rather watch Papa Shirandula than Myth Quest, she knows the entire rap to Machachari, and she doesn’t like pizza. Oh the sacrilege!

I suppose I should be disappointed, or at least surprised, but I’m not really. Princess learns a lot from TV too, and from pretty early on, she didn’t like the same shows that I did. I like Japan topics, she likes Jumong. I watch BBC dockis, she watches Tahidi High. I get excited over Laughing Octopus and Jo Frost, she wants an autograph from Miss Morgan. And … gasp … she understands Sheng!

I’m actually glad she’s not a barbie. She can survive anywhere from Lavington to Jeri, and she has mad negotiation skills. She can play kalongo with her friends, bake mud cakes in her plastic gas cooker, and improvise toys out of broomsticks. She can make a paper bag ball for kati … I couldn’t even play kati. I think these skills are immensely more useful than knowing what to wear on Halloween.

111 thoughts on “My baby is not a barbie

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