I first saw a staged production of My Fair Lady at Kianda School, where my sister was a student. I expect it was good, though I don’t remember.
Kianda is a private, Catholic, all-girls school located in a leafy suburb. When my sister attended in the early 1980s, it was cleaved by class into a high school section and a secretarial college. The girls from Nairobi’s elite and aspiring families, daughters of professionals and tycoons, were sent to a school that promised to teach them how to navigate professional and elite spaces among their own kind. The mission was to produce a Kenyan lady, one with correct posture when standing, walking, and sitting, and proper table manners, not simply knowing how to use forks and knives, but knowing how to eat like a lady. The Kianda girl was to be a model of decorum, a leader, whether as a hostess in an elite setting or as a professional in highly competitive fields.
In contrast, the young women who went to the secretarial college were to be absorbed into Kenya’s workforce. They were working women, and cautionary tales to the Kianda girls: you, too, could be a secretary, if you failed to master the lessons taught by the school.
Colonial-era schools focused on the domestic arts, seeking to transform unruly Kenyan girls into ideal workers and mothers. But Kianda was established in 1977, and imagined a different kind of woman: Not the Eliza Doolittle who planned to open her own flower shop, but the Eliza Doolittle who had a life among the gentry. My Fair Lady was an allegory for what the school hoped to accomplish. The nuns who ran Kianda envisioned themselves as many kinds of professor Higginses, transforming wealthy and aspiring Kenyan girls into accomplished young ladies. A Kianda girl was likely to dance ballet or play a classical instrument or act in a musical or speak multiple European languages.
By the time I watched the Kianda production of My Fair Lady, I knew all the dialogue and the songs. My father bought a VCR in the early 1980s—perhaps in 1982—and acquired a tiny library of films: My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, and a few John Wayne movies whose names I don’t remember. VCRs were rare items in the 1980s, and my father was the first in our extended family to own one, and one of the first in the neighborhood, so we would play these few tapes for visitors, over and over. In a year, each film would probably be watched on twenty different occasions by different groups of visitors. As the child of the house, it was my job—and pleasure—to turn on the VCR, start the film, adjust the tv volume, and pause and rewind the film, tedious tasks sweetened by the promise of watching and rewatching films I loved.
In retrospect, I wonder if My Fair Lady was my father’s confession, the memoir he never wrote. Somewhere on his journey from rural Muranga through Nyeri High School through Makerere through a few years spent in Wales, my father had scrubbed all traces of Muranga from his unaccented English—he sounded as though he grew up in Nairobi, speaking English as a first language. One of his close friends, who had a similar geographic profile, liked to say that we should speak the queen’s English as it was meant to be spoken.
Among groups of visitors, of course, My Fair Lady was viewed with ethnographic curiosity. Who were these strange people? Why did they dress so absurdly? Why did the white woman have dirt on her face? Why was the professor so pompous? Over and over, it provoked laughter: the singing, the dancing, the dressing, the speech, the acting. As a child, I did not know how to react to that laughter. Perhaps, I mused, those watching it, especially non-city relatives, failed to grasp the import of the narrative, perhaps the English spoken was too rapid, too colloquial. I was ungenerous.
A kind of crude cultural criticism abstracts character from pleasures, that a person enjoys a particular cultural product because of that person’s character. We are not our pleasures, but they speak to and express fantasies about how we navigate the world. We might say, then, that those who watched My Fair Lady envied the trajectory it described, from flower girl to lady, from social outsider to sociality, that those who gathered in my parents’ living room were awed by the splendor of the film, and that they desired to be transformed as the film’s protagonist was.
I think those who watched it were entertained and soon forgot it. They had shaped their lives in ways that did not desire acculturation—the term anthropologists used to describe Africans who were changed by experiencing and desiring colonial culture.
If My Fair Lady was a fantasy version of my father’s unwritten—perhaps unwritable—memoir, what did it express? I never asked him and because I loved him dearly, I want to be kind, to preserve a version of him that keeps my love intact. Still, I wonder, did it express the psychic tax he had to pay to navigate educational and social worlds? Was it a film he’d watched as a much younger man and wanted to share with his friends? Or did it indicate the future he imagined for his children?
I might have got it all wrong. My Fair Lady might have been entertainment for those gendered male, but it was a lesson for those gendered female: like Professor Higgins, my father insisted that my sisters be ladies. That they walk correctly, stand correctly, eat correctly, talk correctly. My brother and I escaped much of this instruction, or perhaps I simply ignored it. I did not escape its lessons, though: by the time I had started school, my enunciation was shaped by professor Higgins and his marbles-in-the-mouth. I had watched the film so many times that I spoke like a discount Eliza Doolittle, after the transformation. We do not remain unmarked by what we consume.
Instead of thinking of My Fair Lady as a tool of indoctrination, it might be more useful to imagine the various fantasies it enabled and the pleasures it provided to those who encountered it. It might be that the Kianda girls enjoyed performing in a musical, that it nurtured musical and theatrical gifts; it might be that my father enjoyed the music and the spectacle, and relished the foreignness of something that could never apply to him; it might be that visitors to the house, subjected to the film, enjoyed the brief glimpse it gave into foreign worlds, and quickly forgot it. I return to it now not as a scene of doctrine, but as an object I shared with many others, sometimes with pleasure.