The Cult of Celebrity
The sweat beads collected on my forehead and slowly trickled down by brow. The air in the courtroom was stifling and even though it was packed with at least 100 reporters and other curious gossip seekers you could have heard a pin drop as the accused gave her testimony.
Is this a John Grisham novel? I asked myself as the woman at the front of the room gave salacious detail after salacious detail.
My co-intern, Rachel Robinson, and I shared an uncomfortable glance as the woman on the stand, Shanita Namuyimbwa, stated how her British boyfriend, the very man who was the reason she was on trial, had forced her to get cosmetic surgery.
The story that she told was unique in a way, and yet it poignantly evokes the plight of so many woman like her around the world. She was a typical Ugandan woman in many ways, coming from extreme poverty. Being the youngest of eight children, her expectations and hopes for her life were never very high. At the age of 14 she was forced to drop out of school and enter the sex trade because her family couldn't afford school fees. She worked as a prostitute for four years until meeting the wealthy British Businessman, David Greenhalgh, in 2009. He instantly became her only client and in exchange he vowed to support her every need and even make her famous.
In 2010 David and Shanita started a joint business endeavor known as Daveshan Development Ltd that was supposed to function as a construction business; David deposited $3.9 million into the company account and left the country and the business in the hands of Shanita. Having no knowledge of how to run a business or any experience with wealth Shanita plowed through the money within 9 months and at the same time saw her celebrity skyrocket. She spent thousands on lavish parties all over Kampala that instantly drew the attention of the media. The press gave her the racially derogatory but memorable nickname "Bad Black" and her star was born. David eventually returned and filed suit against Shanita for embezzlement.
The press coverage of the case had reached a fevered pitch long before we arrived in Uganda, but it was still the talk of the town. It filled the newspapers, was splashed across televisions all over the country, and was the water cooler discussion of people all over the city of Kampala. It even caused Rachel and I to experience our 15 minutes of fame as our faces appeared in newspapers, articles and youtube clips regarding the case, because we were often the only white people in the courtroom. At first many reporters thought that I was David Greenhalgh himself. I was even asked to give an interview once, through a hastily scrolled note past to me during sentencing. However, I was told that the press finally settled on the conclusion that I was David's younger brother and left it at that.
What is perhaps most fascinating about this rather unique court case is not what it says about Ms. Namuyimbwa herself, or even her guilt or innocence, but rather what it says about society in general; that need that societies seem to have for celebrity, the craving to put someone on a pedestal and under the spotlight, merely to tear them down when their flaws come to light. The United States is far from an exception to this with our own cynical obsession with reality television stars and others that are famous for being famous. It so often seems silly in America and even at times exhausting as the media machine commits endless hours to the Kardashians and the real housewives of wherever. However, in Uganda this phenomenon took a sinister turn in the life of this poor woman from such impoverished beginnings. I'm not here to comment on her guilt of innocence, to say that she was unaware what she was doing when spending $3.9 million that she didn't earn is something that no honest person would confess. However, she was also clearly a victim, and had suffered numerous abuses in secret at the hand of her "benefactor".
Upon reflection, my experience with Shanita Namuyimbwa and her case has left me changed. It's changed the way I view people, changed the way I look at the cult of celebrity, and impacted my outlook on what it means to be marginalized. Those that appear to have it all are sometimes the ones who are hurting the most. Perhaps, as a people, we should be quicker to extend grace to those whose lives seem the least deserving because they are most in need.