Three important icons in my childhood in Kenya4 minute read

It was an interesting exercise, thinking about the pop culture figures that shaped my childhood. How would life as I knew it then hold up now? Some things didn’t age well when I look at them with adult eyes. But I had to be true to my childhood self, and so this is my final list of three that came to me through a speaker, screen or book and stayed a long while.

Merlene Ottey

Athletic games are an event in our household. We gather around the TV, our banter riffing off the sports commentary, keenly watching our favourites: athletes we invested in and whose careers we followed. It is always great quality time with my sister and Dad.

Every year there are athletes to watch and growing up my person was Merlene Ottey, a world-class sprinter from Jamaica who dominated the 60M, 100M and 200M races. A strong, black, female champion whose name reverberates in the athletics world, she is also known as the  “Queen of the Track”.

I didn’t harbour athletic dreams, but I was drawn to Merlene Ottey. So much so, that I started adding her name Ottey to my already long list of names. Writing it to next to mine in exercise books made me feel like I could draw from her power. Growing up and seeing her on screen at different athletic championships every year, strong, deliberate and consistent. Embodying the rigour of a professional athlete with such grace- a rigour that has all my admiration. She resonated because I liked what she was about and she showed the kind of work ethic I wanted to nurture.

Merlene is now 58, still running and says she sees no reason to stop.

The Girl Groups of the 1990s

SWV, En Vogue, the Spice Girls, TLC, Destiny’s Child.  It is impossible to pick just one because the 1990s were a glorious era for the girl group and I loved them all.

They affirmed what I felt in my bones: that the sisterhood is a powerful tribe. When the Spice Girls sang in “Wannabe” that female friendships are everything, I felt like I had found my truth. There was also something about a group of girls coming together for sweet harmonies and flourishing as a collective that got me.

The girl groups allowed me to be a creative and expressive child and I would coax my cousins and family friends into putting together “concerts” for our parents where we sang and danced and on some occasions even attempted to impose a fee for our entertaining services.

In early high school, I was part of a girl group inspired by Destiny’s Child. Now, the disclaimer is that I don’t have any vocal talents or musical abilities, but it didn’t matter. It was fun, and coming together to collaborate on ideas, costumes, music fed me. It is a kind of collaboration that still speaks to my soul years later, because aren’t female friendships and creative projects such magic.

Enid Blyton


I have always been a voracious reader, and the bookshelf in my room was filled with books, many of them by Enid Blyton. Growing up, her books were a staple and I consumed so much of her work.

Her extensive writing prompted my own writing dreams and I would boldly declare that when I grew up, I wanted to write children’s books (and be a paediatrician but that dream didn’t stick).  

When my Aunty T was one of the first people I knew to get a computer,  I would go to her house and sit and type stories all day. When we got our computer, I was transfixed and spent all my free time writing stories. I  even decided to start my own magazine and would take on aliases and write different columns. I got into trouble at my convent primary school because the teachers didn’t appreciate my efforts cutting pictures from Mum’s old magazines and adding my own commentary. As I grew older, I threw myself into writing and editing projects in school: anything to flesh out my imagination.

It is also precisely because of growing up and consuming Enid Blyton’s writing shaped by the colonial gaze, that I now intentionally only read books by black writers and people of colour.

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Sanyu Awori is an East African feminist and human rights advocate with a background in law. She grew up in Nairobi in the 1990s and 2000s. She currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur.