Elsa Majimbo, the crisp-eating, straight-talking star of Kenya's Covid-19 lockdown

Helen Sullivan

Crisp-crunching, straight-talking and unabashedly fond of fame, 19-year-old Kenyan student Elsa Majimbo has become an unlikely hero of the coronavirus pandemic. Viral videos filmed in her bedroom while under lockdown in Nairobi – during which she updates followers on her search for a boyfriend and warns her future child that they will never be given a car (“You have legs. Two in fact.”) – have made Majimbo a social media star.

“Ever since corona started we’ve all been in isolation,” one of her most famous videos begins, seeming as though it will continue with a heartfelt message.

“And I miss no one!” she says, laughing with abandon. “Why am I missing you? There is no reason for me to miss you.”

She continues: “And these ones who keep on telling me ‘I miss you’. Why?” She repeats the question four times. “Do I pay your school fees? Do I pay your rent? Do I provide food for you? Why are you missing me?”

It’s this mocking humour that has earned Majimbo praise in Kenyan, South African and US media outlets, with one website’s interview starting, “If you read this [article] in Elsa’s voice it’s not your fault. It’s not!”

When Majimbo celebrated her birthday earlier this week – preceded by joking videos requesting lavish gifts – Miss Universe, South African Zozibini Tunzi, and Tanzanian model Flaviana Matata were among the celebrities who wished her well on Instagram.

There are three hallmarks of the monologues delivered by Majimbo, many of which have more than 300,000 views on Instagram. The first is crunching potato crisps with indifference (her favourite flavour is cheese and onion) to emphasise a point, often while leaning back onto a pillow. The second is declaring “It’s not my mistake,” while addressing people’s questions as to why, for example, she has not joined TikTok, or participated in “corona challenges”.

The final signature move is the use of tiny 90s sunglasses as a prop demonstrating her superiority. “It’s just so hard to be happy when everybody is below you,” she says in one video, captioned “When I find R100 in trousers I haven’t worn in 2 months” on Twitter. “The true question is not how I became famous. Rather how I became rich,” and she slides the sunnies resting on her head down onto her eyes.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, which in Kenya has led to 6,366 known infections and 148 deaths, the government introduced measures including curfews, mask requirements, intermittent lockdowns and closed restaurants and schools. Kenya confirmed its first case on 13 March. Shortly afterwards, the government suspended travel from all countries with coronavirus cases, allowing only Kenyan citizens and permanent residents to enter the country.

A month later, a friend of Majimbo’s sent her a screenshot of her videos going viral in South Africa, she told the Sowetan newspaper. Majimbo started making her videos for friends in 2016 but had stopped until 2019. Then, with spare time on her hands because of the pandemic and her university semester coming to a close, she ramped up production. Her Instagram bio currently reads, “My YouTube is low quality, under edited and shot from an iPhone 6. You should subscribe.”

Speaking to the Guardian from her home in Nairobi – where she is studying journalism at Strathmore University – Majimbo, who lives with her parents, says the persona in her comedic videos is not an alter-ego, but her true self.

“It is me, but it’s not the me that I portray to everyone. It’s the me that I portray to the people closest to me,” she says. “That side of me is very free with her thoughts and I say what I want and I do what I feel.”

It’s not the side that she shows to her family, either, she says. They didn’t like her videos at first, but now that her new-found fame is leading to career opportunities – Majimbo has appeared on Comedy Central, partnered with MAC cosmetics, and got a shout out from Lupita Nyong’o on Twitter – they are coming round.

Related: 'Why should you cry?' Ghana's dancing pallbearers find new fame during Covid-19

But there are chances that her parents might not embrace her taking, she worries, and hints at a future that might involve more acting and less studying.

“I think some opportunities they might not be able to accept too much, so I’ll have to choose between making myself happy and my family happy,” she says. “So there’s a point where I’ll have to make that choice.”

“Being a social media influencer is great but I want something beyond that,” she adds. “I don’t want to be stuck in that social media space forever.”

Regardless, her influence is already being felt. She has inspired a new moniker for an old hairstyle – “Majimbo hair” – for the twists she sports in many of her videos, and has also been given a South African name, Mpho, by her many fans in the country, which she refers to as “her first love”. The common Tswana and SeSotho name means “gift”.

South Africa has “really shown me a lot of love”, she says. “Always go where people accept you. Always go where people love you. And I found South Africa.”

At the end of the video questioning her friends’ claims of missing her, Majimbo says, gesturing with her hands and staring exaggeratedly into the distance, “Until tomorrow. The freedom we took for granted. The small little things we never appreciated.” She looks back into the camera: “Are you Shakespeare?”

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