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In The Cottage With: Adelle Onyango - Beauty for ashes and surviving rape

By Yvonne Aoll | Wednesday, Jun 8th 2016 at 11:44
Adelle Onyango during the interview

Radio presenter Adelle Onyango confirms our meet-up a few hours before the set time. It’s sudden but she apologizes, she was meant to travel, but had to cancel at the very last minute, and thought she’d instead make time for the interview.

The United States International University – Africa alumni shows up at The Carnivore’s Dormans in her tall, slender frame, donning a very bright smile and saying hello to everyone who’s on her way, all the waiters included.

As we settle down for the interview, she looks at the monkeys surrounding us and tells a story about being on a trip once and the tour guide warning them that monkeys aren’t very polite towards women.

In light of this warning, Adelle, 27, panics every time a monkey approaches our table, and laughs, as she proves her point, every time they see the photographer and dash away. It’s a hilarious sight, one that softens the mood before I ask Adelle some very deep questions, involving her rape.

The incident has been covered several times since she first revealed that she’s a rape survivor, and as I ask the questions, I hope she’s isn’t too tired or bored of repeating herself. But the contrary happens, Adelle politely yet confidently answers my questions and narrates the story as though she’s telling it for the very first time.

Adelle answers the questions according to what her journey has been like, and she doesn’t sugarcoat responses, she doesn’t try to tell me what she thinks I want to hear. For instance, when I ask her about forgiveness, Adelle is forthright in saying that she doesn’t believe forgiving her attacker is possible, and that it’s not her place to worry about him.

Rape is a delicate subject to navigate, but Kiss Fm’s Adelle handles it with admirable bravado and stride, even as she tells me about how she got into radio, the man she’s dating and the things she’s learnt from experience.

***

Adelle, why Radio?

(Laughs) Well, I didn’t choose radio, radio chose me. I had a double major in Journalism and Psychology while at university. And in Journalism, my concentration was Public Relations, I was so sure PR was what I wanted to do, but then, as with many things, life surprises you.

How’s that?

In my final year at USIU-A, they started the university radio. The radios hosts invited me to the station as a guest to share my poetry, but the co-host of the show didn’t come, and they ended up giving me the whole show.

Afterwards, they kept inviting me to the show, the host really wanted to get into radio, and as a result, started sending the recorded audios out to commercial stations. Then One Fm came about, and they’d apparently heard of me (I had no idea my work was being sent out), we met, talked, and that’s how it all began.

And just like that, your career took off…

Yes, just like that. (Laughs) Radio chose me.

Are you enjoying it so far?

I am. I really am. There’s the technical aspect of radio which I find very engaging and interesting. It’s the reason I prefer radio to television; with radio I get to produce my show, generate content, edit everything, I’m in full control of the show. With TV, you don’t have that. I find it very exciting.

Is there anything else you find exciting about being on radio?

The fact that I can go to work in my pajamas. (Laughs)

Is the fame that comes with radio that exciting?

I think that comes with your personality. I keep being told at work, how so many people in the public know me, and then I have others who always ask why I’m being so modest. But, I’m not being modest, I’m not going out of my way to be humble, it’s just that I don’t want to get sucked into all that. I’m not in the business for fame, I’m really not.

So how do you deal with your fans?

It’s interesting dealing with them. I mean, sometimes I’m in the mall, someone yells out my name and I turn around, greet them and sometimes give them a big hug, just in case I know them and I’ve forgotten who they are. (Laughs) I think it’s definitely safer that way.

What do you wish someone had told you about the media before you got in?

You know, I grew up in a very sheltered family, and I suppose many parents shelter their children because they want the best for them. Being that sheltered, I’d never really known a mean person. So, I wish I was told before getting into the business that there would be people who don’t know you but still won’t like you. I have to keep checking myself to ensure that the mean things said about me don’t change who I am.

Is the hate as a result of how large your audience is?

Definitely. I didn’t experience much hate while at One Fm, not really. But Kiss Fm is a huge platform, top station in its demographic, and, more listeners, more haters. But it’s okay. It all comes with the job.

How do you deal with the haters?

I understand that the problem isn’t me. You can’t hate something you don’t know, you know what I mean? You can’t hate me if you don’t know me.  I understand there’s a lot of bitterness and frustration in young Kenyans, and social media just makes it easier for them to lash out.

Do you respond to trolls?

I try to ignore them most of the time, they’re just keyboard warriors who won’t say to my face, the things they say online. But I do respond sometimes, when I feel that there’s a fundamental issue that needs a response, like bullying for instance.

I keep in mind that there are young people looking up to me, who may be going through similar issues and I think how I respond and deal with these issues is crucial. But I don’t respond often, I’ve learnt, through baptism by fire, to detach myself from haters.

What do you hate about being a Kenyan celebrity?

The “celebrity” tag in itself. (Laughs) There are also these random expectations from people, especially on women in the entertainment and media industry to conform to.

Women in the business are required to have a certain look, to own certain things, there are things they can and cannot say out loud, and for me that’s tricky.  I’m very open-minded because I know who I am, and I find the expectations unnecessary.

The rape, what exactly happened?

I was in campus, about 19 years old, I’d come from a house party already quite drank, and my friends and I headed to Westlands for a night out. I left my phone in the car we were dropped in, and that car left for another club.

I then thought, there were so many clubs on that same street and the club the car was at wasn’t too far away, I could easily just walk there and get it. That probably wasn’t the wisest move, because if it wasn’t rape, then it would have probably been a mugging or something else. And it was also just a phone, but, when you’re that age, your phone is everything.

What happened next?

This guy showed up, and, I keep emphasizing this point because people think rapists have a “look,” but they don’t. When this guy showed up he looked so harmless, he looked like someone I went to school with.

He offered to walk me to the club and I agreed to it. I thought it was kind of him to have offered. But then we took a route that was quite dark, and I remember wondering why we were taking it, but I was fuzzy from too much alcohol, and my judgment wasn’t the best.

Did you make it to the club?

No, we didn’t. He pushed me to the ground, and it was on the grass that he raped me. Luckily, there was a kiosk nearby, one that I still see to-date, and after I came to, the shopkeeper saw me, he put two and two together, gave me his phone and asked me to call a number, any number that came to my mind.

Who did you call?

I called a friend of mine who picked me up, we then went to get our other friends at the other club, and, although they wanted to rush me to hospital, I just really wanted to go home first.

Did you finally go to hospital?

I did. My friends came to my house and really insisted that they wanted to take me to hospital, to which I’m very grateful for. I got screening for everything and was put on medication. But I never told anyone in my family, until maybe four years later, when I told my mum.

Four years?

Yes, three to four years. She was also going through her cancer treatment, and I wanted to get to a place where I wasn’t as broken as when it initially happened. In that time, I would just bury myself in work, or pretend it never happened. I wasn’t going to therapy either because, as a student, I couldn’t afford it.

But with time I realized my super-woman-complex way of handling things wasn’t working, and I needed to tell someone who was close to me. As soon as I told my mum, it became so much easier to deal with, because at least then, I had someone in my court. And that’s how the journey to healing began.

If you saw your attacker today, would you remember him?

Yes.

Have you gotten to a point of forgiveness?

No. And forgiving him is not my goal. I don’t think that’s my cross to bear. Mine is to understand the risks I took and understand that they did not justify what happened so that I could forgive myself in that sense. Granted, I had drunk too much, granted, I was walking at an unsafe place at night, but it did not justify what happened. Mine was to forgive myself for what I thought caused it.

Do you think it’s possible to forgive the attacker?

(Pauses, then sighs) I don’t know if it’s possible, and I don’t even want to start that journey.

What would you do or say to him if you saw him today?

I have no idea. I don’t want to know why he did it or things like that. I really just want to focus on my journey. He’s not here, so, he doesn’t count.

Were you bitter with men for a while after it happened?

(Pauses) I wouldn’t say bitter, but it did cause a strain in relationships. I was dating at the time and you know, how was the guy meant to understand what was happening? How was he to understand how to handle me?

And now, how is it dating outside your race?

(Laughs in shock) “Dating outside my race?!” Oh my goodness! Who have you been talking to? And how do you get such information?

Well…

(Laughs again) I do not see it as “dating outside my race,” because I think we really try and define things, yet we are so much alike. But it’s great. I’m dating someone who has an amazing soul; a really focused, generous, mature soul and that’s what I’d want in anyone, race notwithstanding.

What do you think about women who have “sponsors?”

These women! They are giving all Kenyan women such a bad name! But here’s the thing, if you have a sponsor, you should own it. Be proud of it.  Don’t get a Range Rover out of the blue, and then lie to us that it’s from your farm. We can equally find those farming images you downloaded off of Google.

If you lie about it, it means you’re not proud of it, and if you’re not proud of it, you should do what the rest of us are doing, get up and work.

What do you wish you knew about love at 21?

Wow! I wish I knew that I needed to figure out who I was first. I feel like I wasted so much time on the relationships I had then, and this really, is not a dig to my exes, it’s just what it is. I wasted a lot of time, but then again, experience is the best teacher. Knowing yourself is the key to everything.

And about life in general?

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