Kenyans let their fingers do the talking

Don’t ever make Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) mad. They will tear you to shreds and eat you for dinner. When they start Twitter wars (twars), they win them hands down.

One Fikile Mbalula learned that the hard way last year when he said South Africa shouldn’t be like Kenya and “send athletes to the Olympics to drown in the pool”.

Within no time, the KOTDF (Kenyans on Twitter Defence Forces) had been rallied, #SomeoneTellSouthAfrica was trending and many a South African quietly disowned their sports minister.

CNN is the latest to fall to KOT’s stinging, and hilarious, barbs. The United States media organisation referred to Kenya as a “hotbed of terror” this week, in the context of President Barack Obama’s visit.

“Obama is not just heading to his father’s homeland, but to a hotbed of terror. Al-Shabab militants in East Africa are now posing new worries for the president’s trip to Kenya this week,” the broadcaster reported on its website.

#SomeoneTellCNN erupted, with the keyboard warriors on the vanguard denouncing CNN for what they said was misleading and irresponsible reporting. One memorable Tweet said: “#SomeoneTellCNN the last time a Kenyan made a bed hot in Hawaii, it produced a @POTUS.”

We have unleashed wars over our football team being treated shabbily in Nigeria (#SomeoneTellNigeria) and over a Kenyan teacher being fired in Tanzania (#SomeoneTellTanzania). The latest tweef (Twitterbeef) with Uganda a few weeks ago – I don’t remember what it was about – actually failed to take off – UOT (Ugandans on Twitter) didn’t even show up for battle.

This Kenyan nationalistic fervour on social media is intriguing, when you consider how contested Kenyan identity is among Kenyans themselves. There are 42 ethnic groups in the country and, although this isn’t the biggest number in an African country (neighbouring Tanzania has nearly three times as many), there’s something particularly polarising about ethnicity in Kenya, so that constructing an overall Kenyan identity is fraught.

Data from Afrobarometer, which conducts public attitude surveys on democracy and governance in Africa, illustrates this. One survey asked respondents in 12 African countries what they thought was the main difference between the ruling and opposition parties in their countries.

The chief answer among the countries surveyed, including Kenya, was “their economic and development policies”. Other answers were the honesty and integrity of party leaders and the experience of party leaders.

But of all the countries surveyed, Kenya had the greatest number of respondents (12%) who said the main difference is the ethnicity of party leaders or members.

The relatively low percentage for this response suggests that, first, ethnicity per se is rarely a prominent faultline in African party politics, contrary to popular belief; and, second, Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa whose history has made ethnicity a characteristic feature of the political system.

In 2003, a new government led by opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki came into power on an unprecedented wave of democratic optimism. It broke the 40-year post-independence rule of the Kenya African National Union. One of the new government’s first projects was a national contest to design a Kenyan national dress. Though the winning design looked unmistakably African, it failed spectacularly – the only people interested in buying it were Western tourists.

The keyboard warriors are critical, hard-to-please, unforgiving watchdogs, who also torment the government relentlessly when it makes a blunder. That kind of broad freedom to criticise those in power is unique in Kenya’s neighbourhood.

But criticise Kenya unfairly, or mistreat a Kenyan abroad, and #KOT gets to know about it, the closing of its ranks is instantaneous.

It’s like a family – siblings might drive each other insane, but they will rush to each other’s defence the minute an outsider attacks them. Once they have subdued the external threat, they can calmly go back to taunting each other and saying hurtful things, such as you’re not really daddy’s child.

The only people allowed to talk ill of Kenya are Kenyans themselves.

I suspect the fervour is a way of coping with the psychological anxiety, even exhaustion, of living in a divided country, where you constantly have to negotiate for the right even to sit at the table.

#SomeoneTellWhoever re-energises people and gives them the morale to continue on the fraught path of nation-building, an assurance that there is something essentially Kenyan worth fighting for after all.

CNN was only the latest to discover this peculiar characteristic of Kenyans. The network quickly changed the story from “terror hotbed” to Obama’s “father’s homeland”.

They will not be the last to stand down in the wake of retaliation by the self-proclaimed defenders of Kenya’s honour. The KOTDF probably sleep with their fingers hovering over the keyboard.

Christine Mungai is senior writer at Mail & Guardian Africa and a Kenyan

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Christine Mungai
Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University

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