Sunday, March 21, 2010


Days I miss: when Kenyan blogs were about stories. The politics of every day- the Kenyan way of life relived by voices hitherto unknown- and not big politics.

In 2006 when I discovered Kenyan blogs, I stopped reading newspapers. I used to skim in fact rather than read newspapers because what Kibaki and Raila do is not news, how it affects me is. And newspapers didn’t tell me that. I cannot blame them, they weren’t addressing me… my demographic. Some blogs did.

As a blogger, a lot of my writing then was very political. Political in the sense of: how a certain kind of Kenyan responds to and copes with the consequences of bad governance. It wasn’t about the shenanigans of the political class but the ways in which some of us responded to them. When the political class made a cameo appearance in my blog it was because I, or one of my peers, had enjoyed their largesse. A largesse that faded into the new harems, bellies, Benzos and numbered accounts of a Kibaki era noveau riche class. In the Moi days, I liked to point out, they shared the love. You could walk into town and take a matatu home with a slice of Goldenberg money.

In Kenya most people are just trying to get by, trying not to shit where they eat and more often than not, failing. That is the story I told. Others told tall tales from their yuppie lives. I couldn’t relate, but the stories were so well told I read them anyway. Because they had place, and character. They were about a Kenya, but most important of all, they were not about News, they were about people. The internet lives and imaginations of certain Kenyans. The parochialism was not only charming, it put fluency and local colour into the blogs and for one moment a pastiche of an immensely stratified and arbitrary nation called Kenya was starting to emerge.

Not for long.

Outside our Kenyan web space it had became necessary, for some- almost always Westerners- to ‘showcase’ what was being hailed as Africa’s tech revolution. While localised web-rings had come into being much earlier and served as great go-to places for a non NGO or mainstream media mediated view of a given African country, they were quickly made irrelevant by a nascent but highly influential cabal of digitised African Consultants. A pan-African curation had emerged.

Unfortunately, it privileged tech. They defined what ‘Africa’s’ web space Is, Was and Will be: a place where the tech minority can say a lot about their innovations and very little about who they were making them for and why.

A bad situation, for the storytellers, turned horrible with the advent of Twitter. In the age of Twitter ‘our stories’ sound like this:

@X: I smoked weed today #maafaka
@Y: RT @X: I smoked weed today #maafaka
@Z: RTRT @X: I smoked weed today #maafaka
@A: Hihihi @X smoked weed today (via @Z) #maafaka

Why the fuck did you smoke weed? Where did you get it? Why the hell do I even need to know this? Constipated, stinky or both, a shit is just a shit and everyone takes one. The only reason I should know about yours is because it has more imagination than mine. #maafaka? Question: when it trends, what does it say about you- outside the internet- as an actor in time, space and social environments? That your life revolves around smoking weed, Twitter and Nigga
But Twitter, is an easy drug to blame the death of storytelling on the Kenyan web space on. The death of Story came when Bloggers turned into professionals- Internet authorities. Suddenly the broadcaster and his equipment became more important than the broadcast.

By then, many of us had started clocking speaking engagements to talk about blogs and blogging. And we talked about Wordpress and Blogger and some even went ahead and registered their own domains. Those that did so assumed that the world would take them more seriously if they blogged on their own domains. Problem is, they remained all domains- Flash, Twitter and Facebook widgets- and no content. Who could find time to blog anymore while shuffling from ‘How to set up a blog’- Tech Aid, Kibera- to ‘The future of African blogs’- Afri Tech, New York?

Meanwhile, words buzzed into meaninglessness: Social media; cyber-activism; citizen journalism and Story died.

The pan-African curators or the African Internet’s power axis- chugging deux ex machina like in the background, all along- came to the fore and absorbed the Kenyan blogosphere into a broader African Internet narrative. A narrative, invariably, defined by the trope of Africa in crisis. A crisis ever defined by body counts and mitigated by a dash of solar power. In the spirit of pan-African technological innovation who cares that even the primordial swamp was solar powered? Why should the African bother with inventions while it can follow those who already have a wheel?

Pan-African curation brought, to some, money and Twitter fame but it took with it our choice in the stories we told. The blogger big times rolled in, yes, but they had ‘tech’ stamped all over them. Any blogger worth his salt either went into making tools and gadgets or into talking about them.

Tech for Africa became both media and content; all our internet lives became tech.

The ‘social media’ crowd made serious games; the ‘cyber-activists’ made and talked about web tools and gadgets and the ‘citizen journalists’- with the indolence and gravy-train-spotting of their mainstream media kin- followed the social media hacks and the cyberactivists around.

We were firmly in the digitised world, where fame is a workaday quality. And the African version was defined purely by ones ability to innovate web tools and gadgets. Just having a drink with the small crowd of toolmakers and Tweeting about it was enough, though. But online, where, who and what is hot changes every second, all that we can remember is not even faces but social media handles and avatars. So, what about the reason why those people or objects had earned their second of fame?

No one is really inventing anything; no one is talking about the tech-distance between their innovations and their purported end users. The hell, in this entire tech-speak, there is no analysis, there is no, ‘are these the innovations you need as a Kenyan writer on the web?’ We have gotten too busy realising the infrastructure of an imagined Africa Information and Communications Technology bubble we have forgotten the communication part. We have obliterated the social- the stories and their meanings - in Social Media.

Tech is good and I fully support and admire those who are doing it, but if anyone wants to know: As a storyteller, I struggle with writing; writing is not the way I learnt how to tell stories, so how does innovating Wordpress make my work easier?


M said...

Dude. Absolutely brilliant. Well said!

Anonymous said...

This is an exceptional read. U got it spot on and thumbs up to you for your unique out v the box thinking!

jke said...

Which tech are you talking about in particular?

Else, yes, Twitter killed most traditional blogs.

I think it's also not only about new tools and limited storytelling these days (if any), but also about readers who are (or aren't) able to read longer blog posts.

Andrea Bohnstedt said...

Twitter: great to swap links, for quick alerts. I am going mental over people live-twittering events. Don't bloody clog up my screen. Kindly sit down and write a two or three paragraph summary after the event.

I love Facebook - lots of great discussions around news and other items.

John Powers said...

Reading this I thought of a 70's Pop tune by the Buggles "Video Killed the Radio Star." Then went to YouTube to watch the video. And there are 1,519 comment left on it.

There surely is a story about Kenyan Blogs; the tech talk is just part of it.

Keguro talked about getting some chapbook venture going at one point. I still think that's a good idea. It does seem to me that a paper interface with the Internet has a place. WordPress actually might make the work of telling stories easier. Certainly it make a more distributed publishing model possible.

The work of telling stories never has been easy, nor has their ever been lots of money in telling stories. It's always been the platform owners who've made the money.

I'm an idiot when it comes to understanding tech. But there's something radical when people who are smart about it try to make tech accessible through collaborative and often open source ways.

I think your story of the death of story telling is greatly exaggerated.

peter said...

Tech made the Kenyan blog and all blogs. Tech has given you a new way to tell your story. Instead of blaming tech, you ought to rally your fellow storytellers to tell more stories about Kenya in the blogosphere and to keep up with the changing times.

bankelele said...

I think the emphasis on tech is a celebration of one the few bright spots we have.

Mark said...

Must say I appreciate and agree with the comments of JKE, John and Banks.

I would NOT have even found this post were it not for social media and the people tweeting this link.

Social Media is friend, not foe and though there are some fundamental points here, I think it's the mentality and character of the bloggers that's being tested, and that was going to come over time anyways.

Randalf Ethereal said...

I agree with ΛΛ but in fewer words i.e most 'storytellers' started bloggin as a passtime. Priorities change. It's not ati ppl have stopped bloggin, it's the ppl who used to blog alot back in the day who've slacked off. Meanwhile, there's a new breed of younger kenyan bloggers coming up. But either way, you've met your quota of posts for the month with this post so...

Anonymous said...

An elite members club of Kenya bloggers killed the Kenyan blog. This was best signified by the stringent and selective aggregator requirement which were construed to be the only ship for a Kenyan blog to sail. They now control the twitter scene in Kenya. They hold exclusive rights to be the voice of the Kenyan blog and distort the image of a Kenyan blogger through meetups, globe trotting, conferences and media interviews though they no longer blog. Normal software innovations are glorified-------

jke said...

"They now control the twitter scene in Kenya."

You know there are those that engage in conversations, speak up and actually contribute their own content online and offline while others who just consume and complain.

ke said...

The truth of the matter is, Kenya was never really a country of reader's. The most (in fact the only thing that most Kenyans read are the two daily newspapers -- The Nation & The Standard).

What blogs did was offer people a chance to get their voices heard (via the comments section) and for a while, the Kenyan newspapers did not have this option.

The second thing is that for a long time, Kenyan journalists were not really free to write what they wanted. After all, Lucy Kibaki ended up slapping a Standard reporter when they dared to criticize her husband. Blogs had the luxury of being anonymous and thus, their writers were free to print whatever they wanted without fear of physical violence being meted against them. This made reading blogs much more interesting. They were raw and honest in their criticisms of government in a way that newspapers could never be.

I think for a younger generation of Kenyans who are growing up with cell phones and text messaging, reading is going to become even more of a problem for them. These kids aren't even reading newspapers anymore.

However, their writing is also beginning to suffer and I am seeing that on my own blog when people leave comments. So many cannot write in complete sentences anymore and I think it's because they've become used to writing these short, encrypted text messaging that they are not developing this skill.

In terms of technological innovation though, I don't think Kenyan developers are even close. 99% of their "innovations" (if you can even call them that) are really nothing more than simple websites where they try to get people to talk about an issue) or simple ecommerce websites where all of them are selling the same goods (SMS airtime, Uchumi vouchers, etc, etc.)

This is not where the money is when it comes to technology. You literally have to create a platform that provides a service for people (e.g. Skype, Iphone, google, databases, etc, etc) -- As I've said numerous times, if Facebook and Twitter, the most popular social media platforms out there today, haven't found a way to make money, that should tell you something.

Alligator Legs said...

I think this is interesting and on point. Although I don't think Twitter is killing story. I, for one, still don't really get it, will likely be blogging long after Twitter is gone. People also thought television would kill radio and it didn't. Internet hasn't (quite yet) killed newspapers. And Twitter won't kill blogs, at least not for the folks who have more than 140 characters-worth of ideas. (And the previous comment should really be its own blog!)