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?