Authors: Hassan Kochore, PhD candidate, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and Neil Carrier – University of Bristol. You can contact Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact Hassan Kochore at email@example.com.
Moments of crisis like the one we’re living through with Covid-19 both focus us squarely on the present and offer fertile space for contemplating the past and future as we seek to understand and overcome. In generating a sense of urgency – especially for those dealing with the sharp end of the virus – Covid-19 can make the past and future appear irrelevant as surviving the here and now becomes critical. However, such moments can also intensify our ability to see all that is wrong – and in some instances what is right – with our societies, and our resolve to critique them.
Like elsewhere, Kenyans are experiencing the horrors of the moment, and also generating searing social critique of the status quo. As elsewhere too, a key response to the impact of Covid-19 is to turn to social media to try and make sense of what is going on and what all this might mean for a future Kenya, and to mobilise to deal with the crisis when trust in the political class to do anything is sorely lacking. In this post we explore some of these responses gaining traction on social media, responses that speak to the threat of the virus, but also the wider context of contemporary Kenya. Many humorous tweets and memes on social media take wry looks at Kenyan life under lockdown, though first, we turn to those that offer harsh critique on the societal problems that make the threat of the virus so much worse: most obviously at the moment, police violence and inept policy.
As in most countries, lockdown measures have been enforced, as have travel restrictions on entering Nairobi and Mombasa, quarantine for those entering from abroad, and the mandatory wearing of face masks. As is tragically normal in the country, police have often been brutal in ensuring compliance with these measures. In late March and early April, as curfew was being put into place, there were horrific scenes in Mombasa as police beat up commuters trying to get home by the designated hour. The clips and images, particularly of a crowd of people being brutalized and herded towards the ferry, were circulated widely accompanied by raging levels of condemnation on social media. In Nairobi, a young man was shot by a curfew-enforcing police officer on the balcony of his own home in the low-income neighbourhood of Kariobangi. Such incidents subsequently led to the following kind of messages doing the rounds on Whatsapp:
Corona has killed only 1 person in Kenya in 1 month. The curfew has lasted for only 4 days and police have already killed 5 people!
Between Corona and the police, who is the more dangerous?
Tweets abounded in these early days keeping tallies of how many had been killed by police and how many by corona, some setting this up with dark humour as like a football match between the virus and the police, with the police certainly getting the best of the early encounters. Others asked if a vaccine could be found against the police. Such a situation was powerfully captured by the famous cartoonist Gado depicting a coronavirus personified as death looking on at police beating up Kenyans wondering aloud: ‘I didn’t know I’ll get this much help from my very own victims’.
The need to wear a mask has also generated heavy-handed police enforcement with many arrested for violation. Activists such as Boniface Mwangi on social media have drawn attention to police corruption in this regard, and posting videos of such arrests online.
The blithe callousness shown in obliging people to wear masks in a country where they are scarce and expensive is perhaps best illustrated by a report by Tuko TV on Youtube of a man in Kibera who has resorted to wearing a cabbage leaf as a makeshift mask.
Obliging people to stay at home when so many need to work to provide rent and food is also much commented on in Kenya. Worse still, in Kariobangi estate in Nairobi homes that had been built illegally on land owned by the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company were demolished on the 4th May, meaning thousands of people were made homeless at a time when all Kenyans are being urged to ‘stay home’. Kenyans are documenting such corona-era abuses on social media through the hashtag #ukwelimtaani (‘facts on the street’) and using it to mobilise responses such as giving out face masks.
The disruptions to life (and death) that corona has brought are also wryly commented on in social media, such as this message sent on Whatsapp:
Jamaa wanasema Moi saw far like a giraffe; akaondokea kolona* eti coz hangepata state burial kama angesleki.
(‘Guys are saying that Moi saw far like a giraffe that’s why he left (died) before the coronavirus arrived; otherwise he wouldn’t have got the (spectacular) state burial that he did’).
It invokes the funeral of former President Daniel Arap Moi held on the 12th February this year before panic over the virus began in the country. The point is that, had Moi died during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’d have had a less colourful and sparsely attended send-off. It basically hints at the hubris of such politicians as Moi who wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the pomp and ceremony of a state funeral, jokingly linking this with his association with the proverbial giraffe of Kenyan politics: one who is able to ‘see far’ into the future.
It is also not a coincidence that a funeral is invoked here: it is one of the arenas of life (and death) that has strongly been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Kenyans are known for conducting big funerals where those who die in the urban areas are transported and buried in often far-away rural homes in socially and economically profligate burials. ‘Professional Mourners’ are even hired to make the sending-off ceremony as spectacular as possible. Restrictions and control of the burial process by the government has radically disrupted the funerary process and scene(s). Similar restrictions also apply to weddings, many Kenyan couples either postponing their big days or eschewing the large, expensive nuptials that had become the norm, certainly among the middle-classes anyway.
More semi-humorous commentary on social media is directed to ‘disruption’ faced by those who in normal times have extramarital lovers, or mipango ya kando as they are known in Swahili (‘plans on the side’). This has become something of a Kenyan institution, and the phenomenon is much joked about in the country, including in the age of corona where such plans are on hold during the lockdown. For example, a joke on social media has it that Wanaume wanaweka simu kwa safe na underwear (‘Men are hiding their phones in safes and underwear’) So that their omnipresent lockdown partners do not catch a glimpse of communication with their mipango ya kando. Meanwhile, one opportunistic tweet offered for a mere 2500 Kenyan shillings (around £20) to pick up those pining to see their mipango ya kando at night in an ambulance so as not to raise suspicions of the police enforcing the curfew.
Sadly, cases of lockdown-related domestic violence are also widespread in Kenya, as expressed in a Whatsapp message received by one of the authors of this article:
Korona itaua watu wengi hata bila kuwa positive; nyumbani ni vita tu (‘Corona will kill many people even without testing positive because at home it’s just war’).
Kenyan social media is also awash with talk of corona cures, some apparently serious, some humorous. For example, residents of parts of northern Kenya and the coast were reportedly woken up in the wee hours of one morning in the early days of the virus to partake in a magically prescribed remedy. A baby born the previous evening had pronounced that black tea with 3 teaspoons of sugar is the antidote of coronavirus. The baby reportedly died soon after delivering the message. Incredible as that may sound, people admit that some friends and relatives genuinely believed in the message and woke up to get their dose at the ‘right time’. They even rang others to wake them up or in cases where they couldn’t get them, left tens of missed calls on their phones.
Kenyans fond of the stimulant drug known in the country as miraa or veve (and more widely as khat) have also half-jokingly ascribed curative powers to this chewable twig. For example, this one playing on the famous Trump tweet of covfefe and more recent medical speculation about chloroquine and bleach:
“Pengine qorsi kolona veve.’’ (‘Maybe the cure for kolona is veve’)
Trump asikuskie…cofveve (‘Let trump not hear you’)
Atanunua yote!” (‘He’ll buy it all’)
Facing Mount Kenya
Thus much of lockdown life is reflected on Twitter and other social media as Kenyans come to terms with the new normal, and take wry, humorous looks at the predicament. Yet, like elsewhere too, Covid-19 is also generating a space in which alternative futures can be imagined, one where the politics of greed personified by Moi, and the indifference to citizen suffering exemplified by the police is no more. Symbolic of such future visions is a social media storm that revolved around a photo of Mt. Kenya taken from Nairobi (see below).
Mt Kenya is visible from the city, though only on clear days, which are few and far between in Nairobi given its notorious traffic and pollution. Thus, many Kenyans greeted this image with disbelief, thinking it a photoshopped fake, and responding with pictures supposedly showing the pyramids and other world sites now being visible from Nairobi (joining in the global trend to mock naive takes that ‘nature is healing’ during the pandemic as humans are bunkered down). Yet the image was not photoshopped and prompted older Nairobians to recall how they could see the mountain from Nairobi often when they were young. It also prompted others to think of how a Nairobi without its congestion and traffic jams might look in the future, making that possibility – usually unthinkable – feel very real. While pollution levels are creeping back up as Nairobi roads become congested once more (despite lockdown measures continuing), seeing Mt Kenya has given Kenyans an alluring glimpse of a possible future far more people- and environmentally-friendly.
 *Kolona being a playful mispronounciation of corona in a local dialect spawning such songs as ‘kolona vilus’ ‘https://mauvoo.com/meet-dannyp-kamba-artist-behind-kolona-vilus-song/’