by Zawadi Nyong’o
When thousands of #KOT (Kenyans On Twitter) came together to save the life of one, we said, “Ubuntu”- our community has come together, each with a little to create something big. We reveled in our ability to work towards change and saw that we have the capacity to build on this momentum to shape the kind of world we want to live in- one where Kenyans help Kenyans. We lift one another up. We simultaneously have the capacity to ruin this Ubuntu when each person acts only for his or herself. In this way, our community of #KOT becomes powerless. I have been praying and meditating since October 21st, 2015 when several Kenyans on twitter decided I was their next twitter “scandal” target. I won’t lie. It was and has been rough. As a feminist, I have experienced cyber bullying many times before, but I have never been surprised by it or allowed it to derail me from my social justice mission. I have always and will always stand by my values. I know that the fights I am fighting are good, and I am willing to take the punches, however painful, when I face opposition.
Yet here I am. Surprised by how hurt I was standing in the twitteratti line of fire. Wondering why I have felt so destabilized when I know my conscience is clear. So why do I feel so strongly that I have to counter and silence those malicious voices? Simple: my credibility and integrity have been challenged and a negative digital footprint has been left by this scandal-happy section of Kenyans online.
Everyone has told me to just let it go. “#KOT will move on to the next scandal by tomorrow. Everyone knows they are just tabloids.” Indeed, there is a new scandal every day, and I cannot control everything that people say about me, but I also know that silence can be really disempowering. This is the most selfless thing I have ever done, and I’ve done it with all my heart.
After much reflection, I feel I would be doing myself a huge disservice if I didn’t turn this painful experience into a learning opportunity for myself, and others. This whole thing isn’t just about me. It’s about all the players involved – the toxic energy that is the Kenyan twittersphere. By disengaging or being silent, we provide fertile ground for more seeds of destruction to be planted. I refuse to be silent.
It is still very shocking and disappointing. How did we go from celebrating the overwhelming success of the #1MilliForJadudi crowdfunding campaign in August, to embarking on a mission to try and destroy the goodwill and trust of the Kenyans who had so generously contributed to support Emmanuel Otieno a.k.a Jadudi? That was 12,262 Kenyans, some of whom gave as little as 10 shillings because they were moved by his story. This was a win for over 12,000 Kenyans, and thousands more who may not have contributed money, but shared the story with others. Jackson Biko, who wrote the captivating story, and I were strangers to each other, but we made a great team, because we had the right combination of skills, networks and a strong desire to help this young man who needed to get to India as quickly as possible for his fourth brain surgery. We were also lucky to have the support of the Africa Cancer Foundation, a credible and trusted institution, which agreed at the last minute to let us use their pay bill account to collect the money.
Biko and I never in a million years imagined we would raise over the 1 million shilling target. We didn’t even have time to think through the process of closing the campaign and what it would mean if we raised more than we targeted. He described those 3 days well. It was overwhelming! Unprecedented. In just over a week, the money had been raised, an account opened, a medical trust had been created for Emmanuel Otieno by ACF and a lawyer who offered his services probono, and he was on a plane to India. There was a lot happening behind the scenes to make this possible. I would like to take this opportunity to say a big THANK YOU to ACF for accepting our last-minute request and taking on this additional responsibility to manage the funds we raised. Despite having just one full-time staff member and two interns, I only found out a week later that they took the time to painstakingly send individual thank you messages to all 12,262 contributors. They pretty much stopped everything else they were doing to support this campaign. Accountability and transparency are definitely important and we should continue to expect it. If you haven’t already read the ACF press statement (which I suppose isn’t as sexy as a “scandal”) please do. It provides a detailed explanation of the funds management system. All of the money raised for Jadudi will go to his ongoing care and treatment and will be reported on by The Africa Cancer Foundation. I look forward to reading the report too.
There are so many individuals and organizations in Kenya that are trying to make positive changes. It is really hard for me to understand why we would want to pollute the few spaces we have where people are trying to do good for other people, even when those people include ourselves. Call me naïve. We may not have much control over most things that happen in society, but we have a significant amount of power over how we use social media. Do we all understand that there are living, breathing human beings behind those twitter handles? Would we say the same things to each other in person? Suicide as a result of cyber bullying is real. We have seen examples of it in Kenya. Are we just going to continue tolerating it? What happens when someone you know and love is a victim?
“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the evil people who are in it, but because of all the people who don’t do anything about it.”
As Jon Ronson says, “We would rather people kill themselves, than for us to have a boring day on social media.” Yeah, it sounds a little extreme, and it may not start off that way, but unchecked, it can and has gotten that serious here and across the globe. It’s not just about the person who publishes the tweet that starts the cyber-bullying or shaming conversation, it’s about everyone else who responds and joins the bandwagon. Every single retweet, like, share & reply counts. What does that say about our society? What are we missing out on? What are people lacking so much that we want to humiliate and offend others so bad? I guess it’s really true. Social media now gives those of us who are feeling powerless a space to assert our false power.
During this so-called “scandal” several people on twitter kept asking me why I wasn’t answering their questions about finances, why I was distancing myself from ACF now that questions were arising, and why I couldn’t speak on behalf of the organization. I didn’t, because I simply couldn’t. It wasn’t my responsibility and I made that clear in several press conferences, on TV and on twitter after we raised the money. I know people have a very hard time separating ACF and me because of family connections. I understand, but let me be very clear: I was the acting CEO in 2011 when we set it up. I did it on a voluntary basis. I was passionate about the work, but I stepped down because the cancer stories broke my heart. I am now a proud volunteer, who serves from time-to-time. There are over 300 amazing volunteers that have helped build ACF and are the heartbeat of the organization. If you want to support their work to prevent cancer, promote early detection, and envision a cancer-free Africa, please do volunteer.
So what now? Last week a friend of mine who is currently suing for severe defamatory cyber bullying said to me, “As Kenyans, when we don’t know, we speculate. When we do know, we fabricate.” Is this who we are as a nation? We are damaged by decades of corruption, political scandals, manipulation, rape, plunder, disease, drought, death, natural disasters, and now terrorism. We go from trauma to trauma without healing. We are traumatized, re-traumatized, and then traumatized again. We don’t know how to heal. We don’t realize how important it is to heal. We just keep covering up our festering wounds. It is no wonder that millions of Kenyans are feeling squashed, abused and disempowered. We go from #WeAreOne to #WeAreNone the next week. How can we ever really be one if the only time we come together as a nation is when we are in crisis? That’s actually one of the reasons why we came together for Jadudi – it was a crisis. We understand how to respond to crisis. But would we come together as easily to build something that prevents crises? Are we so damaged that we can’t envision a Kenya where we are working towards, and not against something? I want to believe that we are not. Maina Kageni’s recent #Maina10MillionMission campaign which raised over 26.2 million shillings for cancer equipment for the children’s ward at Kenyatta National Hospital gives me hope. I want to believe that these milestones can be used to nurture a strong crowdfunding environment in Kenya. We need to document what is happening in the crowdfunding field. We can and are slowly putting Kenya on the global crowdfunding map through platforms like bethkanter.org. Can we envision rallying together to build a state-of-the-art cancer center that will serve thousands of Kenyans? Can we invest our resources in long-term, sustainable change? This generation has the power to do things differently.
There is a dialectic relationship between each of us and the world. One does not exist without the other. In fact, one informs the other. We only exist because of our relationship with our community. Our community only exists because we are a part of it. We can let the vicious cycle of negative thoughts, actions and communities continue, or we can transform our thoughts and actions to build the communities and world we want to see, live in, and leave to our children. Our next general election is around the corner. In the words of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, “ I have said in public that the country is dancing on a precipice and it may flip over.” I urge #KOT to recognize and use the power they have for good. Our thoughts, words and tweets alone can help shift the consciousness of millions of Kenyans. We must make the Internet a more civil space. It does not have to be a reflection of the chaos that is Kenyan society offline. We can rewrite the narrative. After all, these days mainstream media often follows what social media dictates. Imagine if we flipped the current script and started by having at least one positive news trend every day? Eventually, we’ll have a news station dedicated to just good news. Yeah, I’m a dreamer!
For real though. Every day people ask me to support different crowdfunding campaigns to help raise money for a loved one who has one type of cancer or another. Every day, my heart breaks a little. People are suffering and we can create fertile ground to plant seeds of hope, faith, love, peace, joy and life. If it has never been this clear to me, it is now. We need to clean up the social media space. It is becoming difficult to wade through the mud. I don’t know how, but I hope you or someone has ideas or a forum in which to have this conversation. We need to do it and we need to do it now. The cyber bullies definitely need a support group. But in the meantime, can we not create a safer, better, more creative, playing ground for the other kids?
It’s time to create a #DigitalUbuntu!
 Jon Ronson “Shame Culture: Festival Of Dangerous Ideas.”
Photo credit: Mwangi Kirubi @mwarv