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Kenya's Tribal Wars Move Online

Frontline/WorldMshale, Commentary, Edwin Okong'o Posted: May 04, 2008

Editor's Note: The tribal conflict that has rocked Kenya since the disputed December elections has moved into the virtual sphere as well. Rational well-educated Kenyans have fueled it online and the editor of U.S. based African community newspaper finds he is ensnared in it.

I had been out of journalism school for barely two weeks when Julia Opoti, a friend and an editor at Kenya Imagine, a popular online discussion forum for Kenyans, sent a text message to my cell phone. My name, she wrote, had been the subject of another online forum.

"Hey, did you know that there is a whole thread about you on Mashada?" the message read.

"Really? What are they saying?" I asked, thinking that forum members were probably discussing my recent writing on Kenya Imagine, to which I had been contributing over the last four months.

"Lol! That you are Man R," she replied.

I will get to who Man R is shortly, but first a little about Mashada.com. The site is perhaps the first and most popular online discussion forum for Kenyans. It went live in 1999 and now has nearly 50,000 registered users -- a significant number for a country where less than 10 percent of its 37 million population has access to the Internet.

I rushed to Mashada.com, typed my name in the search field and hit "Enter." What I saw left me wondering if my journalism career was over.

There, on a website that I had visited only once or twice in my life, was my name attached to some of most defamatory comments I had ever read. They called me a liar, a hatemonger, a bigot, and a tribalist comparable to the media propagandists who triggered the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left nearly a million people dead.

Clearly, it was a case of mistaken identity. People on the site were accusing me of being the person behind the handle "Man R," someone accused of spreading hate. Man R had been engaged in a one-against-the-masses critique of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. The man I'd been confused with supported opposition leader Raila Odinga.

After Man R's initial post and throughout the ensuing debate, tribal insults were exchanged. Given the tribal nature of Kenyan politics, Man R's detractors assumed that because he was an Odinga supporter, he belonged to the same Luo tribe as the opposition leader. (When I finally tracked down Man R by phone, he told me he was, in fact, a Kikuyu from Kibaki's tribe).

As the debate between Man R and President Kibaki's stalwarts raged on, things became personal. Allegedly, Man R did an Internet search on one of the screen names of those debating him and traced it to a Kenyan-born teacher in Finland. The teacher, Man R claimed, had lied to gain political asylum in the Scandinavian country. The revelation sent the teacher and others on a trail for Man R's blood.

In the search to reveal Man R's identity, someone remembered that Man R had mentioned during one online discussion that he was a Kenyan journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Bingo!

The only Bay Area Kenyan-born journalist who had ever put a name to published words was Edwin Okong'o -- me!

Man R's enemies were so sure they had the right man that no one hesitated to let Kenya's online community know. Here, they argued, was a man who pretended to be a saint by day, reporting and writing news as Edwin Okong'o, but who spent his spare time spreading hate from behind the Internet's curtain of anonymity.

They ganged together to "expose" Edwin Okong'o. One person lifted my resume from the website of the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and posted it under the heading, "CV of a Hate Monger." From the same website, someone pulled a calendar entry highlighting a lecture I had given about my arrests and detentions when I returned to Kenya in the summer of 2006. The person accused me of "sucking up to wazungu" (white people) to gain political asylum.

Jokes I had delivered before attending graduate school, when I performed as a stand-up comedian, were presented as testimony of my double life and sinister character.

My attempt to register on Mashada in hopes of defending my reputation only generated more anger and defamatory remarks. One person managed to find a photo of me online and drew "Man R" graffiti on the photo before posting it on Mashada.

I sent Man R a message through Mashada's system, asking him to contact the website's owner, David Kobia, with whom I had already spoken. I wanted Man R to tell the world that we are two very different individuals. Kobia's warnings to my assailants, along with the deleting of their libelous threads, infuriated them and amplified the animosity. They started new threads and called Kobia a coward for letting a cornered hatemonger scare him.

When another Mashada poster termed my efforts to rescue my tarnished name "a clear case of schizophrenia," I decided to preserve my sanity by not responding to the mudslinging. As I angrily surrendered, I swore never again to utter the name "Mashada."

When I finally called Kobia, he told me that facilitating meaningful debates and discussions had become virtually impossible, forcing him to suspend the forum indefinitely.

But a month after ethnic violence broke out in Kenya, I found myself wanting to call Kobia. This time, though, I wanted to discuss the frightening tribal hatred that threatened not just my career as a journalist, but our country's peace and stability.

I had received an email alert that Kobia had shut down Mashada's discussion forum. Visiting the site once more, I found a note from Kobia explaining his actions:

"While we feel that people need a space to interact, the majority of interaction on Mashada.com has begun to reflect the negative aspects of what is happening in Kenya."

When I finally called Kobia, he told me that facilitating meaningful debates and discussions had become virtually impossible, forcing him to suspend the forum indefinitely.

"We are not legally responsible for what people post, but when you find people talking about killing this tribe and killing that tribe or calling for the assassination of so and so, you have to act," Kobia said.

To avoid suffering Mashada's fate, owners of similar online forums began policing comments on their sites. They discovered that although the Kenyan middle class and the Diaspora were absent from the mayhem in the country's streets and farmlands, they were fueling the tribal wars online.

Kenya's opposition leader, Raila Odinga (above) has now reached a powersharing agreement with President Mwai Kibaki. Image: Frederick Onyango [Creative Commons]

Matunda Nyanchama is a Kenyan living in Toronto, and he owns the Yahoo! group Africa-oped, which has nearly 12,000 Kenyan participants. Nyanchama noted a surge in the number of inflammatory remarks and tirades filled with tribal hate.

"What you don't see [when you look at Africa-oped] is what I see as the moderator," said Nyanchama, who has a PhD in computer science. "Something snapped in the minds of even the Kenyans who used to be fair before the elections. They have become ethnically abusive, degrading and outright offensive. You can't believe educated Kenyans living abroad can bend so low."

Opoti expressed similar disbelief at some of the comments appearing on Kenya Imagine and posted by highly educated professionals she knows personally.

"It shocked me because these were people living in the United States and who made very educated arguments before the elections," Opoti said. "We have seen people calling for violence by posting comments like, 'Why did they vote that way? They deserve to die.' We could not sit around and watch that happen."

What worries Nyanchama, Kobia, Opoti and other Kenyans is the influence of their countrymen living abroad, particularly those in the United States. Many Kenyans perceive their countrymen in America as intelligent people, who are able to compete in U.S. universities with citizens of a country revered for ingenuity.

I know friends who earn very little but will borrow thousands of dollars with credit cards; when they visit Kenya, they rent big cars and stay and dine at five-star hotels with Kenya's lawmakers and wealthy elite.

While it's true that Kenyans and other African immigrants often excel at American educational institutions, they do not always use their status wisely. I know friends and relatives who earn very little but will borrow thousands of dollars with credit cards; when they visit Kenya, they rent big cars and stay and dine at five-star hotels with Kenya's lawmakers and wealthy elite. Because of this and the financial support those of us abroad offer our families, our country's poor and less educated look up to us as some sort of demi-gods, believing -- and sometimes acting on -- almost everything we say.

Although only a small fraction of Kenyans have access to the Internet, hateful messages posted online or emailed often get printed on paper in Kenya's Internet cafes and distributed to those unable to read them online.

"When these hateful messages from the Diaspora reach Nairobi, they are seen by those on the ground as gospel truth," Nyanchama said. The rumors and opinions circulating on the forums quickly take the place of news, he added.

All three sites tried to moderate the onslaught of comments generated when tribal violence began, mainly by relying on volunteers to weed out the most hateful speech. But for Mashada it became an impossible task.

"You can imagine how hard it would be to control nearly 50,000 people," said Kobia. The moderators were getting burned out. We decided that the best thing was to shut it down."

Mashada.com has since restarted its forum with 10 strict rules for engagement. Kobia reports that people are complying with the new guidelines, thankful to have a forum online again to express themselves.

A 2007 graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Edwin Okong'o is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of Mshale, a newspaper and website aimed at the African community living in the United States.

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