The Problem with “Mukuru kwa Zuckerberg”

Over 50 years ago in pre-independence Nairobi, a white settler, known merely as Reuben occupied a large tract of land in modern day Embakasi, east of the modern-day central business district. Keeping a large herd of livestock, Reuben had five Kenyan employees tending to his cattle. Temporary structures made of mud and carton boxes on the farm served as their homes. These occupants settled and built modest lives while Nairobi began to grow into a true capital city far from its lowly genesis as a camp along a railway line. Reuben repatriated in the late 1970s leaving the informal settlement known today to many as Mukuru kwa Reuben.

Those that were left in custody of the aforementioned land invited their relatives and others to join them. The word “Mukuru” is from Kikuyu traditional culture. It referred to the birthplace of all Agikuyu people, a grove of fig trees where Gikuyu, the mythological patriarch, met his bride Mumbi. “Kwa” represents the English preposition “of.”

Reality in modern day Mukuru kwa Reuben is a far cry from the mythical Kikuyu orchard upon which the lineage began. The challenges of the surrounding settlements, the larger Mukuru group of slums, have seen residents face numerous challenges. The hallmark being sporadic demolitions and forced evictions from its more valuable borders while within the paltry provision of basic government services in healthcare, water and sanitation prevails.

There have been continuous tussles with industrial companies bordering the slums and a longer political history with a valuable electorate among the population of some 600,000 residents. In September of last year, residents got some reprieve with a class action suit that resulted in a temporary halt to a mass eviction. Kenya’s former president Daniel arap Moi, his former minister Joseph Kamotho and other large corporations halting their plans to evict and subdivide the land.

Facebook as a social network in Kenya preceded Twitter by about two years. Much has changed in the last 4 years since high-speed internet made landfall at the Kenyan coast. At one point Facebook users, now at 3.6 million, outnumbered Twitter users at a guesstimated 10:1. The learning curve associated with understanding the world of mentions, retweets, trending topics and hashtags proving challenging. Many have and will continue to sign up despite these challenges especially with calls to “follow me on Twitter” all over traditional media by Kenya’s celebrities and media personalities. The ones who learn and begin to engage, however, have proven to be among the African continent’s most influential.

It’s not entirely clear in what context Mukuru kwa Zuckerberg first appeared in but from the moment it originated it caught on. The phrase is most often used by #KOT, short for Kenyans on Twitter, and can be abbreviated to MKZ.

Mukuru kwa Zuckerberg represents a stereotype by KOT of users of the social network Mark Zuckerberg began in a dorm room at Harvard University. Zuckerberg, a modern day Reuben, entrusted his digital real estate to a set of occupants who invited their friends to join them. As it turns out, the majority of these occupants have now been judged by Twitter users to have little right to claim full digital citizenship. Reason being their ability to contribute to digital culture among the internet society remains minuscule despite their large numbers.

These occupants derided as passive members of society catching on to conversation of what was being spoken of on Twitter only days and weeks later. The news creeping into their consciousness with an uncanny tardiness unlike that of the “real-time web” shaped by KOT. One never having joined Twitter or their inability to participate is also becoming a point of ridicule in Kenya. Facebook’s Kenyan audience face their inability to craft newsworthy moments belittling their importance as a swarm.

It is true that every Twitter user who agrees and perpetuates this stereotype and distaste for their compatriots is also active on Facebook, at least enough to tell the perceived difference.

Facebook’s criticism by KOT for lacking in shaping digital culture and a lack of interesting content and in digital society is contrary to Malcolm Gladwell’s persuasive yet controversial position on social media. As quoted in his New Yorker magazine column during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, I would revising it to say:

“The revolution may or may not be Tweeted…but it will surely be Facebooked days and weeks late.”

‍Facebook allows one to choose their circle of friends. To participate in this social network one must exercise personal judgement on which friends to invite and accept. In the end, the sum total of one’s own Facebook experience is by commission. Hence what Facebook presents as its “Newsfeed” of content sourced from one’s own friends is a reflection of their circle of friends filtered by Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm. The longer one interacts on Facebook, the more the newsfeed adapts to suit their digital tastes.

If the people complaining and criticising Facebook for being dull, drab and delinquent are each responsible in part for Facebook’s inability to satisfy their standards, who is to blame? Are the family, friends and acquaintances as selected by the individual those to blame for their lack of so called digital civility?

Mukuru kwa Zuckerberg may be further down from the digital superhighway than anywhere else but most will claim it as their “rural home” and birthplace on the internet. Perhaps it is less of class warfare and eviction battles and more of a crisis of personality with the Kenyan digital citizen.

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