Kenya, Past and Present: How the Internet Shapes a Country

by Jeanette Si

Many East African countries -- like Kenya -- have been known for their rich oral traditions, where the collective knowledge of an entire generation would be passed down and expanded upon by their successors.

“Back in the day if you went upcountry, it’s the older people who [were] the owners of information. It would be your grandfather, or your mother, or your aunties,” recalled Grace Mutung’u, a Berkman Klein Center research fellow based in Kenya.

However, things have begun to change in recent years. When these young people go to their home villages, they are no longer expected back as just passive listeners, but as active speakers and scribes -- mediums who connect the minds of their elders to the minds of the greater global community.

“We are also sharing information about what is happening in the world, because we have our own access to information and we can form our own opinions,” said Mutung’u. “We have access to immense [amounts] of material on anything and everything that you can think about [because of the Internet.]”

Mutung’u has been studying Internet usage in East Africa for many years, including its social effects and potential outages. She is especially interested in the government-mandated Internet outages that seem to coincide so frequently with governmental elections in the area.

“Uganda had elections last year, and they shut down the Internet twice -- the first time for 4 days during the elections, and the second time for a day during the inauguration of the president,” she said. “Kenya is having elections in August -- so the whole idea was to look at Uganda which is very similar in many ways to Kenya, and see the lessons that we can learn from Uganda.”

In a word, Mutung’u describes African communities as “interconnected” -- and as the Internet spreads in the region, it has been adopted by Africans to express their already strong socioeconomic ties. A disruption of any magnitude would be debilitating to this network, but at the same time, Africans can never know for certain if -- or when -- a shutdown might be coming their way.

“In Africa, there is no one country where we are sure that the Internet cannot be shut down -- not even Kenya, not even South Africa,” she said, emphasizing the constant threat that African governments have suspended over the heads of their people.

Just last December, there was a network disruption during the National Assembly’s vote on a controversial election bill, blocking Internet access in the parliamentary building for a whole morning. It is not clear if any ISP was involved in the disruption.

It was an omnipresent reminder that even though these countries have begun to open up and modernize, they were still a ways away from the degree of free expression that many people enjoy in the West.

Mutung’u recalls a tense period of her early childhood in Kenya when her own father had been suspected of reading a banned publication.

“For the longest while, we almost couldn’t breathe in the house. [My father] was so scared because he was being followed and it got him into a lot of trouble at work,” she said. “We had to keep a low profile and it wasn’t until he was cleared that we could breathe again.”

When she was older and regulations became laxer, she finally was able to read the publication that got her father punished -- that had caused her family so much worry -- only to find that it was a lawyers’ magazine with a proposal for a multi-party system.

“Now we have many political parties, and the world did not come apart,” said Mutung’u. “[But] that is the kind of society we used to have back in the eighties and nineties, and it’s amazing how different the society is [now.]”

Through the Internet, Kenyans can now find like-minded people to share their ideas with. They can access a lot of documents that would have been difficult to find before. They can openly voice dissent and mock their leaders -- with a few caveats, however.

“In the States, I see people talking about Trump in all sorts of ways without doing it anonymously -- I think in Kenya, people would be a bit more anonymous. You’re really not sure, since everything is so ambiguous. We do not have a common understanding of what is citizens interrogating their government and what is hate speech” she said, referring to the government’s threats of Internet blackout.

But Mutung’u believes that Kenya has great potential for advancing the Internet world, once more freedom of expression is achieved.

“Kenya is a hard place to be in, that you just have to be smart. So people are always forced to create solutions, to think about the future, in a very active way,” she said. “With an open Internet, you can only expect more from Kenyans. I think people are working really hard … and people are really looking at how technology can help us.”