A New Powerful Normal: Activism by Humor

With only 1 day to the polls, the election fever in Kenya is at its’ peak. It has been a campaign period with a difference. Probably more significant than we realize. Things got innovative and bold. Especially on social media. While there is much to talk about, let’s analyze two outliers in this campaign season.

1. The series of Facebook quizzes that went viral.

One of the top contenders for the presidency, Raila Odinga of the NASA coalition, is fond of saying that he will lead Kenya into Canaan. He refers to himself as Joshua who leads people out of the wilderness into the promised land. Kenyans are a deeply religious people thus Biblical or religious references are common place.

Therefore in the atypical Kenyan fashion of deflection by humor, Anthony Mwangi who is a local Kenyan musician popularly known as Anto Neosoul, created a Facebook quiz about Canaan. In a story by Mercy Adhiambo on Standard Daily, Anto Neosoul says that he created the quiz when he had insomnia, shared it on his timeline and fell asleep. He woke up to hundreds of notifications and unwittingly started a viral trend. Since his initial quiz on Canaan, dozens of them cropped up and all Kenyans, regardless of political affiliation, were having fun sharing the often hilarious predictions about life in Canaan.

So why did a simple Facebook quiz unite Kenyans, regardless of political opinions, at a time when political tension was high? Humor is a very effective means of dealing with overwhelming emotion and taking control of a situation. Tragedy is when a tree, instead of bending, breaks. Humorless living causes people to break. Many a famous thinker attributed the ability to stay sane in the face of often insurmountable circumstances to humor.

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide. 
– Mohandas Gandhi

Besides the proven power of humor in life and psychology, there is a cultural aspect that also propelled the quiz to stardom. The Kenyan style of dealing with conflict is by avoiding it. Confrontation is generally frowned upon. Problems are oft hinted at without being explicitly stated. We do not confront, we imply. Therefore, an indirect way of dealing with an issue is readily adopted. The political tension was pervasive and thick in every conversation. Thus, when an opportunity to cut through the tension without addressing it directly arose, everyone jumped aboard.

I think the next best thing to solving a problem is finding some humor in it. 
– Frank Howard Clark

I had earlier written about the belief equation and how it is the secret sauce to getting people to sign up to your cause or love your brand. The belief equation is also the reason why things go viral. When a concept hits all the right spots, it becomes an instant hit. I’m pretty sure that the creator of the quiz did it as a joke but since not all jokes go viral and get shared over 500,000 times, I shall dissect why the quiz went viral.

The Belief Equation

The components of the belief equation played out perfectly to influence people to participate and share the quiz.

  1. Popular view — it is a political season and it is good to look politically aware.
  2. Personal bias — I support a particular candidate and ideology and would like to be able to express it
  3. Personal Aspiration — I want peace and a better Kenya
  4. Pleasure — I like to laugh and seem funny as well so I will share the quiz results; The responses on the quizzes were often humorous with the brazen Kenyan sense of humor alluding to common Kenyan stereotypes like the love for drinking.

This is the secret sauce. Disruption by humor. Well timed humor.

Implied humor works just as well. When you go against the grain, creatively, great things are possible. As with our next outlier.

2. The unlikely politician

Enters specimen X, Boniface Mwangi, an independent candidate in Starehe Constituency who has changed the face of politics as usual. His candidature marks a paradigm shift that needs to be acknowledged. A former photo journalist turned activist after the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya. He is known for his elaborate and daring protests against the government and members of parliament, pioneering terms like M-pigs referring to the relentless greed in the streets of parliament.

Boniface, commonly referred to as Bonnie, received alot of criticism when he decided to run for office. Never being one to cow under pressure, Bonnie has managed to stage the first ever crowd sourced candidature in Kenya. To do this, he and his team had to get creative. He tapped into his existing networks and worked them beautifully. The biker community came out to support him, the KOT(Kenyans on Twitter) contributed their time and money in his campaign and a slowly, a person unlikely to win is now a very strong contender skewed to win.

In keeping with the humor theme that I am talking about today, Bonnie managed to sidestep a major huddle in his campaign trail. The electorate in Kenya has been conditioned to expect monetary handouts from political aspirants. Campaigns usually involve a politician showing up, dishing out money and driving off in his black sunglasses in a heavily guarded car. Bonnie however handed out these:

They are his manifesto printed out on paper fashioned to resemble Kenyan currency with the headline “Nitapigana na Corruption (I will fight Corruption)”. These printouts are ingenious and would inspire many Kenyans to share them out as a joke and a political statement. His campaign path is a picture of his loudest critics turned supporters.

I wish him all the best in the upcoming election. His win would be symbolic. The dawn of a new era of politics by merit and purpose. Creation of a new culture. A culture of unity and community.

The revolution will not be televised. It will be tweeted, one joke at a time.

A luta começa!

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