“After platinum, albums go Makmende”
“They once made a makmende toilet paper, but there was a problem: It wouldn’t take shit from anybody!!!”
“Makmende hangs his clothes on a safaricom line and when they dry he stores them in a flashdisk!”
If those simple truths don’t make sense to you, you’re probably not a Kenyan blogger. For the past few days, Kenya’s blogosphere and twitterers have been in thrall to the latest African superhero, and what might be Kenya’s first viral internet meme. An article in a Wall Street Journal blog today confirmed that Makmende is receiving attention beyond East Africa, demonstrating that our Kenyan friends are just as capable as any Moldovan boy band of creating internet buzz.
The video for Just a Band’s single “Ha-He” features a badass protagonist straight out of blaxploitation films. Armed with an array of freeze-frame kung fu moves, Makmende brings justice to the mean streets of a hazy, sun-drenched city that seems caught somewhere between Nairobi and 1970s LA. Tongue is firmly in cheek, as the video credits introduce characters including “Taste of Daynjah”, “Wrong Number” and bad guys “The Askyua Matha Black Militants”.
archer at Mwanamishale fills the rest of us in on the meaning of the term, Makmende:
Makmende was a term used way back in the early to mid 1990s to refer to someone who thinks he’s a superhero. For example, if a boy who’s watched one too many kung-fu movies on TV decides to unleash his newly acquired combat skills, he would be asked “Unajidai Makmende, eh?” (Who do you think you are, Makmende?) Trust me, there was a Makmende in every hood!
Given the high production values of the video, the fact that it accompanies a sweet track from Just a Band, and that the video producers evidently released a set of photoshopped magazine covers featuring Makmende as GQ’s sole “Badass of the Year”, perhaps it’s not surprising that Kenyan netizens have taken the Makmende trend to the next level. He’s got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a dedicated website filled with thousands of testimonies to his badassitude: “Makmende uses viagra in his eyedrops, just to look hard.”
The obvious parallel is Chuck Norris Facts, an internet meme that manifested mostly through image macros that attest to the action star’s manliness. (“Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.”) For now, the Makmende phenomenon appears to be largely text-based, with Kenyans around the world connecting the events of the day to Makmende’s movements: “is the massive pour in Nairobi as a result of Makmende’s tear after the WSJ feature?”
What he doesn’t have is a Wikipedia page. I searched this morning on the English-language Wikipedia and got a page telling me that Makmende had been deleted:
* 00:37, 24 March 2010 Flyguy649 (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (CSD G3: Pure Vandalism)
* 22:53, 23 March 2010 Malik Shabazz (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G12: Unambiguous copyright infringement (CSDH))
* 18:30, 23 March 2010 JoJan (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G1: Patent nonsense, meaningless, or incomprehensible)
Looks like multiple attempts to establish a Makmende page have been shot down. Fair enough – the inclusionist/deletionist argument that’s gripped Wikipedia centers in part on the documentation of ephemeral culture. Perhaps an English language encyclopedia doesn’t need mention of every internet meme… though pages exist for Numa Numa, the song that inspired the viral video, the guy who performed in the viral video, and so on. Perhaps if Makmende reaches the heights of internet fame that memes like Eduard Khil or Back Dorm Boys have achieved, he’ll no longer be “patent nonsense, meaningless or incomprehensible.”
Here’s an interesting puzzle for Wikipedia. Makmende may never become particularly important to English speaking users outside of Kenya. But the phenomenon’s quite important within the Kenyan internet: it’s the first meme I can remember going truly viral and inspiring a wave of participation from Kenyans around the world. I recall a conversation at 2006 Wikimania in Cambridge where (friend and GV editor) Ndesanjo Macha, a major contributor to the Swahili Wikipedia, explained that the topics covered in that wikipedia were likely to be different from those included in the English wikipedia. (More articles on east African culture, less on Pokemon, perhaps.) Indeed, the Wikipedias in Gaelic, Welsh and Plattdüütsch are cultural projects as much as attempts to make key reference materials available, as most speakers of these languages are fluent in other languages that have much larger Wikipedias.
Most Wikipedians seemed to accept the idea that different languages and cultures might want to include different topics in their encyclopedias. But what happens when we share a language but not a culture? Is there a point where Makmende is sufficiently important to English-speaking Kenyans that he merits a Wikipedia page even if most English-speakers couldn’t care less? Or is there an implicit assumption that an English-language Wikipedia is designed to enshrine landmarks of shared historical and cultural importance to people who share a language?
For me, Makmende’s a reminder that the internet isn’t as small and connected as we tend to believe it is. We occasionally catch glimpses over cultural walls when we use these tools. Sometimes we respond with fascination and seek to learn more. Often, our behavior’s not as admirable. danah boyd closed her talk on Digital Visibility at Supernova this past year with an uncomfortable observation about racism in Twitter:
Think of those who complained when the Trending Topics on Twitter reflected icons of the black community during the Black Entertainment Television awards. Tweets like: “wow!! too many negros in the trending topics for me. I may be done with this whole twitter thing.” and “Did anyone see the new trending topics? I don’t think this is a very good neighborhood. Lock the car doors kids.” and “Why are all the black people on trending topics? Neyo? Beyonce? Tyra? Jamie Foxx? Is it black history month again? LOL”. These tweets should send a shiver down your spine. Perhaps these people assumed that Twitter was a white-dominant space where blacks were welcome only if they were a minority.
danah goes on to point out that not everyone reacts to encountering topics outside of their comfort sphere with shock or surprise. I found it encouraging that the Wall Street Journal saw the emergence of a Kenyan meme as a chance to explore Kenyan internet culture rather than to turn away in ignorance or disinterest. Let’s hope the next time Makmende seeks a place in Wikipedia, he’s met with a bit more curiosity and less dismissal.
Roughly six seconds after I posted this piece, Twitter users reported a new version of the Makmende article on WIkipedia. Here’s hoping this one survives summary deletion…!