August 22, 2023
From Ukombozi Review (Kenya)


Kenya’s urban youth are tech-savvy and digitally connected in various ways. This has allowed them to connect seamlessly and exchange ideas over different social media platforms, while artistically producing artwork in the form of memes. A meme can be defined as an image, video, piece of text, etc. – typically humorous in nature – that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations. Originally, a meme was considered as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that could be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

In the past decade, memes have evolved from being created to only evoke humor but also to ridicule and criticize the government, social institutions, and society at large. The Covid-19 pandemic played a key role in catalyzing the rapid evolution of memes as people were locked down in their homes with most of them spending time on phones and televisions.

Evolution of Memes as a tool for political artivism

Memes have recently spilt out of the boundaries of humor to become tools for satire and open criticism. This is a departure from their usage in the past as expressions of humor. They now combine art and activism to bear online artivism. During the Covid-19 lockdown and curfew, pictures and short videos were shared on Whatsapp, Twitter, Tiktok, Facebook, and Instagram among other social media platforms. During this period, the government bore the brunt of the backlash from angry citizens on some of their directives that were not well thought out; such as working from home for casual laborers and frequent washing of hands while some places were affected by water rationing. Citizens also vented over the misuse of Covid-19 donations and corruption among other scandals perpetuated by the state during the period. Netizens (as these heavy users of the internet are usually referred to) took advantage of the Covid–19 containments to produce thousands of memes expressing their anger on different issues albeit in a satirical manner.

Recently, social media platforms have been flooded with memes bearing inscriptions such as ‘Zakayo shuka’ which translates to climb down Zacchaeus. This is a reference to President William Ruto who has been likened to the biblical Zacchaeus, a proverbial ruthless tax collector who used his power and position to oppress the poor by collecting more than was required of him. Through the Finance Bill 2023, the ruling government has introduced a punitive taxation regime that is unrivaled in the recent history of this country.  This comes a few months after the scrapping of all subsidy programmes that were cushioning mwananchi through post covid-19 economic shocks, inflation, and the ripple effects of the war between Russia and Ukraine. When other countries are coming up with programmes to cushion their citizens, Ruto’s government has stripped Kenyans naked and hanged them in the open to be scorched by the sun, tossed by unrelenting winds, and to be numbed by the biting cold. The regime has proposed to tax content creators 5% despite this being a nascent industry in the country that requires more protection and nurturing than impediments. This is akin to planting thorns, potholes, and bumps on a pathway for a baby trying to make first steps after managing to stand on own feet.

Towards this endeavor, memes are being used to offer constructive criticism to our system of governance, leadership, and democracy in Kenya. In addition, they are being used by the youth to express themselves on taboo topics such as sex and sexuality without the risk of a physical backlash.

Use of memes in the depoliticization of national debates

On the flipside, however, other than the humor and political artivism, memes have become tools for the depoliticization of serious national issues and debates. This trend is on the rise with pro-government bloggers using this as a tactic to water down, dilute and divert netizens’ attention from serious issues facing Kenyans. Kenyans on Twitter, dubbed “KOT,” have been known to be a fierce and amorphous group who engage head on in any issue or issues of national interest, including against government agencies, and officials. They also engage in heated debates with netizens of other nationalities on different issues.  Smart operatives within the government know how memes can be used in the socio-engineering of the people, especially the tech-savvy urban youth and have been deploying them to their advantage. They have done this using government-sponsored bloggers who operate under pseudo-accounts whenever the heat gets too much. During Saba Saba March for our lives in 2020, the hashtag was hijacked by pro-government bloggers. These bloggers distorted the message of the Social Justice Movement that was all about petitioning the government of the day to lower the high cost of living and reign in on police brutality during Covid-19 lockdown. Through humorous memes and distortion of facts, these bloggers spread propaganda that human rights activists were marching to State House to thank the president for the good work he had done to alleviate poverty and suffering in the country.

When the government gets a backlash from KOT, memes are created to make light of the issues being discussed by diluting the conversation and diverting people’s attention to nonsensical issues. This distraction enables the government to avoid addressing serious issues in the country. For instance, a trending thread on Twitter or a story is hijacked by pseudo-accounts and diluted through sharing short hilarious videos or artfully crafted photos to generate humor. The distorting memes are then pushed online to spread like wildfire and before long, people get more engaged in sharing the memes rather than discussing the serious issues and demanding accountability.

Memes as escapism and laughing at our problems

Most Kenyans are said to be a resilient people who after falling, get up then quickly dust themselves off and move on with their lives. This trait has made it possible for many to bounce back in spite of the numerous lows we have had as a country. However, this seemingly admirable quality has hampered the development of our country. How we easily brush off serious issues and move on is a big problem. This norm does not allow citizens to reflect deeply on the intensity and repercussions of a given issue but rather move on without getting to the root cause of the issue. We have designed ways to cosmetically gloss over critical matters by wearing happy face masks to cover our angry, sad and depressed faces. Effectively, we skip some steps in the grieving process which does not allow proper healing as we do not take time to get angry and process whatever has happened before accepting and moving on. This is similar to covering a septic wound without treating it and expecting it to heal.

This insidious quality gives Kenyans a sense of false confidence – many Kenyans as a result pride themselves on having a thick skin against all manner of poison. They feel like they can withstand anything thrown at them by the solipsistic ruling elite and the market forces without protest. They believe, in a prideful manner, that they are tough going. This culture largely contributes to the problem of not standing up against corrupt or incompetent regimes by brushing off important issues. This has encouraged the tendency for Kenyans to make jokes out of their misery and laugh loudly about it. This way, memes have blinded Kenyans from feeling a righteous indignation and thus failing to demand better from our leaders and government. Courtesy of memes, we have found easy escape routes out of our problems like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand and expects everything to be fine.

Most revolutions in the world, past and present, have been borne out of anger from repression and exploitation by the ruling class. This anger was let to boil and to reach its cusp moment through infusion of radical ideology which was channeled against oppressors and the system.


Kenyans need liberation from the socio-economic and political morass that the country has sunk into. The burden to carry out this liberation lies with the youth who make up about 75% of the country’s population. Kenyan youth are currently suppressed through over-taxation, unemployment, marginalization in leadership, mental health challenges, drugs and substance abuse. This is being done by an oppressive regime and an exploitative system that rewards tribalism, cronyism, and corruption at the expense of meritocracy.  If the youth channel their anger, energy, and creativity into organizing and mobilizing amongst themselves, they can bring the radical change that is needed in this country. It is upon us to come out of our comfort zones and behind our keyboards, organize and mobilize to demand a better country. Even if we use memes as a tactic, we need to be ideologically clear and avoid being swallowed into nonsensical aberrations. I conclude with Frantz Fanon’s words that “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

*Gathanga Ndung’u is a social justice activist with Mathare Social Justice Centre, political organizer with Revolutionary Socialist League, and writer with Kenya Organic Intellectual’s Network

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