Many of those who follow news on the Kenyan scene in Rwanda and the region will remember the Githeri Man.
During Kenya’s August general elections, the dishevelled Nairobi County worker whose real name is Martin Kamotho stood in line to cast his vote in Dandora in the city’s Eastlands. He wore as he normally would – an oversized, well-worn brown coat or jacket that might have been tweed, rumpled trousers of a somewhat similar colour and a black chequered shirt with a scruffy collar.
Under normal circumstances, despite his attire, he would not have stood out in the neighbourhood, except for what he had in his hand – a popular, cheap staple of boiled maize and beans called githeri packed in a transparent polythene bag he was nonchalantly eating from, as he peered ahead to gauge the length of the line waiting his turn.
That was the exact posture he was captured by an amused voter who took his photograph.
By the end of that day, Kamotho was humorously trending as a meme on social media under the hashtag #Githeriman photo bombing celebrity scenes locally and around the world. He could be seen together with Kenyan presidential opponents who were in hearty laughter, made to look in mirth because of him with his githeri.
He also could be seen holding hands with a clearly smitten Kim Kardashian; with Obama at the White House; with Donald Trump; with various local celebrities, and in various other humorous situations.
In that short time, #Githeriman became a jocular news sensation picked up by all media houses, which remarked how he served as comic relief in the tense aftermath of the Kenyan elections.
However, completely ignorant of the subtleties digital media when the press finally traced him for interviews a couple of days later still dressed as he was had on election day, Kamotho told a journalist with amused bewilderment, “I have never even been on a plane yet here is a picture of me standing behind the US President; that really amazed me.”
Soon business corporations saw the opportunity for publicity in national media networks. A designer clothes outlet dressed him with a new wardrobe of tasteful attire; a mobile phone company presented him with a high end smart phone; and, among others, a land company gave him a plot of land.
Then the significance turned to social marketing with an environmental message against use of plastic bags, this time with a meme of the #Githeriman photoshopped clutching a biodegradable paper bag.
Within a week, the now dapper and spruced up Kamotho had become a celebrity with more than 10,000 Instagram followers.
This brings me to the 9th National Media Dialogue held in Kigali last week, coinciding with Rwanda’s observation of Africa Day of Information under the theme, “Positioning African media in the digital era.”
One of the major concerns discussed was the impact of the digital technology to the profitability and relevance of mainstream media outlets.
Reconcile this with the fact that radio remains the most popular medium and has proliferated with FM stations at the community level across the region and Africa, with most, if not all, of the stations having a webpage or social media account on Facebook and Twitter.
While there have been concerns about dwindling profitability with mainstream media everywhere, it won’t be a stretch to suggest that #Githeriman phenomenon demonstrates a nexus that has necessarily developed between digital platforms and traditional media.
It illustrates how social media has at times been setting the agenda with an item that mainstream media cannot avoid capturing for mass consumption.
Such is how it may steal the show. Recognising this, many of the major media outlets have taken to summarizing any manner of quirky events on the internet or Twitter-storms provoked by public personalities and celebrities on any subject, trivial or significant, and packaging them in special TV or radio programmes and newspaper columns in the region mainly targeting the youth.
The development is already a fait accompli, especially backed up by internet adoption figures by the International Telecommunication Union. Its 2017 statistics show how adoption by youth aged 15-24 years is nearly double the general population in Africa at 40.3 percent against 21.8 per cent respectively.
However, as experts were quoted advising at the Kigali media dialogue, the bigger challenge currently in the region is not necessarily digital technologies eating into the profits, but enhancing the skills-set, professionalism and gearing business models to be better prepared when the technological tide eventually turns on the back of increasing digital adoption.
#Githeriman showed a bit of who, and where we are currently.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.