“What’s Up?” – African Social Media, That’s What’s Up!


Two weeks ago, I was invited to Kenya for a strategic planning meeting with Lutheran World Federation (LWF) to prepare for the 2017 Celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

During my visit, I had several conversations about the churches in Africa, as well as the role of social media. I could write a book about it, probably, but instead I want to focus on one particular conversation I had with a taxi driver.

This man, whose name was never given but for the sake of the post we’ll call him Jonah, grew up in a small village outside of Nairobi. Jonah asked me about why I was in Kenya, and after I explained that I handle the communications for a church organization he jumped into a conversation about how social media is starting to spread in Africa.

Jonah explained that the app “What’s Up” is now more popular in Africa than Facebook. The app is a free messaging service that allows you to have a profile and now send photos and videos using wifi or phone data. When I came to Africa in 2011 on Semester At Sea, smart phones were growing in the states, but in Africa most people had regular flip phones or slider phones. Now, almost everyone has a smart phone. I was in Soweto and an 11 year old was carrying a Samsung brand smart phone.

I told Jonah that in America there are so many apps for meeting people now that some people don’t even leave their homes. I used Tinder as an example of how people are using it rather than going to bars to search for a companion. People can hide behind apps, profile pictures, tweets, bios, likes, and profiles so that they never have to leave home to make friends in person. Jonah explained that Africans may be using more apps and social media but the importance of community is at the centre of their culture. So, as Americans are priding themselves on individuality, African are priding themselves on community. Jonah said people still go out to bars and events to meet new people, and probably will continue to because it’s such a huge part of their culture. I really hope that he’s right.

In Africa, most people live in other countries or cities from where they grew up so that they can work. This makes social media even more critical to their community life. The apps and platforms they use are mainly messaging and photo sharing tools, rather than dating apps like Tinder.

The contrast is refreshing, but there is a fear in me that Africans will be swept up by the hype and begin losing the aspect of community that is so important to their culture by the new technology offered.

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Author: allihoff

An asthmatic ginger searching for justice & peace in the redwood trees with coffee in one hand, a pen in the other, and Switchfoot playing in the background.