By Beaton Galafa,
It was 19 January, 2016. President Magufuli bans mini-skirts. At our work place, the discussion took an angle a little different. My friend unknowingly cautioned me of how the masses accept any news without checking the reliability of the source. His argument was, however, leaning towards the fact that the Tanzanian president had risen to fame due to his idiosyncratically-driven reforms.
President Magufuli’s business unusual approach to governance has made the masses fall in love with him. That was why when the news broke out on the internet, we jokingly agreed without reason (joking doesn’t require reason sometimes) that it was perhaps a magulified way of tackling the AIDS pandemic.
Until the Tanzanian government busted the rumour. However, the Dodoma government’s denunciation didn’t go as viral as the rumour itself. We let it pass with some dust still unsettled. I, however, congratulated myself afterwards because I did not fall for the rumour myself. (Though it was a mere coincidence with my busy schedule perhaps).
Then, seven days later, an Eritrean polygamy story popped up. The first thing I thought of wasn’t that it was a lie. I immediately remembered how some demonized countries are always depicted by some media. Either through overt jokes or well-knitted propaganda.
I remembered a story that first appeared on The Sun website on November 26, 2015 about North Korea. They reported that “the secretive nation had issued an order requiring men to keep their hair no longer than 0.8 inches and cut their hair in a similar fashion to their glorious leader’s much-mocked hairstyle.” This story, despite having its reliability pegged almost at zero, managed to make rounds on very established news sites. Similar data is said to usually come largely from a North Korean think-tank. And Radio Free Asia. That’s all. Yet when reports about Pyongyang’s nuclear endeavors come out, it is mostly government figures that are quoted, via Korea PDR’s state broadcaster.
It sounds peccant to consider why one would spend time talking about rumours, half-truths and lies about countries on the internet. But silence on it is even more peccable. We must not underestimate the footprints these stories leave on the minds of the internet users. People cannot just sit down and make up stories just for fun. Even cartoons come with a motive that is embedded in the fun. But it shapes the audience’s perception by and by. Take the Magufuli story for example. The denunciation by the government wasn’t any viral because it did not have the element of fun that the lie had. A lot of people who got the lie never got the government’s reaction. We never discussed it at our work place either. A lot of people still have it in mind that President Magufuli banned mini-skirts in Tanzania.
About the North Korean story, the only way we get Pyongyang news is through the western and pro-western media (Thanks to them though for constantly reminding us of the existence of a small Chinese neighbor). It is the same media that has always portrayed North Korean leaders after the Korean War simply as mad Dr. Evils. Every news item about North Korea makes the leaders look stupid. (I’m not in any way implying the contrary, but I understand how normal it is for your enemies to stupefy you so you lose legitimacy in people’s perceptions of your reasoning). That should’ve been the case behind the Magufuli mini-skirt hoopla. Some should start hating him. (I’m 100% certain some young women and girls world over already cursed him after reading the news).
These force stories are part of a psychological warfare. They come as jokes but the ideas remain.
The Eritrean lie, though many are realizing it was a hoax, will stay in the minds of many. Don’t trust the amusement with which young men have received the lie. It is all sarcasm. Behind it are men seriously pondering on what cruelty would force a government to force its people into such an act. Though some religions allow polygamy, it is not compulsory. The consequence of such mind manipulation is that even after Eritreans have expressed shock over such malice, their disgust against the lie will not be counted by many because it is not as amusing as the lie.
You should closely look at the reasons they are giving in that story. A muse into it by an Eritrean brother gives clue as to what the motive behind the joke can be. The idea is to create an impression that Eritrea is emptied out of her youth as an aftermath of both the Ethiopia-Eritrea war at the dawn of 2000 and the reported mass emigration. Everyone who knows how vital youths are in driving the economy of any country will soon realize how serious the creators of this joke were.
This joke is also religious sensitive. Since man cannot be divorced from religion, the very moment the story appeared on the internet, some looked at it from a religious angle. If true, it would be an infringement to those whose dominions don’t allow polygamy. Christians don’t. A majority of the population of Eritrea adheres to Abrahamic religions with roughly about 50% of them being Christian and the other 50% Muslim. The idea is to tempt us into thinking that non-Muslims in Eritrea are on fire. That is not correct.
Those spreading these lies are therefore a very organized group of people. It is systematic. It is not just for the fun. It might, however, be just one or two who are serious about it with the others just copying because they don’t have stories worth attracting traffic (or they find the stories just fun as they look).
As African youths, I would encourage us to consider any such content before we immediately jump into the frenzy of spreading the joke to the extent that we appear to own it. We might not notice it immediately but these stories will slowly cater for negative perceptions about other countries that are far from truth. There are people who have never had any perception, good or bad, towards Eritrea who now think it’s some place where men can be forced to marry at least two wives. This is what we must hate.
Beaton Galafa is a Pan-Africanist and activist from Malawi. He can be reached through his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/galafa