It’s a thirty-minute commute from Nairobi’s CBD to Ruiru, but the traffic makes it forty-five. I’m meeting Blaze, stylized as @B3laze on Twitter, to talk to him on his de facto role as one of Kenyan Twitter’s most prominent young, male voices. We are meeting at Smash, a clean, tiny coffee shop just off the Nairobi-Thika highway. I’m stirring my tea to the deafening sound of bus and truck horns as Blaze finishes a phone call.
Smash is the quintessential Nairobi coffee house, well-lit, fairly priced and it offers free Wi-Fi. Seated across me in the booth, it hits me how big he is, literally and figuratively, 5’11”, 85 Kgs in the real world, and close to 100,000 followers in the virtual one. Long, thick locs and a healthy beard that wouldn’t look out of place on the head of a Jamaican reggae artiste. Deep-set eyes that would win a staring contest, all these on a canvas of ebony skin. For a moment, he looks more like a model than a thought leader. Only that Blaze, James Maina, is Kenyan and anything but a singer or a voyeur. He’s a fitness and branding aficionado, who drinks more black coffee and makes more tweets a day than Amerix’s followers take cold baths.
On Twitter, Kenya’s second-most popular social media site (only behind Facebook), Kenyans, and especially the youth have found their digital oasis. Here, unlike the reality that most of them live in, they can create, define, and express their existence, even if it’s virtual and available for the few hours spent online daily. On Twitter, a police service that is above reproach on the streets has the top cop answerable to them on Mondays, celebrities worth millions of dollars can be harangued for not releasing new music, and powerful individuals and corporations can be ‘cancelled’ and lose their standing in society, along with financial and other opportunities when they don’t choose their words that go into their tweets, or the actions that inform said tweets, carefully. It’s the mob carrying torches and pitchforks all over again, only that this time the pitchforks are hashtags and the torches are buzzwords. Quick, instant justice. How fair is it? Very few care about the integrity of the whole process, as long as a semblance of justice is dispensed.
Although the chaos that exists in real Kenyan life also exists on #KOT, (Kenyans On Twitter) with numerous cases of mudslinging, blackmailing, and increasing amounts of bullying, it is more predictable than the actual Kenyan society. It is on the streets of Nairobi, Thika, Kapseret, and Ndhiwa, and other Kenyan towns where rising crime rates mean children are being abducted daily. It is largely #KOT that circulates the posters of missing children more than any other platform. It is in rivers and far-flung morgues where the victims of police killer squads show up. It is mostly through #KOT that justice is demanded, (and sometimes achieved). It is in the county assemblies and government offices where electoral promises go to die and corruption is born, raised, and unleashed on the general population. It is mostly #KOT that turns up the heat, and which proved too much, even for the country’s autocratic president. Twitter alone isn’t the panacea for Kenya’s many social, moral, intellectual, and financial issues, but it’s one of the few instances of Kenyans working together to find solutions for problems that successive governments have refused to fix.
On #KOT, the credentials of a seasoned, Oxford-educated economist can be questioned by just about anyone with a Twitter handle, and politician’s children demand and beg for the elusive white tick of verification. Yet it is where Blaze, and other #KOT youth, like @Osama, @JeffreyJeff, @CrazyNairobian, @Droid, @Karigoh, @QueenGathonie and others have made names, and careers for themselves. #KOT is a virtual shark tank if ever there was one, very aesthetically pleasing from the outside until you’re tossed inside and thousands of troll accounts go for the kill. I ask Blaze about one of the projects he’s working on, a brand visibility gig for a recently-launched alcoholic drink, and how it landed on his to-do list. “I know a person who knows a person”, he says in between laughs. He laughs a lot. It’s a good laugh though, the kind that I don’t mind at all. Knowing someone who knows someone is integral to your success in Nairobi, virtually and in reality. These connections open doors, get cheques signed, get you inside Smash, picking Blaze’s brains.
Then Blaze stirs his coffee and talks to me about where he’s from.
Njoro is the nearest major town from Mwigito, where he was born, 28 years ago. Where he was named James and raised, decades before he was Blaze. Where he attended nursery school, a curious little boy that always got late to class because the route to school was filled with interesting things that needed to be explored; to be touched, to be smelled, and to be stared at. An old book I read, (and old books always have wise words) said there remains a piece of where we grew up, existing in our lives forever; the way we roll our tongues around certain words because of the accent our parents and neighbours used while they spoke to us, the scars, physical and emotional, that we carry around as proof of residence, the people we say hello to, and those we ignore because of what they did to, and didn’t do for us. If you look around close enough you’ll see what home means. The cathedral in your baby pictures where you learned your Hail Marys, the dusty pitch where you played football but is now an ‘executive’ flat, that neighbour whose stare made you afraid to be left alone with him. Home, the good, the bad and the ugly.
For Blaze, home is Mwigito, a sleepy little town, in the Rift Valley. Where the mornings are so cold you can see the warm air leaving your lungs in the morning. A town made up of hardworking people who have learned how to care for the land and livestock well enough that they have never gone hungry. Men, women, and children who mostly have dreams of tilling the land, growing fat maize cobs, raising cows whose tits flow with milk the way the streams gush with water, and plump chicken that lay enough eggs to feed the babies. All these, so that they have enough to sell and take care of themselves, their children, and their pastors, but not much else. People whose faces and bodies live with regret and unfulfillment as constant companions, if he was ever to judge. That was never the life Blaze wanted, even as a child.
“I knew nobody was coming to save me from an early age,” he says as he licks a straying droplet of coffee on the side of his cup, “and that I had to save myself”. Blaze talks slowly, softly. Only raising his voice when he is laughing, which he says is mostly at himself, and the situations he finds himself in. He delivers his words with a matter-of-factness that is rooted in a sturdy sense of self-belief. In a village that was a microcosm of the world, being a well-behaved, religious young person is more of an obligation than an expectation. You or your family going off that well-beaten, predictable path, where your parents and their parents walked, can be seen as rebellion. And rebellion has consequences, no matter how young or deserving you think you are.
“I was a very brilliant kid, by all counts, and if there was any community initiative to assist me, I qualified”, he tells me. At the time, his family needed help. They weren’t poor, but they weren’t doing too well either. Blaze’s father, who would pass away when Blaze was 13, wasn’t much of a churchgoer, and on the day they buried him, the presiding pastor made it known that the departed man, on account of missing church, was never going to heaven. To break such insensitive, unfounded allegations to a pubescent boy and his two younger sisters on what was till then, the saddest day of their lives was the beginning of the end of his relationship with religion.
It’s an example of how religious leaders in most African regions wield distressing amounts of power. They are often all-powerful demigods that can be the reason individuals or communities are ostracized, the reason they are celebrated, the reason they go to church, or like in Blaze’s and many millennials’ instance, the reason they lose interest. The hypocrisy within most African churches stinks worse than an unclean pigsty. Men of God, and those that support them; financially, intellectually, physically, sexually, and socially are, in the eyes of church and society, incapable of sin. It’s a feature that is exported to the family, social and political unit. You can get away with anything if you are the head of that unit, and anyone speaking against you is out to sow discord, regardless of how much evidence they have of your wrongdoing. Hence the reason why most Kenyans and Africans are unable to speak out even when it’s clear things are going off the tracks. The people in power; politicians, religious leaders, parents, have Kenyans exactly where they want them. A reason why he says he’d never participate in street protests, the Stockholm Syndrome in most Kenyans is too strong; they will fight you for trying to save them from their oppressors.
One day when Blaze was about 11, he’d attended the church play rehearsals religiously (pun intended), learning the verses, learning who goes before and after him, learning the cue and gestures, and he knew the play would wow the audience all the way in Molo where they’d perform it. Then the Friday before the show, he was inexplicably cut off from the travelling cast. No explanation. Other than he couldn’t come tomorrow, to something that belonged to him as much as it did to those that had made the cut. Even when you’re 11, it breaks your spirit and makes you question a lot of things. Like the humanity of the person making the call, or the justice of it all, especially in a house of God. And slowly, your disassociation with religion begins. Getting things stolen from them is something most Kenyans are used to; phones in traffic, tokens by the power company, elections every five years, their dignity, dreams, and ambitions by cruel, incompetent governments. In Blaze’s case he walked out after the news, the rain falling into the Mwigito sky not a deterrent in his quest to go home, far away from this wretched place, and he disappeared into the night. Accept and move on, you compartmentalize the pain easier and faster that way.
I ask Blaze about his favorite movie. It’s ‘Fight Club’, the 1999 psych thriller starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. It’s a cinematic classic, with extremely dark themes. The dialogue is top-tier, the casting is faultless and the plot has as many twists as there are in a corruption case in a Kenyan court. Blaze likes his humour like he drinks his coffee; dark AF (he says ‘As Fuck’ a lot too btw). On Twitter, he routinely slides in ‘lmao’ and ‘hahaha’ comments at what other people would consider too sacred to even consider laughing at. Like pastors asking for tithe from an already-poor congregation, or young men starving themselves to impress women who run off with their preferred catch, or young women falling for the same type of man they call out as toxic. I wonder if he’s a sadist or someone who prefers to take his truths neat, with no chaser.
Back to the movie.
My favourite scene in the movie is the speech that Tyler (Brad Pitt) gives to the men in the basement of a club, and part of it goes like this, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history. No purpose or place. We have no Great War, No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” The transcript has become a rallying call for Gen X as much it is for Millenials. Most people identify the movie through that clip when there are so many other gems scattered throughout the movie. My personal favourite? The quote, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”. Really, think about it, how much?
Like most people growing up in deprived neighbourhoods, school wasn’t much of a break for Blaze either. Mwigito Primary, where he attended his primary education, finished bottom of all the prefered matrixes and topped all the unwanted ones. Low transition rates to high school, poor KCSE performance, dilapidated infrastructure, unmotivated teachers; the odds were stacked against you immediately your parent handed you over to the teachers at the staffroom, and you were then largely left to your own devices. Teachers from surrounding schools, Egerton and Kilimo, which were better staffed and endowed, lasted only weeks before they wanted a transfer out of Mwigito, and it was mostly the insiders that found the mediocrity normal.
I ask Blaze what kept him going when most people would have given up and refused to swim against the tide. “Books,” he says, “I would read anything I could get my hands on. Lumumba and Malcolm X’s biography, Tintin, Reader’s Digest”. He reads voraciously, Blaze. If he’d have a podcast, it would be about books, and reviewing the ones he liked most. He tells me that the beauty about books is that they expand your worldview, let you into a world where, as a child in sleepy, old Mwigito, children in the books have rooms of their own, they can question their parents when they feel they are being oppressed, where dreams of being a computer scientist aren’t labelled as stupid but as achievable.
As his grasp of issues increased, a teenage Blaze would read ‘Awake’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses because of the way it linked science and religion, and to also find whether the cure to his aching teeth lay in the books that he had access to. It probably had to do with the groundwater in the areas around Nakuru that over the years that have been found to have high fluoride levels. The WHO allows 1.5 mg/litre of fluoride and most of the areas around Nakuru have way more than that. This leads to dental or skeletal fluorosis, which can damage bones and joints, and cause stained teeth. In normal, functional countries this would have been fixed decades ago, but Kenya isn’t a normal country, and even as a child, you must find ways to escape. For Blaze, he was losing himself in books, and more books.
Later these books, and the standard-issue government books that taught a syllabus that hadn’t been updated since the 80s, would help him pass his KCPE. His grades earned him a place at Menengai, a school he desperately wanted to attend to leave Mwigito behind. When you read about how many opportunities and options lie elsewhere, you want to do all you can to leave. Unfortunately, like many intelligent but deprived children in Kenya, the family bank account could only pay for the local secondary school, Kilimo High School, not a bad school by any standards, but still, it wasn’t Menengai. Fortunately, he knew what brought him to school, and even if there were girls, folded love letters, teenage heartbreaks, and the childish competition for almost everything with classmates who didn’t understand why he was smarter than them, (books kids, try reading more books) he qualified for university.
“I got employed literally the day I finished my KCSE”, there’s that laugh again, this time it’s a glint in his eyes, it’s like even if he types on a Macbook now, and does his works online, not much physical exertion, he misses those simpler times. Ksh 150 a day. Cleaning tables. Washing dishes. Being an all-round worker. Resting only when the last plate had been cleaned and it was time to head on home. He worked for a week, saved up and bought a mattress, and ‘bounced’ from home. He likes that word, bounce, meaning he took off, either never to return or to return tomorrow. It’s Blaze, he uses words the way he wants, they convey this message this minute and another the next minute. And so he bounced to his new place. Away from home, 17, fresh-faced and naïve. The guy who got him that job at the restaurant was street smart, “I learned a lot from him” as he declines my offer of a soda. It’s hot outside and I order a Fanta. Blaze doesn’t do sodas, only coffee, unrestrained tweets, and old-school smileys to his lady friends on his timeline, [a full colon : ) and the outside of a bracket].
Six months of waiting tables taught him patience, the value of hard work, independence, and the dignity of having your own money. And human decency, he’s easily one of the most polite, stand up guys I have met this year. Most importantly, he learned that even if you are late to work because you were at a vigil for a friend that lost a loved one, you’ll still get fired. The juggernaut of capitalism rolls on, even in the face of death, disability due to company incompetence, mental instability due to being overworked and underpaid, it rolls on. I found that sad, firing a teenager when it could have been a great teaching moment, until Blaze gave me another story. Another thing with Blaze is that he has a story for almost all occasions; being fired, being rich, being broke, heartbreaks, nonchalance, all of them. This story was about when during a trip from Ruiru to town, the driver took a detour to beat traffic, and this meant a worker in a factory along Thika Road was stuck in the matatu, running late for work. The man, middle-aged, who looked like he was in his late thirties, started sobbing, not in his palms or hiding it, but rather full-blown crying because he couldn’t imagine being late by even five minutes. [If the Labour and Transport Ministers ever read this, please fix the jobs and roads sector, Kenyans are suffering cha ukwelo]
After the restaurant job ended, there was a stint at a pool table, which didn’t last long, and another job typing assignments.
Smh, an efficient NYS would have been great in that gap year,youth learn a new skill as they pick up life skills.
Back to the story, that’s when the text to join Kenyatta University, (KU) came, and he bounced. Took off for Nairobi. Leaving Mwigito, where everyone around him knew each other, was mostly polite and genuine, for Nairobi, can have the first few years feeling like you’ve been thrown into the deep end of a pool with no floating device. Luckily for Blaze, he could swim, very, very well. So well that one of the first things he did when he matriculated was to join the swim team. Mwigito is cold, and the expansive fields of K.U felt hot AF, so to cool off, he’d go swimming. Over time, the Ksh 20/= swimming entrance fee became a hindrance, and in typical Blaze fashion, he found a solution for it. Members of the swim team didn’t pay the swimming charges, and he went for the tryouts, qualified and at the height of his powers, was one of the best breaststrokers, (pun not intended) in East Africa. Not bad for a shy boy from Mwigito who’d swim in rivers with no coaches when his competitors had swimming pools, kits, scholarships, and dedicated coaches.
And with a semester left until graduation, he decided to make the figurative deep end of Nairobi, with its exorbitant rental prices, delayed payments by service providers, and erratic power supply, his stomping ground. Nairobi has been good to him. Sometimes. Like when there are branding and consultancy gigs, and he can pay coding classes for his daughter, (he’s very guarded about her, understandably). Most times, it’s the proverbial school of hard knocks, where most interactions, social or business is a lesson waiting to happen. He says he feels he’s learned a lot about the city and its inhabitants. So much that he’d want to take a psychology course when he goes back to school. I ask him about his mental health and what he does to stay on top of things. He tells me that’s where the gym comes in
If you divide Blaze’s tweets into sections, the largest section would be about his gains, then anecdotes about himself and retweets of self-employed youth trying to reach his 84,000 followers, (that’s almost as many people as there are in Subukia Constituency in Nakuru in case you needed context).
For most Kenyan youth, their mental health is linked to a lack of disposable income, which is due to the high instances of unemployment. Joblessness is a key theme on #KOT, so much that there’s a hashtag for it, #IkoKaziKE. Kenya’s youth unemployment is worrying, and official statistics of a 10% unemployment rate from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics only scratch the surface if you ask most HR managers. Up until a month ago when he quit due to what he termed as personal reasons, Blaze edited CVs for people, and he was good at it, at least 3,000 edited CVs should tell you enough about the demand for his services. Part of his clientele ranged from first-time job seekers, established celebrities, and private sector workers & civil servants looking for promotions or better jobs. This self-taught skill is a testament to his obsession with learning new things to an expert level; he spends hours watching DIY Youtube videos, attending seminars, webinars, voraciously reading Twitter threads, pdfs, and actual books. That’s a thing Kenyan youth have to get good at, being skilled at multiple jobs to either earn a side income, or to remain competitive in the job market.
Now, to avoid creating an account on Onlyfans, he markets a beard oil care brand he co-founded called Noir Gold, and does brand visibility gigs on Twitter and for clients. He’s had his personal disaster management to do online when his nudes leaked last year. In typical Blaze fashion, he owned them, and declared them his ‘artwork’, “Taking the power away from the leakers” he said. I asked him, as we left Smash, whether he was lucky that he was a man, as most women who get their nudes leaked need more than owning them to get over the stigma that society enforces. He agrees with me, and I have my topic for the next day.
The sun is out shining, and the traffic is much smoother, and I make it in exactly 27 minutes. I watch highlights of the Olympics on TV as Blaze makes his way to Smash. A Kenyan boxer is getting his head bashed in but I love his never-give-up spirit, and even when he loses, he’s very gracious in defeat and even gives his interview in sheng. I like this salt of the earth man, speaking sheng, Nairobi’s lingua franca on one of the world’s biggest stages. None of that struggling-with-a-foreign language stuff. Much like #KOT is evolving to, tweets in Luo that don’t mean the author is being tribal, but expressing themselves the best way they know how. Or how Wakadinali, the most Twitter-savvy of all Kenyan hiphop acts, has built a massive movement detailing their lives on fast beats and in hard-core sheng. I dig into my chapati and tea, do to it what a lion at the Mara does to a gazelle that ran too slow.
I’m mid-munch when Blaze walks in, slugging a gym bag, a backpack, and hand luggage. He looks like he’s touched down from the Olympics himself, his swimming days at K.U left him many medals and the physique of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures, just a bit bulkier. He says hi and asks for a coffee. We catch up on small talk about his other product visibility gig, a topless swimming shoot that will be surely a hit with the ladies, and men looking to get a chiseled body like his. In case you’re wondering, he smells like Old Spice and the smoky, woody aroma of black coffee.
Later we talk about being a man in modern times. “Men are seeking answers”, he says as we talk about the recent influx across social media, especially Youtube and Twitter, of men who are positioning themselves as experts on masculinity. These men, wildly controversial as they are popular, have found millions of men who are seeking answers to questions that previously, nobody had the interest, or guts, to answer. From Kevin Samuels in America, to Amerix and Andrew Kibe here in Kenya, their growing fanbase has followers that hang on to their every word, just as their detractors trash their opinions and thoughts on women and the social hierarchy of the sexes, as borderline or outright misogyny.
“For years, young men have been told to study, work hard, and be ‘good boys’”, says Blaze “now they’re realizing the system shafted them, and they are, very angry”. He laughs again, only this time it isn’t as hearty as his laughs usually are, perhaps even he, cavalier in his regard for the seemingly self-inflicted plight of others, realizes the magnitude of the helplessness of the millions of young men, in Kenya and elsewhere. Young men who feel betrayed by a system that violently takes, takes, and takes some more, and only leaves them scraps that they are then expected to share with their dependants. Dependants who don’t care or understand the changing dynamics of being a 21st-century African man; the unspoken but enforced expectation, through brutal hypergamy, of financial and physical provision. This is coupled with the shrinking opportunities that most men feel are due to ceding ground to hardline feminists, some who term themselves as misandrists, and who feel that for every unique challenge facing men, five privileges make up for it, and so feel nothing for their plight. That the privileges of the wage gap between the sexes favours men, males are the default gender in language and media, have significantly lower chances of rape, violence, and spousal abuse. These privileges should, in the eyes of misandrists, make up for the higher rates of depression, addiction, anger management, suicide, and unfair court decisions regarding divorce and child custody.
It is this state of helplessness, (and most men don’t get sufficient guidance on what to do when ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work), that makes them desperately seek answers; in the comment sections of masculinity forums, in bars, in the football and sports stadia; anywhere they can release their pent-up frustration. Even while offering this advice in the flurry of tweets that he sends regarding how he views the world as a young, black man, Blaze doesn’t want to lead anyone or be compared to anyone. “You cannot hedge your masculinity on another man’s opinion on it”, he says in between fiddling with a toothpick holder, “you can learn from others, borrow ideas, and forge your own version though”. The café has emptied now, and only the waitresses keep us company, standing far enough for us to have a private conversation but near enough in case we need another coffee or water.
I walk away from the conversation with a new light. There are thousands, even millions of young people like Blaze walking these streets. Most have to deal with systems that are designed to keep them functionally illiterate, closed-minded, and unable to entertain new ideas, regardless of how good those ideas are, if they are critical of their existing culture, and this perpetuates a status quo of bad ideas. Is there hope for our young people in Mwigito, in Kayole, in North Horr, those who work in restaurants, earning Ksh 150/= a day, and those who never made it to the K.Us of this side of the world? They are stuck with the societal, fiscal, religious, and cultural expectations of old, while balancing the evolving demands of masculinity, femininity, and humanity in a world that is brutally capitalist, violently sexist, cruelly ableist, and ruthlessly classist. I think the biggest misconception of young people in this country, is that they represent an absence of clear thought, industriousness, patience, intellect, and mental fortitude.
Young people in this country have their faults, but there are many beautiful, inspiring stories of young people winning despite the odds stacked against them, artists creating songs, skits, graffiti, and art that is the visual and sonic heartbeats to our lives. Youth across different social, cultural, economic, and cultural groupings that have married each other, intervened for each other, signed as guarantors, loaned each other, fought, and made up. Not every story is as hopeful as Blaze’s is, coming to Nairobi with very few contacts and building a solid community that resonates with his tweets on slow wifi, fast con artists, black coffee, heavy dumbells, and petite women. But because Blaze has a story for every occasion he has one for me as we wrap up our discussion; in the Roman Empire, victory parades were thrown in honour of victorious generals. Residents would line up the streets and welcome the conquering legions who would return with loot; slaves, precious stones and artifacts, and sacks of valuable coins. The generals would have a slave in the chariots with them, whose job was to periodically whisper into the ears of the general, “Memento mori,”or “remember you will die”, all glory is fleeting, and so is pain.
On the day we shoot the images to go with the text, I listen to his favorite song ‘Codeine Crazy’ by the rapper/singer Future. It’s six minutes of raw, unfiltered emotions on a mournful beat. One of the hardest-working, most misunderstood artists of his generation; it’s little wonder Blaze is a Future stan. 100% or none at all. “Nothing lasts forever, pain or pleasure, enjoy it while you can,” he says, and so Blaze reminds me to always travel light, because the things that one owns, end up owning them.