Coming into its own: Youth Activism in Kenya and Botswana

“How dare you?”  raged Greta Thunberg in September 2019, openly confronting world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit for their apathy.  Her rage echoes through the chants and signs of youth demanding change across the world. From the Black Lives Matter Movement in the U.S. to the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, young people are fearlessly at the forefront of activism.

The perfect barometer to measure this is examining online spaces where young people mobilize and amplify call to actions.

The Quilt.AI team analyzed hundreds of data points on social media and search engine behavior,  to understand - what issues resonate with young activists? how do they behave online and what triggers them to action?

The research focuses on activism in eight countries but in this article, we highlight two countries with unique histories: Kenya and Botswana.

A Steady Uprising

In countries with authoritarian regimes where dissent is often dealt with state-sanctioned violence, confronting those with authority is unthinkable. However, young activists dare to do this as issues like climate change and gender based violence (GBV) become alarming.

For example, in Liberia, GBV rose by 50% in the first half of 2020. Last year, Kenya reported a surge of 4,000 teenage pregnancies in five months. Global warming is also disproportionately affecting drought-prone sub-Saharan countries. Since 2012, the region has experienced a 45.6% increase of undernourished people.

A month after Greta Thunberg challenged leaders on a global stage, young activists around the world took on bigger roles. At the UN Security Council's meeting on Silencing the Guns by 2020 initiative, African youth activists demanded inclusion and engagement of youth in achieving a conflict-free Africa.

More telling was Aya Chebbi, the African Union’s Special Envoy on Youth, statement: “African youth — the continent’s most informed, resilient and coolest generation — are hustlers who refuse to resign themselves to the hardships of their situations.” Her speech hints at the rising clusters of activism across the continent that sprouted in response to localized problems ranging from climate change and corruption.

These pockets of collective action take different forms based on each countries' unique challenges. Botswana may be the oldest democracy on the African continent, but it has a short-lived history of activism. A combination of fear from government clamp downs and limited societal acceptance of rebellion create a restricted space of protest. Similarly, in Kenya, which has a long authoritarian history, there is  low tolerance for dissent on the ground. This translates to online spaces, with certain genres of media being tightly policed.

What did our AI tool show?

Young people tend to foreground problems on social media rather than explicit calls-to-action. This provides a captivating narrative and plays well on social media, as against an expository solution which appears less vibrant and engaging.

We ran tweets of Kenyan and Botswana activists through our cultural AI model to identify personality traits and emotions. Some of the top emotions that were detected were fierceness (ferocity), worry and melancholy. The mix of strong, harsh emotions with softer ones such as worry and melancholy indicated that the youngsters were both angry and vulnerable at the same time.

Interestingly, both countries ranked authority-challenging traits as high as cautiousness - being forthright about calling out injustice was as important as exercising restraint owing to the high risk of being targeted with violence.

We dove deeper into how activism in Kenya and Botswana plays out online and in navigating restraints. We found three key takeaways:

1. Social media serves multiple purposes including a platform to learn and connect

In Kenya social media is a space for both learning and escape, while in Botswana, it is for light-hearted exchanges and a commentary on life.

When analyzing Twitter use in Kenya, behavior on the platform mirrors real life conversation with a series of twitter threads. This means young Kenyans  engage not only with the issue at large, but also directly with each other. These conversations are fostered by a dearth of platforms like HOLAA Africa and African Feminist Standpoint.

In Botswana, humorous meme pages on Facebook are popular among young people. YouTube and TikTok are used to share vlogs or commentaries on community events while Twitter functions as a springboard for people to enact calls to action. In some cases, activists resort to low danger and involvement activism such as urging others to sign petitions on animal or human rights.

2. Humor and knowledge is used to garner community support

Political involvement and awareness is expressed through music, movies, comedy and art. There is a  performative element to the activism – live streaming and interactions that are engaging and theatrical. Tools such as filters, frames and overlays are generously used to enhance everyday life, hinting that there is nothing ‘unmediated’ in their lives.

In Kenya, messages are made personal through a collective lens. Their call to action on public issues, often contain plural pronouns , as well as frequent use of kinship terms e.g. “We are its sons and daughters, brothers and sisters” This invokes the idea of community and belonging, establishing obligation in protecting one's community/family land.

A similar approach is visible in Botswana during the #justiceforzinedine movement. The protests were sparked after a young woman was date raped but the case was mishandled due to the perpetrator's high-profile. Activists appealed to one's sense of morality and belonging, forming a powerful online community by highlighting the shameful inaction in cases of gender-based violence. For example, captions like "It's shameful, shame on us", "Why we take from our women, why we rape our women" express collective blame and shame as part of galvanizing efforts.

3. A fine balance between injustice and restraint

In Kenya, the government polices news outlets and blogs so young people see Facebook and Twitter as safer spaces. However in both countries, their fear of authorities is evident as they voice their opinions cautiously.

Many times, they engage with and build on each other’s articulations. For example, if an organization tweets a stance, activists will retweet and add their commentary to it.

This approach is more discursive than attacking and  personalizes issues. It draws upon the sense of community and belonging, to create awareness and solicit support.

For example, in Kenya, youth used placating tones in their messages during the #DearPresidentUhuru movement when expressing frustration over lack of jobs and development directed at the premier. The harshness in their demands (e.g. "tired of your leadership") was  toned down by the affectionate adjective of using "Dear Mr President".

In Botswana, young activists navigate backlash by being reliant on respected voices. They seek the support of prominent community members such as doctors, lawyers and politicians, to add weight and media attention to their demand.

The Final Word

Technology helps to elevate issues such as climate change, gender based violence and health inequity. As another generation of tech-savvy activists take the helm in addressing these issues, it is important to understand what their approaches look like. By using AI to understand the power of technology and bringing young activists together - despite all odds - there is great potential to amplify these movements on ground in order to build back a better future.

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