His name is Makmende. An African version of Shaft, mixed with a bit of Chuck Norris, he is the karate-chopping, damsel-rescuing star of the new video by Kenya’s Just-a-Band. Dressed in the full 70s get-up – flares, unbuttoned shirt, medallion, afro – Makmende beats up bad boys and wins the hearts of beautiful babes. ] But what started out as an amusing video by an up-and-coming band has transformed into one of Africa’s first viral internet sensations. Makmende’s Facebook page has more than 26,000 fans (and counting) while he has been the most popular topic on Twitter in Kenya for more than a week. Fans have tried to outdo each other with one-liners about Makmende’s powers: “Makmende can never have a heart attack, his heart is not so foolish to attack him”. “Makmende doesn’t call 911, 911 calls him”.
No one is more surprised about the sudden popularity of Kenya’s newest fictional hero than the men who invented him. Just-a-Band, whose second album, “82″, was one of the most popular releases in Kenya this year, had not planned any sort of online campaign for the video short of putting it on their Facebook page.
“I honestly don’t know how we ended up here,” said band member Jim Chuchu, who also co-directed the video. “As soon as I saw Makmende jokes from fans online I said let’s do a Twitter and Facebook page for him. Everyone said ‘really?’ They thought it was overkill.”
Chuchu was keen to buy makmende.com but “all of us were broke so we couldn’t do it.” Someone else has though and is planning to sell T-shirts with some of the most popular slogans. Just-a-Band can do little to stop them. Not that they are short of opportunities to cash in. The video is a fake trailer for Makmende the Movie. The Nation Media Group has now asked them to turn it into a television series while the band has received offers from businesses wanting to use Makmende as a marketing tool.
Chuchu is wary though. “It could go horribly wrong. We don’t know when the tipping point will be, when it starts getting tired.” Instead the band is focusing on promoting their music and arranging more gigs. The popularity of Just-a-Band’s new superhero is partly due to the word “makmende”. It was used by children in the 90s to describe people acting tough. “Whenever anyone in the playground was acting gung ho you said they were behaving like a makmende,” says Chuchu. The success of the video highlights how widespread internet usage has become in Kenya. The country now has the fourth highest number of internet users in sub-Saharan Africa. Internet speeds are increasing too, following the arrival of three fibre-optic cables linking East Africa to global broadband network. A year ago most online Kenyans would have had to wait for as long as half an hour to download the Makmende video.
While most of the focus on Africa’s internet revolution has been on the serious side – the impact on business, democracy and poverty – the Makmende phenomenon is different. Ethan Zuckerman, a blogger who focuses on technology and Africa, said it shows how normal internet usage has become in Kenya. “It may not be the sort of progress that African ministers of infrastructure or information have been waiting for, but for xenophiles like me, it’s a fascinating moment.”