Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Makmende’s so huge, he can’t fit in Wikipedia

“After platinum, albums go Makmende”

“They once made a makmende toilet paper, but there was a problem: It wouldn’t take shit from anybody!!!”

“Makmende hangs his clothes on a safaricom line and when they dry he stores them in a flashdisk!”

If those simple truths don’t make sense to you, you’re probably not a Kenyan blogger. For the past few days, Kenya’s blogosphere and twitterers have been in thrall to the latest African superhero, and what might be Kenya’s first viral internet meme. An article in a Wall Street Journal blog today confirmed that Makmende is receiving attention beyond East Africa, demonstrating that our Kenyan friends are just as capable as any Moldovan boy band of creating internet buzz.

The video for Just a Band’s single “Ha-He” features a badass protagonist straight out of blaxploitation films. Armed with an array of freeze-frame kung fu moves, Makmende brings justice to the mean streets of a hazy, sun-drenched city that seems caught somewhere between Nairobi and 1970s LA. Tongue is firmly in cheek, as the video credits introduce characters including “Taste of Daynjah”, “Wrong Number” and bad guys “The Askyua Matha Black Militants”.

archer at Mwanamishale fills the rest of us in on the meaning of the term, Makmende:

Makmende was a term used way back in the early to mid 1990s to refer to someone who thinks hes a superhero. For example, if a boy whos watched one too many kung-fu movies on TV decides to unleash his newly acquired combat skills, he would be asked Unajidai Makmende, eh? (Who do you think you are, Makmende?) Trust me, there was a Makmende in every hood!

Given the high production values of the video, the fact that it accompanies a sweet track from Just a Band, and that the video producers evidently released a set of photoshopped magazine covers featuring Makmende as GQ’s sole “Badass of the Year”, perhaps it’s not surprising that Kenyan netizens have taken the Makmende trend to the next level. He’s got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a dedicated website filled with thousands of testimonies to his badassitude: “Makmende uses viagra in his eyedrops, just to look hard.”

The obvious parallel is Chuck Norris Facts, an internet meme that manifested mostly through image macros that attest to the action star’s manliness. (“Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.”) For now, the Makmende phenomenon appears to be largely text-based, with Kenyans around the world connecting the events of the day to Makmende’s movements: “is the massive pour in Nairobi as a result of Makmende’s tear after the WSJ feature?”

What he doesn’t have is a Wikipedia page. I searched this morning on the English-language Wikipedia and got a page telling me that Makmende had been deleted:

* 00:37, 24 March 2010 Flyguy649 (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (CSD G3: Pure Vandalism)
* 22:53, 23 March 2010 Malik Shabazz (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G12: Unambiguous copyright infringement (CSDH))
* 18:30, 23 March 2010 JoJan (talk | contribs) deleted “Makmende” ? (G1: Patent nonsense, meaningless, or incomprehensible)

Looks like multiple attempts to establish a Makmende page have been shot down. Fair enough – the inclusionist/deletionist argument that’s gripped Wikipedia centers in part on the documentation of ephemeral culture. Perhaps an English language encyclopedia doesn’t need mention of every internet meme… though pages exist for Numa Numa, the song that inspired the viral video, the guy who performed in the viral video, and so on. Perhaps if Makmende reaches the heights of internet fame that memes like Eduard Khil or Back Dorm Boys have achieved, he’ll no longer be “patent nonsense, meaningless or incomprehensible.”

Here’s an interesting puzzle for Wikipedia. Makmende may never become particularly important to English speaking users outside of Kenya. But the phenomenon’s quite important within the Kenyan internet: it’s the first meme I can remember going truly viral and inspiring a wave of participation from Kenyans around the world. I recall a conversation at 2006 Wikimania in Cambridge where (friend and GV editor) Ndesanjo Macha, a major contributor to the Swahili Wikipedia, explained that the topics covered in that wikipedia were likely to be different from those included in the English wikipedia. (More articles on east African culture, less on Pokemon, perhaps.) Indeed, the Wikipedias in Gaelic, Welsh and Plattdtsch are cultural projects as much as attempts to make key reference materials available, as most speakers of these languages are fluent in other languages that have much larger Wikipedias.

Most Wikipedians seemed to accept the idea that different languages and cultures might want to include different topics in their encyclopedias. But what happens when we share a language but not a culture? Is there a point where Makmende is sufficiently important to English-speaking Kenyans that he merits a Wikipedia page even if most English-speakers couldn’t care less? Or is there an implicit assumption that an English-language Wikipedia is designed to enshrine landmarks of shared historical and cultural importance to people who share a language?

For me, Makmende’s a reminder that the internet isn’t as small and connected as we tend to believe it is. We occasionally catch glimpses over cultural walls when we use these tools. Sometimes we respond with fascination and seek to learn more. Often, our behavior’s not as admirable. danah boyd closed her talk on Digital Visibility at Supernova this past year with an uncomfortable observation about racism in Twitter:

Think of those who complained when the Trending Topics on Twitter reflected icons of the black community during the Black Entertainment Television awards. Tweets like: “wow!! too many negros in the trending topics for me. I may be done with this whole twitter thing.” and “Did anyone see the new trending topics? I don’t think this is a very good neighborhood. Lock the car doors kids.” and “Why are all the black people on trending topics? Neyo? Beyonce? Tyra? Jamie Foxx? Is it black history month again? LOL”. These tweets should send a shiver down your spine. Perhaps these people assumed that Twitter was a white-dominant space where blacks were welcome only if they were a minority.

danah goes on to point out that not everyone reacts to encountering topics outside of their comfort sphere with shock or surprise. I found it encouraging that the Wall Street Journal saw the emergence of a Kenyan meme as a chance to explore Kenyan internet culture rather than to turn away in ignorance or disinterest. Let’s hope the next time Makmende seeks a place in Wikipedia, he’s met with a bit more curiosity and less dismissal.


Roughly six seconds after I posted this piece, Twitter users reported a new version of the Makmende article on WIkipedia. Here’s hoping this one survives summary deletion…!

29 Responses to “Makmende’s so huge, he can’t fit in Wikipedia”

  1. acolyte says:

    Well written post! I too am hoping that the page escapes the wiki editors this time round. Sadly when people can hide behind their keyboards, its easier for them to show their true colors, twitter is an open forum for all colors/creeds and genders. If the overactivity of one group irks another, they are more than welcome to start their own trends and tweet about it.

  2. Joram says:

    Excellent article.I kept wondering why they kept pulling down the page yet I a kenyan badly wanted one, but i knew they would eventually lose the battle, he is up there, after all he is MAKMENDE!

  3. rob says:

    Seems that as of 9 p.m. in Nairobi the Makmende wikipedia page is down and out again… but this time its giving this response:

    Server not found
    Firefox can’t find the server at http://www.wikipedia.org.

    thats after logging into the main wikipedia page and running a search. Did Kenya overload their servers I wonder?

  4. wangari mbatia says:

    the name ‘Makmende’ takes us (Nairobians) back to our childhood days. I won’t lie, growing up in Nairobi was awesome! We all wanted to be heroes n heroines. We all watched Bruce Lee movies countless of times and oogled at Chuck Norris posters while sucking on 10 cent Patcos (sweets). Now, we have a chance to reconnect with other equally nostalgic yet unfortunately estranged brothers and we’re doing it Makmende-style!

  5. Minda says:

    I’m excited for “Makmenderians” and I think your reference to Danah Boyd’s talk quite fascinating: racism online. Hmmm.

  6. Alasdair says:

    As a pretty active wikipedia contributor I feel that I should “defend” if that is an appropriate word, the actions of wikipedia here.

    The codes for deletion used are very narrow guidelines for speedy deletion. Speedy deletion is not a process that makes judgements about whether or not a subject should be included in the encyclopedia but its a process that allows administrators to delete pages whose quality is so bad as to be effectively vandalism. In this case the codes used suggest that the previous attempts were in the first and third cases incomprehensible and in the second case simply text copied from another site. An analagous situation would be if the first page about numa-numa boy was simply a long string of repeating numanuma text. Clearly that would not be appropriate for inclusion on wikipedia. So the initial page creations were not a judgement about the subject of that page but about the very low quality of it.

    Now the second question is why no-one had created a page before hand that actually had content on it. To which the obvious answer is that no english speaker had made an effort to do so, the demographics of the english wikipedia undoubtely mean that at present is demonstrates systematic bias towards topics of interest to american computer literate men.
    There is actually an entire group of wikipedians (the systematic bias group) who are working to try and lessen this bias over time. As wikipedia is a relfection of the predominant internet users though it will likley to remain for the foreseeable future.

    english wikipedia rejects wherever possible judgements about “culture” any subject that is notable (which is a topic for another day but broadly means there has been some third party independent coverage of that subject) merits inclusion. Language of course presents a larger barrier because if wikipedia is to be reliable it depends on people having sources for information; and obviously there is a bias in english wikipedia towards english sources. Again though, there are groups of wikipedians who work with the other wikis to translate articles that are better in other languages across, and foreign language sources are not in any way discouraged they are just less preferred than english one’s

    Now, there is something important, if not new, in your observation of how the internet allows individuals to create closed silo’s insulated to their world view, but wikipedia; being an encyclopaedia that anyone can edit; tends to suffer from this much less than anywhere else and only to the extent of systematic bias as explained above.

  7. Ethan says:

    Rob, while I like the idea that Wikipedia pissed Makmende off, and so he took it out, the truth is a bit more prosaic – basically, their Euro datacenter had cooling problems. When they tried to failover to their Florida datacenter, they broke DNS resolution, sending queries into the aether for a little while – more here: http://techblog.wikimedia.org/2010/03/global-outage-cooling-failure-and-dns/

    Great to hear everyone’s comments on the phenomenon, and especially to see that Wikipedia page grow.

  8. Ethan says:

    Alasdair, thanks for weighing in on the conversation. Like you, I’ve been paying attention to issues of sysematic bias on Wikipedia for some time now, back to the days of the CROSSBOW project. (Here’s a quote from a 2004 post from me in BoingBoing – http://boingboing.net/2004/09/27/zuckerman-wikipedia-.html . You’ll also find references to my work in the archives of the current CSB project.) I’m also actively working with the Wikipedia Foundation as an advisor trying to help the community strengthen participation in Wikipedias in underrepresented languages. In other words, I’m a critic, yes, but one who’s interested in seeing Wikipedia address and work through these problems.

    As for this specific instance: I’m not able to review the earlier, deleted Wikipedia pages on Makmende. It’s possible that they were incomplete and amateurish and were therefore deleted.

    The one that’s currently under development followed a classic Wikipedia structure – it went up as a brief stub, and has accreted more content in the past few hours. What concerned me is that the attempt to delete that stub argued that the article was unsourced – actually, it was quite well sourced, including a reference to a Wall Street Journal online publication and five weblogs. Perhaps the user who nominated for deletion made a mistake. Or perhaps he acted in bad faith, trying to avoid a battle over notability and tried a different tactic to see the page removed.

    If Wikipedia wants to make progress in improving areas where it’s weak – i.e., if it wants to address issues of systemic bias – the community needs to expand to include more Wikipedians from the developing world. Deleting three versions of an article important to Kenyans and trying to delete a fourth doesn’t send a strong message that Wikipedia is the open and welcoming community you and I both want it to be.

  9. Alasdair says:

    The earlier deletions were all Speedy deletions, a process that has strict controls over it precisely because of the potential for deletion without discussion. Only wikipedia administrators can speedily delete pages and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary and given the strict controls on speedy deletion I think it is reasonable to assume that they were simply acting based on the information available to them to delete what was either vandalis, nonsense or a copyright violation respectivly

    In regards to the PROD notice proposed deletion it appears that this bottom post http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Salih here suggests that the reader missed the WSJ reference and made a mistake. ( as a generalisation Wikipedia does not usually consider blogs to be reliable enough sources for obvious reasons) , but this notice was removed within a few minutes and according to wikipedia processes such a notice could not be used again. The article could only now be deleted if there was community consensus in a deletion discussion, something that won’t happen because the topic & page are clearly notable.

    I don’t see this “incident” as a flaw in wikipedia, or as sending a “message” about the nature of wikipedia as a welcoming community but actually an example of wikipedia’s processess and systems operating as they should. (Though maybe like all wikipedia editors i am tainted by assuming good faith :p)

    Although I think there are a lot of interesting and detailed discussions to be had about the nature of the wikipedia community I am not really sure that this was a good example of somewhere where there has been a real failure.

  10. SJ Klein says:

    One issue here is mainly one of using deletion as a substitute for simple page-blanking and discussion. The ‘deletion’ process and surrounding combat is often a distraction that draws attention to the meta-conversation rather than to knowledge and article improvement and the value of verifiability/notability.

    The first instance of the article was a joke.

    1: “Makmende. Kenyan Superhero. Spawned. Not born. Amphibious. Breaths underwater.”

    The second and third were appropriate stubs, hastily deleted.

    2 and 3: Reposts of the text from http://liwani.com/?p=167

    First it was deleted as a copyvio (perhaps; who was the poster? this short text was just cut and pasted from the website linked as a ‘source’… but hasty – clearly the original author wasn’t going to complain while authority to publish was worked out).

    Then it was recreated and deleted as a non-notable character from a non-notabale band (the latter part is untrue; the band has had a WP article since June 2008).

    As it stands now, the article title “Makmende” should probably point to a section in the article about “Just A Band” — by current style guidelines, an ongoing fad that is primarily related to an existing topic should be a section on that topic’s article, not a new article.

    If someone wanted to make a standalone article about Makmende, s/he would be advised to do more serious research into the history of the term, its significance in kenyan culture, and when in the past it has been used to reference popular culture… and will have to find references older than last month.

  11. Mark says:

    Great way to weigh in your thoughts, Ethan. Glad to see he’s up. Been evangelising web 2.0 and this is the first positive viral we’ve seen (though not as linear as though it were affiliated with a brand, but the principle still the same – by the people for the people)

    Last thing that went viral (within FB mostly and a little on Twitter – though not in the same context was a poster depicting a fictitious promotion by Security Company G4S. Twitpic here – http://twitpic.com/qvae8 and here – http://twitpic.com/18xs53

    All in all good thoughts. Let’s just hope that this case will grow (sure of that) and that we can see more people take the gamble with viral.

  12. @Alasdair

    I’ve seen one of the articles later killed through speedy deletion. In that case, it was fully ok – a badly written article which didn’t give any sources.
    The current version should be able to survive, though.

  13. rob says:

    Apparantly he is too big for Wikipedia. Article up for deletion once again. At least this time they are allowing a discussion before they try to pull it.

  14. cindy says:

    makmende is a super hero regardless….

  15. Makmende says:

    Makmende doesn’t read books. He beats them up until he gets the information he wants

  16. frangito says:

    makmende is the next big thing after obama.weather thy like it or not,weather the Wikipedia folks publish him or not,he will fly throgh out the world like the makmende he is.soon he will be bigger than Eduard Khil or Back Dorm Boys .HE IS MAKMENDE DAMN IT!!!!

  17. guniah says:

    We are in 21st century where silly and mean issues like race should not be a linear scale…We are one people and that will never change….Self respect and respect for other people…i know w are going far..’makmendes’those are minor setbacks and we shall overcome YES WE CAN

  18. guniah says:

    KNOWLEDGE IS POWER…DONT LET THEM FOOL YOU….we believe that this world has a place for everybody and we deserve equal chances….lets surmon the spirit of hard work and patriotizm and the change we need is coming…..tine will tell

  19. It will we good to have a scholarly wiki page on Makmende, but that is not what we need…

    Makmende has just given a chance to a large percentage of Nairobis urban youth to relieve their childhood

    Question is will Makmende ride on this wave, sustain it and profit from it?

    Bah, Makmende is bigger than Wiki who?

  20. kali says:

    What I love the most about the hype around Makmende is the fact that it started out simply as a group of friends getting together to help their boys (JAB) make a vid. No professional actors, no super fancy equipment, no massive budget. Just some friends and Just a band. If there ever was a sign that you can slay a giant with just a stone this is it. We’ve been raised to believe that money is what makes things happen, which is true to a large extent, but it’s not the ONLY thing that makes things happen. A little resourcefulness, a little creativity, a few good friends and many laughs later Makmende rules!
    Hopefully the wikipedia page will stay, but regardless, what Makmende has managed to do in a few weeks is epic!

  21. Robbie Honerkamp says:

    Looks like the current article may stay- the deletion vote at the moment is unanimous keep.

  22. Henok says:

    Thanks Ethan as always. A very interesting question: “what happens when we share a language but not a culture?”. Thanks—I have not answer.

  23. Myne Whitman says:

    Interesting discourse. I found the video somewhere and was impressed by the production. But to go on wiki, I doubt.

  24. ziggy says:

    who knew serach a small kenyan social character created for fun in short hilarious music video would cause such huge storm around the globosphere and blogosphere!trully we never grow up we just grow tall!like makmende!!

  25. SJ Klein says:

    Makmende has a nice article up now, with some good illustrative images. I want one of those 10Kksh notes! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makmende

  26. Ryan says:

    Makmende took the page down because no one can define him.

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