WhatsApp is fuelling culture of extortion and dependency

WhatsApp groups have been formed to fund frivolous activities at the expense of the truly genuine causes. [iStockphoto]

Kenya is the envy of its neighbours when it comes to socio-economic development. Successive governments have put in place and driven policies that guarantee progress.

These policies, coupled with our democratic-capitalist way of life have ensured mobility up the economic development ladder by encouraging ingenuity and promoting free enterprise.

But alongside these forces of growth is the spirit of harambee. Kenyans have always come together to fundraise for common causes and to participate in development actives. They are even known to crowdfund business startups. Through harambee, Kenyans have accomplished amazing things from building magnificent houses of worship to sending bright and needy children oversees to acquire world-class education.

The emergence of the WhatsApp was supposed to be an enabler by providing a real-time mobilisation platform in these progressive efforts, but instead of tapping into its excellent potential, we have come to abuse it. Like St Paul would say to the Galatians, we started by means of the spirit but have lately adopted means of the flesh. WhatsApp groups have been formed to fund frivolous activities at the expense of the truly genuine causes that call for our support and indulgence. We may need to take a good look at our priorities.

The culture of vain materialism has crept up into our way of life. Burial ceremonies are costing northwards of Sh1 million. With the explosion of the population, it is not unusual to wake up to your inclusion in a burial support group every couple of days. Most of these groups communicate the budget for the burial to range between Sh500,000 and Sh1.5 million. Are we getting our priorities right? Why do we have to bury our loved ones in gold-coated caskets? Why does it not prick our conscience when we spend Sh100,000 on a casket we are going to bury six feet under? Why must we hold expensive feasts (sometimes when hunger and starvation are prevailing) during funerals?

Then there is the new phenomenon of fundraising to "visit our parents". In my Kamba community, this craze is called ndwae ngone mwaitu (which loosely translates to "tag along with me as I visit my mother"). It entails mobilising funds, again mainly through WhatsApp, to shop for one's parents and take a fat bankers cheque to them. This is in most cases a clever racket to extort money from friends (and strangers) for your own material quests. Reports abound of individuals using these monies to purchase commercial parcels of land or luxury SUVs. Is it necessary? Is it ethical? Is it even just?

While most communities have historically had the practice of payment of bride price forming part of their culture, the intention was never a commercial one. Apart from being an official custom of expressing the love a husband had for his wife, it deepened warmth, friendship and social ties between the families of the groom and the bride. And that is why it was always paid in multiple lifetime instalments. That is sadly no longer the case. It has lately been converted into a transactional practice closely mirroring the ndwae ngone Mwaitu frenzy. It is not uncommon to find yourself in several WhatsApp groups asking you to chip into this menace.

What all the above does is to take away resources that would otherwise be finance-worthy endeavours like the education of less privileged children or the construction of community classroom wings to supplement government resources and efforts. In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost of a particular activity option is the loss of value or benefit that would be incurred by engaging in that activity, relative to engaging in an alternative activity offering a higher return in value or benefit. We are taking our eye off the important ball and training it on the trivial and this has the very real possibility of arresting our socio-economic progress and breeding a culture of freebies and extortion.

-Mr Mutati is a resident of Mutomo in Kitui County