Bullies for life: Kenyan bullying culture

A man checking his phone in the park.

Kenya has a serious bullying problem. It is one of the countries with the highest levels of bullying in high schools in the world, with 57 per cent of students getting bullied on one or more days in a month as reported in a survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in collaboration with the United States Centre of Disease Control (CDC).

This is despite the fact that bullying in secondary schools was officially banned in 2013 through the Kenyan Basic Education Act. 

The bullying does not magically stop after high school, as is evidenced by our online behaviour. The country is “winning” in cyberbullying, with Kenyans online taking pride in the fact that they bullied former President Uhuru Kenyatta off social media in 2019 when his accounts on Twitter (now known as X) and Facebook were both deactivated.

Retired President Uhuru Kenyatta [Samson Wire, Standard]

“Ata twitter niliondoka huko nikaona hiyo kitu ni bure ni matusi tu. Unakaa hapo unasoma hulali. Afadhali nilale nipige story na mama…nilale niamke niende kufanya kazi,” said Uhuru at the time.

A content creator named Máyọ̀wá Mami Wata (@mamiwatamayowa) recently said Kenyan TikTok is mad at her because of a post she made five months ago, where she said that the four countries to not mess with were Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria, while also mentioning African Americans as a group.

“Suddenly, I am seeing Swahili everywhere. I am seeing many Kenyans saying I need to delete my video and make it again and say that Kenyans was the group to not mess around with. But I thought it would kind of rollover,” she said in a recent post.

“It has been five months of people asking me to apologize. And to apologize because I didn’t say that Kenyans were the scariest. Now, obviously, I know, I will never mess with Kenyans because who has this kind of endurance? Who has this kind of energy? I’ve never seen a group so eager to be mentioned for people to not mess with.”

A South African, VeeJay HD, has also been harassed for many days because of asking why Kenyans weren’t at the recently concluded AFCON games.

Content creator Miss Njagi has also had her Tiktok account pulled down a couple of times because of Kenyans mass-reporting her page for no apparent reason. Her first page had close to a million followers, while her second page had about 400,000 followers.

Miss Njagi

While in Mayowa’s case, Kenyans are half-joking and she seems to be apologizing in jest, VeeJay HD is using the sudden influx of Kenyans on his pages to grow his social media following, and Miss Njagi’s second account has been restored, it also gets a lot more serious, such as in the case of Eliud Kipchoge.

He was viciously attacked on social media when Marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum died. Kenyans claimed that Kipchoge did not publicly congratulate Kiptum when he broke his marathon world record. That’s despite the fact that Kipchoge had said earlier that he hoped Kiptum would break his record.

“I always say records are meant to be broken and I hope Kiptum does that in the near future. He is a man with a big heart,” said Kipchoge in May last year.

When Kiptum won, the next day he did an interview saying that he was not worried about the record having been broken. Not that the bullying would have been justified if he hadn’t done all this.

“Nobody has a right to impose on Kipchoge. That was pure cyberbullying. Everything was speculative. Whatever relationship they had was between them,” says Asta Ina, the founding director of Dear Bully Ke.

Dear Bully Ke is aimed at eradicating bullying and its lasting impact in Kenya and fostering positive change in the lives of those affected by bullying.

“Kenya is a bully society. The bully that is in us is in every aspect.  From the top, from the judiciary to the executive. In every area of society, Kenya is a bully society. Look at our hospitals. Look at our schools, roads, government, and the corporate world. If you try to come up with something new many people will try to shut you down,” says Asta.

The confounding paradox about Kenya being a bully society is that in real life, Kenyans have a reputation for being very hospitable, warm and friendly, a fact that Kenyans also take a lot of pride in and that is used to market the country.

So what happens when these same Kenyans engage online? Muthoni Gatheca, a counselling psychologist, suggests that the anonymity brings it out of them. That same Kenyan spewing vicious things online would most likely not say it to Kipchoge in person.

“Cyberbullying is cowardly and lots of people hide behind it because you may not know them or ever see and meet them,” says Muthoni.

While some people aren’t brave enough to bully random people in real life, they probably do it at home, covertly at work to people beneath them, or in school, which is the main training ground for bullies.

Asta decided to start Dear Bully Ke in 2017 because of the stories about bullying that she heard from students whenever she would go preaching in schools.

“I used to do a lot of school missions, preaching with K-Krew and also privately. On the ground, you want to scream and cry. You want to take yourself for therapy because of what you’ve heard,” she says passionately.

Asta and Muthoni both say it all starts at home, from childhood, with a lack of proper parenting being the root cause.

“The bully culture starts from home and then it is accentuated in school. From kindergarten to primary, to high school, to university, then to the workplace,” says Asta.

“There is a root cause as to why a bully is a bully. Possibly he was bullied at home or there is chaos at home. This child wants the parents’ attention and doesn’t get it, so he or she becomes dysfunctional as well. They don’t know how to behave, they are entitled and they take it to school. In school, he is trying to gain back control by being a bully. There they also meet another dysfunctional child. The dysfunction continues and has a stem, leaves, branches and roots. Whoever they bully also gets into that vicious cycle.”

These people then get into society, taking up various positions in society and because bullying is so pervasive everywhere, everyone thinks it is normal, even something to be proud of.

Asta says she has interviewed a lot of people on their views on bullying, and most of them say that a man must be bullied to become a man, and therefore bullying is good.

“Yet not even circumcision makes a boy a man, as we believe in Kenya. You turn a boy into a man through mentorship,” says Asta.

From Dear Bully KE’s research, another factor that contributes to bullying is the schooling system in Kenya. The schools, especially the boarding schools, are little prison camps according to Asta.

“The teachers are supreme and can go haywire, bully the students, verbally abuse them and there will be no justice because it will be dismissed as just that teacher’s character,” she says.

Because of the toughness of our boarding schools, most of the students leave toughened because that is what they are used to – a rough, hard life, just like in prison. So when they come out into society, they are bitter and hardened. This dysfunction and hardening from childhood at home to high school is also the root cause of femicide, according to Asta.

“When you put the internet in front of them, on X, Facebook or wherever, this is a bitter person who is a keyboard warrior. What do you think is going to spew out of them?” she asks.

So what can be done? Muthoni says that we need to talk about it.

“We need to be observant of various telltale signs of bullying in our children like anxiety, low self-value, fear, depression, social inadequacy, substance abuse, isolation, bedwetting, extreme fear and suicide. Set boundaries with technology. Parents need to play an active role in a child’s life. Parents need to be present!” says Muthoni.

Asta says there is a need to re-educate society on the simplicity of human rights.

“It will take everyone in society to have a change of mindset to be able to save the current generations and the ones to come. We have educational materials and are ready to partner with the Ministry of Education to cater to different age groups, to curb the vice of bullying,” she says. 


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