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The history of the internet in Kenya

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By David Mungai

It is said that the internet was launched in the year 1991, though legend has it that American Military Intelligence was already using both the internet and email in the 1960s in it’s “top secret operations.” If this is indeed true, one wonders what American Military Intelligence uses in it’s “top secret operations” nowadays i.e. what is that replaced the internet.  

Around the years 1993/1994 here in Kenya, courtesy of 24 hour broadcasts by Kenya Television Network (KTN), with frequent news feeds in those 24 hour broadcasts from the renowned Cable News Network (CNN) of America, is when a number of Kenyans began hearing terms like “and for more updates, log onto our website www.cnn.com any time of the day or night.” “WWW?” Whatever that meant. It was truly Greek to almost all Kenyans back then.

There was however a high profile launch of Microsoft’s Windows ’95 in Kenya in 1995, and it is from this point on that more and more literature on the internet and how it worked, began spreading more and more widely across Kenya. But even then it was still an alien concept, because you could only access the internet in those days via Personal Computers (PCs), PCs were still largely prohibitive in cost (about 80,000 Kenya Shillings) and out of reach, and the population of Kenyans who were computer literate back then was much smaller than it is today in 2020.

Around late 1996/early 1997 is when a number of large organisations in Kenya began installing the internet, but even then, it was via what was referred to as a dial up i.e. connection to the internet in those days was via a telephone land line, a fixed line as the Americans refer to it. Big organisations in Kenya in those days could afford to have different land lines altogether for internet connections, not small organisations. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in those days, many of which have since merged or since been bought off, included Africa Online, Form Net, Mail Africa and Net 2000.

Cyber Cafes/Internet Cafes began emerging in small numbers around mid-1997, and even then the rates were too exorbitant and out of reach i.e. 10/= per minute. Would you believe it? In other words, if you spent one hour on the internet in those days, it would cost 600/=. And not just that, the speeds were much slower. What takes about 10 seconds to attach nowadays e.g. a 3 MB file, took something like 25 minutes to attach in those days, and mind you the rates as mentioned were 10/= per minute. File attachments were therefore simply out of the question for almost all Kenyans in those days. It is only organisations like Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), Kenya Television Network (KTN), the Nation Media Group or Standard Media Group back then that regularly dealt with file attachments, and it was very convenient for them because this new infrastructure i.e. the internet, now enabled greater sourcing of stories with the convenience of file attachments e.g. JPEGs.

And then Cyber Cafes in those days could be clumsy, because Cyber Cafes also offered telephone services, so if a telephone call needed to be made, then the internet connection would have to be first cut off, and reconnected after a customer had made his or her phone call. In other words, one telephone land line was shared between different functions back then to satisfy the needs of different customers.

The other thing back then is that almost all Cyber Cafes had only one Personal Computer which many customers relied on, so yes, at times you would find a queue of about 15 people in a Cyber Cafe waiting to use the only Personal Computer available. The good thing is that queues cleared out fast bacause of the prohibitive cost i.e 10/= per minute and because file attachments were out of the question because of the long duration of time they took. Back then it was pretty much a question of log in into your Yahoo, Hotmail or Altavista account via one of the two main browsers back then i.e. Windows Explorer or the now defunct Netscape Navigator/Netscape Communicator, check if you had any new mail, respond quickly to any new mail (typing skills and speeds were good, they had to be) and/or “copy paste” a new mail from your floppy disk (there were no flash discs in those days), quickly send it, and you were out. Many customers in those days in Kenya’s Cyber Cafes spent about one to seven minutes on the internet (about 10/= to 70/= at one session in a Cyber Cafe). The other thing back then was that Kenya Posts and Telecommunications (KP & TC), like the Kenya Power and Lighting Company could have “black outs,” though KP & TC “black outs” were rare even back then, so it was rare for the internet to go down on account of KP & TC “black outs.” Kenya Power and Lighting “black outs” are a different matter even to this day, where you constantly find yourself crossing your fingers if there is a lengthy matter you are working on and are relying solely on electricity.

Internet infrastucture however improved rapidly and considreably in the years 1999 and 2000, with the introduction of what were referred to as lease lines (i.e. no more sharing of telephone land lines), faster and more reliable internet connections and internet speeds, the opening up of several more Cyber Cafes across Kenya, some of them mega-Cyber Cafes with as many as 200 computers, and rates that drastically came down from 10/= a minute to 50 cents per minute. You still couldn’t quite e.g. stream movies back then, but the speeds were great, and one could get so much done in a Cyber Cafe in e.g. two hours (60/=). Actually the terms Analog and Digital come into being in Kenya at the time i.e. the years 1999 and 2000, not the year 2013 i.e. an Analog connection was a dial up internet connection, while a lease line was a digital internet connection.

Some famous and memorable Kenyan websites and Kenyan discussion forums on the internet also come into prominence in the years 1999 and 2000 because bigger and bigger numbers of Kenyans are now computer literate and can afford to be on the internet for much longer hours because of drastically reduced rates.

Amongst these were Kenya Online, Africa-Oped, WWW Kenya News Group and Kenyanlist all four which have since been overtaken and overshadowed by Social Media/Facebook/WhatsApp/Twitter/Instagram.

The likes of Kenya Online, Africa-Oped, WWW Kenya News Group and Kenyanlist were however great when they existed and they have their place in Kenyan History.

The focus of Kenya Online, Africa-Oped and WWW Kenya News Group was mainly Kenyan politics, quite highly charged political discussions at that. Believe it or not, some big names in Kenya today were active at Kenya Online and Africa-Oped around the years 1999/2000/2001 and they include Prof. Anyang Nyong’o, the current Governor of Kisumu County, Kenya, Dr. Willy Mutunga, immediate former Chief Justice of the Republic of Kenya, Hon. Mille Odhiambo Mabona, the current Member of Parliament for Suba North constituency, Kenya, and Hon. Justin Muturi, the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Kenya.

Prof. Anyang Nyong’o and Dr. Willy Mutunga could be quite confrontational at both Kenya Online and Africa-Oped, they didn’t “mince their words,” while Millie and Justin Muturi were less confrontational, commenting only ocassionally on the topics under discussion.

Kenyan list was however a mixture of politics, social affairs and sleaze, and was also quite a darling of many Kenyans. There was an incident in early 2007 in Kitengela, Kenya, around January or February, where a man laid a trap on his wife who had been cheating on him with another man. He pretended to have gone to work and then re-surfaced abruptly at his home after about one-and-a-half hours, with a “battalion” of about 100 “supporters” behind him. The cheating couple refused to open the door to the house, and the aggrieved husband with his “army” of about 100, broke down the door and flushed out the cheating couple.

They were both stripped bare naked, the man left with only his socks, and paraded around Kitengela on foot for about one hour. The sophiscated cell phones that many of us have nowadays had not come into being, but someone with a digital camera took clear images of the couple being paraded around Kitengela, images that were posted at Kenyanlist, from where they went viral on Kenyan Cyber Space.

With regard to Kenya Online, one of the documents that went viral courtesy of Kenya Online, was an expose on Dr. Robert Ouko’s murder of February 1990 as published by Uganda’s “Weekly Topic” newspaper on 6th September 1991 i.e. “Minister killed in Operation Bikini Succession,” first posted at Kenya Online in 1998. The initial posting however had gaps, because it was manually typed from unclear faxes sent from Uganda to Kenya Online Administrator. Two years later in the year 2000 however, the full expose without gaps was posted at Kenya Online, from where it went viral.

The Administrator at Kenya Online was James Sang, a brilliant writer who could be quite confrontational, the Administrator at Africa-Oped was Dr. Matunda Nyanchama, also a brilliant writer and less confrontational than Jimmy Sang, the Administrator at WWW News Group (rcbowen.com), was a White American called Richard Bowen who lived in Kenya for many years courtesy of his parents who worked as missionaries in Kenya in the 1980s and 1990s, who attended Hillcrest School and who speaks good Kiswahili, and the Administrator at Kenyanlist was Jimmy Wanderi (RIP).

James Sang and Richard Bowen were pretty no nonsense and if you crossed certain lines once or twice, you were banned. Dr. Matunda Nyanchama and Jimmy Wanderi (RIP) were less no nonsense and more accomodating, but even they acted promptly on repeat offenders by banning them. All four, to their credit though, let their sites grow organically without interfering in discussions and their flow.

On a related note also, there was a scandal of Kenyans in pornography in the United States of America that broke out around mid-2001 via a pornography website back then known as “Mighty Africa” and who’s lead page was a heavily built half-naked lady who did indeed look like a Kenyan, lying on a sofa set/settee with the Kenyan flag draped behind her on the sofa set/settee. Also posted at “Mighty Africa” back then were explicit still images of individuals engaging in sexual intercourse under the banner “Kenyans in Houston” i.e. Kenyans in Houston, Texas, USA, individuals who did indeed look like Kenyans. And then there were also explicit images posted at “Mighty Africa” around the years 2001 and 2002 of ladies posing nude under the banner “Kenyans in Houston” who also indeed looked like Kenyans.

The images went viral on Kenyan Cyber Space, heavily so at that, in the years 2001 and 2002, in email forwards titled either “Kenyans in Houston” or “Kenyans on Mighty Africa.” Even in those days, material went viral on account of email forwards, despite no WhatsApp back then, because Yahoo and Hotmail in those days allowed email forwards to a maximum of 50 people on your email account address book, and even at the time (around the years 2001 and 2002), it was estimated that about two million Kenyans were regularly on the internet. The “Kenyans in Houston”/”Kenyans on Mighty Africa” email forwards that circulated heavily around the years 2001/2002 even caught the attention of the Nation Media Group though they did not run a story on them or investigate them further.

The contact person at “Mighty Africa” at the time was a lady called Suzette, and it is unclear whether or not she was a Kenyan. Suzette was however very evasive to emails enquiring about who the Kenyans were, only encouraging you to purchase “high resolution copies” of the images online at “discount rates.” She was very “business minded” emphasising that the rates of running pornography websites were “high and exorbitant” and that she did not have “time for small talk.” “Mighty Africa” went down around the year 2004.

To the year 2007 and the run up to the disastrous 2007 Kenyan General Elections. The “hate speech” and hate mail forwarded on Kenyan Cyber Space in the form of email forwards in the run up to Kenya’s 2007 General Elections were unbelievable and unforgivable. We used vicious insults on each other, we went as far as calling each other “devils,” and we wished each other dead. Ours was not a country anymore and the year 2007 openly and sadly brought this out. And for what…? This country of ours continues to further fall apart with every passing day, 13 years down the line in the year 2020. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. One day, possibly when we are all gone, the contents of those hateful, vicious and brutal email forwards will be published and made public, both in hard copy and soft copy, putting all of us of these times to shame. “Black lives matter…?” Not quite in Kenya in the run up to the 2007 Kenyan General Elections, and not quite even too 13 years later in 2020. We have spoilt and a good country, and it remains to be seen whether we shall squarely confront the ghosts and curses of our past, of our own making, make our peace and fix this country in our time. This remains to be seen.

Overall the internet is quite something, and it is great that we Kenyans of these times have experienced it and navigated it.

In the year 1989 in Britain was an interesting case of a British man who was jailed for fraud. This individual had limited formal schooling, and what he had done was spend hours and hours in libraries in Britain pouring over encyclopedia after encyclopedia.

What eventually happened is that this person designed a home made laser, and with one or two accomplices, he would visit, major horse races across Britain, and place heavy bets on horses that were given no chance of winning a race.

What this guy would then do at an opportune moment after the horse race had started, believe it or not, was to fire his home made laser gun at the horse he had placed heavy bets on, and it worked magic. The “shock stunning” from the invisible fired beam immediately launched the horse into “full throttle, full speed” bypassing all other horses at full speed to win the race. Brilliant, right? Criminal yes, but brilliant. Really sounds like something straight out of a James Bond 007 movie, right?

They made a lot of money and should have “retired,” but they kept on until the horse racing authorities and betting authorities in Britain noticed a certain pattern. A trap was laid for them, they were apprehended, tried, they pleaded guilty and were imprisoned. The horses did not suffer damage and no Human Being was killed, so it’s hard not to admire “these amateurs” and “their amateur home made laser gun.”

These are events as reported in an issue of “Newsweek” Magazine back in 1989. The key suspect was hailed as a “genius,” but he was a humble man, and in mitigation he emphasised that he was not a genius, that he was a man with limited formal schooling, and that his home made laser gun was courtesy of the hours and hours he had spent in libraries studying from different encyclopedias and different publications on Science.

The British Government should actually have intervened and employed these guys in their intelligence services, domestic or international. They should not have been jailed. That’s wasted brilliance right there, at least in the view of this writer.

Moral of the story: We should be inspired by the example of the British guy above and use the internet to our advantage, not for criminal purposes, but for groundbreaking innovations that will shape a better day for all of us here in our beloved Kenya. We only live once, and let’s make the most of it with these “internet times” we live in. The British guy above did not have even have access to the internet. Let’s get to work, we have alot of it on our hands. Real change in Kenya in our time.


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