Wode Maya and Miss Trudy: A portent of better things to come?
I must confess that the first time I ever watched a Wode Maya video on YouTube, I was not immediately converted. I had no idea who this YouTuber was or what mission he was fulfilling, but I saw him sitting down to eat a meal inside a gutter in the middle of Kigali.
The purpose of the video was to illustrate how clean the Rwandan capital is, and I did not know how to feel about it. On the one hand, I was glad to see an African content creator getting out of his comfort zone and genuinely exploring Africa, but on the other hand, I was concerned that the video came across as an image laundering coup for Paul Kagame and his less-than-democratic tendencies.
I clicked on another video by this Wode Maya bloke and watched him vlog his way through a Luanda city tour. I clicked on another video. And another. And another. Soon, I was more than 10 videos into this particular YouTube rabbit hole, and I very quickly realised that what I was looking at was something unlike anything I had ever seen before.
This was neither an African government PR contractor nor a purveyor of the shallow and uninteresting African travel content that was on offer then. Wode Maya was that rare thing that I had always wanted to become someday – an African telling African stories to a predominantly African audience in a comfortable, authentic and useful voice and manner. He was a unicorn.
“Africa to the world” and the importance of storytelling
As Wode Maya’s influence and audience has grown over the years (recently shooting past 1 million YouTube subscribers), something that has impressed me is his solid determination to stay focused on the stated goal of his channel, which was to correct the distorted global image of Africa by telling Africa’s stories through its own eyes. Not even a number of genuinely unfortunate encounters with authorities in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been enough to dampen the zeal he has for this mission.
Even more impressively, while all this was happening, he found the time to incubate a truly delightful and mutually supportive relationship with Miss Trudy, a fellow YouTuber from Kenya. Whether he realised it or not, this was an important part of the African story he was helping to sell to the world – a story of wonder, adventure, opportunity, warmth and love. In my pre-exile iteration, I myself was influenced by his content more than once to make a travel or tourism decision that I would not otherwise have made.
Due in no small part to his videos, a lot of tourism dollars that would have found their way to Doha, Dubai and Istanbul are staying in and circulating around the continent. Hundreds (thousands maybe?) of people who have never been to Africa before are making tourism decisions that benefit Africa’s tourism hotspots, resulting in economic expansion and increased prosperity – all because a Ghanaian foreign student in China picked up a camera one day and started making videos.
More than just a wedding
For anyone in the African creator community who has not been living under a rock for the past week and a half, Maya and Trudy’s wedding is old news now. While I am typically not one for gushy, grandiose statements and I still found myself wincing at Maya’s statement (“I believe this marriage will unite Africa”), it was difficult to disagree with that notion. While the prosaic fact of a Kenyan lady called Gertrude Njeri and a Ghanaian lad called Kobina Ackon getting married is not going to magically actualise the AfCFTA, harmonise travel, tax and trade policies across the continent and solve cross-border payment settlement issues, it does something arguably even more important.
In this column before, I have referenced my experience of meeting a Dutch gentleman in London who was an Arsenal season ticket holder. I spoke about my amazement at the simple and unimpressive fact of being able to wake up in Amsterdam, have breakfast, get on a quick train to London without needing a passport, catch a Premier League game at the Emirates Stadium, and be back at home in the Bijlmermeer before dinner. More than the diplomatic and infrastructural edifices that made such an existence possible, what struck me was the extent of internal cohesion within Europe, which made it possible for a Dutchman to feel just at home at Ashburton Grove as he would at Amsterdam Centraal.
Apart from the well-documented roadblocks and hurdles that make cross-border interactions so stressful and expensive in Africa, a less-discussed but no less problematic issue is the psychological distance between Africans who are often no further from each other than a Dutchman is from London.
In part as a result of the legacy of colonialism, Africa’s legendary intra-national tribalism problems are also in evidence in international relations. Having had imaginary lines in the sand drawn all the way from Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin in 1884, several African countries have isolated themselves both economically and socially from each other. Relationships like those between Maya and Trudy, which are as loudly public as they are genuine and prosaic, help to reverse this phenomenon.
Storytelling does change the world, and it is often the case that the stories that are told without cameras, microphones and words are even more powerful than their spoken counterparts. To my friend and his beautiful Kenyan bride, their relationship may be about their happiness and future plans first and foremost, but to millions of young Africans who are watching and imbibing these stories, something altogether more magical and exciting is happening.
A mental shift is happening.
And it started on YouTube.