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Culture, Music

Go Ahead, Makmende!

by Mina Maboja / 08.03.2011

Ever heard of the Kenyan Chuck Norris? While old Chuck could cut diamonds with one stare and make your girlfriend climax by blowing her a kiss, little did he know that a successor was doing the rounds in the secluded working class neighbourhoods of Nairobi, becoming Kenya’s first viral meme decades later. Go ahead, Makmende!

In the 80s and 90s, the average Nairobi city kid lived on wet dreams of the latest BMX bicycle and steady diet of kung fu and Rambo flicks. Those were the days of video cassettes, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and glass Coke bottles. Summers really did last forever and protection usually just meant knee or elbow pads. Enter Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in the 1983 film Sudden Impact. Unlike Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood extends beyond parody-cool. He is the real deal and secretly, even Kanye West dreams of having Clint’s babies. So when Callahan first said: “Go ahead, make my day”, Makmende roundhouse kicked his way out of his mother’s womb at precisely the same moment. Being Makmende, his mother hardly even noticed. She dismissed it as some pre-natal gastric disturbance. He was that smooth already. Basically, when the Nairobi city kids eventually watched Sudden Impact, they mispronounced that famous pay off line of “make my day” as “makmende” (pronounced mack-mend-eh). Makmende fast transformed from a street meme and became personified as the ultimate bad ass street hero with a reputation that makes Shaft look like a guppy.

Makmende Amerudi!

So when one kid was doing a shoddy re-enactment of Rambo (hand gestures, mud on face and a facial expression like he ate a dead rat) for his friends on the street corner, one would cut him down to size by saying, in Swahili, “Unajidai wee Makmende, eh?” (You think you’re Makmende, eh?). Just saying the name was enough to make someone soil their pants.

Makmende seemed destined to remain a nostalgic cultural relic from the innards of middle class cul de sac Nairobi neighbourhoods, whose founding generation had grown and long gone to university or became street hustlers. But Makmende wasn’t done with popular Kenyan culture just yet. Just a Band, a group of three Kenyan electro musicians, re-imagined and released a short fictional movie called Makmende Returns as the video for their song “Ha He”. It blew up locally before spilling on to social networking sites and the blogosphere at round about the same time South African unleashed Die Antwoord on the world. Suddenly every Kenyan on Facebook had the middle name “Makmende”.

What Just a Band did with a simple video and some cheesy 70s styling, was to invigorate Kenya’s greatest fictional hero of the internet era. And the meme continues, Google Makmende now and you’ll find him on mock covers of Time, Esquire, Rolling Stone and GQ magazines. Invariably many young mothers have not hesitated to name their newborn children after him.

It’s one thing for a myth to come to life from word of mouth. It’s quite another to have the likes of CNN’s David McKenzie and Global Voices travel to Kenya to sniff the sweaty strip of red cloth Makmende wears on his forehead. With the arrival of the first major fibre optic cable, suddenly a “geeky afro-electro pop band” from a developing East African country gets over 350 000 hits on Youtube and is suddenly playing gigs in Germany and doing interviews with magazines in Minnesota. And all of a sudden an urban legend that only existed amongst a cluster of kids in Nairobi becomes a cultural touch point that lifts the lid on contemporary Kenyan creativity and shifts global perceptions in one swift karate chop to the nuts. God bless the interweb.

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