There was a moment there, right at the turn of the decade, where the promise of Facebook and budding sites like Twitter and Tumblr made it seem like we were entering an era of never having to feel alone, no matter how far away from our loved ones we might physically be. Remember that?
“No worries, we’ll link up on Facebook.”
“Kyana gwe, first DM your number and we get familiar slowly slowly.”
“Hey guys follow my journey on Insta… pics or it didn’t happen, right?”
We could be in Bangkok yet still stay connected to those in Rakai. We could give the ghetto youth a voice as equally loud as the engineers and land grabbers. We could collectively experience the turn of the New Year from Auckland to Alaska in real-time. It was going to be alright. The gloom and loneliness were gone forever.
Except it was all fake. Every facet of social media quickly turned out to be creepy and insidious, intrusive and plastic. THEY were watching you and tracking your movements. THEY were selling your bank account info and sniffing through your chat threads for nudes and illicit sexts. None of the moments were real anymore; everything was choreographed, and then filtered and photoshopped. Scheduled for posting at a time most optimal to get the “Like” count up. Weirdly (or predictably), hate became monetizable. You could taunt and bully strangers now, to a worldwide audience, and what’s more, these social sites would PAY you for it. Heck, you could troll your way to a presidency if your rhetoric struck the right nerve with the disgruntled and data companies alike.
We had traded the promise of a global community for the perils of groupthink, pitting natives against immigrants, Yellow shirts against Red Berets, “Deplorables” against “Libtards”, hell we even managed to bring Nazis back… I mean seriously, fucking NAZIS!
All while burning down the rainforest.
By the time Esther discovered me, I had pretty much unsubscribed from the glut of new social media services. Their various benefits didn’t escape me, nor the relative convenience, but I just couldn’t wade through it anymore without feeling weighed down and sinking fast. I imagine we all gravitate to what works best for us in the moment so for me messaging was the last bastion of sanity and connectivity, as it wasn’t a popularity contest nor did it require I polish my human experience to make it as shiny as possible for onlookers.
The connection would only survive if it could truly stand on its own.
When Esther reached out on Whatsapp to talk about “How To Love A Woman’s Feet” (a fun little tribute to Ugandan women my brother Benji and I created), it didn’t seem particularly outstanding or memorable at the time, despite her renown. Sure everybody loves Esther Kalenzi, the fearless 4040 leader who’s built and sustained a peer-based children’s charity from nothing more than empathy and guts. Anyone who’s witnessed the machine of change she’s passionately spearheaded this past decade, is immediately won over by this work of remarkably generous and uncommonly sincere spirit of community. But as amazing as 4040 is (and I don’t think we’ve even begun to register just how monumental their work is to the current and next generation of world changers), I’ve come to find it’s only like my 4th or 5th favourite thing about this woman.
Some wise person said you stop growing when you stop learning new things, and for a while there I became stunted, but Esther came through and taught me, through her actions and various emoji, about deliberate kindness. About actively putting love out there because a thing was broken and it needed a modicum of attention. Warmth, if you could spare it, but at the very least, for its moment of despair to not go unnoticed.
One of many gifts she’s shared.
It’s a strange road to go down when you try to evaluate friendships. Perhaps you try to pinpoint the jokes that have made you laugh the hardest (every meme from Spongebob Squarepants to White Guy Blinking and Denzel slamming that table to shreds), or highlight the times you knew this person saw you in ways most folks missed (“Merry Christmas even though you pretend to hate it”), but it’s hard to elucidate how meaningful the much simpler things can be to your survival. “Hey, I didn’t really have anything to say… I was just thinking about you… Okay bye.”
Those otherwise innocuous gestures, save lives every single day. If the internet age has brought us closer to anything, it’s the inevitability of our ever-encroaching doom. The tangibility of the tension in the air as the past clashes with the future. The climate we’re irrevocably destroying more and more each day. We’re pushed to sit tight through political storms to which we now have a 24hr front row seat; to witness LIVE the trauma upon trauma inflicted on folks that look like you cos they breathed wrong; or the anguish of seeing peers reduced to fundraising from strangers to get life-saving treatment for loved ones.
It feels like everywhere, at every tick of the clock, something unimaginably horrible is happening in some part of the world.
It’s possible that the inverse is true too, that there are also good new things being brought into existence, it’s even likely. But if ever a tool was designed to amplify our worst fears and drown out the best in us, it would be the advent of social media. On top of everything, we’re still supposed to try and be whoever we were meant to be. Somehow we’re meant to quell that crushing chaos and “pull our socks up” to outdo the generation that came before us.
So how do you make it through without a hand to hold? Life pulsing in every squeeze, to remind you that we’re all just doing our best to keep going.
For all its other failings, social media has every now and then managed to do what it was intended to: connect people. We see it all around us and I’m sure a lot of you have met your best friends or business partners or fiancees on the timeline. In this one regard, I feel uncommonly lucky to have crossed paths -more than a couple of times- with open, curious, genuine souls looking to share some profound experience of their time here, known or unknown to them, and a willingness to lift the hood and see what’s really going on with me in the deep below.
Esther and I have never met in real life. We’ve been friends for about 4 years now and I talk to her at least every other day. She knows more about what’s going on with me, with my family, on a fundamental level than possibly anyone else, and I’ve gotten a very intimate behind the scenes look at what it takes to be who she is, as a woman, a daughter and a leader. We’ve exchanged cards, letters and gifts across the ocean and learn new lessons together with each failure or disappointment, most prominently that most days won’t be wins.
I commissioned the portrait above a couple days after her birthday. There are a lot of particulars contained within it that only she and I would immediately pick up on, like an inside joke, but overall it was intended as an expression of love and gratitude, breathtakingly captured by my brother Gaab, because it’s important to say those things when you have the chance to.
Social media is not *all* bad; it’s just a tool which we tend to misuse (the argument could be made that it’s designed to function most optimally in misuse). But without it, I might have never been exposed to Anne Kansiime, Shea Serrano, Jonny Sun or MarthaKay, might have never known the brilliant works of Peter Kagayi or Philippa Namutebi Kagali Kagwa courtesy of Sooo Many Stories Ug, or gotten to engage in and absorb the moving stories and everyday experiences of “Black No Sugar”.
I might have never gotten to know of the 4040 Foundation, much less still, the awesome, flawed, vulnerable, hilarious, generous, self-doubting, headstrong, deeply human life force at its core, Esther K.
I can’t imagine how I’d have made it through the past couple of years without her. Real talk. Sometimes we have everything to say between us and in the times we don’t, it’s enough to know that out of the murk and disillusionment, amidst the carnage and insecurity of trying to hold your head up in a world bent on extinguishing you, someone saw, someone listened. Someone genuinely cared that you were here.
And they reached out across the hazardous ether with a bounty full of personalized emoji, to whisper loudly once more, “I got you.”