If you are not on social media, you may not have heard of 68 year old Mzei Godfrey Jjemba Matte of Mbulakati village, Kitibwa sub-county in Kayunga district. Chaimani (sic) Matte has been transformed into one of the local internet’s newest memes, courtesy of a picture that has gone viral. In the picture, a scrawny, lean, and down-at-the heel looking Mzei Matte, with anti-covid19 mask hanging from his chin, is seen reading announcements at a funeral. According to news clips, the picture was allegedly taken at a funeral of one Salongo Frederick Kateregga.
When the meme’s went viral (with some versions showing him in a skirt) journalists went after the poor old man and find him they did. The long and short of it is that Mzei Matte dropped out of school in 1976 after senior four (sic). He is married and has eleven children. He earns a living from farming and tax collecting from the village market, a job he has done since 1982. In his ‘spare time’ he attends funerals and that is where he discovered his mojo as a humorous announcer. He mostly does it for free but is not averse to being given some ‘kitu kidogo’ for his efforts.
The moment the memes went viral and social media approved, the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ took over. Soon, he was being visited by all and sundry with gifts to offer. As I write, Mzei Matte is now the proud owner of an iPhone and a Samsung. In addition he has received bags of cement and other trinkets as band aid, even though he still lives in a mud and wattle house.
For the more introspective, that is where the fun ends. Mzei Matte, is just an exemplar of the poverty in rural areas. With a large family, and very inhospitable dwellings, his condition is a reflection of the deprivation (hence his gauntness that the memes seem to make fun off) in his community. Those flocking to offer trinkets and have a laugh at his expense do not see that he is the victim of a harsher order, a system that creates an unequitable world and condemns the Jjemba Mattes to a lifetime of poverty.
The bigger joke is that we too (as a nation) are victims of that same world order that has pushed Jjemba Matte to be what and where he is. In parodying him as a mere meme, we are demeaning ourselves collectively. If you doubt me rethink these events, that are now etched in history. First is the story of Bob Geldof and the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. In 1984, while watching the BBC, Geldof got concerned at the plight of Ethiopians experiencing severe famine. Geldof believed he could raise money through music and put together a crop of music stars to make the song. While it was number one for 5 weeks, selling more than 15.8 million copies, the irony was not lost on critics. First was the inference that the poor did not know about Christmas and second the revelation that proceeds could have helped Dictator Mengistu buy weapons from Russia. Geldof grew to hate the song.
Then there is the photo of the “vulture and the little girl. The photo was taken by Kevin Carter and first appeared in The New York Times on 26 March 1993. It is a photograph of a frail famine-stricken boy, initially believed to be a girl who had collapsed, with a hooded vulture eyeing him from nearby. The picture won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography award in 1994, but Carter took his own life four months after winning the prize, haunted by the spectre of his voyeurism.
The bigger point then, is that failing have a sense of the absurdity of our condition and assuming that one is doing good on the basis of an insouciant crowds’ approval can be dangerous. It is the thing that exploitation and parodies are borne of.
Samuel Sejjaaka is the Country Team Leader at Mat Abacus Business School. Twitter