Ideas, Stories, and Profiles

As I joined one room started by Brenda, Kathia, and Kelly (three of the five-member popular socialite group known as Mäckenzie on Instagram) on Sunday night, the chat seemed to have been going on for a while. Israel and I had just concluded our third hour-long weekly session of The Kigalian Café, an over-coffee-like conversation where we talked about how we think Clubhouse, a new voice-only social media application, could shape discourse in, and about, Rwanda. Close to one hundred users (mainly young Rwandans) had already joined, and as a new entrant, you find yourself on the “listener” panel and lend your ear to figure out what's going on.

The three moderators had just asked a question to the audience: "If you had to change your name, which other name would you pick and why?" One male participant said Manzi, and another woman said Ikirezi. There were slightly more than ten people on the panel of “speakers” at the time, and it went in rounds, as they all shared their answers — there were many more fancy names than I can remember.

At this point, I had already been invited by the moderators to join the speakers (the panel shows at the top of the screen) and when my turn came I jokingly made a prologue — to say it's unfortunate I would have to change my name (Rwabigwi) that I so much love. Then Kelly went on to explain to me that it's a game, not that I would have to literally replace the name. The point, she said, is to share another name that is not yours but you like. Ah, there you go. Then I said, "One of my friends has a daughter called Aya Shamika, and I love her name so much. I’d pick it."

The next speaker was up.

We transitioned to another topic when moderators asked participants to share their views on a rather more delicate subject. "Why do you think it's still hard for people to talk about their mental health in Rwanda?" they asked. Views ranged from the role of our cultural norms and how a lack of knowledge about mental health contributes to its stigmatisation. Some went on to share their personal experiences, to which we all listened carefully and took a chance to learn.

To end the room with a little bit of fun, Kelly asked the group of speakers to play a game called Truth and Lie. One had to state two truths and a lie about themselves, and others had to guess which is which. I had never played it before, so this was fun for me.

The night before, I had joined a group of users who discussed life under lockdown and how each person is coping with the discomfort and striving to stay healthy and productive. Because it was past ten at night, the moderator made musical interjections, either by asking a speaker to sing or play a Rwandan traditional song. It turned out to be a delightful night of virtual connection and entertainment.

Since January, many more Rwandans from within the country and abroad are joining Clubhouse. In addition to the Rwanda Hub, a “club” which now counts more than a thousand and four hundred members, conversations on a wide variety of topics — ranging from business and investment to brands, feminism to gender stereotypes, creative industries, and building community — are happening, all created by independent users.

On Monday night, a group of young graphic designers created a room whose title ("Good Design vs. Effective Communication") itself led to a thought-provoking discussion. Late night, I jumped into a room filled mostly with students and young professionals in the Rwandan diaspora who were discussing education in Rwanda and the individual role one might play to help improve it. Speakers in another room, on Tuesday morning, discussed cyberbullying, overcoming social pressure, and navigating social constructs.

It's happening daily. As I write this, there is a group that’s discussing Rwandan startups and another, but not by locals, that’s discussing what “benevolent capitalism” looks like. Some are random, others are well-curated and on schedule, and there are those that are surely not for everyone. But so far so good — the nature of their diversity is remarkable and worth celebrating.

Clubhouse was launched on iOS in April of last year. It gives the user the ability to create or enter a "room" and start a conversation. Whereas some rooms are open to the public, users can also create private ones. The application always allows the host to give the room a name and a description. It also allows you to see it at the top of your screen, if it's been posted a person you follow or if the room was created under a "club" to which one is subscribed. From there, you can also add it to your calendar. Users can follow each other or topics of interest, as well as themed clubs.

Clubhouse is like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation at your favourite café or bar in town, with the ability to join in and be a part of it.

Many people have asked me why I think Clubhouse stands out. To them, I say using a microphone is much easier for most people than using a keyboard. Audio is also more intimate and "live" than text-based communication.

But it's not just that. The mobile technology on which it is built and how it is designed to bring many people together to chat, in an easy manner, is quite remarkable. This favours smooth conversation and provides room for people to elaborate on their ideas and thinking, unlike on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. People who have used it so far will tell you there is something about the feeling of listening to the voice of someone or a group of fellow enthusiasts discussing a topic of their choosing, like on a live radio show in which you too can comfortably contribute.

Clubhouse will keep growing, and many more Rwandans will join. When the application joins Android and gets more accessible to many, it will become very popular before we know it. With its attractive functionality that embraces the power of the human voice, Clubhouse presents an opportunity to not only break echo-chambers but also get more people to easily share their perspectives like never before.

Because it is timely and functional, Clubhouse has the potential to elevate the way people communicate with each other in social streams. Leaders who are keen to be part of the next evolution of our social engagements might simply need to sign up — now.

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