When renowned 3,000m steeplechase athlete, Joe Kip, returned back to the country after winning a world championship in Europe, he bragged to his teammates and friends about how he had kissed poverty goodbye.
As soon as he landed in Nairobi, he withdrew Sh1 million shillings from a bank at the airport and set out to party.
Less than 48 hours later, one of his team mates received a call from a hotel in Nairobi saying his friend had been detained for failing to pay for his two nights stay.
“We do not know what happened to him, all we know is that he had spent two nights with some women, with whom he went partying and on the second morning he was left without a coin. All his valuables, including clothes, watch and phones were also gone,” narrates one of his friends.
His financial status degenerated from worse to worst in a few months he was crawling on his feet. While his friend feels some pity for him, he thinks that Kip’s misfortunes are well deserved.
“You should have seen him bragging and treating people with arrogance when he won the race. He ought to have planned his finances better, or what do you think?” he says with a cynical laugh.
The feeling is mutual among his former colleagues, friends, neighbours and even relatives.
Kip’s example is just one among many other incidences where someone’s misfortunes have elicited feelings of joy in other people, instead of sympathy.
That feeling has a name; schadenfreude. A mouthful word borrowed from Germany that combines schaden, which means damage, and Freude meaning joy, to describe the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others. Rather than feeling bad about someone known or unknown’s success, schadenfreude pays our psyche a happy visit when they fail.
From hearing that a nasty colleague did not get the staff of the year award, that she has been striving for, to oddly getting some pleasure when you found out the ex who dumped you was having relationship problems. Or maybe you thought justice was served when a friend who openly flaunted a lavish lifestyle ended up broke.
Kenya has been generous in this respect. Expressed in hush tones and other times boldly, Kenyans have been seen to ‘celebrate’ misfortunes of famous and prominent personalities, and mostly hiding behind computers.
In their numbers and without any reservations, Kenyans on social media and even social gatherings have lashed out at politicians, celebrities, business moguls for losing loved ones, going broke or getting sick, insinuating that they deserve what has befallen them.
Jackie Vike, famously known as Awinja, a local actress, admits that such incidents happen in Kenya although she cannot point out a specific incident that has directly affected her.
“It is wrong to think that by bashing other people makes you immune to problems, what goes around comes around,” she says.
Her sentiments are echoed by gospel artiste, Hope Kid who says it is important for individuals to realise that not everyone wishes well for you.
“Even the Bible condemns rejoicing over other people’s misfortunes,” he says, quoting Proverbs 24:17 ‘Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
Cynthia Nangila, 24, has been a victim of schadenfreude. “I had travelled to Dubai after I got an opportunity to work there, but after three months, I got involved in a fight with another Kenyan girl who thought I was messing around with her boyfriend. Gross misconduct was the ground for my deportation,” she narrates.
However, when she came back home, her friends and some relatives who she thought would empathise with her, instead laughed at her.
“They gave snide remarks suggesting that I had become full of myself since I left the country, and therefore, my deportation was meant to teach me a lesson. There were so many hurtful remarks,” she recounts.
Dr Geoffrey Wango, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi, says schadenfreude is a human experience. Even when there is no tangible benefit to the oppressor, or some greater social justice served, other people’s misfortunes are pleasurable in part, because it is self-fulfilling or satisfying.
“In Kenya, the joy of seeing prominent people going through a tough period in life is a result of stereotyping. It could explain why we love hearing negative celebrity gossip and gobble up stories about a political scandal. For example, the poor could think that a rich person especially, if they were deemed as mean deserves suffering, it is a way of expressing anger, or a defence mechanism” he explains.
The effects of being ridiculed in front of other people for their misfortunes, Wango says can lead to a real anxiety disorder known as Gelotophobia and even depression.
It explains why people sometimes hide their misfortunes from the public glare; panicked by the thought they could be made fun of in public.
He condemns such behaviour saying it does not make anyone any better. “Death, sickness or any form of adversity can happen to anyone. No human being is immortal. Laughing at other’s tragedies dehumanises the person who does it. Instead, people should practise empathy towards others,” he concludes.