How “O jewa ke eng?” infiltrated Nigerian Twitter and crushed our hearts into sad little pieces

“O jewa ke eng?” I texted a friend last week, knowing I sounded a little ridiculous and indecipherable. I had assumed he was Googling what those words meant until he texted back with the surprised eyeball emoji: “Wait, wait, I have seen this before. Twitter or somewhere.”

No…it’s a malicious and terraformed alien language which means “Destruction of Earth” and we are all going to die. Of course, I didn’t say this but then I realised ”O jewa ke eng?” doesn’t intrinsically convey happiness. Heaved into existence on social media, ”O jewa ke eng?” is South African for “What’s bothering you?” and first used by @akreana_ who had simply tweeted the language on January 5. Although she had been talking to her predominantly large South African followers, the tweet quickly gained viral capital for being mysterious and relatively uncrackable, and the most obvious thing was how people were willing to share their depressing stories and thoughts, even to strangers on the internet.

Stories of rape trauma, painful infidelity, loneliness, and every kind of misfortune cascaded from that initial tweet, proving social media is only a screened window from what really goes on in our lives. And yet, social media still made the arrival of this plethora of stories possible, so much so that the South African language found its way into Nigerian Twitter, the words preserved and unaltered.

The first flurry of responses were screenshots of messages, anonymously sent. Seemingly, the pathos of ”O jewa ke eng?” had now deepened, removing the scabs from old wounds. I can’t count the numerous agonising stories from Nigerians that I read, from living in poverty to unemployment to broken relationships. Some of the casual comments in the thread shifted from shock to the acknowledgment that people were suffering and dealing with issues in their private bubbles.

Also, ”O jewa ke eng?” has gotten different iterations while still maintaining its attachment to sadness. The LGBTQ version is the most painfully affecting, kickstarted by @Cynerrr and drew an avalanche of stories from LGBTQ people living in Nigeria, a marginalised community dispirited and disillusioned by homophobic laws passed by an anti-gay government. If the violent abuse and dehumanistion of LGBTQ Nigerians weren’t already known,”O jewa ke ng?” has added queer horror stories as a social media footnote. Even more, it’s sparked a discourse on the need to decriminalise homosexuality, and a Twitter user had posited this issue to the PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubukar, wondering if his administration would be LGBTQ-inclusive.

Others, like the atheist/irreligious and feminist versions have equally found an audience. But the Nigerian ability to take out the seriousness from things, and turn it into something comical, is beginning to water down the sad concept of ”O jewa ke eng?”. It is now joke material for Nigerian digital influencers and even the parody Twitter account of Buhari has tapped into its appeal. Beyond that, people are still asking what ”O jewa ke eng?” means and although we can agree that this requires us to reveal the turmoil in hearts, there’s a small, fleeting satisfaction that we are not all as picture-perfect as social media portrays – and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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