• Those who have tried it speak out on their experiences, including being conned
Long before the Internet emerged, people made friends beyond their villages by looking through the penpal sections published in newspapers. If you liked someone’s profile, you wrote them a letter and became penpals.
The exchange of letters took weeks, but the novelty of communicating with someone in a distant land was exciting enough to keep the correspondence going. Most penpals never got to meet due to the distance between them, but some met and started lifelong relationships.
Today’s technology has made it much easier for complete strangers to start a conversation and eventually meet. Lots of people are hooking up through social media and the various dating websites.
However, unlike the era of penpals, there is a stigma attached to online dating. Critics say it is “too easy”, and that human relationships born out of online interactions are “artificial”.
Many men would never admit to having met their partners through online dating. Society believes a real man should walk over to a woman and verbally express his intentions.
Women who met their partners online also don’t readily admit to it, fearing prejudice from friends and family. Other critics say online dating in Kenya is encouraging casual sex encounters, giving rise to the “nitumie fare (send me bus fare)” trend.
George Muriuki, a Nairobi resident, says he has toured the length and breadth of Kenya thanks to online dating. “My first trip to Kisumu was to visit a girl I met online,” he says.
“Same with Eldoret, Naivasha and Machakos. I have been to Mombasa several times to meet prospective lovers.”
Several of the encounters grew into long-term relationships, but none led to marriage. “I love travelling but sustaining a long-distance relationship is not easy. As the Swahili saying goes, fimbo ya mbali haiui nyoka (a faraway stick cannot kill a snake). I am now looking for someone in or around Nairobi,” he says.
Muriuki says he has not met any suspicious characters online. “Actually, my worst relationships were with people I met through my social circles,” he says.
“The only challenge I experienced with online dating is that some women wanted to get married immediately and I was not comfortable with the rush.”
Jerusha Nduta met more than her fair share of shady characters when she joined a popular dating website. “There is this guy I met on the website. We eventually arranged a date at a restaurant and after a month, he invited me to see his house,” she recalls.
Alarm bells rung when Jerusha stepped into a sparsely furnished house with only a plastic chair in the living room and a mattress in the bedroom. The man explained that he had recently moved into the house and that the rest of the furniture was on the way.
Jerusha accepted the explanation, but did not see any additional furniture in the house during subsequent visits. Surprisingly, the man had a car.
When Jerusha realised her “boyfriend” was not forthcoming with personal details, she decided to end the relationship by “ghosting” him, which means ignoring someone by not answering calls and texts.
Her second attempt at finding love online also ended in disappointment. A middle-aged man who seemed fairly decent struck an online conversation with her.
They eventually met face to face, where the man dropped the bombshell. He told Jerusha he was married, had several girlfriends and was looking at adding more to his harem.
“At least he was honest about his intentions, but I want a serious, monogamous relationship, not an affair with a married man,” she says.
There are many couples who found love online without drama. The secrets to building a successful relationship from an online romance are similar to the steps you would take with someone you met at work, in your residential area, in a religious institution or in school.
Take time to get to know each other. Understand your intentions from the very beginning: that is, are you in it for marriage or for a casual encounter? If both parties agree that their common objective is marriage, it is important to agree on a timeline so that neither feels pressured.
As with everything else in life, there are con artists who get into online dating to exploit the unwitting. The social media scene is rife with cases of people who sent bus fare to their online lovers so they can come meet them, but the recipients stopped communicating after receiving the money. Some fraudsters create fictional emergencies to solicit money.
“I got a friend request on Facebook from a woman I did not know,” says John Mtambo, a shopkeeper at the coast.
“The woman lived in Nairobi, or at least she told me so. We began texting on Messenger and eventually exchanged phone numbers. We were calling each other several times a day, it seemed like a blossoming romance.”
The requests for money started innocently enough. She would ask for grocery money now and then; just a few hundred shillings, which was not a problem for Mtambo. The requests extended to hair dressing money and mobile phone air time.
“One time, she went missing for several days. I could not reach her on phone or on social media. When she was back online, she told me she was admitted in hospital and needed Sh4,000 for medication,” he recalls.
“I was saving the money to travel for our first meeting, but I sacrificed it because I really believed she was in an emergency.”
That was not the last emergency, though, and the requests for money increased in frequency. When he could no longer send more money, the woman stopped communicating. Her Facebook account deactivated.
The Internet is one of many channels of communication. In the past, people wrote to penpals near and far. Letters have been replaced with text messages. With or without the Internet, people would still be striving to find that special connection.
The Internet, therefore, does not corrupt society’s moral fabric; it makes it easier for people to identify others with common interests. In future, new information technologies will be discovered and people will use it to make connections with strangers.
Common sense calls for caution in new relationships, whether online or offline, personal or business. Fact is, only time can tell an individual’s true character.
Edited by T Jalio