In the Hands of a Tweet

What a cute little word ‘tweet’ is. How innocuous-sounding. How frail and birdlike. But how deceptive, as well.

How much power there can be in the hands of a short, carelessly knocked-together bunch of words. And that’s exactly what so many tweets are – short and careless, even boring, stupid, annoying. Why did you bother tweeting THAT? I’m sure we’ve all thought of some tweets. But others, either deliberately or through random chance, can suddenly muster an indomitable power and go viral. And then … ah, what a powerful word a tweet is! No longer quite so cute and innocuous.

Maybe some of you have already had the opportunity to experience a tweet gone viral? If so, lucky you! But what happens afterwards? Back to normality, or fame forever? The fabulously fantastic tweeter who thereafter made a fortune? Is that you? Hmm.

My story is not quite so providential. But nonetheless, there was indeed one little tweet of mine, posted in October 2016, that did actually go viral – at least by Wendy Skorupski standards of viral. And it sure did make quite a difference to my life!

It was a tweet to a president, to be precise. No, not the then-incumbent President Obama, but still, to a president, nonetheless. Of Rwanda. And the very next day to actually get a reply from him … well, let’s just say that a whole lot of things followed, not counting squeals of unadulterated excitement, in the hands of my unsuspecting tweet.

So this is what I tweeted President Paul Kagame while on holiday in Rwanda in 2016:

We are very impressed with your country. What do you say to those who think your methods are dictatorial? 

And this is what he tweeted back to me:

Feel free to go all around the country asking …and decide what to believe! What do you think of those who say the opp.?

That was it for me! From being a relatively new tweeter with an embarrassingly modest following, I was suddenly, overnight, plunged onto the high road to fame (well…), not to mention skyrocketed towards a surge of new followers. The moment I received President Kagame’s reply, Rwandans from all over the country started liking and retweeting and commenting on my message. That night, as I lay in bed beneath the sticky mosquito net provided by the hotel, my sleep was interrupted every few minutes by a titillating vibration that gyrated right through me (stop those naughty thoughts this minute! – the vibrations were merely from my mobile phone, which lay cuddled up beside me in bed), and then another vibration, and another, and yet another, and soon I just couldn’t be bothered with any sleep at all. The throbbing nocturnal hours were WAY too exciting. Rwandans were suddenly liking me! I’d been discovered! They were tweeting, retweeting and following me throughout the hot, sticky, subtropical night!

The very next day the local press in Kigali got hold of my story and wrote about British tourist Wendy Skorupski who tweeted their president and got a reply. And then, a little later, two government MPs messaged me on Twitter and asked if we could meet at the hotel where my family and I were staying. No! all family and friends back in Europe said when we messaged them about our exciting adventure. Don’t agree to a meeting! What if you’re arrested? After all, you called him a dictator! Isn’t that the guy who has his opponents assassinated, according to Human  Rights’ Watch and Amnesty International?

We were by Lake Kivu in the northwest of Rwanda at the time of the tweet. When we returned to Step Town Motel in Kigali, set atop one of Rwanda’s thousand breathtaking hills, the hotel manager, Johnny, called me over to his desk as soon as he saw us step out of the taxi that had brought us back from the bus station. So I walked over to him and said the usual Kinyarwanda greeting: Muraho.

Muraho,” he replied, but then went straight on to tell me about this British tourist who had apparently tweeted their president. He showed me the newspaper article.

I’m sure I blushed at this point, despite my Rwandan tan. “Erm …” I began modestly, “that tourist … well actually, it’s me.”

“No!” Johnny peered at the article again, and the tiny photograph of me on my tweet, then returned his eyes to me. “It is you!” he said, beaming. “You actually tweeted our president and got a reply!”

“Yes, and two government officials are coming to visit us tomorrow,” I added, whereupon his smile dropped. But I merely laughed. “No, don’t worry, everything will be fine, I’m sure. I’m not going to be arrested just for tweeting.”

So we ignored our family and friends’ advice and agreed to meet the two government VIPs.

They came to our hotel the next day, all formal and suited and smiling broadly, and we sat down to have coffee on the terrace that overlooked the lush hills of Kigali. The MPs were refreshingly open with us, proud when talking about their country and its astounding development since the 1994 Genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi. Above all,  they were delighted that this Western family had shown enough interest in their beautiful homeland to come and see it for themselves.

So everything was fine, as it turned out. I wasn’t arrested for my audacious tweet. But why would I have been arrested? I praised President Kagame’s country, didn’t I?

Anyway, my point is this. In the hands of what I thought was a perfectly innocuous tweet, and one I certainly never expected to get a reply from, I had my ten weeks of fame. I returned to Poland and emailed the Independent about my experience. They contacted me almost immediately, interviewed me, and wrote a feature on my Rwandan experience. Then the BBC phoned and subsequently interviewed me on the radio. Then their American counterparts did the same thing. I had to struggle out of bed at bloody 6.00 am to be ready for the American interview!

But that’s not all.

After calming down from all my twitter excitement, I decided that something had to come out of my ten weeks of twitter fame. Something had to come out of my fresh love of Rwanda and Rwandans. Out of the whole exotic, slightly scary at times, but overall amazing experience of our two weeks in Rwanda.

So, my writer’s mind started clicking and clanging and grinding away, as usual. Rwanda, Rwanda, Rwanda … where are you taking me now?

To the world of fiction, as it turned out. I’d already been planning to write my next novel about something to do with Rwanda, and had even spotted my male lead in the visa queue at Kigali airport upon arrival – a tall, dark and handsome fellow who subsequently metamorphosed into my heart-throb male lead, John Paul Chambers, unbeknownst to the guy. (See my post: But now, after this whole twitter experience, I knew how I should begin my novel. Up till that point, the beginning had been my main enemy, as it so often is. Now I had it cracked! I would begin with a tweet to a president.

Well, not quite. Firstly, I’d open with a sombre prologue set in the past – a boy wakes up in a school hall to find himself atop a pile of corpses, his family’s included. A post-massacre scene from hell. The setting is Kigali 1994. But I’d only allow two pages of that, and then move on to present-day London, and to my feisty protagonist, Naomi Lieberman. So this is how the reader is introduced to her:


naomi liebermann @NaomiLieberman … 2s

@PaulKagame I urgently need to contact John Paul Chambers. I know he’s somewhere in Rwanda. Please, Your Excellency, help me find him!

So does she find him? Does he find her? And then what?

Ah, but you’ll have to wait and see, won’t you? As soon as Once Upon a Thousand Hills is published, all shall be revealed.

Okay, conclusion. In the hands of a tweet, what can be achieved? In my case, an entire novel!

Thank you, Twitter, and thank you, President Paul Kagame, and thank you, all my Rwandan followers, for providing the inspiration!

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