The tech that helped me bridge the gap and nurture my relationships during the pandemic

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Elizabeth Okoh

30 Sep 2021

I glance at my phone and see that it’s only thirty minutes till midnight. I’m in an Uber with friends from London, Seattle, Houston and Lagos. We’re racing to Polo Beach Club, Accra. I sigh as the vehicle comes to another standstill – traffic.

We’re determined not to ring in the new year in a stranger’s car. Perhaps we should have organised ourselves better. However, it was one of those holidays where you just ‘go with the flow’ and now we were paying for it in our increased stress levels. Luckily, we’re not too far from the beach club, so we get out and walk the rest of the way after the car jolts to another halt.

Ten minutes later, we’re at the entrance, and we find out the tickets are now double the price. After going back and forth on what to do, we decide that we don’t want to countdown the new year by the roadside looking for another cab. We dig into our purses and pay the entry.

By five minutes to midnight, we make haste to find a good spot for ourselves. And by three minutes to, we’re stationed by the pool. Finally, the time we’ve all be waiting for arrives and we start counting down. As soon as the clock strikes midnight, the sky comes alive with an assortment of colours. However, most of us are watching the fireworks through a mobile screen anchored to a social media platform. Everyone is screaming “Happy New Year”. It’s officially 2020 – we made it!

I make a post on Instagram stories and add the hashtag #2020Vision. The hashtag carries the weight of dreams and affirmations for the new year… if only I had known.

A month later, I’m back in London and on the grind. My plans for the year are starting to take shape nicely, but two months later, I like the rest of the world, get a rude awakening. I can remember, I was on the train back home from a meeting when my mum called to tell me that there’s a rumour that we’re likely heading into a national lockdown and some hours later, the Prime Minister makes the announcement.

As the days go by, I don’t believe the lockdown will only be for three weeks, seems like wishful thinking, but I’m intrigued to see what unfolds.

A month later, we’re still in lockdown and the only way I’m able to see or interact with friends and family is through a mobile phone. I’m still hopeful that things will get back to normal but the incidents all around the world is increasingly more disheartening. One morning we wake up to the news that another Black man has been horrifically killed by a police officer, the next, it’s about all the insurgencies happening in various parts of the world, and on yet another, it’s the natural disasters destroying homes and ruining lives. It feels like the whole world is on fire. Yet, despite all of these heart-wrenching horrors, some people still find the time to hoard toilet paper.

Going through so many emotions in a short period of time wasn’t good for my mental health, but I was able to remain sane, find joy in the little things and even recover the ring of my laughter in my voice again, all thanks to a mobile phone and an internet connection.

In a period of a global crisis, technology helped me to remain connected with people from around the world. Here are the three ways I managed to do this.

1. A 21-day meditation journey on WhatsApp

A month into lockdown, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend in Belgium. She asked if I’d be interested in joining her meditation group. I had always wanted to get back into my daily meditation ritual so there was no better time to get started. We quickly realised that the lockdown also had some benefits – we could finally dedicate time to things we’d ignored in the past.

In the WhatsApp group, her welcome message started:

‘This is a 21-day journey of abundance. It takes about 15 – 30 minutes a day, including journaling and a meditation.’

On day one, the journaling task was to make a list of 50 people that had influenced us. I had followed her suggestion to complete the tasks in the morning. So, I woke up on that first day, got out my journal and began to make a list. It seemed easy at first, but as I continued, I had to think deeply about my life to get to number 50.

Starting from my childhood I thoroughly examined the people that had made an impact, whether small or huge, it didn’t matter because even little influences can surmount to big impacts when viewed in hindsight. I thought about people I had met and had various experiences with, and those that I no longer spoke to. The task enabled me to examine my life in a way that I hadn’t done in a long while – I liked that. So, I ignored the follow up message that said there was no judgement if we wanted to leave the group because we were finding the daily tasks too challenging to commit to the journey.

I carried on every morning and pushed through the tasks I found difficult. In some ways, it was also a journey of resilience. To be alone with my thoughts and confront things that had been ignored or long forgotten was powerful. Some people left the group a few days in, but I and many others persevered. In a time when everything around us felt like it was falling apart, my mental and spiritual health was being nurtured just by virtue of being in a WhatsApp group.

When I had joined the instant messaging app in 2013, I couldn’t have known that it would be the innovation keeping me grounded and connected with people all over the world through our shared interest in the joys of meditation during a pandemic.

2. Heart-warming chats on Zoom

A couple of months into the lockdown, that same Belgium friend brought me and eight other women together. I had admired some of these young women on social media for some time and it was great talking to them in real life – albeit via a computer screen.

We were all in different time zones (London, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Kenya and the US) which made scheduling our chats sometimes tricky. However, what we all have in common is our intersectional feminist beliefs.

We had long chats that most times extended past midnight, once or twice a month on Zoom. We held space for each other to talk about the theme of the session or whatever else we had on our minds, and it quickly became an online community that I was looking forward to.

In one moment, we would be talking about our astrological signs and how our different astrological house placements may have impacted our personalities, and the next, it would be about the future of our continent and our contributions towards shaping it for the better. The theme of each chat wasn’t as important as the space it created for us to connect with other like-minded people.

As someone who loves to mostly sit back and observe, I enjoyed listening to their beautiful minds and marvelled at how we could do these Zoom chats so easily, with time being truly proven to be a construct given the situation in the world.

In the thick of the pandemic, with no end in sight, technology was bridging the gap to nurture my newly found friendship.

3. Supporting a revolution with cryptocurrency

In the late summer of 2020, a protest broke out in Lagos – Nigeria’s former capital state – before being quickly followed up by protests in other states too. It wasn’t so surprising given the other protests around the world asking for the end of police brutality and a change in governance. However, what was surprising was the magnitude and strength of this particular protest in the history of this generation of Nigerians. There had been other protests in Lagos that had quickly died out – but this was different.

It was well organised and had a single purpose – a call for an end to the unlawful arrests, extortions and killings of the country’s youth by the police special force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Quite an ironic name if you ask me.

What was even more surprising was the group supporting the protest with financial aid, supplies and food was the Feminist Coalition, a group of women with a mission to champion equality for women in Nigeria, given how misogynistic and patriarchal the Nigerian society still is.

However, when their bank account was frozen in an attempt to maim their success in helping sustain the protest, they shifted to a cryptocurrency platform and asked for Bitcoin donations instead. And this was when the true power of a decentralized digital currency, one that doesn’t need a central bank or single administrator to function, became very apparent.

Supporters from all over the world continued to donate to their efforts until the protest was gruesomely shut down by military force on the 20th of October.

Despite how things ended, the major reason the protest was able to last for as long as it did was because of the power of technology. The experience showed us and young people around the world that with technology, we can change the world for the better and support causes that are dear to our hearts.

The events of 2020 will not be forgotten too soon by many. And even as we move into what might become a “new normal”, it’s great to know that with the help of technology (and as more innovations come to market), I’m able to remain connected with loved ones all over the world, no matter what.