Dispatch from Kenyan Election: "Tell Them We Want Change!"
The motorcycle taxi’s engine hummed, breaking up the early morning quiet as we made our way through Nairobi’s dark early morning streets.
It was March 4, 5:30 am, the day of Kenya’s presidential election. The city was still quiet but the anticipation was palpable. This is the first election since 2007—when contested results led to violence that left over 1,000 people dead and 600,000 displaced.
Suddenly, Kenya was on the world’s radar again and the stakes felt oppressively high.
We made a sharp right to enter the road that divides the rest of the city from Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum.
I could see movement in the huge field at the entrance to the slum.
“Look at all those people already lined up to vote, and it's not even light outside,” William the driver murmured.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, shadowy figures started to emerge. I squinted and realized that I couldn’t even see the field, all I could see were the lines of people that snaked through it.
When we arrived at a polling station on the other side of Kibera, the air crackled with energy. People’s faces were lit dimly by streetlamps as they waited excitedly. Poll monitors bustled in and out of rooms prepping for the voting to begin.
Every time someone pushed to get ahead or stepped on a toe, everyone held their breath. Reporters ran over, election officials stepped in and everyone craned their necks to watch. No one knew how election day or the following days were going to turn out. Everyone was on high alert.
Shortly after 6am, Muthoni Ndungu stepped forward, depositing her ballot into one of the multi-colored boxes casting the first vote at Olympic Primary School’s polling station.
A petite woman squeezed in line locked eyes with me as I stood in a group of foreign reporters “We want change!” She shouted at us, “Tell them we want change!”
As the day wore on, crisp morning chill gave way to mid-morning sun which gave way to thick, palpable midday heat. The lines moved painfully slowly. People waited. There was nowhere to sit and in many cases nothing to eat. With no one left at home, women had their infants and toddlers strapped to their backs. Taxi drivers turned down much needed jobs to keep their place in line.
“Things just feel different, it’s not like the last election,” a young man from Kibera told me.
“Last time, everyone could smell something was coming, this time people are really jolly, the vibe is different.”
People kept waiting. For some, the entire day passed before they cast their votes. Not until evening as the polls began to close were they able to finally have their say in their country’s future.
I thought about my own country and how many of us don’t vote even fill out absentee ballots in the comfort of our own living room.
I thought about the articles that would open with the separatist violence that had occurred in Mombasa. They wouldn’t mention the peaceful lines that snaked across the rest of the country and the dedication they showed to democracy until seven paragraphs in.
It's been 48 hours since the polls closed and a winner is still undeclared. A few isolated spates of violence have occurred around the country, but for the most part things have stayed calm.
Some people call what the country is experiencing now an uneasy peace. Some people call it business as usual as Kenyans hit unpause on their lives, heading back to the routines they cultivated decades before, and will continue to cultivate decades after this election. Some people will say its too early to draw conclusions about anything and that violence still may grip the country in the upcoming weeks.
All of these are true. They’re true because Kenya is a three-dimensional country capable of a multitude of realities.
There have been spates of violence and votes have been bought. At the same time, a fire for change exists here that the world’s most established democracies should envy.
Nothing about Kenya, or the rest of Africa, can be summed up in a catchy declarative sentence. If the rest of us want to understand or do justice to what is occurring, we’re going to have to start reading past the headlines.
Photo courtesy of Abby Higgins