One of the interesting things about being in Kenya this year is that they are also having a General Election, but not until March 2013. This is the date that the government is being held to but they have changed it a couple of times already. There is skepticism in the press as to whether they will be ready. Of course , since their system is Parliamentary it is quite different (the organization of the government ), yet it is truly democratic, in as much as the popular vote decides the winner and there are a lot of parties represented. This election is a very big deal for them for many reasons. For one, it is for all MP positions in the national government (210 or so) as well as for President and Vice President. Secondly, and most importantly, Kenya has the specter of a very serious violent reaction to their last general elections in 2007-2008, which scarred the country quite a bit (especially in the west) and is a central theme to most of the articles that I’ve read in the local papers. Those elections were considered to be rigged and so obviously so, that people went berserk after the President was named and he and his people decided to swear him in in secrecy during the night. This was a clear indicator that something was fishy and it did not go over well. The violence was very damaging to the reputation of Kenya as a leader in East Africa and a country on the move forward. There’s a lot of information in the news and online about this period of time if you want to read more about it. Currently, here, we don’t see much evidence of tension but there have been some unpleasant events at political rallies in various parts of the country.
Since we don’t see television, it is only through the newspaper and through conversations with local folks that we are able to glean much information about the upcoming elections. People who we know keep telling us that they are confident that the elections will be peaceful because Kenyans realize that a violent aftermath would, once again, be terrible for the country on many levels. Last time this happened, in 2008, it affected the tourism industry which is a large part of the Kenyan economy, and it caused enormous ripple affects all over East Africa since Kenya is a major trading route between the coast and other East African countries. The people that we know who are confident of a peaceful election tend to be educated and have a deeper understanding of the broader troubles that such violence can bring. They are also not people who get involved in such activities. Whatever the basis for their optimistic attitude, I sure hope they are correct!
A few weeks ago, while we were at the market, there were several very boisterous “parades” or “rallies’ supporting various local candidates for what they call “by-elections” which I gather is like a local primary election. Despite the fact that we read the local paper religiously, it is difficult to understand exactly what is going on and which MP belongs to which party, etc. It was sort of exciting but also due to the last election’s violence, I think people are on edge a bit because they are uncertain how things are going to pan out in the streets. Several MPs and others behind campaigns have gotten into trouble for “hate language” already. Although the national candidates and the newspapers are touting free and fair elections with NO VIOLENCE, with a large segment of the population undereducated, poor, and frustrated with the powers that be, it is hard to predict. So, we are waiting to see as well and we might take a little trip during the elections in order to avoid any nasty issues that might happen.
Unfortunately, the Kenyans still have a fair amount of tribalistic tendencies, and that is what motivated the last election’s violence. It’s very sad to me, because as an outsider, non Kenyan, I only know that folks are Kenyan, and only if I ask can I know which tribe or larger group they are from. I never ask because it is unimportant to me. People are people, right? From our perspective, they are all Kenyans and should be working together to improve this nation. However, due to the number of different tribes and peoples here, and also the history of colonization and abuse by the English and other western powers, and their relatively recent independence and foray into democratic processes, it’s not as simple as that. I find that when questioned, Kenyans don’t really want to talk about it in depth. They attribute the last round to “jealousy” or “inequity” which seems like sort of generalized blanket justification. We are sort of perplexed by the whole topic since we don’t know that many people well yet, can’t speak the local languages well yet, and are not deeply ensconced in the work world yet. Michael may get more clues to this issue when his project actually takes off.
When I reflect on the recent elections in the US it is not so very different than what goes on there still now. Perhaps it is just human nature for people to be “against” someone who is not their own kind. I personally don’t find this a particularly progressive way to think but it certainly was evidenced in the US before the election with effigies of President Obama being hung in public places (not just in the south folks, it happened in Indiana too!) or racist epithets being sworn around. In other words, in our own election, many people were less focused on the issues of the day and what the candidates were truly about than they were about what color they were or what religion they espoused. So again, it seems it must be just the human/societal evolution issue again. We can be thankful that our actual transitioning does not beget a violent reaction in this day and age.
Now that the elections in the states are over and the concession speech by Romney and acceptance speech by Obama made, the Kenyans are interested in our process even more. Of course they are so happy that Obama won both because he is considered their “native son” and also because he is a person of color and “a good man.” The people whom I have spoken to about our election think that we are ‘so peaceful” and that they should try to mimic us but in the same breathe, when asked, say that they “would never” vote over party (tribal) lines…curious, but not overly surprising I guess in their evolution as a democracy. The topic of our peaceful transition has been in the paper every day since our election as well as how important it is for their politicians to really work on improving things in this country rather than just becoming politicos for the sake of their big egos. I hope for this country that they can really achieve peaceful, non corrupted elections and begin to make the transition into an administration that is truly representing the needs/hopes/desires of their countrymen and women. It is a long haul, without a doubt.