I never tire of talking to people in Nairobi about politics. As the election nears, tensions run high, air is thick with excitement. People are shocked this white girl can speak about politics with them; I even find myself explaining some of the hot topics like majimbo (a way of governing similar to federalism) to the locals themselves. They wonder what I am doing, knowing so much about the Kenyan political system.
I have been living in Meru, Kenya, following the campaign trail of a member of parliament aspirant on a daily basis for two months. It has given me an incredible glimpse into the political process of this country. When I look back, I am struck by moments of awe: sitting under the toasting African sun as the winds comb through grasses in the open field where the large rally is being held, my eardrums stinging with wavelengths emitting from the loud-speaker in Kimeru after being spun around by colorful traditional dancers, old women with their toothless smiles cracking up to their ears, twirling me through open arms.
I am embarrassed to admit, though, that I had moments of frustration and boredom too – my legs numb from the board jabbing into them as I sit, ready to collapse from the heat of the sun relentlessly bearing down on my freshly burning skin that lacks the pigment of protection of my neighbors, ready to faint from the heat and lack of water (I can’t drink water, going to the bathroom is not an option). I sit trapped, dead front-center stage, exposed to a crowd of hundreds of eyes while someone yells in Kimeru over the feedback splashing through the microphone. People often gesture at me. Bound by my lack of language, I am left to scan thoughts and memories out of sheer boredom.
The party Ringera runs under FOREPA (Forum for Republican Party) slogan is ingrained in my head. One of the canvassers laughs that I know so few words in Kimeru; wimbe, razor blade and niaugh, cut, are among them because they are in the attention-getting phrase.
Ringera’s campaign is revolutionary, development-based rather than dishing out money like the rest of the candidates. She works against tough odds. People expect her to give them money. She doesn't. There has been widespread violence directed at women this election; a woman was shot to death at her home for running for parliament near Nairobi. We avoid destructive force; we always travel with a number of security personnel.
The days are long and interesting. We speak at group meetings everywhere, from little wooden sheds to upscale inns. We go to Nairobi and meet with university students. We speak in a structure made of boards, gaps filled in with plastic bags for insulation as goats wander in to see what we are up to. We go to a rural school for Ringera’s school incentive program to hand out backpacks to the best students. Schedule is interrupted for a rally. A sea of green uniforms crashes with applause.
Wherever we are, students and children rush out of their classrooms and mob me. They want to see and touch the mzungu, white person. I am nervous I'll be bowled over and washed away by the enthusiastic kids, their eager and searching eyes and rubbing hands all over my arms. Even when we drive, I feel like I am in a parade, albeit a quickly moving one. Children spot me and wave with huge smiles or yell mzungu, prompting me to wave back with an equally large smile.
We attend church services and ask the people to pray and vote for Ringera. We visit the slums of Meru. We eat in a Muslim community for the breaking of their fast. I try to blend in but my eyes give me away. I almost succeed until I start talking with a boy my age. He knows I'm American; I walk with a bounce in my step. After dinner we stand in ankle-deep mud by the shacks that have no electricity. The poverty is impossible to ignore. We talk to everyone. Politicians don't. They never care enough to listen to the people's concerns and hopes. We also shake each person’s hand.
We spend days on “Meet the People Tour”. I see much of the Meru area – the irrigation ditches which communities work together to make, women dying of AIDS, children of school age who are eager to learn but cannot afford school fees, dilapidated family homes, coffee plantations, children recovering from surgery, forests and deserts, jungles and plains, cows and goats clogging the roads, rivers and villages. We stop along the way, listen to the people to hear their side of things.
Rallies are usually accompanied by an array of traditional dance and music involving continual prayer. There is no separation between church and state, as in the U.S. For not being an extremely religious person, I find myself praying a lot in Africa!
As the campaign picks up, we have more and more rallies, in fields, in the sun, the entire day. We hold them in the rain, with huge crowds yelling, cheering and singing. We even have them with few people because others are out planting. Old women sing, people dance. After the rallies, security closes in around me, ahead of the mobs. I feel like I am in water, being swept away. Someone always finds me, grabs my hand and scuttles me safely into the car that is moving slowly because of people surrounding it, some draping themselves over the car, trying to stick their fingers into the cracks of the windows for money. It is as though nobody heard Ringera’s speech.
I am surprised by my prevalence in the campaign. I am more comfortable in the background. I picture myself hiding in the back, helping out any way I can, maybe running errands and doing grunt work. I never visualize myself right next to Ringera, speaking to these crowds. I am told that my presence adds credibility and merit to the campaign. I symbolize backing and prestige because of my color. I am moved up to the front. It is difficult since I want to be an impartial journalist.
Ringera’s campaigners tell the people that no other candidate has ever brought them “a white person to see with their very own eyes". I don't consider that campaigning. A white person is really quite revolutionary. It's a strange place to be in.
Politics can be a dangerous game in Kenya. Ringera does far better than anyone imagined. As a result, she is privy to sabotage. One day we want to address a group, but another aspirant arrives before us, buys them alcohol to get them riled up before we speak. It could have exploded into a violent situation. Sometimes vehicles circle around the group. Ringera speaks to blaring music so she can’t be heard.
Ringera’s optimism is unfailing, in spite of the difficulty getting people to understand that taking 20 Kenyan shillings from candidates is letting them off without accountability. She listens to people’s problems, offers advice instead of money. She encourages constituents to question what their leaders are doing, and demand they fix the horrendous roads, deliver drinking water instead of squandering money with corruption. Some embrace this change but others don't – old habits die hard. It's a hard path, trying to change what is familiar in the electoral process, but it is a change that can have positive repercussions.
In the end, Ringers comes in third, with no experience and far less money than anyone else. Impressive. She still managed to start many projects that help people. She will continue to do this. Who could have predicted I'd be on a parliamentary campaign. Even though Ringera didn’t win, I feel grateful to have gone through the process with her. It took me to places I never would have seen if I had just been traveling through. I have been on the ride of a lifetime.