Nairobi’s young crowd: Outside looking in on election 2017

TEXT >>Alex Roberts PHOTOS >>Bryan Jaybee

Nairobi has changed a great deal in the past decade. Much has been swept under rugs and put back into crisp dollar bills and safari trucks. The old-guard colonial hotels and lavish malls have survived the ups and downs of the last decade: economic cliffs, the alarmist spectre of terrorism, and their original dragnet – political insecurity. Even as Nairobi begins to swirl with political talk of the future – of voter registration and decades-long political rivalries – the focus has shifted entirely to the dreary fucking politics of it all. So what of the youth who stand to gain or lose the most? Their voices never seem to be on the local news at nine, so what do they really think? The election is a few measly days away at this point, and barrelling down on everyone.

Much of Nairobi seems unfazed. At least, that is the artfully crafted perception. High-rises, both gorgeous and wrist-slittingly-ugly, pop up across the city (but if we’re being real, mainly on the more posh West Side of town). Those sitting atop such buildings have little concern for those running about below them: those who are primarily young and often idealistic, overworked, and underpaid.

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The international media awaits its cyclical five year reunion of covering Kenya for a day (and a third) and local power brokers ruminate and carve up the universe over high end brandies in members-only clubs, mulling over political alliances and who is really going to deliver on promises spun out of the recent months leading into the 8 August 2017 elections.

The very idea of talking politics within the framework of these last few maddening years in the world can be a fucking drag. Even I, resident ‘political junkie,’ am struggling to keep my head above it, what with the sudden onset of food poisoning I got on a floating barge buffet at a Karen amusement park over the Madaraka Day weekend and the sheer lateness of the hour to ponder such things. So let’s not and instead look at some of the people who could see their lives impacted by the election.

If there’s one group that always goes wayward into the annals of history it’s the ‘youth’: working stiffs and creatives, musicians and store tenders, the actual foundation of the next century’s middle class promise that is the real face of any bullshit propagandists ideal of ‘the African future.’

In the view of most young Nairobians I know, eyes are keen to roll back at the mere mention of all things ‘political’; even those wanting to up their involvement are quick to acknowledge that it is on them to change processes for their own future, rather than the current reality.

“I’ve never really supported any political party in Kenya, neither do I have strong roots or ties to my tribal community,” says Lorna N’geno, a sculptor from Westlands who’s heavy into the Nairobi literary scene. “I’m just a dork raised in Nairobi with little affiliation or even conviction about anything except that things need to change.”

That seems a common sentiment regarding the politics surrounding the gates of the democratic process itself: this isn’t for me.

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One backyard has taken on a life of its own below the clear skies of 1 June, the Kenyan holiday of Madaraka Day. The garden is that of Creative’s Garage, a Nairobi hub of arts, connection, and during events, sipping beers and striking conversation.

In a shaded back corner away from the sound check, Brian Kulu (aka Aces) sips on water, earphones hanging limp on his shoulders. He is nonchalant regarding the whole election scene. “Most of the artists I know are not going to vote, me being one of them. I didn’t get my voter’s card,” he explains this as Kendrick Lamar’s Humble comes rumbling over the speakers to test the bass. “It doesn’t matter who we put in office; either of them, it’s all going to go to shit.”

This isn’t to say that youth are going together as a bloc, unwilling to participate in the election as it stands on its own. Frankly, Nairobi has been teeming with pre-election activity. A couple of hours and a couple of set-lists later on Madaraka Day, politics once again ruled supreme. Zooming around Hurlingham with an ill-tempered boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver, there were dozens of mobilisation enthusiasts, draped in signs and banners.

The surreal aspect was that the two parties were less than 150 meters from each other in the drive to register more voters: the greens and oranges of NASA (National Super Alliance made up of the Wiper, ODM, and FORD political powerhouses) and Jubilee’s tomato-red – kitty corner from one another. The bike I was on ignored urgings to stop, the driver cursing at me under his breath. We swerved on around lumbering matatus and a silver S-class Mercedes, flying by dozens of posters for candidates for parliament lining concrete walls.

I stopped back later on, once the voter registration drive had subsided. I talked to boda-boda operator Jamo Mwangi, who was stationed for customers on the corner of Kirichwa and Argwings Kodhek roads in Hurlingham, conveniently on the right angle of the L shaped intersection where the two registering efforts had been hours before. He was straightforward about how he viewed the reaction of youth to the upcoming election and to the current political scene: “They’re idle, what do you want them to do? They can’t also be angry? They’re ignored bro. Always.”

He noticed a potential fare and took off, but not before bringing up an opinion that seems to be shared by many: that young voters are rowdy when they feel ignored, and many in the older generations translate this into the quiet whisper of “ignorant.”

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Philip Eleazar Kisia, a 26-year-old graphics-guru, is one who doesn’t buy into the notion of sitting the election out. He’s joining a rising tide of young people who want their opportunity to cast ballots, and to have the process not become a farce as has been alleged in years past.

“There are those who want to progress things as they are and there are those who want change,” he explains on a plant filled apartment balcony in Kileleshwa. “I want to participate, I need to invest time and research the candidates, cause even if my votes don’t matter, who I tell people I support does. I’ve been able to engage with a lot of youth, and there’s a huge variety of opinion. Some think that not getting involved is the wrong thing to do.”

With the information available skyrocketing and the veritable army of #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter, never ones to pass on taking the piss where it’s warranted) hunting down specks of info like a crime scene detective day and night, it would be a mistake to believe that there is a ‘wool-over-the-eyes’ syndrome of ignorance pervading this year’s voter.

A few days prior and seemingly worlds away in the palm-fringed confines of Kilifi, I sat down with Adam Kiboi. Hailing from Nairobi West, he’s now turned coastie. He wears many hats but can best be described as a sort of middle-man for all things in the Kenyan creative scene. While escaping the hellish Coast heat in the shaded confines of a bar, he explained how he thinks the 2017 election will impact youth voters in Kenya. “It won’t have that much of an impact on youth because the youth is more informed than they were in 2007 and 2013, the government has taken on more of a policy of transparency and all kinds of data is available to the youth.”

This does have a ring of truth to it: the government of Kenya has taken steps to increase the availability of information. For example, the Kenyan government took steps to join the open government partnership back in 2013, which means that much more information is available to the youth.

It would be a mistake to believe that there is a ‘wool-over-the-eyes’ syndrome of ignorance pervading this year’s voter.

This is mirrored in the Kenyan Open Data Project, a sort of one-stop shop for numbers from births to procurement to youth unemployment rates.

The feeling that many young people or first time voters have ‘upped their game’ in terms of political awareness is echoed by Salome Ayugi, a blogger and public relations worker from South C, Nairobi. “The youth of Nairobi were very ignorant on topics around politics in the last elections but the recent months have shown that many youths have become enlightened. The discussions on social media around the doctors’ strike, food scarcity, and corruption scandals were more than just hash-tags and trends. They showed that the youth are affected by the poor decisions bad leaders have made.”

Now it seems to be a question of what trends will wind up popping up from it all. As expected there are the tear-inducing moments of political ineptitude, but such sound-bytes don’t really have an impact other than the sudden slappingof the forehead and a brief stare into the middle-distance.

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The more prescient reality is that trepidation regarding the August 8th vote – a sort of ‘wait-and-see’ approach by both local and international investors within recent months – has lead to a general slowing of many contract businesses outside of the tourism industry. Even the small time guys are starting to feel that pinch. To compound this, price hikes on many basic commodities (i.e. ugali powder, a staple food in Kenya, nearly doubling in price) have been drastic within the first half of 2017.

Inyika Odero, the reigning Miss Congeniality of Kenya who works on the side as a model and actress, has felt the economic tightening as well. “Prices had hiked and people that are affected most are wananchi (everyday Kenyans). For me as a creative it’s impacted me as well: there aren’t many productions. Even some projects I’m supposed to be in have been postponed until next year just to be on the ‘safe side’.”

Such economic hiccups haven’t contributed to the sense that many just want the election to slide past so they can get on with business and life as they do every day. Such hopes may not be so simple, as many have a feeling that the election may turn sideways, although they strive against images like those of 2007 being forced back to the surface.

It may come down to a question of feeling marginalised and pocket pinched, a combination that has been viewed advantageously by over-zealous members of the political sphere in Kenya before.

Diana Wambui (not her real name, but she preferred to keep her identity protected), a university student living in the Umoja area of Eastlands, shared similar concerns with me over a bowl of pulled mbuzi (goat) soup. “Many of the youths especially from the lower income areas may get affected negatively during the oncoming elections. This is due to the current situation in Kenya where securing a permanent job as a young person is not easy. Thus they become easy bait to these aspiring politicians who take advantage of their situation by using money as incentives. It’s definitely more in ‘lower class’ areas than in the upper class areas.”

Nairobi has always been a city of multiple dimensions, and at times drastically different realities within metropolitan areas, kilometres or even meters apart from one another. That’s often a core disconnect, spoken among the NGO brigade during idle cocktail hours in gardens, upscale bars – whatever is hip and trending that week.

The conversation typically goes around like this: “I haven’t heard anything or seen anything, I’m sure it’ll all shake out aces in the end. Either way I’ll be flying out KLM for holiday three days ahead of time.”

That might reflect a Runda reality near the United Nations compound or in the wide tree-lined estates of Lavington but not everyone in Nairobi is hedging their bets and bouncing, suitcases and passports in hand at first light.

Everyone I spoke with seems united in the idea that they want to slap the bullshit perceptions of the past in order to move progressively forward towards the future.

At the crux of the concern are the youth and the impact they view it will all have on them in the end. There is an awkward truth to the feeling that they’re often used for political gains or simply passed over entirely in the hierarchy of power-ladder importance.

There is a weight to this election; it’ll certainly decide the long term outcome of a great many things to many 20-somethings who’ve been promised the moon in the form of Kenya’s Vision 2030 development goals (never missing a trick, failures and setbacks have been picked up on social media and ridiculed as Vision 2070, Vision 2130, etc.) and are waiting to see if the grass is greener on the other side of it all.

One thing does seem to be certain: that within the exploding creative scene in Nairobi, everyone seems to know the election will make a difference in what artistic voices will speak out on. One who agrees with that notion is Feslus Sila, a coast born Boom Bap and Hip-Hop artist. “For smart artists there’s always opportunity around elections, lots of jobs, shows and money around. I’m just saying that cause, well, it’s the truth.“

This is a way to view the tired drag of the political season as a net-positive: there’d be a lot of opportunity and outside of it, a lot of chance for expression by voices who best rep the youth to have their say in it all.

What form that takes is still up for debate however. Perhaps more than anything, everyone I spoke with seems united in the idea that they want to slap the bullshit perceptions of the past in order to move progressively forward towards the future.

As Kiboi told me in Kilifi, “Culturally speaking, we’ll unfortunately regress a bit during the period. A lot of the music and art that will be created will be just about peace, forgetting that Kenya is more than just the 2007 election violence situation. We’re not all about ethnicity, and that’s the problem: that every time we go into elections Kenya becomes about ethnicity in terms of the arts that are created and what should happen is we ignore that.”

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Fortunately despite a lot of noise and general campaign season din, there isn’t much heaviness in the form of doom and gloom to go around. Many I talked to laughed and shrugged off the August date and have nothing but steadfast optimism about the months to come.

There’s none of the ‘drumming up the drama’ for most of those who stand to feel the election the most for the years and possibly decades to come.

Among those that I consider friends that I know or have even passed by in an evening of beer and talking, all thoughts are pointed towards positivity, although reality might not reflect it come August 8th. The genuine hope among many 20-somethings in Nairobi is for peace, but the shaking of heads and rolling of eyes is at the rude possibility of politics coming to interject and interfere in the lives of Nairobi’s younger generations.

Despite all possibilities, the sentiment remains that good vibes in turn can bring them back around and cut through all the other bullshit: the outer and inner noise that can turn off the youth from all things political.

Right now, pulling for peace seems to be the driving force behind the clinking of glasses in Nairobi.

 

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