A few days ago, Herman Mureithi was invited to a rally in Chaka, Nyeri County. However, Mureithi, a boda boda rider, could not go. He had a busy day ahead at Endarasha, which is some 50 kilometres or so away, and he was unable to change his plans.
It was not the case for his friends.
In just a few hours, hundreds of boda boda riders had attended one of the first mega rallies in the region and had pocketed Sh2,000 each. Transport was also catered for by the rally organisers. Mureithi let that one pass without much of a fuss. If anything, the political season has just begun and the best is yet to come.
This is what has been happening in the rural areas when political campaigns are in full swing. Handouts start to fly in the faces of people who have been waiting for just that. Business gets paralysed as people attend rallies, the easiest source of money. But sometimes this money comes at a cost: fights and injuries.
But are the crowds being pulled by the campaign messages and aspirants’ manifesto?
“When we attend these rallies, the politicians leave us some money. Sometimes it is more than we could have made working on our day jobs,” says Mureithi.
Boda boda riders easily form the bulk of the most mobile people, and who are able to thus dart from one meeting to another. They are also one of the groups loved most by the politicians to pass political messages. And with their numbers rising by the day, their presence in rallies is somewhat justified.
According to the 2021 Economic Survey published by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the number of newly registered motorcycles increased by 16.2 per cent from 217,425 in 2019 to 252,601 in 2020.
“The increase was mainly attributed to a 17.4 per cent growth in motor and autocycles registered from 210,103 units in 2019 to 246,705 units in 2020. Three-wheelers reduced by 19.5 per cent to 5,896 units in 2020,” noted KNBS.
These high numbers of motorcycles have increased competition, leaving boda boda riders to take up every opportunity they get to make even the smallest amount of money. Ferrying people and goods around is not sustainable for many. The numbers could get even bigger. The Boda boda Association of Kenya, the umbrella body of motorcycle operators, owners and other safety stakeholders, and which has chapters in all the 47 counties is running a registration targeting 800,000 members countrywide.
Mureithi says that sometimes they attend rallies in which they are given up to Sh500 after only two hours.
“You probably would have made way less had you been doing your usual job. There is little to make nowadays and unless one is already tied to an activity that is earning them more, the rallies are a welcome source of income,” he says.
The disruptions that the rallies will be causing as the year wears on are only going to get bigger. From shopkeepers to farmers who dash out of their businesses to go get a glimpse of the campaigner and the odd handout, it is about to get chaotic.
Nancy Ndanu narrates how in her Muvuti Sub-location, in Machakos County, disruptions happen in every election cycle. When aspirants hit the campaign trail, it is a horror story for small businesses.
“Shops are closed and everyone follows the campaigners. Euphoria sweeps everyone away,” she says.
This is a common occurrence, especially in areas where incomes are low and the small handouts go a long way in helping families afford the next meal. Most of the handouts are in denominations of Sh50, Sh100 and Sh200.
And with almost every aspirant out to outdo their competitors, the wealthier ones dish out money with reckless abandon. Some people will therefore want to follow such an aspirant to as many rallies as they can. In the process, farms and businesses are abandoned.
So are reflector jackets, which Mureithi says many will only wear in the presence of the politician.
“The reasoning is that the politician is not paying you to keep wearing the reflector jacket. So when the next campaigner comes along and distributes his jackets, that is what we wear for that moment,” he says.
As the rallies increase, with so many political seats up for grabs in the August 9 elections, the situation is about to get more chaotic. Day jobs, especially in the informal sector, are likely to be forgotten for spells of time as handouts drive the economy.