Every five years in Kenya, political aspirants embark on a journey, traversing their area of interest in what is known as 'vote-hunting'
Except for the aspirant's campaign team, no one really understands what it's like to travel to different places, trying to convince people to vote for you
Nothing could have adequately prepared me for my debut experience on the campaign trail.
Hours of watching political drama such as Netflix’s acclaimed series ‘House of Cards’ or ABC’s ‘The Good Wife’ came to naught. Keeping up with our national politics from the luxury of my couch is in many ways tantamount to watching fictional political drama.
So when the opportunity to experience firsthand what election campaigning in Kenya entails came knocking, I grabbed the chance, gathered my bags and joined a parliamentary candidate on his final three-week vote hunt in Siaya County.
I quickly learn that the days start as the sun rises and end long after it sets. Meetings are intimately held in homesteads by night and rallies under trees by day. Candidates are in touch with their people, literally – they are not aloft intensely branded ‘jukwaas.’ They stand amongst them. They sing and dance with their constituents, not for them.
Theirs is not a choreographed dance punctuated by music from a high powered Public Address system, their music, often initiated by the crowds, breaks out spontaneously, soulfully and authentically – the only accompaniment being ululations and of course a traditional rhythmic jig. Occasionally, however, joint rallies with other candidates such as the governor or senator created more hype during which the arrival of the said candidates would be heralded by loud music punctuated with lyrics like ‘TIBIM!, TIALALA! and INGWE INGWE!’
On the first day, our motorcade sets out at 6.00 am. With only three weeks to the General Election, every minute counts. The rough road is dotted with women, walking in pairs, weighed down by buckets of water on their heads.
In the digital age, these women still walk long distances to fetch water. I can’t help but wonder if their current legislator knew of their plight and if so, what he had done during his 15 years as MP to solve it. Was this one of the empty promises he made prior to his consecutive reelections only to forget about it until the next election cycle? Was this one of the issues the candidate I was accompanying was determined to resolve? Was he the change these people seemed to desperately need?
The hard jolt of our speeding car on the rough road to Ramula in Gem interrupts my thoughts. It is a long wide stretch of untarmacked road. But there is soon a glimmer of hope, moulds of soil line the Akala-Nyagondu road with earth movers and bulldozers evidently busy at work. My optimism is soon shattered as it is revealed that this construction was conveniently commissioned recently even though it had been budgeted for much earlier.
As our motorcade slows down to manoeuvre through a pothole, a motorcycle zooms past on one side of the road with two pillion passengers. A middle-aged woman protectively cradles an infant wrapped in a brand new pink shawl. A younger lady effortlessly balances a new basin on her side with one hand as she holds onto the motorcycle with the other.
‘That is a manyur on her way home,’ an aide explains. Manyur is the local term used for a woman who has recently given birth. This scene is apparently typical -- a manyur is traditionally collected from the hospital by an elderly woman, who carries the newly born. Well off families would have used more comfortable transport., Many here are either unemployed or underemployed.
Scores of people are eagerly awaiting us at our first rally - the young, the old and the very old. A group of women dance towards the motorcade and the candidate accompanies them and they dance towards the people. Soon, everyone is dancing and ululations rent the air. The mood is festive.
The candidate outlines his vision and shares his manifesto. In turn, he listens to the people and a dialogue begins.
The issues raised are varied. Youth are aggrieved by the long delays in acquiring identity cards. The local health centre is badly in need of an ablution block. An outbreak of jiggers is causing anxiety among mothers. Many roads have become impassable. Absenteeism from school due to the slow bursary disbursements is undermining education standards.
The list goes on and on --- the people finally seem to have found a receptive ear.
Some residents have solutions for the problems aired. A womens’ welfare group in Jina has started making soap; youth in Malanga have organised football matches to foster peace, stay fit and keep out of trouble; a childrens’ home in Sagam continues to take in orphans and underprivileged children. Some of its wards are now in university.
This process will repeat itself five more times this day. The tight campaign schedule will see us transverse an entire ward or two. From one rally to another; from sunrise to sunset; from one day to the next. Except on Sunday, when divine intervention is sought from all possible sources. We visit the Seventh Day Adventists in Siriwo, Anglican Church of Kenya in Anyiko, the Legio Maria Shrine in Nyamninia and attend Catholic Mass in Yala.
It is the eve of the elections and having done all that could possibly be done; we pensively retire for the day. I could not help but wonder if the people would vote for the change “my candidate” represented. Were they desperate enough for a better life? More inclusive leadership? More equitable development?
Two days later, the IEBC declared the winner. The people of Gem had voted for change. Elisha Ochieng Odhiambo was declared the MP Elect for Gem constituency.