letters from nairobi

March 9, 2013, 19:48
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Every day, when I take my dog for a short walk outside of my apartment complex, I stop by the front gates and talk with Boaz, the resident askari (security guard). We chat about the weather, upcoming holidays, happenings around the neighborhood – the usual topics that comprise small talk. But this past week, as the country ground to a halt while ballots were counted, mis-counted, re-counted, and re-counted again, there was only one subject of discussion, here and everywhere: the election.

Boaz, like most non-Kikuyu or Kalenjin Kenyans, supported current prime minister and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, Raila Odinga, in his bid for the presidency. In the weeks leading up to Monday’s election, I would walk by the askari post where Boaz would be sitting, listening to the radio in the sunshine. He would point to the prime minister’s tinny voice issuing from the radio’s speakers, promising campaign reforms in English and Swahili, and tell me, grinning, “Listen – this is our next president!”

“Our country is ready for change,” he would say. And the conviction in his voice was unshakeable.

On Sunday evening, I wished him luck in the voting process the following day. On Monday, as I walked through the gate in the morning sun, he proudly displayed his pinkie finger, the fingernail stained by the dark ink used to signify an individual who has cast a ballot. He had awoken hours before dawn to wait in endless voting queues, along with hundreds of thousands of Kenyans across the country. On Monday, his grin was wider than usual, his eyes bright with hope.

On Tuesday, our conversation was brief: “So, now they’re counting?” “Yes, so we just wait.” On Wednesday morning, following a breakdown in the electronic tallying system which caused all ballot counting to stop and begin again from the very beginning, a hint of fatigue colored Boaz’s voice: “Still counting,” he told me, adding, “I have heard rumors of fraud in Central Province. People getting two, three ballots each. But as long as the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] addresses these issues, I believe people will remain calm.”

“Kenyatta [Odinga’s rival and presidential frontrunner] is ahead in votes. But that will change,” he said confidently. “If you look at a map of Kenya, it’s red just in the middle” – red signifying supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance (TNA) – “and orange everywhere else! The north, the coast – all over!”

“So we are just waiting for the votes to be tallied.”

On Thursday, as the number of counted ballots rose and Kenyatta’s lead over Odinga widened, I stopped by the front gate as usual to discuss the latest developments.

Holding the metal door open with one hand, his pinkie fingernail still stained with ink, Boaz shook his head and looked grim. “I have nothing to say today,” he said, and gave a half-hearted, bitter laugh.

Friday morning marked the first of several missed deadlines when the IEBC claimed it would be ready to release final results to the public. People’s impatience with the bungled process, overshadowed by a growing fear that each passing day heightened tensions and the possibility of violence, was stretched thin.

There was no smile in Boaz’s voice, no sparkle in his eye.

“Kenyatta has stolen the election from us,” he said matter-of-factly. In his voice, anger mixed with sadness, colored by a sense of resignation; of inevitability. And for the first time since the political contest began, I didn’t know what to say to him.

Another day came and went without a final verdict. But finally, six days after Kenyans turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard under the new democratic constitution, six days after the people maintained peace despite rallying cries of hate speech and incitements to violence – and to the disappointment of foreign journalists who flooded the country, eager to snap photographs of burning buildings and machete-wielding slum-dwellers – the votes were tallied, and a president was declared.

Uhuru Kenyatta won the election with 6,173,433 votes, or 50.03% of total votes cast.

The margin of victory was so slim – just over 4,000 votes of the 12.3 million cast – that Odinga has pledged to contest the results in court. As television screens across the country broadcast images of red-shirted Kenyatta supporters dancing in the streets, waving flags and cheering, I walked down to the front gate.

Was the election really over? Or is this just the beginning of the next phase – of judicial appeals, protests, and defiance?

As the late afternoon sun streamed through the leaves of acacia trees, I walked up to Boaz. “I’m sorry,” I said. There wasn’t anything else to say.

He smiled, sadness touching the corners of his mouth. Sadness, but something else – acceptance? Exhaustion? Relief?

“Now is not the time to look to the past,” he said simply. “Now, all we can do is look ahead, to the future.” And the radio blared on.


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