What’s Left – How Far Would We Walk

I won’t soon forget what it was like living in Kenya in the days leading up to the country’s most historic election last December. For a month last fall, I rode the #32 bus every morning from my apartment in the heart of Nairobi to my job at the Carolina for Kibera Clinic in the heart of Kibera Slum.

I followed the same dirt road from the bus stop to the clinic each morning, passing the same impoverished tin shacks that so many called home. As the date of the election drew closer, the dirt road became a venue for political debate and people’s homes began to be plastered with political advertisements. This newly erected political arena was bewildering. The Kenyan government had forgotten about the country’s poorest people, the people of Kibera — and yet, these people were the most engaged in the political process.

Over the past decade, Kenya has become a beacon of progress in sub-Saharan Africa. After a string of illegitimate elections in the years since independence, the Kenyan people saw the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections as an opportunity for redemption. Time and again, the ballots cast by the Kenyan people have been ignored; and yet, the people of Kibera were more interested than ever in debating the issues, voicing their beliefs and casting their ballots.

The clinic I worked at generally saw 150-175 patients each day; however, on the day of the local ministerial elections (a month prior to the Presidential/Parliamentary elections) we experienced only a slow trickle of patients. Curious, I ventured out into Kibera only to find endless lines of people waiting outside polling stations. I made my way through the crowds and, in Swahili, started asking people about what was happening.

One woman told me that she took the day off to stay home and vote. Another gentleman told me that he took a five-hour bus ride from his rural home to vote in the Kibera ministerial elections. Other people casually mentioned that they had been waiting in line for a couple hours, not to mention the many-kilometer walk they had from the polling station to home.

On my way back to the bus stop that day, my friend, Rooney, and I passed a large gathering of people in an open field gathered around a large stage. Curious, we wandered over and happened upon a couple of our Kenyan friends who were waiting for a rally to begin. Raila Odinga, the opposition presidential candidate, was holding one of his first rallies in the politically volatile Kibera slum. Noticing two white faces in the audience, one of the event organizers approached Rooney and me and invited us to sit on stage next to Mr. Odinga.

Time out. I am an American student living in Kenya for a semester. I have no ability to vote, no intention of campaigning for Odinga or even donating to his campaign. Thousands of destitute Kenyans, eager to support Odinga, were standing around me. Many of them had traveled for miles just to be in his presence and yet, in asking me to be on stage the campaign was sending a very distinct message of silence to Kenya’s poorest voters.

As we realized the reality and the danger of staying on stage, Rooney and I decided it would be in our best interest to make our way back into the audience. We walked home in silence. I couldn’t stop reflecting on the people I had spoken to earlier that day, challenged to reconcile their stories of will with my outrageous privilege. The prospect of having two mzungu (white) faces on stage was just as exhilarating for the Odinga campaign as it was for the children who greeted me every morning at the bus stop. Certainly there have been many times that the actions of our government leaders have frustrated me — though I am not sure I can imagine a time when I felt like the interests of American citizens had been ignored.

On December 27, 2007, millions of Kenyans walked miles upon miles to polling stations across the country and waited to cast their vote. Proud to exercise the seminal right of a democratic nation, these people willingly ignored the country’s history of illegitimate elections and looked hopefully toward the future. Their hope was met by the doom of corruption. President Mwai Kibaki was projected to lose the election, and the early poll results suggested this would be the case. However, by the time the polls had closed, Mr. Kibaki was yet again victorious.

The election results inspired months of ethnic violence that left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. Although a myriad of international monitoring organizations called the election illegitimate, Mr. Kibaki was unwilling to step aside. Not much different from what Mr. Odinga had done during the rally in Kibera, Kibaki chose to do what was best for him and silence the voice of his most desperate constituents.

The Kenyan election crisis has been on my mind since I returned from East Africa last December. However, when I walked into the Coop this week and saw tables set up to register people to vote, I was reminded of the stories I heard on that day in Kibera. Men and women giving up a day’s pay to vote, others walking many miles just to hear Odinga speak.

I walked from McGregory Hall to the Coop Monday morning and picked up forms to vote absentee. I didn’t need to walk many miles under the hot sun or forgo a day’s pay to exercise my right to vote as an American. With the absentee deadline somewhere in the next couple weeks, I hope many of you will make the same trek to the Coop.

The process is so easy — so why don’t we vote? Our system is legitimate and we can be confident that our vote will be counted. And so, Colgate, I want to know — how far would you walk?