To put up her campaign posters, Cynthia Kihu, 26, cannot afford the luxury of shunning darkness. At 10p.m., she ventures out into the Nairobi night which grows frigid as if punishing her for enjoying the sunshine that flirted with her during the day.
Kihu is running for Member of Parliament in Embakasi West, one of Kenya’s 290 constituencies, in the upcoming elections. On the posters, a smiling Kihu in a navy blue dress promises development with the slogan “Maendeleo Mtaani.” Putting these posters up until 5 a.m., she bends to apply dough to the back of the paper, runs to the walls before it dries, and sticks them. Her sister, her partner, his sister and a friend play bodyguard.
Bending is sacred. It is what you do at mass during the Glory be to God. It is what you do when you bathe from a bucket in the morning, trying to go faster because you promised yourself you would not run late, but finding god in every part of your body and slowing down. It is what a 12-year-old me watched market-going women with sacks of groceries on their backs do every Monday to Saturday at 5.25 a.m. as I waited for the Newlight school-bus. These women could not afford to insult the darkness the way a young me did, shivering in the cold and apologizing to my blankets at home for abandoning them to focus on, I thought, chasing paper.
Thanks to a project by the UN to support women running in the August 8th elections, Kihu has secured 1500 posters, 3 banners and 25 reflectors. She will put them all up in one night to reduce fuel and labor costs. For this, she prefers to hire people from the specific area she is covering to engage with them. Some volunteer, but usually she pays each person 300 shillings for the night.
Samanthah Maina, another Ukweli Party aspirant looking to be a Member of the County Assembly (MCA) in Kileleshwa, laments on her Twitter page that men she meets during her campaigns “are not shy to insinuate that rape incidences are rampant and its unsafe to walk around as females door to door.” When she asks a man to elaborate, he says, “you are young, beautiful and risk of rape is high.”
Nairobi was liberated from British colonialism by female prostitutes who procured ammunition for Maumau fighters. However, it has been reluctant since independence to let women into public spaces-- let alone political office. The Truth Justice & Reconciliation Commission report developed after Kenya’s 2007/08 post election violence to examine historical injustices puts it eloquently: “Women are over-represented in the poorest social segments of society and underrepresented in decision-making bodies.” Every morning, Nairobi rises on the backs of bent women, opens its eyes hesitantly, yawns, stretches and stands up, looking taller than it is because it has low-income women below its feet. These elections will be a test of whether Nairobi will recognize these women’s contributions.
Can women like Kihu, a relative newcomer without financial weight, get voters engaged?
“I cannot say I am having a hard time with people on the ground,” Kihu confesses. “I have come to realise [in the] constituency they want other leaders. They are up for anyone who is coming out except the incumbent.”
Sporting yellow T-shirts with her face on them, Kihu and her team walk door to door under the midday sun and spend three minutes at every household pitching her agenda. Their clothes peek out from under their Ukweli Party t-shirts, as if eavesdropping. If she is tired, Kihu’s face knows to keep it a secret, and is animated as she begins: “I am asking for your support and this is why...”
Kihu is careful to stay outside the gate, and the residents’ bodies barricade the entrances. Their mutual caution recalls the mistrust Nairobians nurture to evade cons.
Ukweli Party, founded by the political activist Boniface Mwangi in 2016, pioneered a crowdfunding model through the mobile money transfer service M-Pesa. “Power to the People,” reads the slogan on Kihu’s t-shirts. With donations as low as 10 shillings, candidates are accountable to the everyday Kenyan. The party vetted aspiring candidates looking to run on their ticket from over 200 to 13, even though allowing more nominees would mean more money off nomination fees. However, Kenyans remain suspicious of all politicians. “Kenyans have been hurt so much for so long by the same people,” says Deputy Party Leader Scheaffer Okore, a civic education guru.
Kihu and other members of her party are focusing on what are considered lower-level political positions because, as Okore puts it, “There is so much money lost at the MCA county level. It is ridiculous. No better place to start than MCA and MP.”
Many people tell Kihu upfront that they do not want her to bribe them, saying, “Sisi mahali tumefika hatutaki pesa.”
Rather than hold expensive rallies, Kihu spends six hours everyday on door-to-door campaigns. Fearing for her safety, she has a hard 6p.m. curfew. Since neighborhoods such as Umoja where she grew up are congested, she is able to talk to a lot of people at the same time. When her father is available, he volunteers his car, covered with her posters, and she takes the chance to venture further.
Kihu is fired up not just to accomplish what she laid out in her agenda but also to execute what the residents have requested during her campaign. Residents challenge her as she offers what she is going to do saying what they want: “Ni tu hizi takataka” or “Ukieka lami that is it” or “Si tunataka tu floodlight moja.” For someone who founded her own IT & Web Design business with only one laptop, one modem and one phone to her name, it doesn’t seem a stretch to achieve better rubbish collection services, a tarmacked road and a floodlight.
“You are so small, utaendaje bunge ?” people ask Kihu. But words come out of her mouth the way you wish they would come out of yours as you practise in front of a mirror on the morning of an interview. Due to financial constraints, Kihu was unable to study law despite qualifying, but her eloquence still pays tribute to her past aspirations.
At hangout joints such as shopping centers young people beckon to Kihu. Many female political candidates have reported questions such as “Do you have a family first so that you run for office? For you to be a leader do you have kids?” But Kenyan policemen have rewarded politically assertive women with batons and fists, notably the political prisoners’ mothers who stripped while on an 11-month long hunger-strike during Moi’s administration. It is eerie that women two decades later expect the same violence. “You are so small you are so short utaweza kupigana na hao wababa?” a resident asks Kihu.
Even though it is untrue that women had no leadership positions in traditional Kenyan societies, residents blame cultural norms for their reluctance to vote for Kihu: “Wamama kwa hii community yetu apana, wazee ndo hulead.”
Enacted in 2010, many people of voting age finished school before the Constitution was integrated into the syllabus. The Women’s Representative position introduced is particularly curious since many fear it relegates women to a back seat when it comes to more mainstream political positions. Female politicians have reported being attacked by male aspiring candidates on the campaign trail who want them to stick to the women’s representative position. “It is like someone demanding a car and you buy them a toy car,” a friend tells me. The Nairobi county governor, Evans Kidero, slapped the Women’s Representative Rachel Shebesh. In a matatu, someone’s ringtone goes off and it is the sound of Shebesh’s reaction to the slap, “Aiyaiyaiya, Kidero you have slapped me?” Shebesh has suffered infringements on her personal life, including speculation that she is bipolar. Politicians like Millie Odhiambo have complained about sexual harassment as a form of intimidation during debates on the floor of Parliament. These women’s experiences make Kihu’s defiance riskier but more vital so that she can address the issues that most concern her. “It is like being on the other side of the fence and making noise for people who are having champagne in their garden,” Okore says of political apathy.
Many young men admire Kihu for running for election but she hopes that they too challenge themselves to develop the Embakasi West community, saying: “Ata mi nikiwang’ang’ania pia nyi mwamke.” Like many millennials, Kenyan youth are victim to gross socioeconomic injustices, especially unemployment.
When the current MP for Embakasi West meets residents, they bow. My aunt who is related to me in the distant way that only Luo people can be is a government employee and switches to Luo when whispering about corruption in her office, hiding the information behind her mother’s tongue. Okore explains: “Kenyans are afraid. Because of the history of the kinds of governments we have had, you shall speak but we do not guarantee freedom after.”
As young women, we spoke to our parents in our vernacular languages, to our friends in Swahili, and to our teachers in English. At women’s prayer meetings and neighborhood meetings, Kihu is careful to speak Swahili, establishing an insider-outsider dynamic against elite politicians who are disconnected from the people. She has grown up in half of the neighborhoods she would be representing in Parliament.
Other things we owe bending women: the health of the soil beneath our feet. The first records of anticolonial revolution recall Kiambu women crop farmers revolting because the crops the British had introduced worsened soil erosion. As African women we come from a tradition of women who are not afraid to breathe fire. Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner was Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, an environmentalist, who risked her life fighting deforestation. While the whole world looked away from the evils of apartheid in South Africa, the musician Miriam Makeba gripped its face between her palms and demanded solidarity. Though controversial herself, Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, interrupted a barrage of niceties from world leaders on Trump’s election, saying, “We are extremely saddened by this missed opportunity on the part of the people of the United States to join smaller democracies in ending the marginalization of women.” Theresa Kachindamoto, a Malawian chief, annulled 850 child marriages and financed the girls’ return to school.
These accomplished leaders make it hard to understand why women are excluded from political office. Kihu’s Boss Lady pose on her posters and cards is not just a look. She graduated second-best in college. After 3 years of employment, she started her own IT Business because she felt unchallenged. “There is no day that is the same as the other,” she says, experience which will be useful for her as an MP.
When Kihu went back to Umoja where she had grown up until she was 16, she was shocked at the deterioration of the place from somewhere clean and lively to a place without piped water. “You do not believe it is Nairobi.” It is true that Nairobi is betraying its name: Enkare Nairobi- place of cool waters.
Residents here had not seen their Member of Parliament since the last elections.
Venturing into Embakasi West even in the evening, you will encounter Kihu in her posters. Like the women before her, she is willing to bend to accomplish her goals. But the Kihu on the posters also knows bravery in this generation often means choosing to stand tall in the darkness and smile.