One week left until Kenya elects its next president – and, for the first time, thanks to the decentralizing directives of katiba mpya, its own city governors. On the coast, campaign antics have been amping up, and most Mombasans are as excited and concerned about the local elections as they are about the national ones. Maybe the issues addressed by local leaders are more immediate – Mombasa’s gubernatorial candidates have promised to get rid of trash in Old Town, boost the fish industry and improve the exam scores of local primary school kids.
The race for governor reached a crescendo this weekend, with the candidates campaigning door-to-door through the city, shaking hands with kids and wazee, and handing out flags, pens and promo goodies. Campaign posters cover the buildings of Mvita like wallpaper, and some new graffiti has even sprung up this week (“Azizzzzz for Gov!”) Hassan Joho, ODM’s massively popular coastal candidate, seemed to induce the loudest street crowds. When his campaign convoy made its way through the center of town yesterday, hordes of chanting supporters in orange “Team Joho” T-shirts flooded the roads, stopping traffic along Tom Mboya Avenue.
But pre-election season at the pwani has been, for the most part, a string of successes, and democracy seems to be thriving in the local elections. Candidacy for governor was open to anyone with a university degree who could garner a modest support base. In the debates for local office, the speakers came from a range of backgrounds – the distinguished Suleiman Shahbal (another major contender), an earnest twenty-something, and a grey amnesiac who had formerly run for president, among other contenders.
And one more point for democracy: The debates (both local and national) have been screening in designated public spots throughout town, so that any citizen — whether or not they have a TV home — can get an informed glimpse of their potential future leaders. I attended the last outdoor debate screening near Fort Jesus, and despite some rickety wiring, the debates aired with barely a hitch.
While the lead-up to Voting Day has been promising, some Mombasans keep murmuring about the looming recurrence of tribal violence. The doomsayers have reason for worry, but their messages aren’t only negative. Calls for peace have dominated the media and the airwaves this year; in campaign speeches, newspaper reports, radio shows, Tweets and conversations, “PEACE, TAFADHALI” has been the loudest message.
No one wants a repeat of last elections, but Kenyans are shooting higher than that — they want exemplary peaceful and democratic elections. This past weekend, the presidential candidates made a public demonstration of “joining hands for piece” in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. And that’s important – we need the people in the spotlight, the people with the heaviest political sway, to be advocating harmony and brotherhood. But sometimes our bottom-up efforts can be equally effective, spreading farther and more potently than showy slogans ever could.
Mombasa town has been especially creative with its peace efforts. On Sunday, I went to the Run for Integrity Peace Concert at Bamburi beach in northeastern Mombasa. While the musical fare was mostly uninspired, the crowd wasn’t – they braved the kali coastal sun from 10 in the morning till 6 at night. Just a few kilometers down the street, Mudavadi’s rally was gathering massive crowds, but the Peace Concert audience had a better reason for showing up, and it was clear that they knew it.
One of the most beautiful examples of creative democracy happened last night in Jahazi Coffee House, Old Town. The venue hosts a spoken-word night at the end of every month called Last Word Standing, where Mombasa’s best young poets, activists and rappers spit rhymes relevant to the times. The lineup included the elegant poet Prudence Mwachofi, Yasin Koech, the melodic rapper Ian “Nameless” Vedette, Jamila “Mombasa Gal” Hassan, the intense poet-performer Lux Miganda and Nabukenya – as well as reputed hip-hop artists Fikrah Teule, Hustla Jay, Nguchi P and Richie Rich.
Last night’s theme was borrowed from France’s national motto: Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood. At times, the mic opened up to whoever wanted to deliver some wordplay. And everything was welcome: polished or improvised, aching or fierce or rousing. Nameless Vedette debuted his new song “Kenya is a Sovereign State,” and Prudence Mwachofi freestyled about the last elections (“my heart fell into several pieces”). In between, the emcees reminded everybody about their responsibility as politically-informed citizens — “Seriously, if you’re just waiting in line at the store, or chatting with the tuk-tuk driver, ask them who they’re voting for. You have influence, you have power. Everyone needs to vote this year — we want everyone to vote.”
The night ended with Fikrah Teule and Hustla Jay performing their new track “Uhuru Afrika,” which just dropped this week. Everyone in the room was on their feet, because how can you stay seated to words like that? It’s time we stand together and fight for equality – uhuru wa kweli.