Last month I travelled to Kenya for an alternative spring break with a group of fellow American University students. The focus of our trip was learning about youth civic engagement in preparation for the upcoming Kenyan presidential election - the Kenyan Electoral Commission recently set the date of the election for March of 2013.
This presidential election marks the first in Kenya since 2007. In that election Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, with 46% of the vote. This was less than a majority of the vote and there was a clear "spoiler" dynamic splitting the opposition. Riots erupted throughout the country when the election results came into dispute, leaving 1,133 killed, 3,561 injured, and 350,000 displaced. In one town, a church was burned to the ground and all 30 people inside were killed. A child who tried to escape on the arms of her mother was thrown back into the fire by one of the attackers.
Much of the bloodshed that took place in the aftermath of the 2007 election was carried out by Kenyan youth, but it in no way paints an accurate portrait of the young people I met on my trip. The Kenyan youth who I met are all striving to fix a broken political system and create meaningful change in the lives of their peers. Young people may have been responsible for violence following the 2007 election, but it was the campaigns of incumbent Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga who instigated the civic unrest. It was another unfortunate example of Kenyan political leaders exploiting the youth. Young people ages 15-34 make up 36% of the population in Kenya but they are underrepresented and largely ignored in politics. Politicians only reach out to the youth for political self-gain and too often the youth are the victims of government corruption.
Take for instance, a recent government program to put young people back to work. The Kazi Kwa Vijana Program was launched in 2009 with the goal of employing young people to complete public works projects. Before all three stages of the program were completed, a financial management review by the World Bank found that millions of schillings meant to pay young people for their work were instead given to senior officials in government.
This story helps explain why the unemployment rate in Kenya for young people ages 15-34 is 65%. Such corruption severely limits the future potential of a young generation eager to enter the workforce. Despite these problems and the memories of the tragic 2007 post-election violence still fresh in the minds of Kenyans, the country moves forward with a palpable feeling of cautious optimism.
"Politics is like food on the table." That's what Ken Omolloh tells me. He's a young man who lives in Kibera, an informal settlement outside Nairobi where most people live on less than $1 a day. On a sunny afternoon, Ken takes me through a labyrinth of small dirt paths that wind narrowly around shacks of tiny houses made of tin and mud. Bags of trash, in some cases piled higher than the shacks themselves, force you to take your steps carefully. At one point we have to jump out of the way of a garbage train that passes by no more than several feet away from the homes in Kibera.
Ken tells me that politics are ingrained in the culture. He describes a home environment where everyone gathers around the television to watch the evening news report about the latest political happenings. The violence following the 2007 election destroyed Ken's home, and forced him to rebuild from the ground up.
We visit his home- a small, one room structure furnished with a couch and small coffee table, divided down the middle by a sheet of cloth to separate the living room from the bedroom. The walls are so thin you can hear a crying baby from next door. Sixty-percent of the people who live in informal settlements such as Kibera are youths ages 15-34.
Later in the week, my fellow trip members and I attend a meeting with the Kibera community. We watch a PET performance- Participatory Educational Theatre, an expression of community concerns and government problems through interactive theatre.
Performers put on a small performance chronicling a young person's struggle trying to get a job in a government system that encourages corruption and excludes qualified job applicants over those who have connections or pay bribes.
Bribery is built into day-to-day services, expected by government employees just as much as a restaurant waiter or waitress expects a tip. To give you an idea, Transparency International, a non-partisan international watchdog, recently rated Kenya's police force as the most corrupt in Eastern Africa. We even experience the corruption first-hand when our driver has to pay a construction worker a bribe to let us pass. It is one of the biggest hurdles holding young people back from advancing in society.
What's impressive is that for all the obstacles young people face, they are just as determined to make things better. The Initiative for Community Action (ICA), a non-governmental organization in Kibera works to empower youth through a variety of programs. Ken is the Finance Director for ICA and he is determined not to have a repeat of the rioting that took place in the aftermath of the 2007 election.
Since the organization was founded in 2003 as a soccer program for young people, it has expanded into a larger operation of providing youth mentorship for young girls, financial literacy trainings for aspiring young entrepreneurs, and computer skills trainings for those seeking work. "Many people think nothing good can come from Kibera," Steve Omondi, an administrator at ICA recently told The Star. "By involving the community through motivational talks, confidence-building through pageant shows, talent search and showcasing successes stories we instill the right attitude in the locals who start viewing life with lots of possibilities," he says.
A visit to the organization's tiny office in the heart of Kibera shows the amazing work ICA is doing, despite their lack of resources. My colleagues and I are herded into a small reception area where we sit shoulder to shoulder and speak with ICA's leaders. Each of them, from Ken to Steve, are volunteers who have to work other jobs to maintain their living.
Ken points to a bank of four desktop computers and explains how many youth in Kibera lack basic computer skills necessary to get a job. He also explains how one of the biggest problems the organization faces is finding land for a permanent location. Kibera is all temporary housing, and because of government regulations nothing permanent can be constructed. This puts ICA and other organizations in Kibera at a severe disadvantage.
The presidential election in Kenya next year may mark a turning point. Not only is it the first election since the 2007 post-election violence, it is the first election since Kenya's new Constitution was ratified in 2010. The election promises to be a referendum of sorts on the success of the new constitution.
Certainly, doubts remain. A constitutional convention decided to keep winner-take-all elections for nearly all seats instead of moving to proportional representation, ignoring the evidence of how winner-take-all can exacerbate regional and tribal polarization and distort outcomes. The one exception is the product of an important development: 80 out of 290 seats will be reserved for women, with proportional representation used to elect those seats.
Already, we have seen issues arise from the awkward transition a country faces when changing constitutions. For the past several months, there was much uncertainty as to the date of the presidential election. According to the new constitution, the election would take place this August, but the old constitution set the date for whenever the president and prime minister dissolve parliament. Competing opinions over whether to follow the old constitution or the new constitution left much uncertainty as to the date of the election. Adding to the confusion was a court ruling which stated that the election could take place in January 2013, which is when the parliamentary term ends.
Kenya is a country of many dynamics. The country is still a relatively new democracy. Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963 and first started having multi-party elections in 1992. Corruption, economic inequality, and tribalism drive the nation's politics, though the country is making progress in reforming these practices.
As Kenya moves forward, it will be fascinating to see what role the youth play in the elections. This large segment of the population seeks to take the lead in deciding which direction the country will go. Each of my conversations with the Kenyan youth I met reveal that they have ambitions to start businesses, seek careers in medicine and law, and find opportunities to serve their fellow citizens. As the 2013 presidential election approaches, we may well see more young people voting and creating the change Kenya so desperately needs.