A King County Yankee amid Kenya’s Electoral Count

A student from Seattle is witness to Kenya's successful elections and notes the stark difference in how the media covered the historic event.

Voting Kenya 1Apologies to Mark Twain, for bastardizing the title of his novel about a Connecticut engineer transported back to King Arthur’s time. But it seemed like a nice, phonetic headline for this guest column by Michael Golomb, a University of Washington student who, with his physician fiance Aliza Monroe-Wise, is in Kenya working on a variety of development & health issues. I asked Mike for his perspective on Kenya’s recent elections. More about both of them at bottom.

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By Michael Golomb

As an American student temporarily living in Kenya and witness to the recent elections here, I’ve gained a unique perspective on how distinctly different a story looks depending upon how it’s covered and by whom.

Polling station in a Maasai village. Laikipia district, central Kenya
Polling station in a Maasai village. Laikipia district, central Kenya
Mike Golomb

Leading up to Kenya’s election, western media mostly ran with headlines playing up the fear of political violence while Kenyan newspapers reported on the problems, but also on the progress being made, the many peace parades and positive political dynamics.

On March 9th, Uhuru Kenyatta was announced the winner of the election by both the Kenyan government and international observers. His challenger, Raila Odinga, condemned the process as fraudulent – but also called upon his supporters to refrain from violence and said that the matter would be taken up by the Kenyan judiciary at a later date.

So far, only isolated demonstrations have occurred. There have been no widespread demonstrations or violence like what took place here in 2007 and 2008.  Odinga’s camp has made numerous public statements urging peace and denouncing violence as a roadblock to electoral justice.

In Nairobi, the day after the announcement of Uhuru’s win, one Kenyan told me, “We are just happy to move past this.  It is time for Kenyans to go back to our lives.”

While Western media coverage of Kenya seems almost disappointed with the lack of drama in this election, and lately has taken to focusing either on what the election will mean to the West or how the International Criminal Court will now deal with charges against Kenyatta stemming from the violence of the last elections, for Kenyans this is simply a great, if imperfect, and promising step forward.

Kenyans are jubilant from this mostly transparent election, and they are excited for the standard it has set. The country is moving in a tangibly positive direction, and the fear of violence portrayed by western governments and media is quite an odd juxtaposition over what I’ve seen in the country.

Here’s what I witnessed while in a remote Maasai village, in a region of mostly Odinga supporters, on election day:

Voting Kenya 2
Mike Golomb

At the remote Tassia polling center, buried deep in the Laikipia district of central Kenya, the mood was somber.  It was late in the afternoon on Election Day.  Although many people were gathered here, few carried on with casual conservations.  Representatives from the major political parties wore identification cards as they milled around, while International Electoral & Boundaries Commission (IBEC) staff occasionally shuffled papers or reviewed protocol documents.

Local villagers moved in and out, stopping occasionally to check up on things.  A friendly but solemnly serious police officer from an elite regiment of the Kenyan police dutifully observed, automatic rifle casually in his hands at all times.  As an outsider to not only the community but also the country, I was nervous approaching with my camera, but the crowd was happy to accommodate me.

Voting Kenya
Mike Golomb

“We want Kenya and the world to see all of this”, one political party member told me as I took the lens cap off my camera.  During this election, he said enthusiastically, there would be no way to manipulate votes or skew the process. Transparency is the new law here, and everyone seems invigorated with hope by it.

After being filled out in a private voting booth made from folding cardboard, ballots were dropped into plastic bins secured with IEBC zip ties.  Each bin corresponded to a governmental office up for grabs, and each was labeled clearly in English.  Many of the villagers spoke little to no English, but IEBC staff was there to help guide the ballots into their proper destinations.

The polls closed at 5pm, and the counting began immediately – right in front of everyone.  First, IEBC representatives referenced a poster that described a properly filled-out ballot, as well as certain features that would disqualify one.  Next, each bin was ritualistically emptied out on a table and counted by hand in a transparent process.  An IEBC representative called out each ballot, held it up for all to see, then handed it to person assigned to count all of that candidate’s votes.   In this process, the villagers were able to see their local results immediately, as opposed to having them tallied in private under questionable conditions.

Raila Odinga was the clear winner in this district, but there were no emotional reactions.  The ballots were loaded into a 4×4 vehicle after their local count and trucked hours to their next destination, where they would be counted again.  All were aware that it would still be days before a final, nationwide tally was reached.  The villagers dispersed and life carried on.

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Mike Golomb & Aliza Monroe Wise
Mike Golomb & Aliza Monroe Wise

Michael Golomb is a University of Washington student, currently living in Kenya and researching healthcare in the floriculture industry there.  His interests include globalization, development, and health structures in East Africa.

Aliza Monroe-Wise is a University of Washington physician.  She is currently working as the Chief Resident for the University of Washington/University of Nairobi training partnership based in the Naivasha District Hospital, Kenya.  Dr. Monroe-Wise supervises a clinical training program at the hospital for UW and Kenyan medical trainees.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.