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Where Women Are

Nanjala Nyabola
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

“Jesus Can Afford it, We Can’t!” Samanthah Maina’s 2017 Campaign for Member of the County Assembly in Kileleshwa Ward, Nairobi

Nanjala Nyabola

Texte intégral

Kileleshwa Ward Statistics

1County Assembly Ward No.: 1374

2County Assembly Ward Name: Kileleshwa County Assembly Ward

3County Assembly Ward Population (Approx.): 27,202

4County Assembly Ward Area In Sq. Km (Approx.): 9.00

5County Assembly Ward Description: Comprises Muthangari and Kileleshwa Sub-Locations of Nairobi County

6Samanthah Maina didn’t always want to be in politics. One of three children raised by a single mother in a Nairobi middle class suburb, she mostly wanted to help her family become financially secure. But while at university and dabbling in business and employment, she began to realise that the odds were stacked against people like her – people who had no powerful connections or shortcuts to prosperity. For example, Maina was forced to drop out of university because her family could not afford it. Well before her thirtieth birthday, Maina sensed that in Kenya the balance was stacked against ordinary hardworking people, and she wanted to do something about it.

“I was inspired to join politics by the lack of credible leaders,” she says, “but also by my life. We were really going through it as a family once my father left us, but we just couldn’t get space to breathe in Kenya.”

7At the same time, she always knew that she wanted to serve and lead, so when the opportunity arose, she did not hesitate.

8At 26, Maina would be one of the youngest candidates up for election in Nairobi, standing for the seat of Member of County Assembly for Nairobi’s Kileleshwa Ward where she grew up. Maina completed her primary school studies at the Loreto Msongari School and Jaffery Academy, both of which are in Lavington—an affluent neighbourhood that abuts Kileleshwa. After completing high school in Thika, Maina came back to Nairobi and started at Daystar University, which has a campus site neighbouring Kileleshwa. In view of her background, Kileleshwa was a natural fit for Maina’s campaign.

I am Kileleshwa,” she says, “I have lived there and I am a child of Kileleshwa and I see what it is becoming”.

9Yet, the choice of Kileleshwa was also strategic. Kileleshwa is by many metrics the most prosperous ward in the city; one of the few that does not have a large informal settlement and therefore one, she thought, that would be receptive to her message of improved service provision from the County Government. She banked on more residents who engaged with issues, and were not swayed by ethnicity or money. In addition, Maina knew too well how unresponsive the County Government was to the concerns of middle class Nairobi, focusing instead on politicking in informal settlements during election years, and on the needs of upper class suburbs in the intervening years. Given the size of Nairobi’s middle class, issues like the lack of water, high taxes but low service provision, and unsafe construction were increasingly important but simply not priorities for the governor. Maina felt that adding her voice to the county assembly would go a long way towards getting these concerns heard.

10But, more broadly, Maina saw herself as one of the many Kenyan youth who were being left behind by the illusion of progress in the country. “I see myself as a hardworking person,” she says, “but the opportunities are becoming rarer and rarer.” Like other Kenyan students in the public education system, between high school and university, Maina was forced to take two years off. During this time she got a job in airport security, and it was supposed to help her save for university. Instead, it ended up being a major part of her family’s income. “As a family we were going through a difficult time after my father left us,” she says, “so I worked to help pay the bills and, when things got better, I finally went back to school.” After that opportunity ended, Maina was unemployed for another two years before she started working in their family business as an office manager.

11In the end, Maina took a semester off from her studies to join politics and try and do something for young people and for the neighbourhood. “I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she says. “We complain and complain but we people who can make a difference don’t enter. There is a lack of credible people in the political space in Kenya.” She initially planned to run as an independent candidate, inspired by former US president Barack Obama and his campaign for the US presidency. “Obama said grab a clipboard,” she says, “so I grabbed a clipboard and hit the road.”

12For Maina, the decision to enter politics was also an act of faith. She didn’t have a great deal of money nor an affiliation with one of the larger parties, but she believed strongly in her own capacity to make a difference in a small but significant way.-- she felt that she was responding to a higher calling. In September 2016, she was attending a service at Mavuno Downtown, a youth oriented evangelical church, when she heard a sermon titled “when good people do nothing, evil prevails.” This message challenged her personally, she remembers, and prompted questions within herself: “why aren’t I doing something?” she wondered, “how about we just try?”

13But her decision was also triggered by something less abstract. “There was a pothole on Siaya Road in Kileleshwa that I kept hitting,” she remembers, “and I couldn’t get the current MCA to do anything about it.” That MCA, Elias Otieno, had no number listed for his office and had never campaigned in Kileleshwa. When she couldn’t contact him on the phone, Maina tweeted at the former Governor Evans Kidero, a method that has sometimes worked in Nairobi, but there was no response. “He was completely inaccessible,” Maina says, “and if I can’t reach them then what about everyone else?”

14While the idea was loosely forming in her brain, Maina was watching the candidacy of Boniface Mwangi, then 33, who launched an unprecedented political campaign. Eschewing major political parties, and alongside key activists, Mwangi and some friends formed their own outfit, the Ukweli Party, and spearheaded a digital first political campaign premised on changing both the content and the conduct of politics in Nairobi. By 2017 when he ran for Member of Parliament in Starehe, Mwangi had already made a name for himself as a photographer and an activist, using creative protest and the power of social media to advocate for social change. Having succeeded in cultivating a strong online following, he decided to go into politics and do things differently. In addition to a strong social media presence, Mwangi, for example, refused to hold large rallies and instead conducted face-to-face campaigns in the constituency. It was Mwangi who started the now common practice of handing out high-vis jackets to boda boda riders with his face and campaign slogan printed on the back.

15Maina looked at Mwangi’s website and found that the principles that the Ukweli party stood for resonated with her own. But that wasn’t the thing that convinced her; it was what they did. “I was sold on them because they did something that none of the other parties did,” she says, “they vetted me.” Before her candidacy was approved, Maina had to complete a survey and an interview about her politics and principles. “They want to know who you are before they attach their name to you,” she remembers, “in other parties you just pay a nomination fee and you are on the ballot.”

16Maina officially started her campaign on 5th July 2017 after the mandatory wait period put in place by the IEBC. Like Mwangi, her strategy focused on a door-to-door campaign supplemented by social media. She had a hard time gaining space on traditional media however: “they don’t care about me,” she recalls, “and they would always ask me why I needed an interview.” Maina was shocked to find that many stations wanted candidates to pay for coverage, including Christian or religious radio stations. Three English language gospel radio stations told her team that they wanted 50,000 shillings to interview her on air. “We couldn’t afford to share a platform with Jesus,” she laughs, “Jesus can afford it. We can’t.”

17As a result the campaign relied heavily on social media to get their voices heard. “We were stalking people on Twitter!” she laughs. “Boniface Mwangi is already a public figure, but as a new person, I felt I had no brand recognition.” Moreover, the role of MCAs remains ill understood by the voting public. Maina also noticed a significant lack of civic education in voters: “people don’t care about the MCA role and yet the governor can’t do anything without MCAs” she says.

18In the first few days of the campaign there was incredible optimism, she believes, “because everyone in Kenya wants change.” But there was still a lot of confusion about their approach and, for the most part, ordinary voters struggled to process her campaign. For instance, Maina’s campaign team was almost entirely female and, secondly, they had a door-to-door campaign that approached people at bus stops and other public platforms. “People would always ask us ‘why are you walking and why are you so many girls together?’” she remembers, perhaps because the voting public is accustomed to thinking of politics as a man’s game. “One time we were talking to a man who was selling maize and he said “mnaonekana sana lakini hamtatushawishi” (‘You are very visible but you will not convince us’).

19The campaign trail yielded many surprises related to her gender. As a female candidate, she found many male voters would insist on invading her personal space and touching her inappropriately or in a manner that was overly familiar. There was also an unexpected level of attention directed towards Maina’s appearance. “I don’t think people take me seriously because I don’t look like [the way they think] a leader [should look],” she said. “There is a certain ‘politician look’” she adds, “you wear a weave, you are married, you put on weight and that’s how people take you seriously. Apparently, I have a more private sector look.” Maina found voters unusually focused on her naturally curly hair and her contemporary mode of dress.

20Other voters struggled with Maina’s age. “Unakaa mtoto,” another man told her, “wewe ni msichana” (‘You look like a child – you are a young girl’). At a campaign stop near the high end Park Inn hotel in Westlands, another man asked “kama huwezi simamisha nyumba utawezaje simamisha ward?” (‘If you can’t keep a household, how will you keep a whole ward?’). Many voters felt comfortable offering her unsolicited advice, particularly in the vein of “forget integrity, politics is dirty and you must play dirty.” Some people called her “minji minji,” a now derogatory term referring to her light complexion but also associated with youth. “‘Wait another five years and then you’ll be ready, ’ they told me, and I had to keep saying ‘I’m here now.’”

21Maina’s experience was also punctuated by the disillusionment of voters. “People like complaining but they don’t seem to want to work for change,” she said as she recalled the cynicism she encountered on the campaign trail. In addition, there was the constant statement “wapi ya macho”; when voters ask candidates to offer them a small token simply to look at or engage with their materials. Moreover, as with other women and progressive candidates, money was a major problem. “The big organisations offer us training but no one is offering us money,” Maina said. Yet everything in the campaign costs money, from making posters to paying for transport: “everyone wants to train us but no one wants to pay.”

22Surprisingly, many of the most cynical were equally young voters. “Politics is tribal,” they told Maina, “and this place is very ODM.” Young people said they might support her in the end, but at the time of speaking they were more interested in supporting their party of choice. Churches were also sites of cynicism. As a Christian, Maina knew that these were potent sites for organising and she tried to use that in her strategy. But she was surprised to find that churches were resistant. “We went to two churches in Kileleshwa,” she remembers, “and at one church the priest we met said that he had a problem with young girls running for office.” Throughout the interview, the older man would not even make eye contact, and his body language was turned away.

23A second evangelical church was extremely apathetic. “We don’t see you,” they told her, “and we don’t see the country as ready for your kind of leadership.” According to Maina they then gave her “a long lecture on the community history,” overlooking the fact that she was local. Eventually the church allowed her to stand at the corner of the compound during Sunday services to talk to interested people -- this was the best reception she received from religious communities.

24Kileleshwa’s demographics presented another challenge. Although recent zoning laws have opened up the ward to commercial construction, it is still primarily residential with almost all individuals living behind high electric fences in gated communities. “Kenya’s middle class don’t want to be disturbed,” she laughs. Maina believes that her door-to-door strategy was greatly hampered by problems of access because security officers at the various gated communities simply would not allow them in. “The only way I can get to Kileleshwa voters is through social media,” she says, “even though many people are not on social media.” This social media first strategy produced mixed results. Certainly, there was some interest generated from Mwangi’s pages but the platform just wasn’t designed to be the primary site for political campaigning in Kenya. “Maybe we are clueless at it compared to the people who do social media strategising, but those professionals don’t come cheap” she says.

25Other challenges came from unexpected places. “The IEBC was a poor communicator,” Maina recalls, “for example, we started collecting signatures to support my candidacy on random pieces of paper but then they told us to start again on branded paper issued by them.” Because of the delay in getting clarity on this rule, Maina ended up having to collect 1000 signatures in one day, since she was unaffiliated to any party at the time this directive was issued.

26She also received minimal support from her family. Maina’s immediate family supported her, but her extended family struggled with her campaign. “They didn’t even offer to fundraise for me,” she remembers, “they would send vague messages of support on SMS or WhatsApp but [offered] very little actual support.” She believes that one reason for this was that they struggled with the fact that she wasn’t affiliated with either Jubilee or NASA, the two major parties. “The Ukweli party is seen as anti-government,” she said, “and because Uhuru Kenyatta is handing out jobs to people of our ethnic group, people feel like if you support him you might also get a job.”

27These sentiments were reflected amongst voters: “people would always ask me who I was supporting for president, or say things like ‘I hope you are voting for Uhuru.’ Maina thinks that the assumption was that because the Ukweli Party’s most visible candidate, Boniface Mwangi, was against the government, that she was inevitably affiliated with NASA, the opposition. Maina also found voters to be somewhat hypocritical. “We say we want change but we don’t understand the change we want. We say we want new blood but aren’t prepared to give youth a chance,” she expressed.

28But there was also some positivity. Some voters noted that she was the first candidate that they had actually met, because most ward-level candidates were relying on the popularity of their parties to carry them through. The best reception the team received was at the Kileleshwa police station canteen, a high traffic venue that is also one of a handful of places where Kileleshwa’s invisible, low income, workers can purchase affordable meals. That was where she got many of the 500 signatures she needed to secure a spot on the ballot.

29Maina did not endure any specific threats or intimidation. “Campaigning for a student leader position is in some way more demanding” she said, “except that in this campaign I am paying my own way and I can’t even work because it’s so time consuming.” But there was an awkward incident with one of her opponents: “he called us to meet at a restaurant and we went” she remembers, “and then he started to claim that they had all the numbers and that we were wasting our time.” She believes that that unwelcome lecture in her mother tongue, Kikuyu, was designed to intimidate her and her campaign team.

30In the end, Maina came third in the hotly contested Kileleshwa race. “It sucked losing, why lie,” she says, “but I was proud of myself because I came in third with my integrity in check.” She remains content that she didn’t come last, which meant that her message reached someone in the electorate. While assessing the losses of the party, which failed to win a single race, she thinks that the problems of ethnicity made the challenge more intense. “I think Ukweli candidates didn’t get elected because the voters refused to see beyond tribe and party… and maybe handouts.”

31Still, Maina remains hopeful for Kenya. “I hope we start interrogating people more on their character than their ethnicity” she says, and she urges more young people to consider entering politics. “We can’t scream no representation and then not step up when the opportunity arises,” she maintains. “Youth is an asset and a liability,” she says, “those who are ready for change will give [us] a chance.”


Is an independent writer, researcher and political analyst whose work focuses on refugees and migration, as well as East African politics and society. She is the author of « Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet is Transforming Kenya » (Zed Books, 2018).

© Africae, 2018

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