The Young Female Face of Kenyan Politics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if a 23-year-old pianist can win a seat in the Senate, anything is possible.
It’s rush hour in Nairobi and the roads are crawling with street vendors selling CDs and sodas to exasperated commuters returning from work. Among the vendors stands Suzanne Silantoi. But the young woman, wearing a smart blue dress and chic high heels, is not selling snacks. She is asking commuters to vote for her as their senator.
Silantoi doesn’t campaign like a regular politician because she isn’t one. At just 23, the musician-turned-activist is the youngest-ever senatorial candidate in Nairobi and, to many, she represents a budding revolution in Kenyan politics.
Granted, Silantoi has chosen a difficult time to run for office. This year’s election has very high stakes. The fear of violence looms over the campaign and both presidential candidates are fighting for their legacy. Raila Odinga, the perennial opposition leader, is making his last stab at the presidency, while incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta is desperate to avoid becoming Kenya’s first one-term president.
At the regional level, 14,550 other candidates are competing in the August 8 election for positions in Parliament and the Senate. And Nairobi City County — home to 4 million people and 60 percent of the country’s GDP — is a prized seat.
Silantoi is challenging seven other aspirants — all significantly older men. And she is taking the route least traveled, running as an independent candidate, campaigning car door–to–car door and crowdfunding every penny of her campaign budget through mobile payments from supporters.
Kenyans are not keen to try new things during this election, especially when there is fear of violence.
Justin Willis, professor of history at Durham University
“We can’t keep electing the same type of politicians and expecting different results,” says Silantoi, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Nairobi. Most candidates meet the press in five-star hotels, but she was in the neighborhood. It’s only 9 a.m. and this is already her third meeting, yet she insists she’s not tired. “I’ll probably crash after the election, but now we’re running on adrenaline,” she laughs, nursing a mug of lemon ginger tea to soothe her sore throat.
She looks her age — and many criticize her for it, arguing she can’t possibly have enough experience to govern. Indeed, Silantoi has never held public office or even studied a relevant subject. She is an artist. The daughter of well-off consultants, Silantoi is an accomplished pianist with a degree in music who always wanted to be of service, something music alone didn’t satisfy. So when a position opened at a local health care nonprofit three years ago, she took it — and the job changed her. “Seeing how deeply underserved Nairobians truly are, despite the city’s vast resources, made me realize the need for honest people to take our place in running things.”
So she began to study, poring over state budgets and obscure Senate provisions. And her outrage grew. Now, she sounds like an exasperated accountant talking about all the ways in which Nairobi’s budget is being squandered — from the misallocation of youth development funds to the cash the city should be collecting from park meters, which, she estimates, would be enough to cover its entire health care bill.
This analytical thinking is what wooed many voters who watched her take part in the Nairobi senatorial debate on July 21. “She was so eloquent!” says Jedidiah Kimathi, a 36-year-old taxi driver. “Suzanne is exactly what this city needs, an independent voice that will refuse to be corrupted.“
Silantoi believes her age is an advantage because Kenya has a very young voter base. Fifty-one percent of voters are under 35, yet only 13 percent of political candidates are in that age group. “We can’t assume young voters will choose a candidate just because she is young,” says Justin Willis, a professor of history and an expert on Kenyan politics at Durham University in England, “but it is important to have someone who is championing their issues and can be an example for the next generation.”
Age is not the only thing that sets Silantoi apart. She also considers herself a “tribeless” candidate — a bold statement in a country with 42 tribes, where electoral agendas are often set along ethnic lines. This tribe-first mentally fueled the postelectoral violence in 2007–08 and threatens to disrupt this year’s election.
Silantoi’s call for ending tribal favoritism is resonating with many young Kenyans clamoring for accountability instead of ethnic clientelism. “What Suzanne is trying to do is a very difficult thing, but that is why it’s so meaningful,” says Shikoh Kihika, founder of Tribeless Youth, an organization working to promote peace and civic engagement.
To be sure, there are countless obstacles in the way of the aspiring senator — from a dwindling marketing budget to misogyny and voter skepticism. “Kenyans are not keen to try new things during this election, especially when there is fear of violence,” Willis explains.
Polls show Silantoi ranking third out of seven, behind the two candidates from both major parties. A victory, in her eyes. “Change won’t come quick, but we are making headway,” she says.
So what will she do after tomorrow’s election? “Campaigning has only reaffirmed my commitment to serve,” she says, “so I will. …” Her assistant interrupts us. “You haven’t finished your tea? We have to go!” As Silantoi gets whisked away to another meet and greet, she turns to chug the rest of her cold ginger tea and says, “I will not leave politics. This is our time. And I’m just getting started.”