Students return from Kenya powerless yet empowered

Gazing at mile-long lines of voters on the day of last month’s presidential election in Kenya, Shazan Jiwa ’09 felt moved as voter after voter approached him to express their gratitude. Raising their ink-stained fingers to demonstrate that they had cast their ballot, voters voiced appreciation for the work of Jiwa and eight other Yale students who had come to Kenya to serve as election monitors.

“People would come up to election monitors and say ‘Thank you,’” Jiwa, a co-leader of the trip, said. “They were very receptive to us.”

On election day, the students said they witnessed tremendous excitement and hope as Kenyans cast their ballots in what was expected to be a tight presidential race. But that hope melted into anger and frustration as the projected winner lost to the incumbent amid allegations of vote rigging.

Back on American soil, the students said they felt both empowered by their experiences and helpless to stop the ongoing violence. Co-leader Julie Carney ’08 said Kenyan citizens expressed deep faith in the power of their votes and strong appreciation for the fairness they believed election monitors would be able to ensure. She called the ensuing conflict “tragic.”

For native Kenyan Amandla Ooko-Ombaka ’10 — who did not participate in the election monitoring — the most disconcerting element of the violence was not so much that it is perpetrated by youth, but rather the reason it is performed. Those carrying out violence are “very young,” but tribalism has never been a major consideration for her generation, she said.

“The fact that these young people are bringing ethnic violence into my generation is very shocking to me,” Ooko-Ombaka said.

Although a sense of excitement built in the days after the elections, Ooko-Ombaka said the sentiment among Kenyans changed dramatically after the results were released on Dec. 30.

“There is overwhelmingly a sense of disappointment that people were told to turn out to the polls … and behind the scenes, [the government] betrayed the trust of the people and the democratic system,” she said in a phone interview on Jan. 9, only a day after returning to New Haven from her home in Kenya.

Now Yale students have decided to act upon their hope, pledging to raise awareness on campus and share their experiences with their peers through a report to the Yale community later this month.

“This trip is just the beginning rather than just the end,” co-leader Aniket Shah ’09 said. “Hopefully we can … start being proactive and start bringing about these changes in the months to come.”

Trip leaders said they had been planning the mission since September, even though the date of the election had not even been settled until late October — giving the leaders only two months to scramble for plane tickets and make other arrangements.

“It was almost like a guessing game. We had to get funding from people while we didn’t actually know the date,” Shah said.

Thanks to the generosity of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and several other campus organizations, each student had to pay far less than the trip’s real cost — $500 per student, down from $3,300.

Participants in the trip were winnowed down from a large applicant pool by Political Science professor Susan Hyde and Political Science lecturer David Simon. The final group included Shah, Carney, Jiwa, Ooko-Oombaka, Eliot Pence GRD ’08, Benjamin Shaffer ’09, Eric Purington ’09 and Annie Carney ’09. Hyde, Simon and several other Yale faculty briefed students on the task of election monitoring and the local politics and culture of Kenya before the trip.

Students on the trip were involved in “short-term election monitoring,” said Hyde, an expert in the field. Other organizations had been in Kenya for months in long-term observation efforts, she said, and the Yale team planned to contribute their observances to these groups.

The students flew to Nairobi on Dec. 23, four days before the election. Three trip members stayed with a freelance journalist, while the remaining six lived with Kenyan families, Carney said.

Although most shops remained closed in the days leading up to the election because of Christmas, students sensed anticipation building for the upcoming election. The race featured incumbent Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga — “two long-term figures” in Kenyan politics, Simon said.

The election would hinge on three key issues: the economy, corruption and ethnicity, he said. While the country has prospered under a decade of economic growth, Simon said Kibaki put a concerted effort into eliminating the rampant corruption in the country.

“He was not completely successful: that might be putting too fine a gloss on it,” Simon said. “There is a sense that government isn’t performing and isn’t doing the things its supposed to be doing.”

By contrast, Odinga portrayed himself as a champion of Kenya’s sizeable poor communities.

“There was a level of anticipation … [because] Odinga did such a good job framing this as an election between the rich and poor,” Shah said.

On Dec. 27, the stage was set for a test of Kenya’s young democracy. Voters got up before sunrise to leave for polling stations, arriving in droves as early as 4 a.m.

Throughout the day, students’ role was simply to observe — not intervene in the case of a voting irregularity.

“One of the key things is neutrality,” Jiwa said. “You cannot tell them what they are doing is wrong. That would violate the idea of not intervening.”

While disorganization caused polling stations to open late, students said most of the day’s proceedings went “smoothly.”

After beginning the day in Gigeri, students traveled to Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, where they saw Odinga arrive at a polling station to vote. The crowd surged upon his arrival, the orderly line devolving into a hectic scrum.

“They were worshiping [Odinga] because they thought he was like a god,” Jiwa said.

Odinga — famous for his cowboy hats and brightly colored suits — could not find his name on the voter registration list. The error was corrected and Odinga was allowed to vote, but Simon called the omission “amazing,” saying it suggested serious flaws in the electoral process.

Afterwards, the students traveled to other areas within and around Nairobi, but when they returned to Kibera at 5 p.m., they discovered several glaring irregularities. An unauthorized individual assisted some people in voting, and several bystanders threatened and intimidated voters, Jiwa said.

After the polls had closed, the waiting began.

For two days, the students — as well as the rest of Kenya — watched as the government continued to postpone the release of election results, which initially showed Odinga leading Kibaki by a large margin. Students said the government officials they saw speaking on television did not reassure them regarding the fairness of the vote, and the results of the election seemed jeopardized.

On Dec. 30 — the morning the winner was announced — most of the Yale students were already on their flight home. They were shocked when they arrived at Heathrow Airport in London and discovered Kibaki had been declared the victor.

But it was the students who remained in Kenya — co-leader Pence, Frank Mokaya ’09 and Ooko-Ombaka — who would experience some of the greatest shock.

“Once the results were released … at about 4:30 p.m., billows of smoke could be seen from at least 6 places in Nairobi almost immediately,” Pence said in an e-mail dated Jan. 1.

Carney contrasted the violence witnessed on television with the orderly proceedings they had observed only days earlier. The violence not only undermined the competence of voters but also had a strong emotional impact on all members of the trip, she said.

“It was really difficult to see polling stations that we had seen earlier up in flames,” she said.

Ooko-Ombaka said she thinks the violence represented an attempt by Kenyans to demonstrate that they maintained power to choose their leaders. She said much of the looting that accompanied the violence was in part the result of opportunism rather than sheer anger, noting that electronics stores in Kisumu were the first to be looted, while the textbook store and drapery store remained untouched.

Students were not necessarily surprised by the emergence of violence, but rather the escalation of the conflict, they said. Violence, which began as an act of frustration, grew into a partly ethnicity-based conflict.

“The Western media highlighted the ethnic dimension of the violence that was occurring, but politics and poverty were definitely factors, as well,” Alexandra Suich ’08, who was in Kenya covering the election for Newsweek, said in e-mail. “[The violence] was not entirely motivated by ethnic hatred.”

Regardless of the causes of the violence, Suich said past experiences volunteering in Kenya — two summers working for AIDS advocacy non-profit organizations — made her aware of the immense importance of the elections to local citizens.

“I had so much hope for Kenya to have the opportunity to demonstrate the integrity of its citizens,” Suich said in a phone interview on Jan. 9. “What has happened in Kenya has challenged that in the eyes of viewers and leaders internationally. The violence overshadows the integrity and the contributions of the Kenyans to their country.”

Looking ahead, students said they are hopeful but cautious. The bleakness of the present is jarring, but there is hope for the future — hope for change.

“Kenyans are a peace-loving people,” Ooko-Ombaka said. “There is so much more to my country besides the violence that is going on.”

Comments