The Kenyan people have voted. The Kenyan elections have come and not quite gone. The foreign press offered its readers a veritable smorgasbord of dreadfully decontextualized representations, and now that the actual polling has passed, you can just about taste the collective disappointment at the absence of spectacular violence. As the local Kenyan press noted, the reporting was shameful, the reporters were infested with clichés. The results are coming in, and it doesn’t look like Martha Karua, the steely women’s rights activist and advocate, won the Presidency, but then she wasn’t meant to. At least not this go-round.
On the other hand, her campaign helped put the issue of women in electoral politics, from local to national, not so much on the front burner as at least in the house. More formal attention was paid to the ways in which women candidates, and party members more generally, suffered discrimination and coercion. Contrary to much of the foreign coverage of the elections, this attention didn’t come out of some panic that began in the 2007 post-election violence, but rather from women’s organizing histories. Longstanding groups such as ACORD Kenya, the Rural Women Peace Link, the Coalition on Violence Against Women, and so many others, have been working tirelessly, every single day, for years. And they continue to do so.
So Martha Karua didn’t win the Presidency, but Mary Wambui won the Othaya parliamentary seat. Alice Wambui Ng’ang’a “scooped” the election and became the first woman MP elected to represent the new Thika constituency. Cecily Mbarire seems ready to break a seesaw curse by being the first in thirty years to be re-elected from Runyenjes.
But those who rely on the international press are still left wondering if Kenya is more than an election. Here’s one very partial contextual sliver of a response.
Remember the violence? Not the election violence. The food riots of 2008. When the price of food in Kenya, as around the world, doubled in less than 12 months, Kenyan women joined their sisters around the world and led the nation into extended food uprisings. As Njoki Njoroge Njehu, of the Daughters of Mumbi Global Resource Centre, recently noted: “Corporations were speculating on food and made a lot of money. But it was done at the expense of ordinary people in Kenya, in Mexico, in Argentina and other places where there were food riots.” That’s the story. Ordinary women everywhere always lead food riots and uprisings.
In Kenya recently as in so many other places, “poverty … in most cases wears a feminine face.” Why are women at the center of Kenyan movements for social transformation? One reason is that the last decades in Kenya have seen an intensification of the immiseration of women: “wage employment away from home, forced or voluntary migrations or resettlements, changing decision making patterns in the political and socio-economic settings; reconstructed family and household structures; child rearing habits and the recycling of geriatric parenting; escalating rates of young widowhood; increase in family conflicts; breakage and general lack in socio-cultural-support-systems due to urbanization; social risks as manifested in increased illnesses … due to the ravages of HIV/AIDS. It is indeed a vicious cycle.”
A vicious cycle, and familiar. As Naomi L. Shitemi explains, it’s “modern life.” Women have been organizing to address and transform “modern life” in Kenya. For example, for decades, women struggled to develop some sort of national approach to land tenure, and now there is a Kenya National Land Policy that has problems, certainly in implementation, but also provides a framework. There’s the work of Wangari Maathai and all the women who made her work possible and concrete.
There’s the work that was begun in Nairobi, in 1988, in response to the 1978 Alma-Ata Declaration of Health for All. In 1988, women from around the world met in Nairobi and launched the Safe Motherhood movement, and it has been growing, and learning, and growing some more ever since. In Kenya, and around the world. As Kenyan women’s and public health advocate and activist, and professor, Miriam Were noted, “We need not wait for findings from some mysterious research.”