BY CIRU MUCHIRI
Since I’m a good Kenyan who grew up listening to the news and reading newspapers, I’m always interested in politics. In Nairobi, people gather every evening outside the City Council offices to exchange news. In rural areas where people can’t afford personal TVs or newspapers, you will find a group of people gathered around TVs or reading newspapers in the shopping centers.
I’ve been living in the U.S. for a year, and in all this time, I’ve tried as much as possible to teach myself about the politics.
Here in Asheville, there’s an ongoing election for City Council and mayor. However, you wouldn’t really know since everything is quite subtle around here. No loudspeakers, no vehement exhortations from people, and my Kenyan family isn’t here to hotly argue for the candidates they support.
Sometimes the news in Kenya is suppressed and/or skewed, and you have to go out on the street to find out the truth for yourself. Your neighbors and family are a vital source of information ― or disinformation, depending on whether they got paid to stir up support for the chosen candidate. I’d be surprised if politicians in the U.S. dish out money during political rallies.
In Kenya, Facebook and Twitter have also upset the balance due to citizen journalism. To counter that, the government has turned to jailing people for “misuse of information and technology.”
It’s also very important to know the politics around you since one day, your life could depend on it. One only needs to look up Kenyan news right now to glimpse into the meaning of this sentence.
So, what’s the difference between Kenya and the U.S. in how politics and elections play out at the grassroots level?
For one, Kenyans are an angry lot. They could tell you all about the importance of voting rights; they keep abreast of local news and, most of all, they understand disenchantment, disenfranchisement and injustice in very immediate ways.
When politics go bad, so does your life: no food, no shelter, no clothes ― or they may be very hard to come by. It might also mean living in a state of war where conditions are volatile and unstable. In August, 79 percent of registered voters turned out to vote in the general elections. When people decided to boycott the recently held elections in October, the impact was hard to ignore. It was a collective sneer that makes it hard for the winner to have any legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
By comparison, Xpress’ Carolyn Morrisroe described turnout in Asheville during the October municipal primary as “remarkably high” (16.52 percent) compared with previous municipal elections of 12.82 percent (2015) and 8.98 percent (2013). Although, to be fair, the turnout for last November’s presidential election here was much higher — at 69.77 percent in Buncombe County, according to the state Board of Elections.
In the U.S., the personal suffering caused by government officials is sometimes not as immediate in its impact. There’s still electricity to light the city, and the roads will be repaired.
So I’m not surprised that no one is really excited about elections within my circle of friends. The roads to work will still be paved; people will still follow traffic rules on the way to work; the police will leave you alone; and life goes on.
At this point, I’d like to take a step back and question my experience here in the U.S. I’m married to a white man ― ergo, my family here is white, and the only black people I know are privileged.
So, life will go on unless you’re a person of color or poor. There’s a correlation between being a person of color and poverty; that’s hard to ignore. In that case, I tend to see many similarities in the conditions of the people in Kenya and the black people in the U.S.: slouched shoulders, a defeated look. I haven’t yet encountered anger, but I know it’s there, smoldering under the surface, building up all the time. To see this, though, I have to use the slow and unreliable public transportation.
In a way, it’s shocking to see this laxity with my friends and family, given that the U.S. has a rich history of people fighting for justice, equality and voting rights. To vote or to refuse to vote can be powerful in their own ways, as the Kenyan experience shows. The problem is that no one seems bothered enough to even have a discussion about it.
It seems like people who live in the small towns of America like Asheville aren’t quite as engaged as you’d expect. (Since I am not a U.S. citizen, I can’t vote in the election myself.) I don’t understand why people won’t vote in larger numbers for the local Council elections. That’s the structure between you and the chaos of national politics. While you might feel disenchanted about the outcome of the 2016 national election, at least you’ve still got the local government to make things right.
The devolution of power in the U.S. is what keeps the country stable. You might have a crazy man as your president, but he doesn’t have so much power that he could determine whether you have food on your table or not. In a place like Kenya, on the other hand, the powers vested in the president are so strong that even having a new constitution that heavily borrowed on the American model cannot help.
The one uncanny similarity I can see on the face of it, is that black people and people of color don’t even seem to exist. Of course, they’re there, but they’re not visible — not walking about or in the businesses I patronize. And the question of visibility is what clarifies things for me. Underneath the calm surface and the laxity lies a smattering of problems that are just as complex as those back home in Kenya and that are centered on resource sharing.
I suppose the window dressing in the U.S. is a lot better, and it’s harder to see the sh*t, which is why I’m wondering why this City Council election isn’t quite as important. Otherwise, if it’s important, and assuming Ashevilleans know about the privilege of voting and understand the beauty of independent local institutions, why won’t they go out and vote? Especially those for whom life isn’t quite as rosy. Or rather, why am I not encountering conversations about it? Do I have to be in a specially appointed space to know about people’s deepest concerns and thoughts as citizens?
Ciru Muchiri is an Xpress marketing associate who loves collecting and telling stories about everyone and everything.