March 3 marked an important day for Kenyans. It was the day of the anxiously anticipated and crucial presidential election. This was Kenya’s first presidential vote since 2007, when evidence of vote rigging set off ethnic clashes and violence that killed over 1,000 people across the country.
I visited Kenya for the first time this January. While the elections were only two months away, there was a tension present in Nairobi. The bustling city was covered with presidential propaganda — billboards, posters and graffiti everywhere.
At the embassy, where my father works, anticipation was also high. Not only was the outcome of the elections crucial for future U.S.–Kenya relations, but the threat of violence was also a concern among American diplomats.
Throughout our trip, my father often asked Kenyans what their opinion was about the upcoming election. While emotions ranged from hopeful to worried, the one thing they all shared in common was a need to vote.
One taxi driver told us that he would need to take at least three matatus (privately owned and crowded minibuses) to get to his voting location, while others would venture home to their own polling place outside of downtown Nairobi to cast their ballots.
When he asked me if everyone in the U.S. voted during the re-election, he was shocked when I told him many American’s don’t vote. He joked that Kenya was more of a democracy than the U.S.
That got me thinking: is there truth behind that statement?
Kenya’s government is far from perfect. Uhuru Kenyatta has held a commanding lead of 40 percent to 55 percent over the second-place candidate, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister. Kenyatta has been accused by the International Criminal Court of financing death squads.
However, Kenya is one of the most industrialized and democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and this year’s election is the most complicated in its history. New positions have been created to change the winner-takes-all nature of Kenyan politics. These include governorships, Senate seats and even female county representatives.
While many Kenyans still vote along ethnic lines, civic groups have tried to make this election about issues, integrity and plans, not ethnic groups.
While their democracy and government may not be perfect, the election has impressed me and demonstrated a true desire for peace, stability and democracy.
Like in the U.S., Kenyans are not required to vote. However, voter turnout on March 4 was tremendous, starting hours before dawn with lines of voters stretching nearly a mile long. In Nairobi’s Kibera slum, people waited nine hours on their feet to cast their vote.
Voting was peaceful, albeit for some isolated violence on the coast but nothing compared to the riots of 2007.
While Kenya still has a long way to go in terms of ethnic tension and government, we Americans, who complain when we have to wait in line to vote and often don’t take advantage of the privilege we have, can learn from Kenyan citizens.
The right to vote is one of the most sacred we have. While people flooding the polls in Kenya might not mean that this particular election is corruption-free and perfect, it shows that they want change and to take part of their government. Can we say the same here, where a color divide led many to not even vote?
Only time will tell what Kenya’s fate is, or if the predicted victory of Kenyatta will spark violence. However, Kenyans are headed in the right direction, and their determination will take them far.
Let’s hope Americans will one day also have the determination to wait in line, want to vote and celebrate a privilege many do not have.
Julia Greenwald is a sophomore in the School of Communication.