Recently I received an email from a UK client of mine asking if I was available to cover a press launch at No. 11 Downing Street; with only a couple of days’ notice I had to decline, but the following day I was given another political photo opportunity – on the campaign trail with Martin Douglas (‘The Councillor’), standing as County Member of Assembly for the United Republican Party (URP) in the district of Chemalil and Chemase (our local area).
The Councillor’s father and brother both work at the mine, and we heard that he was going to be campaigning ‘just down the road’ from us – a couple of ‘phone calls later and I was told that two local teachers (Amon and Jofri) were waiting for me (one to act as ‘security’ and the other to stay with the car while I was on walkabout) and the Councillor was expecting me, so I jumped in the car and headed off to intercept the ‘campaign bus’.
It became clear fairly early on that neither Amon or Jofri had much of an idea of the route that the Councillor’s cavalcade was taking, and the ‘roads’ we were traversing rapidly became little more than heavily rutted tracks…our Subaru (aptly nicknamed ‘Supercar’) was already finding the going difficult and I was worrying about the ground clearance when I was told to stop at a small village ‘somewhere’ between home and Nandi. Amon and Jofri entered into a lively discussion with a couple of villagers trying to establish which direction we should be heading and before I knew it a rather large lady and a young man were getting in the back of the car. I hurriedly explained that the additional weight of two more passengers was putting the car at risk of serious damage, so the lady – looking somewhat offended – was bundled out but the young man (I never did get his name) remained. Shortly afterwards we headed off again, back in the direction we had just travelled from, and now four of us in Supercar…
It soon became apparent that not only did the latest passenger have a clearer idea of where the Councillor was likely to be appearing, but he also had a better knowledge of the ‘roads’; that having been said, he seemed remarkably confident of Supercar’s off-road and amphibious capabilities, a confidence I didn’t necessarily share but we plugged on and eventually arrived at another village that seemed to be preparing for his imminent arrival. I parked up and, emerging from the car with two cameras slung off my shoulders, was immediately greeted by the village elders who went to great lengths to let me know that I was with friends and was welcome. This pleased me greatly as I had been a little anxious as to how a Mzungu in the middle of a very local election campaign was going to be received…I really shouldn’t have worried.
After a few minutes of sharing incomprehensible jokes with some of the braver village children I heard vague strains of music apparently emanating directly from the bush… as the music got louder the villagers became more excitable and a few moments later a Toyota Probox (they’re everywhere here) drove into the village with an impossibly large array of speakers and amplifiers strapped to the roof. This was the start of the cavalcade, and close behind the Probox followed a tractor pulling a huge sugar-cane trailer but instead of its normal load it was completely full of smiling, cheering and waving men – the strangest campaign bus I have ever seen! As soon as the tractor pulled up in the centre of the village the trailer emptied and – even though I hadn’t thought it possible – the mobile disco Probox cranked up the music to ear-splitting levels and the entire village dissolved into a frenzy of dancing. Children, old women and even the village elders were swept up in the fervour created by the ‘tractor boys’ who may, or my not, have been under the influence of something…
Sometime following the trailer’s arrival saw the first of many piki riders streaming into the village, all with at least one fist-pumping passenger and festooned with URP flags and posters, and all weaving around the whirling and jumping dancers to add more noise to the general cacophony. As the last of the piki pulled up I noticed that a slightly calmer atmosphere was developing in the area of shade where the village elders had been gathering and I was told – by several people very excitedly – that ‘He is coming! He is coming!!!’ Not wanting to miss the arrival of the Councillor I made my way through the village towards the road where all the other vehicles had arrived from and saw a group of about twenty-five village women of all ages in a group, swaying and singing gently, and creating the most serene blockade imaginable. Momentarily lost in the peacefulness that these ladies had brought to proceedings I nearly missed the Councillor’s car approaching the gently rolling roadblock and just managed to get off a couple of shots of him getting out of the car before he was engulfed by the women, still singing, but no longer serene or peaceful!
Singing loudly now the women slowly reformed the ‘blockade’ formation but this time facing the village, and with the Councillor in the middle of the front row, flanked by two of the older women, each of them holding one of his hands. This was my first real view of the Councillor and the first thing I noticed was how full of energy he appeared to be, with real warmth and feeling in his smile as he was willingly led into the village towards the assembled group of village elders still standing under the trees. A short distance from the shade the women ‘released’ the Councillor who thanked them for their welcome before shaking hands with all of the elders, and he was then invited to sit while all of the elders in turn spoke, at length and of what I have no idea but judging by the smiles and laughter it was all complimentary.
While the speeches were being conducted I realised that the tractor boys were clambering back on board the ‘bus’ and - before the Councillor had even finished his oration – the tractor (with the Probox in front) drove out of the village heading, as I was about to find out, to the next village where the whole spectacle was repeated. In total, the whole process had taken less than thirty minutes, but more than enough time – or so it appeared – for everybody in the village to be persuaded that Martin Douglas was the man to vote for.
These scenes were repeated at three other villages that I personally witnessed, although the three hours or so that I was shadowing the procession was only a fraction of the time that these guys spent on the road that day, and village after village would have been treated to the whole spectacle from about six in the morning through until at least ten that night…hats off to a very hard-working politician.
There was one last ‘photo opportunity’ that reminded me that politicians the world over do display some similarities; as we passed a school for orphans the Councillor’s car made an unscheduled stop to meet the children, and one of his advisors made it very clear that I should follow to get some photos of this…not quite ‘kissing the baby’s head’, but the only part of the day that I thought was in anyway stage-managed.
With all the hype I have heard in the UK about African – and specifically Kenyan – elections I will admit to having been a little apprehensive about going out to photograph ‘live’ campaigning but, in truth, I was treated with incredible courtesy and respect from everybody I met. There was only one slightly ugly moment when a guy arrived on a piki wearing an ‘Orange Democratic Movement’ shirt, but this was quickly – and peacefully – resolved. There were also a couple of really comedic moments as well, not least the time when a group of ladies ran away in embarrassment having mistaken ME for the Councillor (who is the son of a black mother and a white father) and also when one very grand old lady ‘encouraged’ me to dance with her which I felt I had no choice but to accept… when in Rome…??
Will things go so smoothly on March 4th when the Kenyan people elect a new President? I hope with all of my being that there is no repetition of the trouble that flared following the 2007 elections but I guess only time will tell. It certainly doesn’t help that one of the two leading presidential candidates - Uhuru Kenyatta - is currently facing charges before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, specifically for inciting violence after the 2007 elections. “However, the other leading candidate - Prime Minister Raila Odinga - couldn’t resist saying that it would be very difficult to run the country on Skype from The Hague during a recent televised debate which all 8 candidates took part in…That was one of the few laugh lines of the evening.”
For a full review of the televised debate – the first of its kind in Kenya – follow this link:
Apologies for the length of this blog, but I hope it was at least interesting… and here are a couple of pictures from the day to highlight some of what I talked about, including my grand old dancing partner!