In Kenya, the arts industry pushes youths to care about elections

Nairobi, Kenya – On June 9, the film Chaguo premiered in Kenya.

Backed by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, it is a love story set against the background of an election in a fictional town of an unnamed country. The movie which was initially shown at cinemas and cultural centres is also available to view online.

Ravi Karmalker, the film’s producer and director told Al Jazeera that his intention was to make a movie for Kenyans to understand “facts and problems in past pre-election campaigns.”

“Everywhere it has sparked strong discussions about what viewers want from politics, politicians in the future, but also that people want more courage and participation from young voters when it comes to fixing problems in the country and shaping a better future for all,” he said.

Chaguo is the latest example of a strategic drive by the arts and entertainment industry on how to best tackle voter apathy as the August 9 elections inch closer in the East African nation.

Currently, only about a third of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s 22 million registered voters for the upcoming elections, is aged between 18 and 35. This is despite more than two-thirds of Kenya’s 55 million population being below 35 years of age.

Some like Okoth Otieno, a 26-year-old university graduate and arts enthusiast have registered to vote but will not. “It’s a waste of my time as it’s a false choice; there’s little separating the two main political camps,” he told Al Jazeera.

That apathy and Kenya’s history of disputed elections and violence in the last three electoral cycles have led to multiple artistic works – from visual arts to poetry, music, print literature, theatre and film – produced to address several electoral themes and get more younger people out to the polling stations to vote.

In the past, there have been songs such as King Kaka’s Wajinga Nyinyi (‘You are fools’) castigating citizens for electing bad leaders, to plays and films with leery political figures and corrupt public officials as protagonists or background characters.

There have also been projects bringing little-known Kenyan stories to the public including Too Early for Birds, a theatrical production that highlighted the stories of Tom Mboya and Chelagat Mutai, deceased politicians who were politically engaged in their youth.

Another, the film The More Things Change, reflects on past and futuristic political organising. Sam Soko’s documentary film Softie follows the life of activist-cum-politician Boniface Mwangi running for office in 2017.

Even when the general election is not the main story, as is the case with Wanuri Kahiu’s romance movie Rafiki, it is a significant backstory pitting the protagonists’ families against each other.

Raising awareness

Analysts say this might be because the space for artistic expression has expanded since a new constitution was signed into law in 2010. But several artistic works have also been banned or received restricted airplay as happened with Rafiki.

Kimani Njogu, a linguistics scholar and former professor of Kiswahili and African Languages at Kenyatta University, split works produced in the lead-up to the general elections into three categories: work commissioned by politicians or their political parties; work inspired by civil-society organisations committed to democracy, and accountability of leaders as well as that done by specific individuals historically committed to the creation of better society.

“There is always the opportunity that the arts can be used to raise consciousness about critical, social and economic issues that should play out during the elections …. but raising awareness may not be sufficient for people to vote in one direction or the other.”

The statistics appear to back this up.

Despite the broad circulation of these works, there is little to indicate that youth voting patterns will be positively influenced.

In its June 2022 audit report, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) shows that the percentage of youth, aged 18 to 34 years, registered to vote in 2022 declined by 5.27 percent from the last election in 2017 – which was cancelled and led to a rerun.

It comes as a surprise given that five million young Kenyans have attained voting age since that last election, according to the 2019 census.

For the 34-year-old accountant, Catherine Muga, who plans to vote in the coming elections, watched Chaguo online but said she found the story predictable. “Everywhere we go now, they keep telling us to vote wisely and peacefully,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s monotonous, and the movie had some of that.”

Even Otieno has not watched or listened to any elections-related arts and media in over a year. He said he has deliberately avoided the news too and only catches snippets of it when in public places.

There is too little time to turn the tide for this election but Njogu believes that in future, artistic works need more community and media engagement.

“They can raise consciousness but you need to go deeper through media engagement, community dialogues for example in mosques and churches, and other spaces where people are, whether it is the market places devoid of the fleeting nature of art,” Nojgu added.

“I truly believe that the fundamental investment should be in merging the creative enterprise, the artistic works, with community dialogues and community engagement,” he added. “So that artistic work is a point of production rather than an end in itself.”

‘A future beyond this election’

But Carol Makanda, a Nairobi-based peace consultant and alumnus of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, believes that artistic works have previously played a significant role in the lead-up to elections, and undoubtedly influence youth participation.

She points out that youth associate certain songs with their preferred candidates, citing Kenyan music duo Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s popular song Unbwogable, a rallying anthem for the opposition party National Alliance of Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in the 2002 general elections.

NARC eventually won by a landslide.

In her words: “Roots Party’s George Wajackoyah [one of the four presidential candidates] has ignited much more interest in the elections for a catchment of youth who were previously apathetic to the process. In fact, artists have now started creating music around the things that he is advocating for.”

This may have to do with his pro-marijuana messaging and the fact that his campaign style endears itself to a style of music popular among youth, she said.

“The messaging of creative works has played a role by reminding audiences that there is a future beyond this election,” Makanda said.

And it is an opinion that Karmalker echoes, seeing it as a vehicle for not just today, but more for the future.

“Chaguo has enhanced discussion about the topics of democracy and having your own choice on your own vote and freedom of choice,” he said. “People are taking the film as a starting point for thinking and discussing their own perspective on those topics raised in the film. That’s what makes me and others behind the project very happy because that’s what we wanted”.

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