On the 8th of August 2017, elections took place in Kenya. After weeks of campaigning, every conversation on the street concerned with the coming elections, Kenyans finally went to the polling stations to vote for either the governing party – Jubilee – or the opposition party – NASA – and elect (among others) their president.
During those weeks I was interning with ILEPA, an organisation in the Kenyan town Narok that works towards enhancement and empowerment of Maasai.
A few days before the elections, my internship partner Stella and I left Kenya and travelled to Tanzania for ‘safety purposes’. We took these measures because of previous violent elections. In 2007, widespread violence erupted on the street between among others Kenya’s largest tribes, the Luo and Kikuyu tribe. 1200 Kenyans were killed and more than half a million displaced. In Kenya, voting behaviour is heavily influenced by ethnicity – which of the 42 Kenyan tribes you belong to – , where Kikuyu vote for the party in government and Luo for the opposition party.
Collince, our Kenyan partner in learning and internship partner, left for his hometown Kisumu to vote. Because of my research in Kenya, my proximity to Kenya and because Kisumu had been one of the violence hotspots in 2007, I was checking the news and situation in Kenya every day.
What surprised me most during those weeks was the relative lack of coverage of the election by Western news-outlets. Despite a number of serious events in Kisumu and in the informal settlements of Nairobi – at least 37 Kenyans were killed* – , there was barely any Western news-coverage of the elections. BBC World published only one article per day. In contrast to the most well covered elections in the world, the US elections, this felt absurd.
On the 1st of September, almost one month after the Election Day, the Supreme Court annulled the victory of Jubilee leader Uhuru Kenyatta as president-elect. Again, I experienced this quite intensely because I was driving towards the Kenyan border with friends to enter Kenya after weeks in Tanzania. A few weeks later in the Netherlands, I discovered that few people had even heard of the annulment.
The experience brought nuance to my preconceptions about what was happening in ‘Africa’. Instead of the regular perspectives that we get spoon-fed on the world – American elections, Europe, etc. – I got acquainted with alternative perspectives and knowledge forms. I came to understand that we often do not get informed about happenings in other (non-dominant) areas of the world, such as the Kenyan elections, simply because they rank lower in terms of importance for news outlets.
I had never experienced an International Relations ‘insight’ so distinctly: the hierarchy of news reflected the larger power play between states, continents and elites, which determined which stories were told and which ones were not. Not surprisingly, journalism could be perceived as ‘objective’, whereas it is most certainly subjective. Power is then expressed in the ability to present the subjective as objective or the political as apolitical. Our distance to the African continent combined with our own ‘power’ as a Western nation had translated into a particular (lack of) news.
Picture Vera Vrijmoeth