2 February 2013

Kenya: Polls Offer Business, Entertainment Value


The helicopter droned overhead, as it skimmed the surface of a maize plantation at maximum velocity. It's tiny moving shadow lazily loomed over the ground hundreds of meters below.

The distant throbbing sound of the engine stirred a surging crowd of onlookers waiting below. The helicopter's long landing bars stuck out like insect legs as the pilot scouted for a safe landing spot amidst the dry grassland.

The venue was a school sports field. The helicopter arched its way circling the crowd then made a hair raising turn towards a football field far from the crowd below.

The crowd followed the screaming chopper to its new landing site. The helicopter gently spiraled downwards into the syrup of humanity. The crowd surged forward, only held back by the menacing rotor blades and the rising shimmering plumes of dust.

The scene could have been a rescue mission in the middle of nowhere. It was in fact the arrival of a Presidential candidate making his way to an impassable campaign venue to address a crowd of supporters.

Elections in Kenya have evolved in both quality and entertainment value and grown into a billion shilling industry that in turn creates jobs and great clips for the evening television news.

The difference between elections in the United States and in Kenya is as different as night and day. In Kenya, besides the occasional violence and shambolic primaries, elections can make for can for riveting drama especially on the campaign trail.

I remember attending an Obama campaign rally in Baltimore, Maryland where thousands of loyal supporters had come to listen to him. The state is a reliably Democratic stronghold where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in registration.

The rally was at a convention center in downtown Baltimore . The whole exercise is a festivity that can take a couple of hours and the crowds melt at the end of the exercise back to their places of work or colleges. Once in the auditorium, the crowd relaxed in their seats and engaged in polite small talk.

The President was set to speak from a raised stage where supporters were stage managed to hold Obama banners, which they raise at the appropriate cue for maximum television coverage.

President Obama walked in to throng of applause dressed immaculately in a black suit and blue tie to match his Democratic Party colors. First was the charade of being introduced by the local party leader, congressman and senator.

Obama's speech was intermittently sprinkled with powerful rhetoric that allows the audience to be engaged and to response with chants.

At the end of the exercise when Obama had delivered his speech, usually lasting about 45 minutes, he left first escorted out of the venue by secret service to a waiting motorcade that droves him to the airport to catch a flight to his next campaign stop.

The whole US campaign trail experience is however nothing compared to the Kenya election cycle that borders on extended festivities and daylong unending drama.

In the Kenya elections, expect the unexpected and please spare the entire day for either a Jubilee or Cord rally. The spectacle of elections today illustrates campaigns have evolved in numbers and in style. They are more sophisticated and the costs are pitifully astronomical.

Lets start with the stage. Those creaky wooden stages set up with worn out seats for the mheshimiwa have been replaced with a modern style aluminum stage that takes four days to mount first for a one day rally.

The set up of the stage can costs either party close to Ksh5m! And that's the stage, complete with lighting, sound, and a large synchronized screens.

Then you have to add the entertainment value for the rally. You hire traditional dancers and if you can afford, a celebrity singer to grace the occasion and keep the crowd hyped until the main marquee event leaders arrive.

The thousands of supporters at one venue make for consumers with cash to spend. They want to buy sodas, food, snacks, and party gear from cap to T-shirts.

Most Kenyan rallies are held outside in a stadium that will accommodate thousands. The main speakers, usually the Presidential candidate and his running mate arrive in style. Forget those swanky car entrances after driving for hours on the road. No, you arrive in a helicopter that is emblazed with the colors of your party, TNA one side and URP on the other side, KNC or CORD.

The candidates will then be met by a waiting motorcade of cars already at the venue in advance. The candidates hop into an SUV complete with a sunroof, where they stands atop waving to cheering supporters as the motorcade snakes its way into the rally grounds. Waving supporters, banners and a tight police cordon form a bizarre boulevard as the candidate is led up to the raised dais to embrace a stunning tableau of humanity.

The crowds goes into a frenzy as the candidates, now visible to the multitude are met by the Master of ceremony and proceed first to sing and dance; an added addition to Kenya's political repertoire. Campaign rallies have become an abridged version of a gospel rally. From the booming speakers, the music and songs.

The dance routine of the candidates can range from chini kwa chini to Ndombolo and makes for great crowd entertainment. And the candidates and supporters really getting into it in a big way.

When all the songs have been sung, the long fiery speeches made to adoring supporters, the candidates wave and dance off stage to waiting cars where they are driven to a plush hotel. When the crowds have melted away into the villages, a scene of utter destruction presents itself on the grassy grounds.

Empty soda bottles, toppled chairs, shredded posters, litters of paper, broken twigs and other debris are strewn on the grounds like autumn leaves. With three weeks left in the campaign, there still a lot garbage to be collected.

Machua Koinange is a film Producer, Director, Screenwriter and a Communications Specialist.

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