19 June 2017

Kenya: Silantoi, 23, Says She Has What It Takes to Be Next Nairobi Senator

Suzanne Silantoi Lengewa is only 23 but her eyes are focused on being the Nairobi County senator in the next Parliament.

When she walked into the hall at the Kasarani Stadium to present her nomination papers, everybody, including IEBC officials paused and exchanged glances.

Her youthful look was striking as she confidently walked over to the table to hand over her papers for clearance to run for the Nairobi seat currently held by Senator Mike Mbuvi Sonko.

Ms Lengewa is no doubt among the youngest parliamentary candidates in the August 8, elections.

INDEPENDENT CANDIDATE

She has since been cleared to run as an independent candidate and the youthful soft-spoken Lengewa says she is ready for the bruising battle in Nairobi's tough political terrain.

The Kenyatta University graduate will be fighting out for the senate seat with, among others, Jubilee Party's Johnson Sakaja and Edwin Sifuna of ODM.

This and her political inexperience, however, does not shake her resolve.

"As a person who believes that Nairobi deserves better, I should be gaining experience on the job, as a change maker, a trailblazer," she said of the challenge that is the male-dominated field she has just plunged into.

CLEARANCE HURDLE

As she sought clearance, all eyes were on Silantoi and her proposer and seconder, with those in the hall appearing to really sympathise with her.

"It looks like she won't make it (to be cleared)," remarked a journalist.

The requirements for clearance were much more rigorous for the independents than for those who were sponsored by political parties.

The toughest challenge, and which had knocked out a majority of the 28 people who had expressed interest in the senate seat, was the requirement to provide a list of 2,000 registered voters within Nairobi and who were not aligned to a political party, as supporters.

FIRST ROUND

Just like many who had failed, Ms Lengewa did not manage it on the first round.

She was turned away after it turned out that her list was 500 names less than the required number.

But the sheer fact of her youthfulness and determination to go for the senate seat and not any other such as MCA or woman rep, appears to have touched many of those who were in the hall. A number of them immediately volunteered to sign up in her support.

She then walked out of the hall, only to return nearly five hours later with the required signatures. She was cleared to join the race as an independent candidate.

"I am right now where I ought to be, running to be Nairobi's senator," Ms Lengewa told Nation after receiving her clearance certificate.

"I am developing my leadership abilities and hopefully, inspiring other young people to be the change they desire. Should I leave politics alone and be busy doing other things? No!" she added.

FIRST-BORN

The first-born in a family of two and a born-again Christian, the young woman says she has defied advise to wait "until she is of age and experienced" to build a career in politics.

If she was to go by that advice, she says, the world will have moved on by the time she gains the said political experience and would likely have been "tamed by the prevailing winds of compromise and status quo".

"Young people must hit when the iron is still hot. We must strive for an excellent county when we still have the energy to catalyse the excellence. If we waited a moment more, if we developed our career in something else or settled down, we will wake up to realise we are too settled in our ways to change," she adds.

STATUS QUO

She insists that those who wait find themselves engrossed into the status quo and are unwilling to change things. This, she says, is why she chose to get into politics, to gain experience while already in leadership.

Ms Lengewa, who completed her university education in 2015, works as a communications officer with Centre for Behaviour Change Communications.

Although she studied music at the university, part of her work entails going to communities, to listen to struggles they go through and help them make changes to their lives so as to minimise the negative impact of their circumstances and maximise their capacity to overcome challenges.

FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE

Asked why she opted for politics when she was clearly on a "proper" career path, she says, "I know first-hand what it means to live in this country as a young person. I see hundreds of young people desperate for hope; the assurance that tomorrow will bring better fortunes than today and the desire to be who God made them to be."

She says she has watched young people's dreams wither, their youthful energy stolen by the daily disappointments of lack of jobs, the crushing cost of living and an atmosphere hostile to the ambitions of the youth.

"I heard of people who had changed their societies through the courage to step out. And it occurred to me that while I waited for the world to give me opportunities, the world itself waited for me to make a move. I was the change I had been waiting for."

And why did she specifically seek to vie for senate?

"The Senate puts me in a vantage position to influence both county and national government policy and budget, to kind of force the hand of the county government to do what's right [for] the people of this county," she says.

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