15 July 2017

Kenya: 23-Year-Old Wants to Be Nairobi Senator, Rejects Handouts Culture

Photo: Suzanne Lengewa Silantoi
Suzanne Lengewa Silantoi, the youngest senatorial aspirant in the Nairobi race.

Nairobi — Suzanne Lengewa Silantoi's campaign caravan consisting of a van and a four wheel drive vehicle makes its way into the Lunga Lunga informal settlement where she is on a vote hunting mission to try and convince the residents that they need to vote for her.

A group of bewildered onlookers stand to stare. Others are shocked that a lady who looks young enough to be their daughter is asking for their votes to be the next Senator of Nairobi County.

A small chat ensues then she is given the 'green light' to go in. "We are starting to campaign from here," she notifies us.

Before she vanishes in the vast slum, a group of men congregate around her and from their faces, they are excited that a politician is in their area. They are hoping that their 'lunch' might be paid for even as their pockets get lined up with handouts; an unfortunate culture that is fast taking root in Kenya.

Only that she doesn't give money on her campaigns. A gentleman obstructs her way and she stops. With a smile that smirks of entitlement, he boldly asks for lunch... "Madam buy lunch." "It's you who needs to buy lunch for me," she responds to the man who was expecting a tip from her.

Like a sneeze that quickly came and vanished, the episode is soon forgotten and she starts to greet eager onlookers while handing them her campaign fliers.

Apart from the fact that she out rightly says no to handout requests, she is the youngest senatorial aspirant in the Nairobi race. Something that has made her stand out in a race that had been defined as a Jubilee Party's (JP) Johnson Sakaja versus Orange Democratic Movement's (ODM) Edwin Sifuna contest.

Her mission is crystal clear in her mind; policy formulation.

"Who said that if you want to be a Senator you have to be above the age of 35 years old or something? When I'm asked why the Senate, I say why not?" she boldly affirmed. "The Constitution allows me to vie for the Senate at this point," she added.

In a country where there is no single female Senator elected in the 2013 General Election, she is attempting what can easily be considered pushing the rock uphill. You see, the political landscape is dominated by men and the odds are stacked against female candidates, yet at 23 that's the exact reason why she decided to dive in the murky waters of politics to change the narrative.

"I chose the Senate seat because it's only oversight and accountability that can fix this county I believe," she said. "And who said I can't do it?" she added with the confidence of someone who believes in herself.

In a country where money talks in politics, she has depended on the generosity of family and other kind hearted Nairobians to drive her agenda. Donations have come in kind and in cash but also, she has had to tighten her belt and run a campaign on a lean budget.

"Some people have been very kind to me. They have supported me in very many ways if its material or money directly. I'm also doing a very low-cost campaign based on what I have," she said.

So far, she hasn't faced any kind of violence though mean words have been hurled at her in abundance. "I've not faced any form of violence but people have just insulted me," she confessed.

Women candidates world over face violence while others pay dearly with their lives. For example, UK Labour MP Jo Cox breathed her last in the cruel hands of a bullet and stabbings by a man linked to a far-right party earlier in 2016.

Yet in the same cold political world, specifically in Kangemi market, she met an old lady who held her hand and prayed for her. "That really moved me. That was the most touching experience for me," she told me.

Silantoi banks on the youth demographic to carry the day. "We are the majority and we shouldn't let a small percentage determine where we are going," she said.

According to the IEBC voter register, Kenyan youth aged between 18 and 35 are 9,930,315 translating to 51 per cent that pundits say could be the decider in this elections.

Top of her agenda if she wins is to amend the Public Participation Bill that was tabled in 2016. "I want to amend it to ensure that the public also participates in evaluating the county. I want the public to hold the county accountable and this is what I will push for within the first 100 days if elected," she emphasised.

She, however, decided to run as an independent candidate because "the parties in this country only carries the ideologies of the party leader." she lamented yet her passion is "to be accountable directly to the people of Nairobi."

On the Salaries and Remuneration Commission's (SRC) recommendations of salaries cut, she is in full support.

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