In the just-concluded general elections in Kenya, it emerged that a large swathe of young people, defined by the constitution as those between the ages of 18 and 35 did not vote.
Further, of the six million youth that had turned the age of majority between the last general election in 2017, and the current one of 2022, the electoral board, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), only managed to register 2.5 million as new voters, the remaining disappearing into the void.
Many political pundits called that void “voter apathy.” Others were of the opinion that the term was being wielded in a lazy manner by those only willing to pile blame on the youth in a complex country whose systems had failed to live up to the billing that young voters have always needed.
Voter apathy aside, it is my own belief, alongside others, that many registered youths made the conscious decision not to vote for valid reasons that go beyond mere voter apathy. For those not registered, I am of the opinion that society, in general, has failed to give youth a buy-in, a stake in the country.
Further, older voters are still lingering in the memories of the pre-2010 constitution. This is why current public discourse is centred on terms such as “opposition” when the new constitution has no provisions for the existence of a political “opposition” in the ways it did pre-2010.
Even politicians themselves appear stuck in the old ways, for instance, the clamour for the parliamentary system to revert to the Constituency Development Fund, which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in line with the provisions of the 2010 constitution of Kenya that seeks to delineate legislature and executive.
Parliament (and Senate) are meant to be purely law-making and oversight organs, while the national and county governments execute the mandates of the people and wider plans for the development and expansion of infrastructure (physical, political, cultural, social, etc).
Parliamentarians continue to decry their roles as that of saviours, needing the CDF to build schools, dish out bursaries, and generally “take care of my people”, roles that in essence belong to county governments through county funds, and through the Members of County Assembly (MCAs), who at the ward-level, are far closer to the people than MPs.
This brings us to today’s discussion on the need for serious and concerted civic education right from the grassroots to the national level – and what better place at the grassroots, than at the family level, right where the parent(s) are with their children.
Who are you, and what is your history/histories beyond colonialism? Who are the local heroes in our folklore beyond fighting colonialists? How did ancient, pre-colonial chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires look like? Do you know any that existed on the African continent? What has been our trajectory from independence to date in terms of the cultural, social, and political?
Are you aware how many wards exist in your sub-county – whether you’re a parent, or guardian, or older sibling, or doting aunt, belonging to late Gen X, Xenials, Millennials, or Gens Y and Z? What are the names of these wards, starting with the ward in which you currently have your home? Who is your MCA? Where is their office? Who is your MP? Who is your Senator, your Women’s Rep, your Governor? How does the national government work?
How does a devolved government work? What exactly is “government”? Do you have a copy of Kenya’s Constitution in your house?
Speaking in a panel of experts on NTV, research maestro Samuel Muthoka gave the analogy of a cup of tea. For it to become the cup of tea that it is, it requires water, milk, tea leaves, an energy source (gas, jiko, kerosene stove), and a sufuria. All these things cost money.
The activity of making tea starts at the home, so one must have a home in which to make it. How much these things cost to the point of ending up in your cup is the process of civics, including politics.
The price of milk, for example, is dictated by a few large milk monopolies, as is the price of energy sources – we have seen the costs of gas, fuel and kerosene rise exponentially over the last two years to levels unprecedented, and while the war in Ukraine has been named as the key cause, we are also aware that politics has everything to do with it, considering the issues around the fuel subsidies, for example, wanton corruption and grand theft of the public purse witnessed in the last regime.
Muthoka’s analogy, therefore, answers the question why it is even important to understand how politics and government works, and why those that say “I hate politics” or “I don’t do politics” are only deluding themselves.
Everything is hinged on politics, and governance, which is part of civics. Do you get water only a few hours per week, or perhaps you don’t even have tapped water at all? Is decent and reliable hospital care beyond your pocket? Are your electricity tokens, or monthly bills so expensive, and you wonder why blackouts are the order of the day where you live?
Are you constantly finding yourself taking Fuliza or Mshwari or Tala loans every other week to supplement your income which no longer stretches across the month? Are you increasingly stressed, anxious, and worried about simple things like making rent, fees, food purchases from month to month?
Have you had to move, in the last year or so, to a cheaper house/school for your child(ren) because your budgets were getting very tight? Have you had to ‘downgrade’ some things because you can no longer afford them, for instance, parked/sold your car, or dropped a meal or two to save on money? Are you walking a little longer to board your matatu because the fare will be affordable starting at the place where you board, which could be maybe five to ten stops away from your current one? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then politics is your portion, like it or not.
We are where we are because for a long time, we have been getting by on autopilot as politicians wield politics without interference, questioning or querying from a critical mass of us. We have disengaged from civic activity, seen as a “duty”, perhaps refusing to do this extra work that promises little in return.
A large number of us are mostly uninterested in how our civic structures look like, and we have inadvertently passed that disinterest on to our children and youth.
Civicus.org defines civic education as “the provision of information and learning experiences to equip and empower citizens to participate in democratic processes. The education can take very different forms, including classroom-based learning, informal training, experiential learning, and mass media campaigns.” From these broad definitions, we can understand that one, civic education is understanding the processes that affect our lives (the cup of tea analogy, and in Kenya’s case, largely, political), and two, it is the process of empowering citizens to participate in democratic processes.
Civic education has long been confined to the classroom, or to the public sphere. In the 8-4-4 system of education was a subject that was called GHC (Geography, History and Civics), which is where the education system attempted to tell us about these three things in tandem. In the CBC, Social Studies have taken the place of GHC, and try to give ‘learners’ an updated picture that includes the new post-2010 constitution system of government.
Sense of belonging
However, and for 8-4-4 specifically, classroom-based civic education was hijacked by inadequate content, specifically, on the history of the nation, and our people. It is my view that to adequately arm our children and youth (and even adults) in the democratic processes of a country, a robust history is necessary beyond the narrow histories we learn in school.
A robust history would, for example, give every community (ethnic, social, familial) a sense of belonging. Many communities, specifically marginalised ones, will ask you ‘how is Kenya’ when you visit, displaying a certain distance and disconnect from the country and the opportunities it represents, or ought to represent.
The poor, both in the urban and rural centres are disconnected from the ‘Kenya’ associated with upward mobility, fancy infrastructure, and the promise of success for those who work hard. While this disconnection is largely systemic, I also believe it is linked to the leaf-in-the-wind phenomenon, where the country belongs to certain people (the rich, the connected). This belief stems from a skewed history that portrays our forefathers as wanderers, pastoralists, and transients – natives who were without education, wealth, political systems, social systems, and robust spiritual practice.
An equitable history that centres not only colonial struggle, but also socio-cultural and political systems and ways of being for all communities is important to inject into the public sphere to foster a sense of belonging and ownership of this country called Kenya. That ownership would, in my view, further foster a sense of care and duty that may transmit into a deeper interaction with civics, government, and politics.
Apart from history, is the idea of geography, not just the topography of Kenya, but the nature of the very lands we call home, whatever that may be. What does the land yield, for example? What are our climatic conditions, and why are we suffering perennial droughts for example?
Pertinent questions about our land, in general, are part of the process of engaging civically, whether we live in rural, peri-urban, or urban areas. After all, it is the land that gives us food, water, and life. Understanding the politics around each of these issues gives us a better level at which to engage our leaders.
Scholar Catherine Amayi points out that 70% of Nairobi County’s 4.4 million inhabitants are squeezed into only 5% of its residential areas. This fact alone must wake Nairobians up to the realities of the inequalities that exist here, and demand a more equitable life, starting with rent-control schemes, more affordable mortgage schemes and the like.
The same applies to land prices across the country. Current high and speculative costs of purchasing land mean the majority of Kenyans are locked out of ownership, leaving them as urban nomads. These nomadic lifestyles then take away a sense of belonging.
Belonging is about feeling comfortable and fitting into a place or society. Many of our young folk do not fully enjoy these feelings of comfort and fitting in, and there’s a dissonance between them and the polity. When political leaders see youth, they think of physical labour, of wheelbarrows, mikokoteni, and similar exerting proposals. Is this what the youth of the country see for themselves? Is this the world of the future?
Can the youth be encouraged to own property, farm, and be productive beyond the merely extractive ways they are seen? Can they be seen as more than casual labourers, into partners in the development of the country? Ascribing “apathy” to youth when they are the ones called upon to do the hard, physical labours in many places, from the matatu industry countrywide, to construction sites, to marketing drives, to the creative economy where they produce various artwork under often-time chaotic and unfair conditions, and even as domestic workers, is a disservice to them.
In all these industries, youth are vastly underpaid but expected to “show up” at the ballot to endorse leaders that do not see them as partners and have little regard for their lives. We cannot expect these people not to be indifferent to a system they see as corrupt and unfriendly. Crying “apathy” does not cut it.
However, these parents, and I speak as one of them, now have a duty to create familial communities where we can not only learn the answers to the questions posed here but also impart that knowledge to our children.
In the age of Google/Scholar and information at the fingertips, the answers, many of which are not easy, are available. Our histories are waiting to be explored and learned beyond established and endorsed duopolies and other political tales. To gain a sense of belonging, we must begin to engage, together with our children, and our leaders right from the grassroots, using available mechanisms in our constitution for example.
To continue to be detached from civics, in general, is to fly blind into an unknown and tough future. It is to leave the country to untrustworthy politicians and to ensure that our children inherit a country that is dry, deforested, food-insecure, and where a majority of them will live hopeless lives.
We must, as parents, guardians, aunts, uncles and family members of children continue to be the “village” that warms and protects them – and in terms of civics, this begins with not only engaging with the questions posed here but also intentionally, through engaging our children in these matters of our altered geographies and histories.
Our children must grow up different, more attuned to the country, more engaged, and more equipped to deal with the politics of the day. Together, starting now, we can create a more honest, accessible and accountable political class. It is possible. But only if we engage in our civic and political ‘duty’ beyond mere voting. That space between voting cycles is where the work lies, starting from the home front, into the communities, and beyond.