Kisumu – From Nairobi slums to Rift Valley towns, Kenyans voiced cautious hope for change and a peaceful future, flocking to polling stations well before voting opened across the nation on Tuesday.
None were in any doubt about the high stakes involved in this year’s presidential poll as the East African country of 50 million people struggles with inflation, corruption and an unemployment crisis.
In Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, thousands lined up to cast their ballot, trying to shrug off memories of past disappointments in the hope that this vote would prove lucky for them and ease their hardship.
“All along we have been doing elections, getting promises but we see no change. I hope this time it will be better,” George Otieno Henry, a 56-year-old artisan, told AFP.
Around 270km (170 miles) northwest, the mood in the lakeside city of Kisumu – the stronghold of presidential candidate Raila Odinga – was festive, with voters loudly proclaiming their support for the former prime minister and motorcylists honking and blowing whistles.
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Clara Otieno Opiyo, a 35-year-old vegetable seller, told AFP she left home before dawn to vote, travelling with her five-year-old boy strapped to her back.
“I came here at 4am to vote, having a lot of hope and faith, but if my presidential candidate succeeds, my children’s schooling will be free, I will find work, and my life will change.”
Others even flew in from abroad, eager to ensure they have a say in choosing Kenya’s next leader as well as governors, senators, MPs and other representatives.
Daniel Ouko, a 30-year-old sociology graduate who works in a restaurant in Qatar, flew to his hometown Kisumu from Doha, telling AFP: “It is worth the money. I couldn’t miss the vote.”
‘Calm and peaceful’
In the Rift Valley town of Eldoret – the stomping ground of Deputy President William Ruto, who is locked in a tight race with Odinga – voters patiently waited in line, swapping colourful “shuka” blankets for umbrellas as the sun emerged.
Despite an ugly campaign rife with mudslinging and rigging claims, calm has largely prevailed, including in Kisumu and Eldoret, which saw a horrific eruption of politically motivated inter-ethnic violence after the 2007 elections.
“This election is different from the others, it’s way (more) calm and peaceful. This one is really good,” Joyce Kosgei, a 52-year-old mother of five, told AFP in the village of Kosachei, where Ruto cast his ballot.
Hussein Kassim, a 35-year-old businessman, shuddered as he recalled witnessing the 2007-2008 clashes in Eldoret as a young man.
“It is high time Kenya should realise voting is just like any other exercise,” he told AFP.
“In every competition, there is a winner and a loser. If your candidate loses, fight another day.”
Even as many sought to cast off the shadow of past violence, rigging fears made a troubling appearance in at least one constituency, where the MP vote was suspended because of incorrect ballot papers.
Around 500 demonstrators protested the suspension in western Kenya’s Rongai constituency, blocking a road with burning tyres as police responded with tear gas.
“There is mischief in all this,” said tomato seller Peninah Tanui, criticising the “incompetent” election commission for the mix-up, in which the names of some candidates were missing from ballot papers.
The election commission earlier cancelled several local polls, including in the port city of Mombasa, due to erroneous ballot papers.
‘Vote, go home, relax’
But voting largely passed off peacefully elsewhere, with young and old alike turning up to make their voice heard.
In the town of Kiambu, on the outskirts of Nairobi, a beaming Hellena Nyokabi said she wanted “to vote for leaders who will protect and support this generation and generations to come”.
As onlookers helped the frail 88-year-old walk out of the polling station, she said: “I feel good that I have voted. I have never missed (a) vote all my life.”
And in a race that has struggled to attract interest from Kenyans aged under 35, some first-time voters said they were optimistic the process would conclude peacefully.
“We want to see a new change for the new generation,” said Ibrahim Ahmed Hussein, a 23-year-old student in Kibera — an Odinga bastion.
“I expect people to vote wisely and go back home so as to maintain peace and order,” he told AFP.