August 25, 2011

Bunge La Mwananchi: The People’s Parliament

Ms. Beatrice Karore shows her Voter ID Card before
voting at the 2011 Bunge La Mwananchi elections.
To vote in Kenya, every voter must possess one.
Kenya is a country that until recently, has had no formal local governments---only a national  government with  positions  frequently filled with people of power, money, and political party influence.  Involvement in governance by ordinary members of the community has been limited, and the Bunge La Mwananchi or People’s Parliament evolved in 2008 as an alternative citizen governance body to unite together members of every tribe and regional community of Kenya in shadow parliaments.  As past president, Samson Owimba Ojiayo noted, “Bunge La Mwananchi is a platform which was started to discuss the social, political, and economic status of the citizens of this country, in Africa and the world at large.”

When I arrived at the Bunge La Mwananchi elections at JeeVanGee Park in central Nairobi on the August 17th, 2011, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I had been invited to witness the election process, which happens  every two years, by Ms. Beatrice Karore, a Nairobi resident who was running to become Coordinator of the Bunge La Mwananchi. 

Unlike most elections that I have witnessed, the Bunge La Mwananchi elections were held outdoors in the center of JeVanGee park, one of Nairobi’s public park.  No campaign signs, nor campaigning (contestants vying for seats were required to end campaigning  the day before, and I was kindly reminded not to mention any names , as it could be inferred as support for specific candidates), or protests of any sort.  Instead, I found an orderly process that appeared to be held to high accountability standards.  As I traced the long line of voters to the front of the line, I found an election chairman overseeing a voting process that included signing in, showing your voter card, filling out ballots for each of the seven positions being contested, depositing your votes into the appropriate buckets, and receiving a purple stamp that indicated that you had voted.  The entire process was monitored by a row of election observers who seemed to be quite diligent. With 450 members expected to cast their ballots, the voting process really could take all day!

The absence of women members was disconcerting to me; during the time I was there, I counted over sixty male participants and only six women participants.  Male members noted that there organization was inclusive and open to women, but enough did not come out and participate---placing much blame on the Kenyan culture, which has marginalized women in the political arena.   Some noted that the Bunge may implement the new Constitution’s rules on gender(no more than 2/3rds of an elected body can be of a single gender) to reflect the new rules of the land.

From the experience of watching the Bunge La Mwananchi elections, I can say that I am impressed by the level of civic participation in some circles of Kenya.  Beyond shadow parliaments, you can find political forums in local vernacular languages on street corners of central Nairobi on a daily basis.  I am curious to learn about political activism in other parts of Kenya and to compare and contrast civic involvement across the country.

The photo essay below illustrates the Bunge La Mwananchi process.  Hope you enjoy!

Voters---mostly men, wait in an orderly line to vote for new Bunge La  Mwananchi  leadership at the JeeVan Gee Park in Central Nairobi on August 17, 2011.

Ms. Beatrice Karore, a candidate for the seat of Coordinator, stands at the front of the line to vote at the 2011 Bunge La Mwananchi elections.

"People's Parliament" member, Florence Kanyua, prepares to vote.

Voters mark their candidate choice for each position on paper ballots.

Ms. Beatrice Karore casts her ballot into a plastic bucket.

Vigilant election observers watch as Ms. Beatrice Karore cast her ballot.

After casting her ballot, Ms. Beatrice Karore receives a purple stamp to show that she has voted.

After voting, members of the Bunge La Mwananchi greet one another and talk politics.

Mr. Otieno Cidi David, a candidate for president of the Bunge La Mwananchi, proudly shows the purple stamp that has been placed on his palm.