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Kenya Decides: When Kenya's Richest and Poorest Men Almost Met

As Kenyans go to vote, many have been talking about Kenya's complex identity politics. But some say Kenya really has just two tribes: the rich and the poor.
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The Uhuru Kenyatta rally in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. Photograph by Jason Patinkin.

Nairobi, Kenya:

On Saturday afternoon, Kenya’s presidential hopeful Uhuru Kenyatta held his last campaign rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Tens of thousands turned out to see him. Men climbed trees to better view the stage, which was flanked with billboard-sized banners of Kenyatta. His supporters all wore shining red t-shirts handed out by rally organisers, emblazoned with Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA) party slogan: “I Believe”.

Kenyans at the rally described Kenyatta in godlike terms, praising his compassion and love. But Kenyatta is hardly a god. He’s the privileged son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and said to be the country’s richest man thanks to his inheritances. He’s also awaiting trial by the International Criminal Court for allegedly having a part in orchestrating the 2007/8 post-election violence which led to the deaths of 1,200 people and the displacement of 600,000.

But many Kenyans vote along ethnic lines rather than on issues; the same is true of the supporters of Kenyatta’s main opponent Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minster and son of Kenya’s first vice-president, Jomo Kenyatta’s erstwhile rival.

Surviving on the streets

At the campaign rally in Uhuru Park, the VIPs milled about in the restricted stage area. But amongst these well-dressed individuals, there was a single youth in a long trench coat, black baseball cap, and wearing only one shoe. His red TNA shirt looked new but was already stained. In one hand, he held a bottle of glue.

He was a street kid, but had somehow sneaked into the area reserved for the inner circle of Kenya’s wealthiest man. He walked over, pointed at my camera, then slowly bent down and did a handstand, waiting for me to take a picture. When he stood back up, he introduced himself as Tespha and said he was 17 years old.

“I like peace and music”, he said, explaining why he had come to the rally. “I used to rap peace, and I like preaching peace.”

He said he sings for change on street corners and public buses and wanted to perform on stage. He was hoping to be invited up. “I’m not happy with my life”, he said. “I want to be a star.”

He explained that singing could earn up to 200 Kenyan shillings (less than $2.50) per day, but that that was rare. His last meal had been two days previously – some rubbish bin-scavenged corn meal.

While Kenyatta is thought to be Kenya’s richest man, Tespha could be Kenya’s poorest. He has lived on Nairobi’s streets since running away from his family five years ago. “In 1998 my mother died. My father’s a drunkard. My stepmother distributes drugs. So I ran from home in 2007”, he said.

For extra cash, he goes to politicians. Sometimes they give him 500 shillings (about $6) if he works for them. But not always. “When you go to a politician’s office they chase you away”, he said. “They see me like a street child so they don’t like me. I’m afraid of police and bodyguards.”

Some politicians are worse than others. Ferdinand Waititu, TNA’s populist candidate for Nairobi governor, is loved by slum youth for his bribes and criminal charges. But Tespha was let down by this supposed hero of the poor. When he tried to work for Waititu, bodyguards, he says, beat him with a stick.

The forgotten fighters

As he talked, Tespha brought the glue bottle to his nose. Street children sniff glue to fight hunger pain. During our conversation, Tespha held it at his face, sometimes putting his whole mouth around the neck and breathing in.

“I don’t like this life so much”, he said after describing sleeping on the street. “It’s not safe. I was robbed in January. Five men came at my back with some knives.” He rolled up his left sleeve to reveal a scar.

Did he think politicians could help street children? “No”, he said. “The politicians say just they will give us good shelter, but when they get to the parliament they forget about us.”

At election time, though, some politicians pay street kids to fight. “They give us money to beat others”, claimed Tespha. “In post-election [of 2007/8] I’ve done that. I beat another person with a stone. Made his head bleeding.”

Tespha pulled up a trouser leg to show another scar, much longer than the first – a machete cut from 2007. He won’t fight this time, he vowed.

Kenya’s two tribes

Some people say there are two tribes in Kenya, the rich and the poor (though there is also a growing middle class). And even after 50 years of Kenyattas and Odingas, the majority of Kenyans still think such leaders will bring change. But people like Tespha believe otherwise.

“I cannot say I like Uhuru”, Tespha said. “When he becomes president he’ll not help me. He will help the government with good money, and us street children will just be here.”

But Tespha’s words were now becoming slow and spaced out from the glue. He went back to the shade of the scaffolding.

Three hours later, Uhuru Kenyatta arrived like a rock star. He stepped from a shining SUV as helicopters landed. The crowd went wild when he climbed the stage. The music was so loud, everything else became inaudible.

Uhuru waved to the roaring crowd, smiling euphorically. Everyone was standing. Then, under the scaffold, I noticed one person who wasn't. It was Tespha, passed out from the glue.

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Beautiful and moving article. Thank you for sharing!