The youth in Kenya (18-35 years) constitute the majority of citizens in this country, yet they remain marginalized politically. A look at Kenya’s political scene shows the youth are only remembered during an election period. This is when politicians use manifestos that are heavy on the youth agenda to lure young voters. These promises by politicians are most often than not forgotten once they assume office. This is evidenced by ambitious youth projects that either fail to launch or collapse due to graft.
The recent election has fortunately seen young leaders elected to office. However, in an interview done by a local newspaper, most of them indicated that they faced various challenges as they campaigned such as intimidation by other seasoned politicians. They also had to convince people mostly the older folk who did not believe that young people had leadership capabilities to actually vote for them. It is such factors that perpetuate the marginalization of youth participation in politics.
Nerima Wako, a young political analyst is trying to change all that. Through her platform, Siasa Place, she is helping to increase youth engagement in politics beyond just voting by educating them on the significance of having an active voice in matters pertaining governance.
I interviewed her to learn more about her organisation and the work that it does.
Tell us about Siasa place, what it does and the motivation behind its genesis?
Siasa Place is a youth led organization that was formed in 2015. We are a platform that focuses on educating young people on the constitution, electoral processes and government institutions. We started this organization because we felt like there was a gap to reach young people when it came to electoral processes, or even understanding different functions of the government. We wanted a space where people with interest could interact, learn and in the process grow their knowledge on political information. We also use different mediums such as twitter where we have chats every Wednesday (#SiasaWednesday) on current issues. We also started a chat last year called #ElectionSafari2017 where we basically discussed matters pertaining to the election.
What are the highlights of your journey politically and by extension at Siasa place?
The highlight of our journey has been being able to write on a national platform. That is being able to write opinion pieces in a national newspaper. Very rarely do you find women who write in those political sections and rarer still to find young women. So we feel that we are breaking the narrative or concept that women do not have interest in political affairs. Also being involved in televised debates has been a highlight for us. We hoped to bring out the youth perspective on issues and weigh in on opinion.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced along the way since you started Siasa place?
The biggest challenge has been building our organization. In the beginning very few people were willing to trust and support an organization that was new. At the time, the idea was a bit unique in terms of the fact that we were discussing political issues.The organisation was also led by young people with minimal work experience. Basically, we had to prove ourselves. That meant working overtime but in the end it helped build relationships with other organizations.
What type of activities does Siasa place facilitate to encourage youth involvement in politics and governance ?
We organise community dialogues in public spaces and universities on a monthly basis. We also have weekly discussions on twitter. During these sessions, we mostly talk about the constitution in a way that most young people can relate to. Siasa Place is basically a platform for young people by young people.
What other civic projects are you involved in apart from being part of Siasa place?
I try to use my time to mentor when I can. I am very involved in my church where I teach Sunday School. I also consult for an NGO that does work in South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. Basically I am mainly plugged into the youth programs.
What advice would you give a young person who is interested in joining politics. Where should they start?
They need to first of all earn the history of our country. Get to know who the past Kenyan leaders were and what they stood for. Also get to understand the different functions of government. Before you dive in, you need to ask yourself why do you want to join politics?
For you to succeed in politics, one needs to be connected to their community. If you are still in school join the political science club or find networks that have those interests and join them.
Do you think there are barriers/ unique challenges that the youth face when they decide to run for elective posts?
Lack of experience can be a challenge. We have seen some overcome that challenge but the numbers are very few. Inadequate finances to run a fully fledged campaign can also be limiting. Socially they also have to deal with questions that come their way – they often get asked very often whether they are single..and if they are, why don’t they have a family.
How can else can people play an active role in the governance of their country other than voting for their leaders?
Holding their leaders accountable. There are several initiatives around the country that work with elected leaders and the community, keeping communication open and being able to participate. Public participation is in the constitution but many people do not know how. Some prefer to understand public budget reading for counties and their are organizations that can send you SMS messages everytime a meeting is convened so that you may participate. Or understanding bills online, there are organizations that have set up online platforms where you can read a bill and understand just as it is being tabled in parliament. So there are a number of ways to participate.
What is the significance of a citizenry that actively participates in the governance of their country?
A more engaged citizenry forces government to be accountable. They will want to please the public, for they have been put there to serve the public. As soon as there are no checks, people tend to take advantage. Active citizenry produces responsive government.
Do you think there is political apathy among the youth in Kenya?
What can be done to change it? Absolutely. The youth have to dive in and involve themselves. I have been very excited to see all these young leaders who have been elected. Now the next challenge for them will be performance. So it is not only about having more young people, but having impact and influential people. We have to realize that everything is political. These are decisions that are made, from access to education, the type of education, health care, employment – everything really. So we need to stop living in this denial that we can close ourselves off from politics. A lot of youth feel that they can and that must change.
What is your parting shot would you give to the youth on how to make better decisions at the ballot?
We have to start thinking long term. A lot of times when we make decisions we think about now.. but then that tends to fail us. We have to plan and good things do not happen over night. So as you identify leaders think about the one’s who have plans for you. And you believe they are in a capacity to achieve them. Not one who can promise you something small now but will hurt you eventually. And stop being silent witnesses, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” Martin Luther King.