"We're seeing a criminalization of our political class that is unprecedented," said John Githongo, who was hired by President Kibaki at the beginning of his administration to root out government corruption. Githongo was forced from the job when he exposed widespread fraud among Kibaki's ministers. "Kenya has the most tough, corrupt, venal, deadly elite [on] this side of Africa."
Less moneyed candidates run for office, too, but they rarely seem to win. Last week, I went to meet one of them, Mwai Joel Kariuki, who's vying to represent the Mabatini ward in Mathare. The United States and Europe have been working to help Kenyans head off violence in this election. USAID alone has put $30 million into efforts, including a program targeting Nairobi's settlements. But you'd never guess it in Mabatini, where, before I arrived, a gang went on a stabbing rampage, then blocked the doors of a clutch of shanties and torched them. Three people died. Unsurprisingly, no one had been caught. But some residents I spoke with suspected it was, like another recent spate of arsons and stabbings, meant as a warning against voting -- perhaps specifically a warning not to vote for Kariuki. Or to vote for him. As usual, theories differed.
"In this ward, we have buried more than a hundred youths who have been shot, who have been burned by the mobs. All manner of crimes. It is a culture of crime," said Kariuki. "Because this village has no leaders. Even after all these tragedies, nobody came out to speak for the people."
Kariuki, a tall, skinny, boyish 30-year-old, grew up in Mabitini, in the back of his aunt's shop, before she sent him away to school to keep him out of trouble. He returned 11 years ago to take it over, alive with the hope that the newly elected president, Kibaki, would improve his prospects. But things have only grown worse since then, Kariuki told me, as we sat on overturned boxes on the shop floor. A paltry array of spice packets, razor blades, balloons, single cigarettes, and candies sat on the shelves. As we talked, he handed items to customers through chicken-wire, without looking at them. He knows everyone in Mabatini so well that he can tell what someone will want by the sound of his voice. "Me being an offspring of this village, I know the troubles of this village. Nobody knows the troubles of this village better than me," he said. "The fact is that the people with power don't want people to eliminate the crimes. Because the fact is that the perpetrators, some of their parents are tycoons. Drug barons."
A delegate to Kenya's National Youth Council, Kariuki has tried to start projects to help employ local kids, "but with no backup from the parents or the community at large." He took me to see some of them, leading me through a winding path of stone passageways where women washed clothes, and infants, in the brackish gray water that flowed down from an exposed pipe in the hillside. (Mathare is built into a depression in the earth left over by a rock quarry.) There was a chicken coop he'd made from an old shelving unit, a pig sty at the foot of a stories-high pile of garbage, and, his proudest achievement, a public toilet, where people can go to the bathroom and bathe in the same tiny one-drain water closet. "This is my brainchild," Kariuki said, inviting me into it.
As we walked around, most people we passed greeted him enthusiastically. Many also asked him, and then me, for money. "They all want something right now. Not in the future, right now. If you don't give them something, they're heartbroken."