In 2010, Kenya passed a new constitution that devolves power down to the county level. Late last year, Kariuki decided to run for the newly created position of county representative for Mabatini. He began rallying support among local allies. His wife took over running the shop so that he could recruit a team and campaign. He sank his life savings -- about $2,000 -- into registration fees and posters. He handed me one. It shows him in a white dress shirt and baggy gray suit coat, a sober expression on his face. A banner he hung on Mau Mau Road promised "Another Better Mabatini Is Possible." He wanted to avoid the preening of the Sonko types. The flashy criminals and political bosses who recruit kids in Mabatini don't much like him, he said, but normal workaday people do. "I am respected and hated in equal dimensions."
In addition to plying voters with cash, Kenyan candidates often practice a kind of private-welfare bribery ahead of elections, giving local businesspeople loans that never have to be repaid, buying refrigerators for widows, dropping off cartons of food in plazas. Kariuki didn't have the money to do this, but he figured he was popular enough in Mabatini, including among its success stories, that perhaps he didn't have to. One of his biggest backers was the owner of what used to be Mabatini's main tavern, the Wahagio Beach Club, so-called because it overlooks the Mathare River, a barely moving stream made up as much of raw sewage and refuse as water, which separates the slum into its Kikuyu and Luo-controlled halves. In December, someone burned down the Wahagio Beach Club, making sure the owner was inside when they did.
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In January, Kariuki ran for the party nomination with The National Alliance, and at first faced no real competition. But then a man named John Njenga entered the race. I'd seen Njenga's posters around Mathare. They show him in a trucker hat and a garish designer dress shirt, with an unwieldy Swahili slogan that translates as "We need a good leader, not just a leader." Njenga, who comes from the Sonko school of politicking, has his hands in a number of local businesses, most prominently, and lucratively, the Caribbean chang'aa brewery, which sits down the hill from Kariuki's shop, on the riverbank. A corn-based moonshine that sometimes contains industrial chemicals, chang'aa is the scourge of the Nairobi slums, a cheap and debilitating toxin that slowly kills its addicts. It also "is the backbone of Mathare's economy," Kariuki pointed out. The Caribbean brewery also may be the biggest employer in the slum, providing jobs to everyone from brewers and truckers to wood-choppers, molasses-makers, and welders. The metal sheeting on many of the shanties in Mathare comes from old chang'aa storage drums. According to Kariuki and others I've spoken to, Njenga is one of the biggest producers of chang'aa in Nairobi.
In fact, Njenga himself admitted as much when I met him. We didn't meet in Mathare, where he doesn't seem to spend much time, but at the Serena, Nairobi's poshest hotel. It was his suggestion. He arrived in the trucker hat he's wearing in his poster, a frilly dress shirt, distressed denim, a huge gold-and-silver necklace, and a big wristwatch with a white leather band. In tow was his campaign manager. When I asked Njenga what he did for living, he at first told me owned a store. When I asked if he also owned the Caribbean, he didn't skip a beat. "Oh, yes," he said, with a chuckle. "That one is our cash cow." The manager chimed in, proudly, "He's the biggest chang'aa producer in Nairobi."
I asked Njenga why he decided to run against Kariuki. "There is more peoples that cannot find the job. They don't have the knowledge," he said. "When I'm going there, I can see the children that aren't going to school. They are sick. They don't have clothes. That is why I declared."
Njenga beat Kariuki easily in The National Alliance nomination race in January, though he didn't campaign much. I asked Njenga how he won so convincingly. By spending about two million Kenyan shillings, or $23,000, ahead of the balloting, he said. "If you want to get the people, first, before the campaigning starts, you should help them. There is person who don't have foods, you give him. There is person who don't have money for paying the school fees, you give them. Hospital bill you pay for them. Such kind of thing. If a person has died, you go and distribute something at the funeral. I have a car. I give them my car, or my minibus. So when the campaign starts, everybody they will know you're a leader and you can help them." His manager chimed in: "Kenyan voters expect to be paid."