Late last year Nairobi audiences were enthralled by the movie Nairobi Half Life. A German and Kenyan co-production, the film is a rare but successful attempt to break the stranglehold of Bollywood, Hollywood and Nollywood on audiences in East Africa. Received rapturously in Nairobi movie theaters and then at international film festivals, Nairobi Half Life is now doing a brisk trade in the small market stalls selling bootleg DVDs that thrive in towns and cities around the country.
The film's plot is a familiar one. It follows Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) as he leaves his rural home and job -- ironically as one the countless hawkers now selling the film -- to find work as an actor in Nairobi. He subsequently falls into a life of crime while simultaneously playing a criminal on the stage. In its depictions of corruption, violence and crime, the movie offers an unvarnished view of contemporary Kenya. Nairobi is, after all, ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as better only than Tehran in its most recent index of major capitals and Kenya is only a better place for a child to be born in 2013 than Nigeria. But Nairobi Half Life also warns against binary depictions of what is a dynamic and fluid society.
The audience see Mwas and the city's residents moving across the invisible but all too real boundaries that divide Kenya's capital. They cross the barriers between the informal and formal economies, legitimate trade and criminal activity, and those between the aspiring middle class and the poor. As the film's director, Tosh Gitonga, told journalists, Nairobi Half Life "is the story of a city. We did not exaggerate. It is not about a positive or negative view. It is simply Nairobi."
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Fine detail of the sort depicted by Gitonga is inevitably lost when viewed from afar. Seen from the West, Kenya, like so many other countries in the region, seems to veer from boom to bust; in one era it earns praise for a thriving economy, while in the next it's cited for poverty and corruption. In the 1960s and 1970s it was frequently held up as a shining example of growth and political stability in a volatile region. On the back of a calm transition in 2002, when outgoing president, Daniel arap Moi, gave way to his successor, Mwai Kibaki, and a peaceful constitutional referendum in 2005, Kenya was briefly a poster child of the African Renaissance. Just as common as these moments in the sun have been the periods in which Kenya has been seen as an example of all that is bad about contemporary African politics. The 1980s witnessed increased authoritarianism and the 1990s gross corruption and state-sanctioned ethnic violence. The democratic gains of the half decade to 2007 gave way to the violence that followed the last presidential election in 2007 that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people.
Even at moments of great optimism and deep despair, however, Kenyan politics have always been best listened to in stereo. That has, perhaps, never been truer than today. In one sense, Kenyans have never had it so good. Investment in infrastructure, prudent economic policies, and private ingenuity have set the country on course towards middle-income status in the next two decades. Oil and gas finds promise to consolidate that trend. The country is well-positioned to make economic and political gains from processes of regional integration that are tying together North Eastern and Eastern Africa to an unprecedented degree. Kenya's technology sector is the envy of the region it serves so well and its banks demonstrate creative ways of aiding commerce. Add in a vibrant cultural sphere, a robust free press, a progressive constitution, and a reinvigorated judiciary determined to flex its muscle, and there is much to be optimistic about.
But this dynamism is not reflected in the upcoming presidential election. Standing on the threshold of a brighter future, the country is confronted with the choice of two main candidates who are products of a troubled past. Fifty years after independence, the 2013 presidential election will be contested by two princelings of the nationalist generation: Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta's father, Jomo, was the country's first president until his death in 1978. Odinga's father, Oginga, was the elder Kenyatta's greatest rival and critic. The two differed greatly on a wide range of issues, from land polices through to the pro-Western stance adopted by Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi.
By contrast, there are many more similarities than differences between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Both were born into power and have worked together in the past. They shared a platform as recently as the 2010 constitutional referendum. There is little disagreement between them about the need for foreign investment and economic policies designed to produce growth. In terms of foreign policy, both support continued regional integration, Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, and the measures taken to counter the threat of domestic terrorism by al-shabaab sympathizers. Both have pledged to implement reforms promised by a new constitution introduced in 2010, including the devolution of substantial powers from central government to new county authorities led by elected governors.