This change to the substance of political debate has come too late to shape the presidential vote, but it is influencing other races. The election for governor in Nairobi has developed into a remarkable contest between Ferdinand Waititu, the former Member of Parliament for one of the city's poorest constituencies, and Evans Kidero, CEO of one of the country's biggest companies. It pits the street against the boardroom as debates about class have escaped from inside the ethnic box into which they are usually crammed. And those debates are taking place on an unprecedented number of platforms. Cheap cell phones have brought the internet to the Kenyan masses and with it an unfathomable amount of information and misinformation about politics.
The penetration of social media, the reach of existing newspapers and broadcasters, and an entrenched history of free speech mean that this will not be an election decided by ignorance. With the ICC cases and the risk of international isolation hanging over the country, the temptation for well-meaning outsiders to preach to Kenyans about the perils of voting for particular candidates is great, but it will prove fruitless. Voters understand the issues confronting their country and the flaws of their candidates. They worry about the instability and uncertainty that a victory for Kenyatta will produce and the relationships with foreign governments and investors that may be jeopardized as a result. And there are many good reasons to vote for Odinga besides the simple fact that he is not about to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
However, the tendency to dismiss those that vote for Kenyatta as simply ethnically driven or deluded is, to be frank, wrong. Kenyatta's supporters are skeptical of the vague promises of reform made by Odinga, who has, after all, spent most of the past decade in government. Furthermore, they have reason to doubt the sincerity of their foreign friends who talk of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation when discussing the suitability of the presidential candidates. They remember that during the Cold War positions of principle adopted by American and European governments tended to be dropped when they jeopardized more important strategic matters. With good reason, Kenyans can look around them and ask what has changed. Kenyan troops are critical to on-going efforts to stabilize Somalia, a task that is prioritized by the same Western governments that champion the ICC Kenyans know too that their country is at the heart of East African integration and part of a new frontier of energy exploration that will make any diplomatic isolation a serious problem for neighboring states and foreign investors. And if they need to find a current example where the state's half-hearted commitments to democracy and human rights can be tolerated by international partners more worried about stability, growth and security, they only have to look across the western border to Uganda to find one.
Kenyans know that theirs is an imperfect country. The marketing material for Nairobi Half Life poses the question "Have we chosen to be the way we are?" The answer is (of course) no, but it is only Kenyans that can fix the situation that they find themselves in. From Nairobi Half Life, through the novels of the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, to journalism, social media, and music, a sense of energetic agency runs through much of Kenyan popular culture produced over the past fifty years. But that agency is hard to find in much of the reporting or analysis of the country. Kenyans find a way of getting by, of getting things done, of thriving in difficult circumstances. Although the country's politics seems set to enter another bout of crisis, Kenya will survive.