(Header: A respondent quoting the bible during an interview. Photo credit: Research assistant Nelson Ngige).

ASSIGNMENT: We would like you to seek out rural, low income or poor respondents (at least 10 km from a main paved road). Four days of interviews; three interviews a day.

Kenyan research assistants received an assignment like the one above followed by a list of semi-structured questions on topics related to politics, voting, gender roles, corruption, and more. To get a sense of Kenyans’ views on politics, research assistants were reminded to follow up each response with a “why?” — ask why three times, we instructed — to try and dig more deeply into the details of people’s opinions and stories.

In total, four research assistants traveled from Nairobi to talk politics with 223 Kenyan citizens in 14 counties over the course of two months. The aim of the interviews was to adapt a previous research experiment we conducted in Tanzania and Uganda with our long-time partners Twaweza.

(Photo credit: Research assistant Titus Kuria, pictured left and right, taking a literal approach to field work).

“Same monkey, different forest”

In Kenya, we were trying to shed new light on existing explanations for how citizens view politics and the voting process, including:

  • “Same monkeys, different forest”, meaning citizens see little difference between the incumbent government and opposition forces, and so see little choice or power in voting;
  • Voting may expose them to violence (like in the 2007 elections), so perhaps it is better not to vote at all; and
  • Politicians have a poor track record of keeping promises and as a result, voting is perceived to have little impact and not worthwhile.

Though it is difficult to reduce the richness of over 200 interviews in a short blog, we highlight a few interesting quotes and observations below. (Quotation marks denote direct quotes from respondents; all names have been changed).

“Better the devil you know…”

Many respondents expressed deep distrust in politicians as “corrupt”, “lazy”, and “untrustworthy”, often pointing to “money-eating” as corruption and failures to fulfill campaign promises.

Samuel tells me that he has been voting since the 1997 general election and he has never missed this constitutional duty and ritual. “We don’t vote for the love of it but when it rains, you have to buy an umbrella. The rainy season comes and goes so does the voting season”.

Field work images shot from the hip. Photo credit: Research assistant Brenda Ochieng).

Despite these negative views, most respondents planned to vote, because voting is seen as an important civic duty, and also because they perceive a lack of alternatives.

The problem is “you might be running away from a dog only to head to a lion which is more dangerous”. He says that the aspirants who now want to be voted in might be worse and he is still deciding on who to vote for.

On corruption in the government, Keneth says that, “am not looking for saints but leaders who are going to do their best to uplift Kenyans. Even if another government is elected, it will have corruption issues, better the devil you know than the angel you are promised as a voter”.

“My vote, my secret”

Vote buying is widely acknowledged as part of the campaign and voting process, and respondents often echoed tropes about secret ballots (i.e., my vote, my secret; my vote, my choice), saying that they would take money and then vote for whomever they wanted.

Getting rural. Photo credit: Research assistant Mwongela Kamencu.

John tells me that even for a politician you are sure you won’t elect, you must receive the cash. He says, ”you don’t bury an elephant with its tusks”, implying that some of the wealthy politicians have reached such levels because of corruption and during campaign it is the voters chance to squeeze some of their ill gotten wealth.

“Money is the soap of the soul”. He would vote for someone without receiving his money if this person had earned his money in an honest way. For someone who had not, he said, he would “have to eat his money”.

With few exceptions, vote buying was largely seen as an accepted practice, with some respondents viewing these handouts as the only chance to receive something from a corrupt government.

Women in politics

To explore gender roles in the social hierarchy, interviewers drew a ladder representing society and asked respondents where they would place men and women on the social ladder. Nearly all respondents placed men above women on the social ladder.

Esther says that men are the natural leaders, ”God created Adam first then Eve followed”. She also tells me that “men are the head and women the neck that holds the neck, the neck can never be on top of the head”. Esther tells me that men are better in handling issues and are decisive. Some women when given leadership position “are big headed and full of pride”. Some take the leadership attitude in their homes where they are expected to be mothers and submissive wives.

Though politics was generally considered a man’s game, with improved access to education and new employment opportunities, norms around women’s roles in the community seem to be changing.

Noah tells me that women are at the middle in the social ladder but empowered “not like our mothers”. Women are nowadays exposed to leadership in jobs, education, entrepreneurship and some aspiring to be MPs [members of parliament], MCAs [members of county assembly), senators and governors. Women take care of children, encourage people to vote as they are more keen and responsible in life. Noah tells me, “Kenyans still not yet ready to be ruled by women”.

“Our men used to accuse us women that we voted for Ichung’wa because he has dimples, because of his handsomeness but they have now seen what he has done for the community”.

Insights from interviews

These brief snippets barely scratch the surface, but we do see some trends that would be interesting to test in the field. For example, we could create a voting game where in some instances, men and women vote together, and compare results to when they vote separately. This may reveal insights into the relationship between gender and voting preferences. Similarly, we might use public and private voting simulations to investigate whether vote buying influences candidate preference.

Though the larger research project with Twaweza was ultimately postponed, the qualitative data provide insights into Kenyan political behavior to inform future research. Asking why — why someone votes or doesn’t vote, why politicians fail to fulfill promises, why community matters in voting — helps us better understand the context and make sure we are asking the right questions.

A special thanks to our excellent research assistants: Brenda Ochieng, Mwongela Kamencu, Nelson Ngige, and Titus Kuria.