The young woman cashing out from Kenya’s election rallies
Diana Mwazi is one of many young Kenyans who see the country’s forthcoming elections as a way to make money, rather than an opportunity to vote for people who could bring about change in her life.
The petite 20-year-old has carved out a small patch of influence in the male-dominated hurly-burly of Kenyan politics, in the informal settlement of Kibera in the capital, Nairobi, where she lives.
For a fee, she seeks out unemployed people to attend rallies – and is happy to provide her service to any political party.
“I’m excited by the elections because I’m getting a job from politicians who want to show that they have the support of the people,” she says.
Election fever has gripped the country ahead of the 9 August poll – party slogans have become part of casual pleasantries, political posters are daubed across public places and the air is filled with music and chants broadcast from huge speakers mounted on campaign vehicles.
Both upstarts and veteran politicians are leaving nothing to chance, because creating an impression of popularity is key – and that’s where the crowds come in.
“Mobilising people to attend a rally is not a tough job because finding youths who are jobless is very easy,” says Ms Mwazi, who does not plan to vote herself.
“Politicians are all liars. During elections they flock here like sheep, promising: ‘I’ll do this, I’ll give youth jobs.’ But when you elect them they do nothing.”
Crowd mobilising is “a side-hustle”, says Ms Mwazi.
She normally buys sandals from a market and sells them via WhatsApp groups, and the money helps boost her mother’s meagre income as a community health worker.
During the campaign period, Ms Mwazi works with other crowd mobilisers and depending on the number of people requested, she can gather between 40 and 100 people.
“I earn 500 Kenya shillings ($5; £3) per event but some politicians are generous,” Ms Mwazi says.
The attendees earn a similar amount.
“Politicians want their rivals to see that they have more support, so they take pictures of crowds and post on social media,” Ms Mwazi says.
She has had success in mobilising young women, but young men have proven to be more difficult.
“Men are not dependable, they complain about the money being offered,” she says, adding that sometimes opposing groups of young people violently clash when they encounter each other on the campaign trail.
In a country where at least 70% of the population is aged under 35, ensuring young voters show up at the polls is crucial for those running for office in the six elections being held simultaneously, including for the presidency, parliament and county governors.
Candidates spend millions of dollars on campaign materials, logistics and communications, including hiring social media influencers to churn out favourable posts.
They also have to keep up with increasingly demanding voters who prey on the politicians’ desperation to win – Kenyan politicians are some of the best paid in the world.
The country’s political system is designed to make sure that those who spend the most money get elected, says renowned activist Boniface Mwangi, who unsuccessfully ran for MP in the 2017 election.
“One candidate spent about $2m (£1.5m) to get elected to a seat as a member of parliament,” he says. “It’s very hard for a poor candidate to get elected because poor people don’t elect poor people – poor people need to be incentivised to elect you.”
Mr Mwangi, who has more than two million followers on his social media accounts, regularly receives myriad pleas from young Kenyans, including job requests.
He says this highlights the failure of politicians to create jobs, and adds that voters have become cynical – they cast their ballots for whoever pays them.
“Some of the most popular politicians in this country are not popular because they are good leaders, they are popular because they are very generous with their money. Voters have decided that ‘our votes are for sale’ so it’s become a transaction,” Mr Mwangi says.
“In a working democracy, the people you elect work for you. In Kenya the voters work for the politicians,” he adds.
Close to Ms Mwazi’s one-room stone house, where she lives with her mother and two younger siblings, is a row of houses built from corrugated iron. They are separated by a narrow dirt path that is intermittently disrupted by multicoloured water pipes meandering through the vast maze of the sprawling slum.
There, I meet James Mogaka or “Jimmy Lawyer”.
He’s smartly dressed and has short dreadlocks and is wearing red rubber gloves. He’s unclogging a blocked trench, full of polythene bags, bottles and other waste.
He earned his moniker, sometimes used as a cruel tease, because he studied law. But unable to get a formal job, he does manual work to earn a few shillings, as well as performing as an extra on local TV shows.
Unlike Ms Mwazi, the 30-year-old plans to vote for a candidate who he thinks will bring about change.
But he says that many young people find it difficult to stand by their convictions, and are forced to go through the demeaning experience of selling their votes to get “money for the stomach”.
“Voters know that even if they don’t take cash from politicians, someone else will, and their problems will remain,” he says.
Kenya has a youth unemployment crisis, according to Jacqueline Mugo, executive director of Kenya’s Federation of Employers.
“A disappointed, angry and impatient youth is a national problem… If you have young people who are unable to make ends meet and their parents increasingly unable to provide for them, that’s a ticking time-bomb,” she says.
“If you look at the age band of about 16 to 35, then the unemployment rate could be as high as 40%, so things are pretty bad but I don’t think it can get worse than it is,” Ms Mugo says, adding that the youth should remain politically engaged in order to achieve change.
Ms Mwazi, who hopes to study culinary arts one day, is not convinced.
In the coming weeks she will continue to hop from one rally to the next to earn a living, not expecting to hear from the politicians once the elections are over.
“Most of them don’t live here anyway,” she says with a shrug.