When Morris Kiruga set off in pursuit of politicians on the campaign trail, he imagined a glamorous few days on the road. The reality couldn’t have been more different.
Have you ever attended a political rally? In person, I mean, not via live TV. What you rarely see on the television beyond the three mics in one hand, euphoric crowds, terrible music, and the occasional teargas is the amount of travel involved. It is almost like, to borrow an American phrase, the deities gave us politics to teach us geography. Politicians probably know this country better than cartographers.
In June last year, my editor Mark and I went on a road trip. We were chasing a story which required us to hit a ruling party event in Nyeri and then an opposition rally in Kakamega two days later. We were also trying to go through as many towns as possible along the way.
Somewhere along the line, I learned five lessons about political rallies.
First, hire a decent car. Don’t, like us, meet the guy in a back alley in the evening. You will get a car that reeks of smelly feet. The car also had no radio, and there was a suspicious noise coming from the front left wheel. This would be our chariot for more than 600 km. By the time we handed it back at Kisumu airport, we had learned to live with the odour. To beat the silence, we bought a cheap portable speaker in Thika. It had a female Chinese voice who announced “Bluetooth is open” so many times that I could still hear her for a week after the trip.
Next, get to the rally early. We were having a leisurely breakfast at a hotel in Nyeri by 9 am, confident that we were early for the event. What we didn’t know is that the itinerary is just for the big men. Everyone else is supposed to be seated and twiddling their thumbs long before. It looks good for the cameras, I guess. Add to that that you are a journalist, and the stern man with a big gun will look at you like you are a dung beetle. That look alone will ensure you are hours early for the next event.
Third, people watch. With hours to spare, there’s little to do other than walk around and find a seat. Or a nice patch of grass. Or a place to stand or an odd tree to climb. At both events, the venues looked like construction sites. We had to navigate open ditches, both times after it had rained heavily. Once seated, we surveyed our surroundings. That’s when you notice the politics of seating space: the bored camera journalists who can’t wait for it to end, the restless crowd, the hawkers, and the police officers walking around. Then there’s the MC with far too much energy, and the loud music that drowns out the sounds of choppers flying overhead. In Kakamega, I found myself watching the body language on the dais more than I listened to the speakers. I also saw just how badly our politicians dance; it already looks bad on TV, but trust me, it is worse when you are there. A lack of coordination seems to be a prerequisite for political office.
Fourth, get out of there fast. Once the shenanigans are over, the big people leave first. Then we, the taxpayers, can leave. At the first rally, there was a security check on your way out. As if jostling to reach the gate, and then sitting for an hour in traffic just to travel 3 km wasn’t enough. Remember, tens of thousands of people have to be funnelled out of a stadium at the same time. Waiting for it all to end is like waiting for a stampede, and if you need both your knees, then you don’t want to wait for that.
Lastly, don’t go. Here’s what they never really tell you about political rallies. They are mind-numbingly boring. I mean, there’s a certain euphoria, but most of the time, you’re just hanging around. The television cameras focus only on the energetic parts when the big show is on. Rightly so, because if more people knew just how exhausting they are, politics would die. There are better ways to see the country.
Morris Kiruga blogs about travel, culture and more at owaahh.com