Nairobi, Kenya – On June 9, the film Chaguo premiered in Kenya.
Supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, it is a love story set against the backdrop of elections in a fictional town in an unnamed country. The film, initially screened in cinemas and cultural centers, is also available online.
Ravi Karmalker, the film’s producer and director told Al Jazeera that his intention was to make a film for Kenyans to understand “the facts and issues of past pre-election campaigns”.
“Everywhere it has sparked lively debates about what viewers expect from politics, from politicians in the future, but also about the fact that people want more courage and participation from young voters when it is about solving the country’s problems and shaping a better future for all,” he said. said.
Chaguo is the latest example of a strategic move by the arts and entertainment industry to best combat voter apathy in the run-up to the East African country’s August 9 elections.
Currently, only about a third of the 22 million voters registered for the upcoming elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission are aged 18 to 35. And this, while more than two thirds of Kenya’s 55 million inhabitants are under 35 years old.
Some, like Okoth Otieno, a 26-year-old university graduate and art enthusiast, have registered to vote but will not do so. “It’s a waste of time because it’s a false choice; there is little difference between the two main political camps,” he told Al Jazeera.
This apathy and Kenya’s history of contested elections and violence over the past three election cycles has led to the creation of multiple artistic works – from visual arts to poetry, music, printed literature, theater and cinema – produced to address several electoral themes and involve more young people. at the polling stations to vote.
In the past there have been songs like King Kaka’s Wajinga Nyinyi (“You’re Fools”) castigating citizens for electing bad leaders, to plays and films with distrustful politicians and corrupt officials as protagonists or background characters.
There have also been projects bringing little-known Kenyan stories to the public, including Too Early for Birds, a theater production highlighting the stories of Tom Mboya and Chelagat Mutai, late politicians who were politically engaged in their youth.
Another, the film The more things change, reflects on past and futuristic political organization. Sam Soko’s documentary film Soft follows the life of activist and politician Boniface Mwangi, a candidate for elections in 2017.
Even when the general election is not the main story, as is the case in Wanuri Kahiu’s romance film Rafikithis is an important backstory pitting the protagonists’ families against each other.
Analysts say this could be because the space for artistic expression has expanded since a new constitution was promulgated in 2010. But several artistic works have also been banned or faced restrictions diffusion, as happened with Rafiki.
Kimani Njogu, a linguistics researcher and former professor of Kiswahili and African languages at Kenyatta University, divided the work produced in the run-up to the general elections into three categories: work commissioned by politicians or their political parties; the work inspired by civil society organizations committed to democracy and leadership accountability as well as that carried out by specific individuals historically committed to creating a better society.
“There is still an opportunity for the arts to be used to raise awareness of the critical social and economic issues that are expected to arise during elections…. but awareness may not be enough for people to vote one way or the other.”
The statistics seem to confirm this.
Despite the wide distribution of these works, there is no indication that the voting habits of young people will be positively influenced.
In its June 2022 audit report, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) shows that the percentage of young people aged 18 to 34 registered to vote in 2022 decreased by 5.27 percent compared to the last elections in 2017 – which were canceled and carried through. to a replay.
This is surprising given that five million young Kenyans have reached voting age since the last elections, according to the 2019 census.
As for 34-year-old accountant Catherine Muga, who plans to vote in the upcoming elections, she watched Chaguo online but said she found the story predictable. “Everywhere we go now, they tell us to vote wisely and peacefully,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s monotonous, and the movie had a bit of that.”
Even Otieno hasn’t watched or listened to election-related arts and media in over a year. He said he also deliberately avoided the news and only caught snippets of it in public places.
There is too little time to turn the tide in these elections, but Njogu believes that in the future, artistic works will require more community and media engagement.
“They can raise awareness, but we need to go further through media engagement, community dialogues, for example in mosques and churches, and in other spaces where people are, that there are “Markets devoid of the ephemeral nature of art,” Njogu added.
“I truly believe that the fundamental investment should be in merging creative enterprise, artistic works, with community dialogues and engagement,” he added. “So that artistic work is a point of production rather than an end in itself. »
“A future beyond these elections”
But Carol Makanda, a Nairobi-based peace consultant and alumna of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, says art has already played an important role in preparing for elections and undoubtedly influence youth participation.
She points out that young people associate certain songs with their favorite candidates, citing the popular song by Kenyan musical duo Gidi Gidi Maji Maji. Unforgettable, a rallying anthem for the opposition National Alliance of the Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party during the 2002 general elections.
NARC ultimately won by a landslide.
In his words: “George Wajackoyah of the Roots Party (one of the four presidential candidates) has generated much more interest in the elections among a section of the youth who were previously apathetic to the process. In fact, artists have now started creating music around the things he stands for.
That might have to do with her pro-marijuana messages and the fact that her campaign style is close to a style of music popular among young people, she said.
“The message of the creative works played a role in reminding the public that there is a future beyond this election,” Makanda said.
And it’s a view that Karmalker echoes, seeing it as a vehicle not just for today, but more for the future.
“Chaguo improved discussions on the topics of democracy and having your own choice over your own vote and freedom of choice,” he said. “People take the film as a starting point to think about and discuss their own views on the topics covered in the film. This is what makes us and the other people behind the project very happy, because this is what we wanted.”