By Christine Mungai
About ten years ago, electricity came to my shagz for the first time. It’s not that far from Nairobi, just about an hour’s drive mostly on the Thika Highway, then a 25-minute detour off the highway, past coffee plantations that are quickly turning into real estate developments of varying quality. Even so, without electricity it seemed so much more remote.
Growing up, like most Nairobi-born kids of my age, I used to dread going upcountry. Despite its many redeeming qualities – the cleaner air, the sounds of the birds in the morning, and the avocado tree in the garden that I would climb and read my books – it was so quiet at times that I would feel like my ears were spontaneously ringing.
There was no TV (we were real television addicts those days, but don’t blame me, Cartoon Network had just come on the scene). Shagz was, let’s be honest, boring. And it was very, very dark at night.
Then, in those buoyant Kibaki years, things began to change quickly. First, electricity reached the nearby shopping centre, which made the place noticeably busier and noisier.
Then, the government announced a drop in connection costs to individual households to Ksh 35,000; later, it would fall even further to the current Ksh 15,000.
Thirty-five thousand was a cost my siblings and I – all just starting out as young adults – could afford, and we all chipped in so that my grandmother would have electricity in her house for the first time.
The benefits of electrical power in a community are obvious and tangible, but some of its social – and political – effects are less straightforward. Although businesses in the shopping centre stayed open longer, folks in the community, especially young people, tended to go home earlier and stay indoors more than before.
The reason: they had more entertainment options than was the case previously. Slowly but steadily, a few households bought televisions, then DVD players, and now with time, these entertainment options are no longer a novelty.
These trends in my ushago are part of the broader ‘modernizing’ influences that are shaping rural communities all over this country. Increasing access to electricity has been a big priority of the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta, as one of the tangible markers of ‘development’, that the government can take credit for.
In the past decade, the number of households with access to electricity has risen dramatically from 23% in 2009 to nearly 70% in 2019. [A caveat: access to electricity does not always mean usage – in 2017, nearly one million Kenyan households that had recently been connected to the grid had never bought tokens their prepaid electricity metres months after being connected].
Even so, I’m intrigued about the political consequences of ‘development’ such as this, and one Afrobarometer paper I came across recently blew all my assumptions out of the water.
Electricity is often argued to be a catalyst for a country’s industrialization and social development, and it often is. But these researchers found that access to the electric grid reduces the likelihood of participating in politics, such as by contacting local political leaders when there was an issue in the community or getting involved in collective action.
Drawing on data from 36 countries collected in five rounds of Afrobarometer surveys between 2002 and 2015, the research found that “when individuals live in proximity to the electric grid or have grid access at home, they tend to participate in politics less than they would if they lived in a community or house without access to the grid.”
The conclusion was stark – even potential access (i.e. promises of connection) to the electric grid produces what the researchers call an “anti-politics of electricity” that diminishes community participation in local politics, as folks instead retreat “to enjoy apolitical social interaction and recreational activities,” such as television, watching movies and listening to music at home, enjoying the new trappings of middle-class life.
Electricity, the research showed, facilitates the moving away from “traditional, community-collective entertainment and engagement to a more individualized, nuclear-family orientation,” and a concurrent withdrawal from collective action.
The middle-class in Kenya is frequently blamed for everything that goes wrong in Kenyan politics: apparently it is both vanishingly small and simultaneously has an outsized impact on political dysfunction, with its ‘apathy’ to blame for everything from corruption and the high cost of living, to police killings and exploitative schools.
But recently I’ve been thinking about the invisible forces that work to demobilize collective action in this country, and I’m coming to the conviction that we must work harder at identifying and mitigating them if we are to have some measure of political accountability in this country, if we are to forge a system that works for the people.
Some of those forces are less counter-intuitive. The 2018 “handshake” deal between President Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga is one, seeing that it co-opted and effectively neutralized the opposition.
Within months, even those who over the years had branded the opposition – led by Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement – as “noisemakers” who should just leave the government to work, began being restless that there was no formal counter in Parliament to the government’s machinations.
The country’s debt ceiling has been raised again and again with only weak pushback from Parliament whose role is to keep the Executive in check, and now, we’re looking at outstanding debt of more than Ksh 7 trillion.
At the same time, the Jubilee administration has been working overtime to muddy the waters of public opinion and expression, by employing the tactics of disinformation, propaganda and personal attacks against those who speak out, overwhelming the public discourse and, in a way, seeming to draw the civic air out of the room.
The effect is self-censorship and sheer exhaustion, as journalist Yvonne Okwara told me in a previous interview, as we spoke about the handshake-driven Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that has been relentlessly shoved down Kenyans’ throats for the past couple years, until the “reggae” was stopped by the High Court in May.
“I’ve felt like the Kenyan public has been pinned to the ground like a roach, with completely no breathing room to reflect on what we really want,” she told me.
“What we’ve had instead is these top-down political projects muscled through, and simultaneously so many rumours and fake news that even us as journalists get exhausted trying to fact-check everything. And if we’re tired as journalists, how much more for the public?”
In fact, recent research from data storytellers OdipoDev found that 21% of male respondents, and 73% (more than 53 percentage points more!) of women actively avoid news broadcasts, sometimes looking for “sometimes better to watch”, frequently feeling overwhelmed.
One woman in the study’s focus group mentioned that aside from news on the Covid-19 pandemic, in the past year news broadcasts rarely gave her anything she could use in her daily life; many times in fact, it gave her a lot of negative emotions.
“All we see is corruption scandals and murder,” she said, and OdipoDev researcher Patricia Andago writes that sentiments like these explain why we are seeing a rising tide of consumers trying to insulate their homes from the news.
The net effect, as I’ve written before, is Kenyans being squeezed in by two sinister forces working in tandem, one from above that has effectively defanged Parliament and the political opposition, and one from below that has made even moderate critics feel as thought they have almost been driven mad with frustration, howling into the wind.
I’ve also theorised that Christian religious spaces have been a site of political demobilisation, as both mainline and evangelical congregations in Kenya today adopt a posture that is consistent with the neoliberal politics of the day, shunting congregations towards church development projects and personal discipline, and away from active political organizing or even a vocabulary for identifying and working through political problems.
At best, this redirection reproduces the status quo and narrows the political imagination of individual churchgoers, writes Lester K. Spence in Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, which speaks to the situation in contemporary Black America, but that could as well be speaking of Kenya today.
“At worst the prosperity gospel in particular generates an intense desire for personal growth that can only rarely be attained by the practices pastors propose,” Spence writes, “…a desire that when unmet generates a more intense desire for the practices themselves, rather than critical resistance—because if churchgoers don’t get the results they [are looking] for, it has to be their fault, they must not be prayerful enough, disciplined enough.”
In my search for the forces that work against politics, that create “anti-politics”, I’ve been tracking the big trends of the handshake, BBI, disinformation and fake news, as well as theologies that maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.
I was surprised to find these forces in something as simple as electricity provision, and not to say I’m romanticising of a time before electricity, or that it’s “better” for communities to be in the dark than connected to the grid.
My point is that even good ideas have unintended consequences, and ‘development’ sometimes works in mysterious ways, making it all the more urgent and necessary to develop a new set of ideas and institutional practices that would work against the drift of an individualized, privatized politics, and the effects that such a disengagement would have on the quality of democracy and civic engagement in this country.
Still, the researchers conclude that the relationship between electricity provision and political participation might not work the same for all individuals.
For those who are already politically conscious and active in their communities, electricity provision actually enhances their political work.
It may be that for these “woke” folks, electricity facilitates community organizing by allowing groups to gather more safely after dark, or to charge phones that allow people to organize collective action by phone.
It seems that the work, then, is to create and nurture political consciousness before atrophy sets in, and the truth is there are many forces working to leach the energy from Kenyan civic life – which would only work to the benefit of the political elite.
Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, Kenya. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She has written on a wide range of subjects and her work has been published in The Africa Report, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and The Elephant, among many other outlets.