NAIROBI – Ethnicity plays a big part in Kenya’s elections, with many people voting along communal lines, and occasional outbreaks of political violence in which people are targeted according to their ethnic background. This can make life difficult for mixed ethnicity couples, as the BBC’s Dickens Olewe in Nairobi found ahead of next week’s election.
“Mommy, do you hate Raila or Uhuru?”
Naomi Wangui and Malaki Samson’s young daughter shocked them recently by choosing this way to ask how they felt about the presidential candidates.
The question stunned Naomi and, even though she tried to explain to her daughter how political competition works, she was taken aback by her characterisation.
“Hate is a strong word, even for a six-year old. I think it’s the perception she has picked from the TV stations who project political competition as a zero sum game, them versus us.”
Malaki is a Luhya, an ethnic community that chiefly supports the opposition, while Naomi is from the same the community as President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election.
Mr Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is a Luo, have harnessed support from several ethnic communities and it has become part of Kenyan political culture to presume that people from allied ethnic groups automatically back them.
These perceptions complicate the lives of mixed ethnicity couples.
Malaki and Naomi live in Kinoo in the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi, an area that is dominated by the Kikuyu community.
This set-up worries Malaki’s family and they are concerned about his safety during the election.
“His brother called to see if he is planning to move during the election,” Naomi says.
But Malaki has however no plans to relocate.
“We will cast our votes and come back home. We feel safe here,” he says.
” I don’t think the election will be violent as everyone is making it out to be.”
Manuel Mikewa and his wife Elizabeth Njeri have different and more elaborate plans for election day.
“We will vote and then relocate with our two children to my mother’s house in Kileleshwa [a middle-class estate in Nairobi].”
Manuel Mikewa is a Luo and his wife is Kikuyu, and they live in Muthiga, another area where Kikuyus are dominant.
Since post-election violence in 2007-08 in which more than 1,500 Kenyans were killed and an estimated 600,000 displaced, people have tended to be jittery around election time – and it’s no different this year.
The last election passed without any major disruptive incident but there seems to be palpable fear and anxiety heading to this year’s election, despite the government’s reassurance on security and top politicians calling for peace.
“I just don’t want to be here, especially with my children. I just want to feel safe,” Manuel says and he has reasons to be worried.
His aunt who is married to a Kikuyu man lives in Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum, which has been named as a potential hotspot.
In 2013, his uncle slept in a bar in Kibera that he owns for fear that his family’s house would be attacked because of his perceived ethnic-political affiliation in an area dominated by the Luo community.
“My aunt and her family have started feeling that their neighbours, some whom they have known for a long time, are showing enmity towards them, so they are planning to be away from the area during the election,” Manuel says.
“Just like in 2013, she will be moving to my mum’s house with my cousins. She has enough space to accommodate us and it’s good that way, because we will all feel safe.”
Manuel says he plans to stay with his mother for at least a week after the election, “then we will assess when to go back”.
His plans are not unique. There’s a silent migration from the city taking place, with people travelling to areas where their ethnic community is dominant.
“I think we will be safe in Kileleshwa because it is far removed from the informal settlement areas, like where my aunt lives, where there is high likelihood of violence to occur.”
At the moment, Manuel says, the heightened political environment has “disrupted his work”, but he adds that he is looking forward to vote.
“As a couple we have been open with each other and we have discussed the candidates we will vote for.”
Another couple, George Obiero, a Luo, and Millicent Wanjiru, a Kikuyu, have been married for eight years and have two children. They say the election period is the most challenging part of their relationship.
“This is the most challenging time for mixed ethnicity couples because we suddenly find that our relationships are exposed to the negative effects of ethnic political competition,” George says.
“There are couples who have separated because they couldn’t handle the strain.”
Millicent says that she has to deal with the fact that she “lives in an area where I feel safe but I can’t say the same for my husband”.
The couple say they have started thinking of contingency plans to move the family somewhere they will feel safe, but it has not been an easy topic to discuss.
“We live in an area where my community is a minority so I’m the one likely to be targeted by violence because of my ethnicity. Some people see me as supporting the opposition, which is not necessarily the case,” George says.
“Reason would suggest that I move to a place where I will feel safe but I can’t leave my family, I just can’t.
“It’s easy for couples who come from the same community to make quick decisions on what to do in these circumstances, for us it’s a bit tricky.”
The couples say they feel that the rhetoric in this year’s election has been ratcheted up, more than any past election, by an active social media community.
“There’s a lot of hate there. People say very hurtful things, and these are people you know, some you call friends,” Millicent says.
But she says they cannot afford to despair. Instead they try to continue showing and preaching tolerance – especially to their children.
“We are sensitising them to be part of a global community and not be confined to an ethnic cocoon that Kenyan politics forces us into every five years,” Millicent says.
“I’m hopeful because many in our generation are marrying from other cultures and I look forward to a less divisive future.”
The Malakis and Obieros live in the same apartment block, which they say is home to “an incredibly diverse group of Kenyans”.
The neighbours are planning a get-together party on election day “to light a bonfire to celebrate our diversity,” Manuel Malaki says.