Kenya Referendum

The predawn call to prayer rings out from a mosque near my hotel and I realize that I’m up far too early. The long and haunting notes drift through Nairobi like a gentle snow that vanishes before it hits the ground. I reach for my watch on a nightstand, inadvertently knocking over a stack of books and an uncapped bottle of water. I hear the slow, chugging sounds of liquid spilling onto the floor and do nothing to stop it. 5:05. I stare into the shadows of a sleeping city and take stock in the silence that will not last long.

I feel nervous as I pack my cameras. After four weeks of leave, I feel rusty and certain that I’ll forget some critical piece of equipment. I attempt mental checklists, which, after 24 hours in transit and five hours of sleep, prove useless. It takes me twenty minutes to feel confident enough to leave my room.

Over breakfast, three TV sets blare separate, nonstop newscasts regarding today’s constitutional referendum. Throughout the country, millions of Kenyans are set to vote on whether to reform the existing constitution, which has been left in place since the British colonial period. The vote marks the first time in history that Kenyans will have a say in the fundamental legal principals of their country. The call for reform is expected to pass by a significant majority. Some are concerned, however, that ongoing intertribal tensions and holdover animosity from Kenya’s devastating post-election violence in 2007 could turn today’s vote ugly.

The United States government updated its travel warning for Kenya, urging Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to the country during the referendum period. United Nations staff is under restricted movement as are the staffs of many international NGOs. It’s a cautious game of wait and see. It is clear by the television broadcasts that Kenyans are just as concerned as internationals. Kenya Television airs nearly three uninterrupted minutes of smiling, laughing politicians set to “It’s a Wonderful World,” by Loius Armstrong. The piece, and its intended message, speaks volumes to me.

Thus far, there have been no major reports of fraud, irregularities or violence. I spent the day shooting at polling stations in areas throughout Nairobi and was impressed with the level of organization and professionalism at the centers. Lines moved quickly and I witnessed very few administrative hangups. As we move closer to the announcement of full results, I hope that cool heads will prevail.

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Into the Fray

The car in front of us has not moved for nearly ten minutes. Well, eight minutes from the time I started paying attention to the clock on the dashboard. At least two must have elapsed before I got frustrated enough to check the time. The air conditioning in this taxi is busted and December in Nairobi can make you dream of frostbite. The lane to our left picks up and a crowded minivan bucks forward, spraying black smoke in my direction. Like magic, a smirking vender emerges from the plume to sell me a flying toy helicopter. I grit my teeth and relinquish hope of catching a breeze. “I guess a fucking traffic light would really break the bank,” I mutter, reaching for the window crank. The driver shoots me a contemptuous look in the rear-view mirror. He didn’t hear my exact words, but he knows I’m whining. Our eyes meet for a moment and I can hear his thoughts, “right, cause I’m just thrilled to be here, dickhead.”

As the car inches forward, the opening notes to Shakira’s “Whenever” twang loudly from his phone. He answers with apparent reservation. I overhear a woman’s voice speaking English quickly and with some concern. “Are you with Pete, an American?” Sensing his confusion, I hastily interject, “Yes, I’m Pete!” He passes the phone over his shoulder, still annoyed about my quip.

“I just wanted to let you know that things are in the wind up here and we might have trouble getting to the airport to meet you,” my girlfriend, Jehan, explains. I am surprised to hear from her. Having arrived only yesterday, and in Kenya for such a short time, I am without a phone. Jehan acquired the driver’s number from her organization, which uses him often. She’s already in Juba, southern Sudan, and we planned to meet at the airport when I arrive there later this afternoon. “What’s going on,” I ask. “There are supposed to be protests today and the driver thinks there could be checkpoints along the airport road,” she explains. “If we’re not there when you arrive, just wait. Don’t take a cab, that will be worse.”

After a bit of back and forth, I end the call and return the driver’s phone. I thank him in my nicest tone, but it’s clear we won’t rebound. I’m too exhausted, hungry and hot to care. I glance at my bag of photo equipment and wonder whether I’ll be the only foreign photographer on the ground if and when the war in southern Sudan resumes. I kick myself for only bringing a helmet and not at vest. I think of people like Samantha Power, who was only 23 when she placed herself in Bosnia as that country descended into chaos, and wonder if I’ll have the courage to stay if it all goes to hell.

I consider a piece of advice that has guided me for several years; “Never do anything that you can’t live with the consequences of.” While perhaps a bit dramatic, it’s had a significant, and arguably positive, effect on my decision-making. I considered it each time I passed checkpoints into Gaza, before entering the fray in Somalia, and before trekking into mine contaminated mountains in northern Uganda. Each time I made mental calculations, assessed odds and concluded that these were acceptable risks. So far, I’ve been alright.

What will Sudan hold for me? What will unfold over the coming year? Will the peace hold or will violence once again prevail? How will I enter this fray? What experiences will I have and how will they affect me? Who will I meet and what will they teach me? What will I create in this volatile environment?

The traffic subsides and we hit open road towards Nairobi airport. The breeze feels cool over the sweat on my face and chest. I toss a handful of sunflower seeds into my mouth, a stand-in vice for the many cigarettes I used to smoke. The stress of missing my flight is replaced by what might await me in Sudan. As we approach the airport, I notice massive UN helicopters on a secluded part of the runway. I wonder if I’ll see them in action soon.