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.