As the Kenyan election dissolved into chaos around him, Ben Grazda took it all in. Was a Kenyan civil war about to break out?
The Durango native was hopeful it wouldn't, but he wasn't sure. Not 3 feet from him, the Kenyan election chief was yelling at high officials from one of two main rival parties.
In 2007-08, post-election violence had left more than 1,000 dead. Around the world, observers feared a repeat in 2013.
He compares his recent experience to playing with live ammunition.
“That was a ride,” Grazda said during an interview in Durango, just days after he'd returned from East Africa. “I'm not sure if I should have been able to have that much responsibility or access as a 20-year-old. But it was definitely interesting.”
How did a college student get to be there? Grazda himself was amazed by the events that led him to the inner sanctum of the early-March election.
Grazda, the son of Sherry Grazda of Durango, is a public-policy major at American University in Washington, D.C. He was set on going abroad for part of his junior year. Kenya appealed to him more than, say, Western Europe – he was seeking a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He picked the right place.
He arrived in Nairobi in the fall of 2012 to start classes. He also began a two-day-a-week internship with Sisi ni Amani – Swahili for “We Are Peace” – a Kenyan peace-building organization. We Are Peace, created by an American in her mid-20s but run mostly by Kenyans, aimed to live up to its name.
In 2007-08 the post-election violence was fueled by political leaders using cellphones to incite their followers. We Are Peace sought to turn that around in 2013, by using cellphones to contact potential rabble-rousers and convince them to chill. The organization built up a subscriber base of about 50,000 people nationwide. It targeted hot spots, men in the slums of Nairobi, for example. If a situation got hot, We Are Peace could start calling.
“It created more awareness,” Grazda said. “Also, it just provided a sense of ... people kind of know there's someone watching them.”
His plan had been to stay in Kenya for just a semester. After a month there Grazda realized, “I can't stay here for the campaign and not stay for the election.”
For the March 4 election, he was given the duty of election observer. He would hang out at the National Tallying Center in Nairobi. If certain political parties or communities got worked up over the results, Grazda would let We Are Peace know.
There were 33,000 polling stations in the country, and as the election unfolded, the system broke down. The stations couldn't send in their results electronically and a backup system failed. When votes did arrive, some stations were reporting more votes than registered voters. The amount of rejected votes was eight times higher than it should have been.
“You read about some of the stuff that happens in elections in these places and then you actually see it for yourself,” Grazda says, “and it's hard to imagine.”
The tallying went on for a week. Grazda worked from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. (19 hours) on several days. His roommates hardly saw him.
He got to know several of the election officials, party officials and media members hanging around the tallying center. He even got to know some of the armed guards.
Seeing how concerned and paranoid Kenyans are about their votes being tallied made him appreciate his own country.
“I just gained a lot more respect for the process we have (in the U.S.), and democracy as a whole,” he said.
Uhuru Kenyatta got just more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. (Kenyatta, incidentally, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for inciting 2007-08 post-election violence.) His main challenger, Raila Odinga, challenged the election outcome based on mistakes and problems counting the votes. The Kenyan Supreme Court on March 30 upheld the results.
Grazda ventured to the court building that day and was there, among the police with riot shields and machine guns, the protesters and a driving rain, when the decision came down.
With no apparent prompting, “All of a sudden all the protesters just bolted down the street,” Grazda says.
Police chased after them, but except for a few broken windows, little damage or violence was done.
The election's technological bugs need to be worked on, “but I feel like Kenya really stepped up to the plate,” Grazda said. “They really made a show for how they could solve the elections peacefully in a court.
“At the end of the day, they have a new leader, and they accepted it.”
It was a big evolution in Kenya's political culture, says Grazda, now 21, who is back in D.C. seeking a summer internship. It was also a big evolution in a Durangoan's view of the world.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.