August 10, 2017.
It felt like an eerie calm before a storm. We were in the midst of what was brewing up to be another disputed election. The NASA coalition leader, Raila Odinga had raised concerns over the credibility of the election process by tabling a hacking allegation. The response from Wafula Chebukati was cagey at first before IEBC out rightly denied Raila’s claims. On the public opinion forums the conversations were dominated by techies trading knowledge on databases and log files.
It had only been three days since Kenyans turned out to vote on August 8th but the suspense had already started to bite as ordinary folk got jittery. Hour after hour of news analysis and commentary had left viewers either more confused or anxious. Underlying it all was the sickening feeling of de ja vu. We had been here before.
In Kenyan elections, the voting is largely peaceful. It is when the counting begins that the mistrust arises. Past experiences have broken the bonds of trust between Kenyans and the custodians of public institutions. The innocence has since been replaced with a pragmatic attitude of trusting your fears and not your hopes.
When the IEBC indicated that it would take more than 4 days to look into issues raised before they could call the election, conspiracy theorists went into over drive mode. The foreign press corps circled the ‘hotspots’, like sharks sniffing for blood.
In the media, there was a growing chorus of patience and peace slogans from concerned friends abroad and patriotic citizens, as regular Kenyans craved for a sense of normalcy to their disrupted lives held hostage by the heated political atmosphere. The majority were holed indoors, flipping between TV channels, attempting to read between the lines and predict the election outcome.
In between these on-goings, a random picture appeared. It was a regular Kenyan man standing in a voting queue in a polling station, later identified to be the Imara Primary school in Dandora in Nairobi’s Eastlands neighbourhood. He was dressed in an oversized, dull brown checked suit jacket and frumpy trousers. Underneath it, he wore a black spotted shirt with a weathered collar and held onto an open plastic bag of githeri, his cheeks bulging as he chewed away nonchalantly oblivious of a photographer who was about to launch him into an internet sensation.
The expression on his face was pensive, a mix between the anxiety of a long wait in a slow moving queue and curiosity over the processes taking place at the end of the line. He had the rugged look of a man whose features had been shaped by a daily routine of exerting physical labour. Someone christened him and #Githeriman was launched into sensational internet meme.
The photoshop experts went to town with the image and soon the Githeri man was photo bombing celebrity scenes around the world. There he was with the NASA principals during a presser. Celebrating with the Shujaa rugby team in Singapore, with Jeff Koinange on JKL, in the white house with Obama, disembarking from Airforce One behind Trump, on mount Rushmore as one the sculptured heads among the founding US presidents, hanging out with a Kardashian. Githeriman was everywhere transcending time and space like an inter-dimensional time traveler. The fascination over the identity of the silent watcher, with his bag of githeri snowballed into a news item.
Pleas rung out, for the Githeri man to be located, to allow gracious Kenyans the opportunity to make a difference in his life. Kenyans needed to give him something for bringing a smile to their faces. An Mpesa paybill number for starters to afford him something succulent to chew on besides githeri.
A TV crew finally located him in Kayole, two days later, in the same clothes, where he enjoyed temporary celebrity treatment. He was driven off from Kayole in an SUV with an open sunroof, waving to an amused crowd, overwhelmed by his sudden notoriety. I caught up with him on Citizen TV during an interview with the articulate anchor Swaleh Mdoe who appeared fascinated by the Githeri man’s ordinariness. He still carried his bag of githeri as if it were a magic prop, without which he would lose his powers of amusement.
His name was Martin Kamotho, a Nairobi County public sanitation officer stationed in Dandora. Perfect strangers reminded him that he was now famous for being famous. Some called him the newest celebrity in town and advised him to cash in on his luck while stocks lasted. His life was poised for change thanks to his 5 minutes of fame on TV.
Martin Kamotho aka the Githeri man was hailed in media houses as the man’s whose brief appearance on the public stage was a much needed comic breather from the weighty matters around the credibility of the elections. Martin possessed a sort of quaint other-worldliness. His manner and dress sense may have been a source of amusement but he was not a comic. He was just an ordinary Kenyan profiled by his social class and exploited for his benign nature.
For those few precious moments, the Githeri man was the noble commoner who exposed the soft underbelly of our media culture that prioritizes hot sensation over cold facts. It was easier to reward the Githeri man for his perceived goodness than to use the opportunity to delve into the social conditions that oppress millions in our society.
On Friday a day later, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared President. Protests broke out in Nairobi, Kisumu, Siaya, Homa Bay Migori and the police killed civilians in the ensuing melee. Foreign media were first on site, when the blood started flowing.