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Kenya's Rising Political Star


This week, Kenya hosted its first vice presidential debate which aired live on most TV networks. As it started, it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Just one candidate showed up. And Kenyans saw it as an affront to voters, but one young politician emerged as a star. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: You can see confusion on Muthiora Kariara's face as he comes on stage. He's hesitant, swerves a little bit but keeps walking toward the center of the stage.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you so much, Muthiora Kariara.

PERALTA: This is being broadcast on all the major networks in Kenya. And there was Kariara, 35 years old, a novice politician who used to be a pig farmer, the first in his family to go to college standing next to five empty podiums because all the other running mates, including the two from the major parties, had decided to just skip it. Kariara seems stunned, but then he pounces.


MUTHIORA KARIARA: I decided to step up and seek your mandate to lift this nation because we have leaders who are not ready to account to the nation.

PERALTA: The television pundits joined Kariara in condemning the other candidates. Here's Alex Awiti.


ALEX AWITI: This is exactly what the country must say no to. This is arrogant. It is hubris. It is unprecedented. It is uncalled for.

PERALTA: And Simiyu Werunga.


SIMIYU WERUNGA: I'm surprised how insidious, not even arrogant, they are to the people of this country.

PERALTA: PLO Lumumba, the director of the Kenya School of Law and a failed politician, says this does not surprise him at all.


PLO LUMUMBA: The Kenyan elections are not based on issues.

PERALTA: Instead, ever since Kenya gained its independence in the '60s, elections have been decided by tribal alliances.


LUMUMBA: Those ethnicities are going to vote for their men regardless, so why attend the debate?

PERALTA: But one thing that everyone agreed on is that out of that debate emerged hope for a new kind of politics for Kenya.

KARIARA: When I realized that I was the only one doing the debates, I developed butterflies in my stomach.

PERALTA: I found Muthiora Kariara a few days later in downtown Nairobi.

KARIARA: My heart was racing. It was a scary moment.

PERALTA: But Kariara spent 51 minutes on stage. He talked about unemployment. He talked to tax policy and interest rates. It was a debate with himself about issues. Seeing the buzz Kariara was getting, the other candidates tried to join midway through, but they were barred by the networks. And in the days that followed, Kariara was being recognized on the streets. And he noticed a change.

KARIARA: Initially, I would want to address people, and they would want me to give them something up front or at least make a promise that I will buy them chai.

PERALTA: Swahili for tea, its a euphemism for the bit of money that Kenyan voters demand to show up to rallies or even cast a ballot. Kariara says that after his debate, people stopped asking him for chai. And instead, they wanted to invite him to lunch to hear about his vision for the country.

KARIARA: It gives me a lot of hope, that as much as people thought that the Kenyan voters' psyche is already corrupted beyond repair, we can still fix that.

PERALTA: And he says he'll continue to fight to convince Kenyans that if they want good leadership, they have to vote their conscience. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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