MERU, Kenya—Dr. Karambu Ringera braced herself as her campaign truck bounced across Meru's rutted roads. It was Dec. 22, the penultimate day for campaigning before Kenya's Dec. 27 national election, but she was calm as her vehicle battled the rocky ground. Music blared from the speakers anchored to the vehicle's hood, advertising her candidacy with a modern, clubby beat. A man from her campaign team, squeezed next to me in the cramped back seat, spoke into a microphone: "Vote Karambu! She has the highest record of development of all the candidates."
As her car plunged across the potholes and the speakers blasted her campaign song, onlookers waved. Some danced. Some glared. Others simply stared.
In Meru, as in much of Kenya, people are not used to seeing a woman run for parliament. Ringera's constituency, North Imenti—an area with lush fields, red soil, unpaved roads, and conspicuous poverty—has always had a man as its representative. This election is the first in Kenya's history in which a woman has fought to represent North Imenti, and this year, two of the 16 candidates are female.
Ringera, who has a Ph.D. in human communication from the University of Denver and is founder of a nonprofit called International Peace Initiatives, decided to run after she spent days trying to get in touch with her member of parliament last year. No one knew where he was. "It was my frustration and anger in looking for someone in authority that caused me to run for parliament," Ringera told me.
With a government notorious for corruption and inefficiency, the 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections have given Kenyans a chance to challenge the priorities of the current administration, which has failed to tackle the poverty, unemployment, and disease that most Kenyans face day to day.
In searching for a solution to the nation's problems, some Kenyans have turned their attention to an entire gender. This election, there are more female candidates than have ever run before in Kenya's history. With 269 female candidates, women make up just over 10 percent of all parliamentary aspirants. In a country in which only eight of the 210 elected MPs in the last parliament were women, the boom has elicited excitement and distress, depending on whom you ask.
Ringera has experienced both attitudes. Last week, after Ringera delivered a speech, a man emerged from the crowd and took the microphone. "I'm so happy to see a woman is running," he told the audience. "We have to vote for a woman. Women have kinder hearts." (Many voters, disillusioned by the inaction of the government under male leadership, are attracted to women's perceived compassion and concern for the community.)
But Ringera also sometimes faces hostility when she passes people on the street. Men will narrow their eyes and shout, "We can't be ruled by a woman!"
The problems women face in running for government in Kenya go beyond verbal abuse. The other female candidate running in Ringera's constituency, Flora Igoki Terah, was violently assaulted outside her home in September. One man strangled her and then beat her with an iron bar. Another tried to make her swallow feces while pulling out her hair. Terah offered money and her mobile phone, but they didn't stop. "As they were beating me they were warning me to leave politics and telling me that politics is for men," she told me.
Ringera feels lucky that she hasn't faced physical assault, but she adjusts her schedule every day to try to reduce the risk of violence. She never answers telephone calls from unidentified numbers; she lives at her aunt's house, where no one will look for her; she never campaigns at night; and she always travels with a group of men.
Of course, there are other barriers for women aspirants. One of the main issues for women is campaign finance, since most women lack access to networks of wealth. Currently, there is no law in Kenya to restrict the amount candidates can spend on a campaign, so women often find it hard to raise enough to compete. When I first met Ringera in August, she was abstemious with every shilling that she spent, keen to make her limited funds stretch until the end of her campaign in December.
Women also struggle to get party nominations. In this election, there are 108 political parties, but few women received nominations from the country's largest and most popular parties. "The majority of the women have gotten nominations from the smaller parties, the parties that have not been present in the previous parliament," said Bjarte Tora, country director of the National Democratic Institute in Kenya. Ringera received the nomination of a newly formed party, FOREPA, which means her time on the hustings is spent not only speaking about her platform but also trying to teach voters how to recognize her name and FOREPA's symbol on the ballot.
Given all this, it might be hard to believe that East Africa is thought of as a pioneering region for women's political participation. In Rwanda, women hold 49 percent of the seats in parliament, the largest percentage of women in government of any country in the world. (In the United States, only 16 percent of members of Congress are women.) Like Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have affirmative-action laws in place to ensure that women gain office.
Earlier this summer, Kenya considered a similar bill, which would have guaranteed women 50 seats in parliament. I was in Kenya when the bill was being discussed, and I was struck by how it seemed to stir up Kenya's most profound social tensions. Some men asserted that women did not face sexism and should not be handed advantages. Some newspapers ran op-eds claiming that affirmative action for women amounted to discrimination against men. The bill died, but it awakened something in Kenyan women—a fierce conviction to challenge the status quo and to see if they can win political office on their own. After months of campaigning, their answer will come on Dec. 27.
On the last Sunday of Kenya's campaign season, Ringera went to a Catholic church to speak to the parish. She arrived early and stood outside waiting, mingling in the sunlight. A man approached her. "So you're the famous Karambu," he said. "I heard people talking, and they say you've done the most on development." She smiled. "The only problem is," he continued, "you're a woman."
Ringera looked at him, and he stared back, so she offered the only response she could think to. "I'm so happy to be a woman!" she said, trying to sound proud.
Other people came up to meet her, and she got distracted from the conversation. She didn't have the chance, she told me later that night, to ask whether he would vote for her on Election Day.
Update, Jan. 7, 2008: Ringera lost the election. She came in sixth place with 1,700 votes. Silas Muriuki, a businessman and former teacher, won the seat with 30,603 votes.