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The run up to Kenya's election is messier than normal. Voters wonder if it's for show

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Imagine a sitting president who drops his running mate, then supports his archrival in the next presidential race. That's exactly the kind of thing happening in Kenya. In what seems like a work of fiction, old adversaries have become allies, and longtime friends are now enemies. It has left voters wondering whether Kenyan politics is all just a show. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports from Nairobi.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In Kenya, political rallies are like big parties.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: There are DJs and dancing. And politicians arrive in big, fancy cars and sometimes in helicopters. At a stadium in Nairobi, female leaders from across Kenya gather in support of Deputy President William Ruto, who's running for president. They wear beads and beautiful, colorful fabric printed with the faces of their favorite politician.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Politics, at the moment, in Kenya is messier than usual. In the middle of his second term, the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, parted ways with his deputy. And then he left jaws wide open when he decided to make peace with his historical enemy, Raila Odinga. Just to be clear, the president is term-limited, so he's not running in this race. And he's not backing his deputy, as you normally would. Instead, he's supporting his former archrival. Everyone here talks about these politicians as if they know them. They talk about them like you would wrestlers on WWE or about the drama between Kim and Kanye.

BETH WAMBUI NJUGUNA: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: They feel unhappy because the president had promised Ruto, like, he shall rule for 10 years. And he shall leave it to Ruto for 10 years.

PERALTA: To Beth Wambui Njuguna, this was a betrayal of biblical proportions. So she decided to turn her back on President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Does it feel like a soap opera to you?

NJUGUNA: Yes. (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: The president played them.

PERALTA: Florence Kariuki, who's standing next to her, says she thinks these huge plot twists, these public disagreements, are actually engineered.

FLORENCE KARIUKI: They don't have enemies. Politician - they don't have enemies.

PERALTA: So you think it's like a show?

KARIUKI: Yes, it's a show.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: And just as we speak, the show goes on. The deputy president's convoy rolls into the stadium, and the crowd goes wild.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Ruto. Ruto. Ruto. Ruto.

PATRICK GATHARA: This is like the No. 1 national soap, you know? It's politics.

PERALTA: That is Patrick Gathara. He's a political cartoonist and one of the most incisive social critics in Kenya. He says the elites in Kenya present their disagreements in political terms, as a battle of ideas and disagreements over the shape of the constitution or how elections should be run. On the stump and in the tabloids, those disagreements take the form of vicious personal attacks. But Gathara says that's all an illusion.

GATHARA: They all know one another. Their kids go to the same schools. You know, they're basically friends. But they portray this fight. They give us this impression. It's a show that they put on.

PERALTA: But do you really believe that none of this is real?

GATHARA: It's not real.

PERALTA: Gathara says that's why friends can become enemies from one day to the other, or why horrific political violence ends suddenly after the protagonists hash out their differences over tea. It's a great, orchestrated drama that keeps Kenya in a sort of trance, he says. The politicians constantly switch sides, and the problems of the country remain unsolved.

How do you, as a Kenyan - how do Kenyans not fall into, like, fatalism and incredible cynicism?

GATHARA: I think they do. In fact, the way our politics is run now is you basically grab what you can get when you can get it. That's why people sell their vote.

PERALTA: But even if the politics here are orchestrated, they have incredible repercussions. After the 2007 elections, more than a thousand people were killed in ethnic clashes. The last time around, in 2017, dozens were killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Have a seat.

PERALTA: In Mathare, one of the big slums in Nairobi, mothers whose children were killed in 2017 created a room of remembrance. They embroidered their children's name on a huge fabric banner - Kelvin, Muthengi, Martin, Lamecko. Mama Paul, as she calls herself, pulls out her cellphone. She shows me a picture.

This is your boy?

MAMA PAUL: My boy, yeah.

PERALTA: How old was he?

PAUL: He was 23 years.

PERALTA: Twenty-three.

Amid violent post-election protests, he headed to the hospital where his wife was giving birth. And before he got there, he was shot dead by police.

PAUL: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: She doesn't have the feeling to vote again. I think what happened killed her, part of her body.

PAUL: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: Even after the incident, she had to throw away her voting card.

PERALTA: Benna Buluma lost two sons in 2017. One of them was shot in the face, his body left strewn on the streets. The two politicians who sparked that violence in 2017 - the president and his former archrival - are now best buds.

BENNA BULUMA: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: They only say sorry to each other, but not to the people who are fighting for them, the people who are voting for them.

PERALTA: Buluma is now raising her grandkids alone without any help. And just on the horizon, next week is another election that has already spawned violence.

Why do Kenyans still show up though? Every time they have a rally here, it's full of people.

BULUMA: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: So because you get the money, you go there knowing, well, after there, I'll go home and buy a maize flour. I'll buy a sukuma wiki. I'll buy a certain food. I'll buy clothes for my family. It is like a job now.

PERALTA: Politics is a play they are not proud to take part in. But life is hard in Kenya, so taking a handout from a politician might keep you from going hungry for a day or two. So what else, she says, are they supposed to do?

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "IGUAZU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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