Lessons from vying for Nairobi Senator seat

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Young Suzanne Silantoi is a small package that packs a punch. The 24-year-old took a huge leap of faith to vie for not just any political seat, but the highly contested Nairobi Senatorial seat. Despite the loss in the August 2017 election, Suzanne feels encouraged by her achievements. She talks to JOANNE GICHANA on staying true to her ambitions and her future political aspirations.

Nairobi-born Suzanne Silantoi calls her childhood normal, which included growing up with both parents and her younger brother. She went to Westlands Primary School and Riara Primary School for her primary education before proceeding to Moi Girls’ School, Nairobi, for her secondary education.

Love for Music

All through her education, certain things stood out.She realised that status quo was never her cup of tea and questioned the norm a lot. “I used to question why prefects were chosen by teachers and the criteria used? I don’t like status quo if it is not beneficial. I always want to progress,” she says.

Secondly, she noted her passion gravitated towards music. “My high school teacher – Mr. Chokera – encouraged me not to shy away from music as a profession considering the society’s attitudes towards a career in the arts,” she recalls.

This was the spark to a powerful fire for music. She went on to do a Bachelors of Music degree at Kenyatta University. “People didn’t understand then that music could be studied as a career and would recommend other courses instead. Personally, I didn’t really mind because I was doing what I loved and my parents were also supportive,” she says. Her love for music was so strong that she was called upon on several occasions to teach music to young kids including setting up a whole musical department at the Kids Zone Educational Centre in Kikuyu, Kiambu County.

In her first year at Kenyatta University, she got an opportunity to intern at the Gifted Hands School and soon after was formally employed there. “It was a very good learning experience,” she says. In her second year in campus, Suzanne opened a music school after several of her parents’ friends approached her to teach their children music. She started out with a few children but the crowd grew bigger. “I reached out to some of my friends in campus to help in teaching. I gave them a stipend for their services,” she says.

Needing a piano, she sought a loan of Ksh200, 000 from her father – a loan she has since paid off in full. “My father made me pay back all that money. But I stole some office space from him where I put my piano. It’s here that I taught music every Saturday,” she jokes. This transformed into a fully-fledged company – Essence Music. She even managed a few of her upcoming
talented friends and booked them for events – mostly weddings. It was through this musical interaction that she noted a lot of talented musicians were not able to make ends meet.

“A performer would be called to an event but instead of being paid, the organisers would offer lunch and transport oblivious to the fact that the musicians earned their living through performance,” she says, noting this as the early onset of her desire to enact change.

Transition into Politics

Before she graduated from Kenyatta University, Suzanne joined an organisation that provides locally-driven communication solutions for health-related behavioural change as an intern. It was through this internship that a newfound appreciation for communication developed. She is currently a Youth and Development Coordinator.

“The work we were doing had real impact on people’s lives. It was very
fulfilling for me,” she says. While there, Suzanne recalls working closely with public hospitals and seeing the desperation of many patients and caregivers. “I remember seeing people waiting for hours for a doctor who would not show up or medicine that was unavailable because of lack of funds. It really used to bother me especially since I was aware of the corruption that was going on in the country unabated,” she laments.

Around the same time, Kenyan doctors went on strike and the nurses followed suit.

“I used to wonder where expectant women were giving birth if they could not access hospitals. And what about children who were missing out on vaccinations? What was going to happen to them?” she recalls. She began to question why the systems and structures set in place failed to work for taxpayers. “I saw the need. I was complaining about it, but whom did I expect to do anything about it? I thought I should try and fix it myself,” she adds.

The half Maasai, half Samburu beauty admits that a conversation with her grandmother about a person she knew who had successfully vied for a Member of County Assembly (MCA) party nomination seat sparked her interest in politics. Coincidentally, the God-fearing lady heard of a project by Christ Is The Answer Ministries (CITAM) Valley Road (the church she is a member of) called Hesabika – a movement mobilising Christian professionals to translate the concerns to action.

These two occurrences led her to throw her name in the bidding for Nairobi County Senator. “I felt something pushing me to do so,” she says. “I believe in God and I remember asking Him that if this was not something He wanted me to do, He should make the whole process difficult,” she says. On the contrary, the registration process itself happened so smoothly that it appeared supernatural.

Why the Senate? “I wanted to use the existing structures to fix the problem. The role of the Senate is actually to oversee county governments’ funding and to ensure they are used appropriately. I thought if leaders used the funding properly, the problem will be 50 per cent solved,” she says. “County governments have been game changers in most counties.,” she says.

Her competition gave her chills down her spine, more so during the Senatorial debate. “I felt so much pressure. I am generally not a shy person but I tend to thrive when I’m alone so having all of them with me was very intimidating but I gathered courage and pushed through,” she recalls.

Suzanne felt that this was something she was called to do and wanted to stand in the gap for the youth and women, so she soldiered on. She received heavy backlash for being a young female entering politics with a bang. “Some people would ask me on my face if I was trying to be a socialite?”
she recalls. Not forgetting her biggest challenge of acquiring resources to fund her campaign. Luckily, she had plenty of well-wishers who donated to her campaign monetarily and in kind.

Post elections

“Honestly, I feel the elections went very well,” Suzanne, who garnered around 32,000 votes, says. This, she felt, meant that tens of thousands of people believed in her and wanted change almost as much as she did. “That was very encouraging considering I campaigned for only two months,” she adds.

Suzanne opines there is a future for her in politics and carries the lessons she learnt from her first attempt. For her, it isn’t about the seat but about fixing a system she feels is broken. “I think Nairobi is going downhill. There
is so much lawlessness, and we are still talking about 60 per cent youth unemployment,” she says.

Suzanne has had the opportunity to speak in various international youth forums such as the Africa Union (AU) Regional Youth Consultation on harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth in Arusha, Tanzania, the 4th Annual Continental Forum of Electoral Management Bodies in Kigali Rwanda as well as attending the 2017 AGA Pre-Gender Forum in Lusaka, Zambia and the High Level Dialogue in Pretoria South Africa.

She was also a nominee of the International Association of Political Consultants Democracy Award 2017 alongside David Maraga, Chief Justice and President Supreme Court of Kenya and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey’s opposition leader. Her future plans? Suzanne intends to go back to school for a Masters degree in public policy. She also wants to start a project that will economically empower young adolescent females and help them deal with sexual and physical abuse.

Most importantly, she is still in politics although she isn’t sure if she will join a political party or not. “Politics is possible,” says the brave young woman who saw a problem in Nairobi County and offered herself as a solution.

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