It’s D-Day in Kenya as the country is holding its biggest election in years today.
Polls opened at 7am this morning for more than 22m registered voters, who will today endorse their favourite candidates in 46,232 polling stations across the country.
All eyes are on the top job, with outgoing President Jomo Kenyatta leaving government after a decade at the helm. His most likely successors will either be current deputy president William Ruto or political veteran Raila Odinga.
But it’s not just the presidency that is up for grabs.
Across towns and cities in Kenya – by far East Africa’s healthiest democracy – would-be senators, councillors, governors and MPs are eagerly waiting whether months of intense campaigning has paid off.
Esther Muthoni Passaris is no exception. The fiery, energetic Nairobi County woman representative has worked overtime in recent weeks to secure re-election.
Joining Passaris on the campaign trail in Nairobi recently, the 57-year old mother of two explained to City A.M. why she is not done in her current role, why Kenyan politicians do not make enough and she reveals her political ambitions for the future.
“[There is] still so much that needs to be done, and we need more money, much more money,” Passaris said during the rally in Embakasi, East Nairobi.
While her staff hand out water bottles, calendars and fanta, Passaris is all smiles as she makes personal contact with voters via waves, greetings and a lot of pointing and winking.
As she is paraded through the streets of the run-down, impoverished district, it becomes increasingly obvious that here stands a determined woman on a mission: to get re-elected and continue the long, diverse journey her life has been so far.
Born in Mombasa in 1964, Esther Muthoni Passaris, with the latter being her maiden name, has often been labelled ‘a foreigner’, since her father is Greek, while her mother is a Kenyan Kikuyu, the country’s largest tribe.
Brushing aside those insinuations, she managed to become a household name in Kenya after Passaris launched the ‘Adopt a Light’ initiative, signing a deal with the Nairobi city authorities that restored street lighting in large parts of the capital in exchange for advertising rights on the lamp post.
The project was a gigantic success, and turned Passaris into a social entrepreneur widely recognised across Nairobi and the rest of the country.
The former runner-up in the Miss Kenya then turned to philanthropy and entered politics more than a decade ago.
She ran unsuccessfully for the post of Mayor of Nairobi but managed to pull in the public post of Woman’s representative in Nairobi county, starting her first term in August 2017.
Asked what has been her biggest achievement in politics so far, Passaris shared with City A.M. that “we noticed that the public hospitals were detaining patients, and bodies as they could not pay their bills and we caused a public outcry, so the president released almost all the patients.”
She stressed that she managed to force the government to put public money “to good use” by paying thousands of hospital bills and set patients free.
“So now it has become a big thing that hospitals cannot detain patients or bodies,” Passaris explained on the backseat of her car while crisscrossing Nairobi.
“Can I tell you what? I think I do not make enough.”Esther Passaris
Speaking of the use of public money, among many Kenyans there is the perception that those who hold public office are primarily interested in filling their own pockets, raising their salaries and handing themselves and their families exorbitant perks.
Passaris, however, won’t have any of it.
“Can I tell you what? I used to think the same, but now I think I do not make enough. Out of 100 messages in my inbox, 98 are asking for money.”
Sure, but Passaris has money, unlike the vast majority of Kenyans.
“True but Kenya is different, MPs in the UK don’t get asked for funeral bills, for medical bills, they don’t get asked to pay for diapers. We get asked for crazy things.”
“We would not even need those salaries if we were not asked to pay for all those expenses.”
While her car makes a sharp turn into the high-end neighbourhood of Westlands, Passaris makes sure she touches on a topic she seems fairly passionate about: the LGBT community in Nairobi, and across Kenya.
“It is going to take a long time for Africa to let them exist with rights, but right now it’s about empowerment. I am sick and tired of all those organisations talking about it, and have meetings but don’t do anything.”
Passaris stressed that economic empowerment is the way forward.
“Sometimes they cannot even get jobs because of their orientation, so you train them, encourage them to become entrepreneurs. For example, a restaurant that is well run, you give them the funds to grow.
“Kenyans are coming out but there is still a fairly amount of discrimination,” she sighed.
Finally, we look ahead and discuss the future, since it has been a long journey for Passaris, rising from social entrepreneur via philanthropy and a public marriage all the way to the political arena.
She makes it clear that she has her eye on the governorship of Nairobi.
“I want to do a second term [as Nairobi’s woman representative] and I will see what the governor of Nairobi does.”
“If he does not do well, if he does not achieve, yes I may go for it,” she concludes.