Een van de jongens / VenfilmDir. Jeroen van Velzen
It is a well known fact that student leadership in Kenyan universities and other institutions of higher learning has always been inextricably linked to the external influences of political parties or movements holding sway over the country. Successful candidates for leadership often employ the same dirty campaign tactics of appealing to political/ethnic affiliations and bribery to secure positions.
How about student leadership much lower in the education system? How do students in primary and secondary schools handle a process that allows them to democratically select their representatives? These are the questions A Goat for a Vote, Jeroen van Velzen’s 2014 documentary film, seeks to explore.
A Goat for a Vote revolves around the 2013 election of the school president (head boy/girl) at Majaoni Secondary School, a mixed day school on the seaward end of Kilifi County. The film immediately introduces three candidates for the position as its central characters, highlighting their motivations and methods as they strategise and campaign.
Harry is the quintessential ‘hustler’ from a low income household who views leadership as a stepping stone for lifting his family out of poverty. Magdalene hopes to subvert the prevailing perception that girls cannot occupy the topmost student leadership position at the school. Harry and Magdalene face the difficult challenge of competing against Said, the popular, confident and charming drill sergeant of the school’s boy scouts with good looks to match.
The three candidates set out to campaign, each with their own strategy for accumulating support among the student body. Harry invests considerable resources in ‘buying’ votes by showering the students with gifts, without much thought on how he would demonstrate his usefulness as a president in the long term. Magdalene opts to concentrate on convincing the girls to vote for her as a united block, despite the wise skepticism of her grandmother. Said, on the other hand, runs a well-oiled and well-funded campaign full of fanfare, complete with fancy posters and a catchy campaign song.
By the time the votes are cast and the winner of the election is announced at the end of the film, the process has developed into a microcosm of Kenya’s general elections. Those with more financial resources have an upper hand, voter bribery is normalized and women have to work much harder to prove their suitability for leadership merely because of their gender. As with everything else, our children’s perception of democracy and leadership is informed by the conduct of adults in those spaces.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The charm of A Goat for a Vote is the simplicity in which it handles its themes. The setting of Kilifi county provides a brief but wonderful glimpse of how grassroots politics plays out much farther from our cities. More importantly, the film lets the students do the talking and the doing, silently bringing out the profound consequences of what seems to be just another ordinary moment in their lives.