Edwin Macharia '01

Edwin Macharia ’01 while visiting New York City. “I wouldn’t bet against Edwin on anything,” says the chairman of Bill Clinton’s HIV/AIDS Initiative.

Edwin Macharia '01 in Kenya

On the campaign trail in Kenya.

Online extra: See a photo gallery of Macharia campaigning in Kenya.

News update:

Edwin Macharia reports that in the final tally he came in third, behind a frontrunner who garnered a commanding lead and behind Murungaru, who managed only around 2,000 more votes than Macharia did. While disappointed, Macharia says he was encouraged by his strong showing in a crowded field of 14 candidates. For more details, contact magazine@amherst.edu.


By Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne ’01

Giving up the good life for politics is a tough choice. Doing it in one of the most corrupt nations on earth is a different matter altogether. Why is Edwin Macharia ’01 risking his life to take on the Kenyan political system?

On a Thursday evening in late May, 100 people gathered at a stunning Upper West Side brownstone for a fundraiser. In the first-floor drawing room, bankers, investment analysts, law students, aid workers and doctors munched on hors d’oeuvres and drank wine and sparkling water. Not an unusual scene for Central Park West, except that nearly half of those gathered were Kenyan. That was the first clue that something a little different was taking place. The second was that the man everyone was watching that night was a short, young Kenyan with a mischievous grin. “Hey. My name is Edwin Macharia, and I’m running for Parliament,” he said, standing halfway up a flight of stairs. A 29-year-old who graduated from Amherst in 2001, Macharia has returned home to Kenya to try to change his country’s future. But he needs money to do it, and for that he came to New York.

Dressed in a custom-made, blue, button-down shirt (with EMM monogrammed on the sleeve), black pants and round, gold-edged glasses that haven’t changed since college, Macharia expertly worked the room. People murmured about a similarity to Barack Obama, but President Bill Clinton is really the more apt comparison. Macharia rolled easily from serious discussions about development to lighter interactions, giving huge laughs after jokes that sometimes didn’t warrant them. By the looks on their faces, the guests in the audience were enamored. It is just too bad most of them cannot vote in Kenya. Thank heavens, then, for checkbooks and so few campaign finance laws. People positively glowed after conversations with him. One cannot be taught this kind of political skill—you are born with it, or you never have it at all. Edwin Macharia may be only 5-foot-5, but he owned that room.

Six days later, after two weeks, four states, six campaign events, one kissed baby and one wedding, he headed home to Kenya. He rested for two days in Nairobi and then returned to his constituency in Kieni, a rural area two and a half hours from the capital. The family farm, with no electricity or running water, was his campaign headquarters at the time. Now the headquarters is wherever the candidate finds himself. His campaign team consists of his mother, his brother and five others. Macharia spends his days finding places on the map that he hasn’t visited and going there to introduce himself. These are humble stops, not big rallies. He sits down with women’s groups, organizes soccer tournaments and helps build homes and bridges—simple deeds that change lives in Kieni. When he’s done for the day, he bumps his way over pot-holed roads back to the farm, or to wherever he’s staying that night, and responds to as many e-mails as he can on a limited battery and an Internet connection derived from his cell phone.

Glamorous fundraisers are certainly not the norm in Macharia’s life, and on some days, he wonders if his decision to run is a mistake, as threats to his security and to his family mount. He chose this life with care and deliberation, giving up what promised to be a safe, prosperous career in consulting and foundation work. He hopes to become one of the next leaders in Africa, but Kenyan politics are dirty. Can Edwin Macharia help his country while staying true to the idealistic values that have gotten him this far?

When he was 3 years old, Macharia spent a lot of time hiding from his mother. He’d sit in a corner, remove a treasured piece of charcoal from a secret place and practice writing on the floor or the wall. “He always wanted to know more,” says Nancy Macharia, Edwin’s mom. After finishing first in his province in the national primary school exams, he entered one of Kenya’s best schools, Alliance High School. He was a networker even then. “He was able to engage the older boys as people from the beginning—which was very unusual,” says James Mwangi, an Alliance classmate who remains one of Macharia’s closest friends. In addition to his studies, Macharia was involved in drama and French and served as a prefect. In a precursor to the David-and-Goliath contest in which he finds himself now, he even went out for the rugby team. (It didn’t go well, reports Alliance’s principal, Chris Khaemba.)

Following the advice and walking in the footsteps of Alliance alums before him, Macharia applied to college in the United States. The final choice was between Wesleyan University and Amherst. The deciding factor? $300. Amherst’s financial aid office offered him that much more per year than Wesleyan. While at Amherst, Macharia hosted a hip-hop show on the student radio station, reviewed African music for The Amherst Student and helped to organize Njabulo!, an annual celebration of African culture. He also served on the committee that organizes New Student Orientation. (After a series of mishaps involving a stolen ticket and a missed plane, Macharia, who had never traveled farther than Tanzania, arrived for his freshman year at Logan Airport in Boston a day late and totally alone. With only $200 in cash to his name and no clue how to get to Amherst, he finally made his way to the school late at night, with no idea what to do or where to go. His most enduring contribution to the orientation committee was organizing an airport pick-up for all international students.)

Macharia majored in biology, ultimately writing a thesis on cholera. In addition, he fulfilled pre-med requirements, having decided at a young age that he was going to be a doctor. That choice was influenced by his childhood in Kenya, where the value of a doctor in rural areas like Kieni is clear. However, while shadowing a doctor in Kenya for several weeks during one Amherst summer break, Macharia saw that health care troubles in the country were far beyond the capabilities of one doctor to fix. “I realized, Wow, he’s a great doctor, but there’s no medicine,” he says. Macharia came to believe that what countries like Kenya really needed was a way to manage the drugs and medical equipment that did exist, and a means to get more of those resources to the rural areas that needed them desperately. Consulting seemed a logical step.

On September 10, 2001, Macharia joined the McKinsey consulting firm in New York City. He stayed for a year and a half, until the post-9/11 economic downturn caught up with the firm, which had too little work for the people it had hired. With several months of pay and benefits but no need to report to work, Macharia could have spent time living aimlessly in New York. Instead, when he heard through a McKinsey partner that the Clinton Foundation, President Clinton’s fledgling philanthropic venture, was looking for staff, he jumped at the chance. The foundation offered him the option to work in either the Caribbean or Tanzania—and for Macharia there was really no choice at all. After five years away, he moved back to East Africa.

Initially, the foundation had little inkling that the 23-year-old would become as indispensable as he did. “I thought he was a personable young guy, bright, and would be helpful to us,” says Ira Magaziner, a former official in the Clinton administration and now chairman of the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative. “But I thought he’d be a research assistant doing fairly junior work. It quickly became clear that he was an incredible guy with a lot of drive.” Macharia ultimately became head of some of the Clinton Foundation’s premier projects in East Africa. In Tanzania, he helped to secure a $200-million Global Fund grant for HIV/AIDS care and treatment. He later became director of the Rural Initiative, a Foundation project that delivers health care to rural communities in more than 30 countries. He also opened the Clinton Foundation’s Kenya office. More recently, as part of the $100-million Clinton Hunter Development Initiative, he worked with the Rwandan government to support agricultural development. In Rwanda, he helped to order a record amount of fertilizer, which went to 20,000 farmers and the major cooperative movements in that country, leading to best-ever crop yields last year.

Edwin Macharia '01 in Manhattan

Macharia works the room at a fundraiser in Manhattan.

Around the time that Macharia joined the Clinton Foundation, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the organization’s mission and its almost-all-volunteer work force. The newspaper referred to Macharia only as a “Kenyan who cannot afford to volunteer his time.” These days, when the Financial Times needs a line to finish an article about Kenyan politics, it quotes Macharia by name. “I wouldn’t bet against Edwin on anything,” says Magaziner.

But Macharia’s life is not as charmed as it might seem. Like many Kenyans, he has suffered at the hands of a country that can be capriciously violent. In April 2002, thugs broke through the roof of his parents’ home and stole money, personal items and the car. One of the thieves, frustrated that Elias Macharia, Edwin’s father, refused to tell them where the stash of money was (there wasn’t one), took a panga, a kind of machete, and nearly severed Elias’s leg. Elias spent several weeks undergoing reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation, but he was recovering. The family thought the worst was over. Edwin, meanwhile, was racked with guilt. He was busy on a project at McKinsey and could not afford the plane ticket home. Eventually, a McKinsey partner donated his airline miles to Macharia, allowing for a surprise visit. It was the last time Macharia would see his father alive. Just a few weeks later, driving his wife to the bank, Elias pulled off to the side of the road and died. A blood clot had dislodged from the wound in his leg and traveled to his lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.

Macharia says he spent most of the funeral in a daze. One moment, however, did penetrate through the haze of grief: a visit from Member of Parliament Chris Murungaru, the man against whom Macharia is running today. Elias Macharia had gone to high school with the Parliamentarian, and Murungaru promised to leave no stone unturned in the hunt to figure out who had attacked his classmate.

The family would never hear from Murungaru again.

His father’s death reinforced Macharia’s commitment to Kenya. While at the Clinton Foundation, however, Macharia couldn’t shake the feeling that he was handing out Band-Aids for chest wounds. So many foreign aid interventions are isolated projects that cannot affect the major societal change that a government can. In the past decade or so, foreign governments and aid recipients have also begun to question the efficacy of the current foreign aid approach. What if, instead of donors offering Band-Aids, countries could focus more on fixing the wounds themselves?

Politics, he came to believe, might be the best way for one person to help. “If you make a policy, it touches and binds every single Kenyan and could, in one fell swoop, fundamentally transform our society,” he says. After looking for a campaign to work on, he began to wonder if he might be the candidate he was seeking. He was young at a time when, demographically, the youth would have a chance to take power; he had experience in making concrete changes; and he was an idealist with definite ideas about what the country needed. “All those things put together,” he says, “you begin to think, Why not?”

In a constituency so rural that a four-wheel-drive vehicle is a necessity for a campaign, it is difficult for a candidate to get his name out. Macharia doesn’t have the advantage of name recognition, unlike another Kenyan politician and Amherst alumnus, Uhuru Kenyatta ’85, the son of Kenya’s first post-colonial president, Jomo Kenyatta. Uhuru Kenyatta ran unsuccessfully for president in 2002. Macharia lacks a political lineage. He opted to run in his home district of Kieni, a rural area that lacks many of the building blocks of development: water, food, roads and health care. It is a district with far more structural problems than, say, Nairobi. Like many Kenyans, Macharia has a tie to the rural farm on which he grew up, so although he had residency in Nairobi, the issues of Kieni seemed the most pressing to him. “It’s home,” he says.

As if he were not struggling uphill already, Macharia is attempting to win without employing the usual Kenyan political practices. “The people who come up to you offering money are not people I even want to be seen with on the street,” he says. In addition to rejecting gifts with strings attached, he has vowed not to engage in the long-held practice of buying votes with gifts the day before an election. Instead, he has plowed campaign funds into a soccer tournament for 800 young people in his district; into building a bridge over a river for people who previously had to walk four hours to an adjacent bridge; and into finding new homes for more than 20 children suffering from a debilitating infestation of jiggers, a type of a flea. One might argue that this is vote-buying of another sort, but unlike giving a pound of sugar, each of Macharia’s actions has the potential to benefit the community long after the election is over and the sugar is gone.

Maintaining this kind of independence will likely mean losing votes, but Macharia is willing to take that risk. “If we’re talking about changing the game,” he says, “it can’t be changing the game by doing the same things everyone else is doing. There have to be fundamental differences in the way that they run a campaign and the way I run my campaign. So maybe that puts me in a straightjacket that means that I will not go out and buy voters. And the other guy will. And maybe that means I will lose.”

The other guy, Chris Murungaru, has held his seat in Parliament for the past decade and has amassed significant influence, money and connections. “This is a David-and-Goliath contest, metaphorically and physically,” Macharia says. Murungaru is reputed to be close with President Mwai Kibaki, who has led Kenya since 2002. Kibaki came into office on a wave of euphoria and optimism not seen since Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963. Kibaki promised access to education, economic improvements and a stiff opposition to corruption. He has largely failed on the latter point. His corruption czar, John Githongo, had the temerity to take his job seriously, and what he found did not reflect well on Kibaki’s government. (After several threats to his life, Githongo is now in exile in England.) In a scheme known as the Anglo-Leasing Scandal, government officials siphoned unknown millions out of the country’s treasury. Among those at the center of the scandal, Githongo alleged, was none other than Murungaru. Although he was ultimately kicked out of President Kibaki’s cabinet, Murungaru has never been formally charged with corruption—nor have the others allegedly involved in the scheme. In fact, many of them are contenders in this year’s parliamentary and presidential elections.

For Murungaru, the president’s support will likely help far more than allegations of corruption will hurt. Murungaru and Macharia are both of the Kikuyu ethnicity, as is President Kibaki. Issues of ethnicity dominate the political landscape in Kenya. “If a political leader associated with a certain ethnic group anoints a specific politician, it would be very tough to win against that candidate,” explains Job Ogonda, the Africa program director for Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization. Caroline Elkins, a professor of African studies at Harvard and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her book on Kenya, says that Macharia is “going to have a very hard time unseating” Murungaru. Corruption, she argues, rarely seems to cost anyone an election. Still, Macharia believes that in order for democracy to work, people need to have a real choice. It’s one they seem to want: in an April poll, two-thirds of Kenyans felt their member of parliament should not be re-elected.

Macharia has certainly generated enough interest and concern to experience some of the downsides of Kenyan politics. When he first told me that his major worry was security, I was dubious. “I hope I am not going to become a martyr,” he said. “I don’t want to qualify for that.” Then in March, just a few weeks after Macharia announced his campaign, thugs again attacked his family farm in Kieni. While difficult to prove the attack was politically motivated, it is hard to ignore the timing. His mother has since moved into a rented house in town, and Macharia keeps an erratic schedule since, as he reports, his car is routinely followed. “The days when people would regularly disappear are, we hope, gone,” says his friend James Mwangi. “Now, it’s one of your rivals arranging for you to have a car accident.”

Macharia also faces challenges more familiar to politicians in the United States. Right now, his savings account is the primary financier of his campaign—he has spent $80,000 of his own money. His trip to the United States in the spring garnered commitments of about $15,000. “Fundraising is all the time, and it’s probably the hardest thing for me to do,” he says.

Aside from fundraising woes, what’s a campaign without a good personal issue or two? Macharia’s biggest weakness as a candidate is one familiar to any single adult who has a mother: he is not married. Older Kenyans wonder how he could possibly manage a constituency if he has yet to manage a family. This complaint speaks to his age also, although Macharia usually dispels that concern by talking about his work with the Clinton Foundation. “Age is only a problem if you have no experience,” he tells voters. He has more trouble, however, talking himself out of the marriage issue. Before the election, his mother would have headed the line of elders asking why Macharia was not married. Now, on the campaign trail, his mother leads the defense. She tells voters that it is God who gives a man a wife, reminding them that her son traveled all over the world and met a lot of women, but has come back to Kenya to marry a lady from there. (There is no candidate for that position currently, so this last bit is a piece of motherly optimism. It plays well.)

Watching Edwin Macharia dominate a room of entrepreneurial young Kenyans and hardened American executives, it is hard not to wonder if Parliament is merely a first step. “I work with President Clinton,” says Magaziner, a friend of Clinton’s since Oxford and Macharia’s former boss, “who is smart and can hold his own among policy experts, but he is great with people and gets along with everyone . . . . Edwin is the same.” More than that, though, Macharia brings intelligence and focus to Kenya’s challenges, viewing them through a lens of economic development. To him, improved roads, better agricultural markets and access to health care and education are the best means of improving the economic position of his constituents. Farmers in Kieni, for example, face a severe difficulty in getting their crops to market. They are at the mercy of several middlemen transporters as the crops go from bicycle to pick-up truck to small cargo truck to large cargo truck and finally to market. Macharia’s solution—to get trucks in the hands of the farmers—is not necessarily a new idea, but it has yet to happen. If it does, that small change could yield large results.

Friends and co-workers have little doubt that this is just the beginning. When I asked Mwangi, Macharia’s closest friend, if he thought Macharia would someday run for president of Kenya, he replied, without a missing a beat, “He’d better. Other­wise we are wasting a lot of time!” Khaemba, Macharia’s former principal, voiced a similar thought about the possibility of a presidential run: “I think that is his undeclared ambition.”

But first, Macharia must get to Parliament. He must also navigate the temptations of power along the way. In his final year at Alliance High School, he directed and acted in a controversial play that Mwangi wrote. Under the guise of a play about marriage, The Dirtiest Game explores the disastrous consequences of corruption in politics. The main character, Jabali, is an idealist turned politician who accepts a deal in exchange for money and political power. He is double-crossed and publicly outed for his involvement in the deal. He saves his marriage but suffers a very public fall from grace. (After arriving at the nationals for drama, inciting a riot at a Kenyan university and receiving standing ovations after each performance, the play was banned by the government. The Dirtiest Game never ranked in competition, and, in a terrifying ordeal, the police questioned Macharia and Mwangi.)

“The play was a rather cynical look at political saviors,” Mwangi says, “but it also underlined that no one really thinks of themselves as the bad guy, but that the pragmatic compromises can really pile up.” Macharia will have to be vigilant about not falling prey to small capitulations. Corruption rarely begins with grandly named schemes. Rather, it starts with a series of minor compromises, small bows to the exigencies of reality. As Mwangi’s play explains, these capitulations add up, as do the number of other politicians with whom they are made. Favors are owed; logs are kept. This is the kind of corruption Macharia will have to watch out for—the kind liable to strike a young politician who alternates between fits of youthful idealism and weary pragmatism. Macharia promotes pragmatism as a virtue—and it is. But it is also something to be wary of.

It would be foolhardy to imagine that Macharia will be able to maintain in future races the kind of independence he has so relentlessly pursued in this campaign. Running for office in Kenya requires either vast independent wealth or the ability to raise large sums from outside the country—or the acceptance of money, with strings attached, from those Macharia has so far disdained. But are politics in Kenya really so different from in the United States? Whether in Kenya or in America, political donations carry the whiff of influence. If politics requires money, and money begets influence, then it comes down to the politician to remember why he got involved in the first place. Edwin Macharia is not a man who forgets; neither are the people who support him.

I asked him one day what his aims are. “Change the world,” he replied, without a hint of hesitation. While it seems unlikely, though not impossible, for Macharia to win this year, it is clear that his quest will not end with the elections on Dec. 27. The same cast of characters has populated Kenyan politics since independence, but younger Kenyans are hopeful that 2012 will spell the end of the older generation’s hold on power. Provided he wins this election and abides by the terms of the Kenyan constitution, President Kibaki will be unable to run again, which could diminish the influence of the politicians allied with him. Every young Kenyan I interviewed for this piece spoke of 2012 as “the year”—the time when political power would come to rest in the hands of a new generation. (Youth make up nearly 50 percent of the Kenyan population.) Even if Macharia loses this election, he can imagine nothing that would keep him from running again in 2012. “I guess I was born without fear,” he says. “And Amherst taught me very early that fear doesn’t help.” Not when the goal is changing the world.

If Macharia does lose, Mwangi hopes that he will stay in Kenya and open a global development consulting firm. Or he might return to the Clinton Foundation, which granted him a year’s leave to run for office. “Let me say this,” says Magaziner, of the Clinton Foundation: “we want to see him win, but we wouldn’t be terribly sad if he lost and came back to us.”

For now, though, Macharia remains focused on the last days of the campaign. He celebrated his birthday with 175 orphans at a Kieni school. He marked his father’s death at a five-year anniversary mass. In November, he appeared on Kenyan television on a panel with several cabinet members. He continues to straddle two worlds—Kenya and the West—but Kenya is home. His real aim, perhaps, is a little smaller than his stated goal of changing the world. It’s to change Kenya for the better, even if he goes bankrupt, gets hurt or loses a little of the idealism that brought him home in the first place.

Online Extra: See a photo gallery of Macharia campaigning in Kenya.

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne ’01 lived and studied in Kenya while she was an Amherst student. In 2006, with funding from the Gates Foundation, she spent five weeks reporting in Uganda as an International Reporting Fellow through the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She has written for The Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Magazine and The New Republic Online.

Photos: Radhika Chalasani (in New York) and courtesy of Edwin Macharia '01 (in Kenya)