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Helicopters and high stakes: How to campaign like a Kenyan

Posted August 4

A helicopter prepares to leave, blades spinning. A man emerges from the crowd and at the exact moment of takeoff, jumps onto the landing skis and dangles precariously under the chopper's belly as it ascends. The crowd below goes wild.

But this isn't a movie. This is a political rally in Kenya.

Two parties may be leading the polls in the lead-up to Kenya's August 8 election, but it's the helicopters carrying them around that have stolen the show.

In what has been branded by some as "the chopper election," helicopters adorned with the faces and logos of candidates have criss-crossed the country, helping make this year's race one of the most competitive and expensive elections in Kenya's history.

More are flying in Kenyan skies than ever before. A record 86 choppers have been registered during this campaign season -- more than double the number registered last time round.

It may appear frivolous to outsiders but helicopters offer an efficient opportunity for those chasing votes. There's the added showmanship and flair that comes with descending from the clouds to roaring supporters below but they also helps candidates cover vast distances quickly and dodge Kenya's poor roads.

But this flair doesn't come cheap. Each helicopter costs around $3,000 an hour to rent. In comparison, the average income in Kenya is $1,380 a year, according to the World Bank.

In the rural town of Suswa, in Kenya's Masai country, several hundred people cast their eyes to the sky as helicopters circle above, kicking up dust on the crowd.

Five helicopters gently drop to the ground and within minutes teenage girls are passing their phones around to get selfies alongside the chopper.

"It's not common," says local resident Dansen Radi. "It's not something normally here so we're very happy to see it coming."

Related: How Kenyans are using tech to stop election fraud

'No more James Bond'

As spectacular as it is to see a politician swoop into town in a chopper, the trend has its downsides too.

The crowd cheers as the man clings on treacherously to the helicopter's landing gear, but for the pilot he's an unwelcome passenger.

It's a move increasingly attempted across the country, with one "James Bond" chopper-grabber telling CNN that he hung on because others had been given something and he'd missed out.

It has led to Kenya's Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) -- the body in charge of regulating choppers in the country -- to issue a public service announcement to discourage what they've labeled "James Bond" maneuvers.

Addressing voters directly to camera in a bright office setting, KCAA's director-general Gilbert Kibe says "You've all noted it's campaign time. Things are getting hot. Can you imagine the chaos that will be happening during this campaign period with politicians flying everywhere? It will be like bees in the sky."

Related: Will Kenya's youth swing the vote?

Kibe continues with a caution: "We shall not accept to see ever again a James Bond hanging on to the skid of a helicopter (the craft's landing gear)."

Back at the rally in Suswa, the metal birds lift off one by one.

And as the crowds wave the politicians away, it appears they are heeding the government's warning because beneath the departing choppers, there doesn't appear to be any sign of a James Bond -- for now.

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