Census is the process of collecting, evaluating, analyzing, compiling and publishing demographic, economic and social information concerning the entire or part of a country’s population at a particular time. The process of gathering census information is known as enumeration. The data provides information on the age, sex, population distribution, the mortality trend, employment status among other critical information. The government then uses the data collected to make evidence-based planning for policy formulation and development. 

Every ten years, the census is conducted, enumerating all citizens and residents in the country and abroad. The 2019 census exercise was the 8th one to be conducted in the country since 1948 and it commenced on Saturday the 24th and ended on the 31st of August.  It was the first digitally recorded census in Kenya’s history, at a time when the country’s citizens are debating and formulating laws and practices around data privacy & protection. 

In a pre-enumeration exercise conducted in 2018, it was estimated that 1 enumerator was to serve a minimum of 100 households. The enumerators were also trained on how to use the kits prior to the commencement of the exercise. To avoid repetition, they marked houses that they had already visited with special codes.  

In the run-up to the census, the government informed the citizens that the process was to be malice free and effectively carried out, the data would be electronically recorded and everyone was free to answer questions at their own will. 

Citizens were informed that the enumerators would be wearing yellow light jackets to authenticate their work, along with a badge and a village or area representative. This prior communication was effective and assured the people of the good intentions of the process.

In the past, census exercises have been somewhat uneventful, factual activities. However, historically, Kenyan political leaders have used the results for their personal gain. The highlight of the 2009 census was Kenyans debating on the tribal question and why it was necessary. Later, the information was used to conjure up the concept of “Tyranny of numbers” that later greatly influenced the discussions in and around the 2013 elections.

The Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, in his statement, informed the public that an awareness campaign was going to take place to delineate the pertinent misconceptions and concerns the public had regarding the Census exercise. In the weeks preceding the 24th of August, media stations talked about the exercise, brochures were issued, and stickers could be seen in matatus and other public transportation means. The communication urged citizens to get up and be counted. 

Yet despite the seemingly straightforward communication, the 2019 census already had the makings of some drama due to the Huduma Namba registration exercise that happened a few months before it. Citizens were wary of the census, in part, because the prior exercise to issue them with a single identification document was done outside of the constitution i.e. with no Data Protection Bill in place. Instead, it was only after the exercise that a Huduma Bill was introduced and hurried public participation allowed.

The day before the census, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) government spokesman informed the public that the enumerators would request personal identification information including National ID, passport numbers and, unfavorably, one’s Huduma Namba enrollment status. 

Noting that a census is an exercise that seeks to collect anonymous data, the sudden and uninformed addition of personal identifiers coupled with geographical data (all citizens were to be home on the night of the 24th and 25th of August) it seemed as if the government was set on bypassing court orders barring them from having citizen specific data linked to Huduma Namba.

The initial government communication stated that false information would not be tolerated, which was controversial since they had no means of verifying the information unless they linked it up with information given at Huduma Namba registrations.

Citizens were given the impression that sharing of information was not mandatory, however, the first respondents to the census, especially on the 1st Saturday evening, were given no such option. Instead, the enumerators indicated that if one did not answer certain questions their count would be null and void. Citizens, took to social media to air their grievances, and at the tail end of the count, they were given the option to not answer certain questions namely one’s tribe, Huduma Namba status among others that brought discomfort.

A more transparent way of conducting the 2019 census would have included informing the public ahead of time about the request for personal identifying information, and not just pounce such intentions the day before. It would have allowed for public debate and/or preparation, instead of catching citizens off guard and giving them no option to refuse to answer questions. 

Similarly, the government should have collected views from the citizens sourcing their opinions on the best questions to ask such as access to healthcare, medical cover, type of transportation used, financial status among others. The missing questions would have given citizens confidence that the government was truly interested in bettering their lives. Instead, the census came across as a data hunt akin to that of Huduma Namba and reminiscence of the tribal count that happened in 2009. 

Kenyan citizens will one day come to know the true purpose of the 2019 census, for now, we await the undoctored numbers in a few weeks and hopefully, the data used will be of benefit not division of Kenyans.