Due to being overwhelmed by a wave of emails and other things, this last post arrives late, from Rome..
Hakuna Matoke: Day 6 to 8 of the Learning Route and its end in Nairobi
After nearly a week together, much friendly teasing was going on between participants, especially of the Ugandans and their love of matoke, the plantain mash that is an essential part of every lunch and every dinner – and those of us not coming from Uganda weren’t missing this too much as we crossed into Kenya. Another noteworthy moment of the trip was our drive through the Rift Valley, I saw pink flamingos from afar and zebras just on the side of the road!
Day 6 we continued on relatively early in the morning to go to Gatundu South district to visit Gatundu Mwirutiri Women’s Initiative. Again, we were welcomed with a singing, dancing, and a round of hugs – something to introduce to meetings in Rome, too, maybe, as it really lightens up the mood! We were led into the courtyard of a house, where a tent had been built to shelter us from the sun. Just behind us, there were some cows, mooing, as well as sheep and chicken. We started the meeting by presenting ourselves, first our hosts, who also sang a song they had specifically come up with that affirmed a woman’s rights, including the right to vote and the right to land.
The Gatundu Mwurituri Women Initiative, or GMWI, is working specifically to protect these rights, by forming watchdog groups at the community level that any woman chased away by her in-laws after the death of her husband can appeal to for help in claiming her inheritance rights. The watchdog groups include members form the community, elders, paralegals, male and female, some of whom had come to share lessons from their work. One man in particular impressed all of us, starting from his introduction: “I am Joseph and I am a grassroots woman.” He experienced injustice against women in his family and decided to do something to fight for equal rights – and that he considers himself as a grassroots woman for that reason. Another male watchdog member present later referred to the reason for his participation in the group as the “grabiosis”, the greed that leads men to grabbing land from women and which he considers to be at the root of a lot of the family disputes over land that occur in the community.
The watchdog groups, which are supported by GROOTS Kenya with training and some funding, are run on a volunteer basis, and it was evident that the drive and dedication of its members was a key factor for their successful resolution of disputes in the community. In addition to the watchdog groups, GMWI also works on HIV/AIDS awareness, encouraging testing so that people are aware of their HIV status and can seek treatment if they have already been infected. GMWI has a group of orphans that meet regularly to help each other rebuild their lives after the death of their parents, including through revolving funds to help them set up small farming and business activities to generate income. One of the girls from the group gave a talk on HIV/AIDS, something which she does regularly to inform other children and youth in the community to inform them about how to prevent infection. She also spoke about the practise of wife-inheritance, i.e. the widow being wed off to another man from her late husbands family so as to “cleanse” her, and which has led to some of the highest infection rates in Kenya in the provinces were this practise is still common.
Following a lunch rice and stew and the sweetest mangos, the programme continued with a role play to tell the story of a family devastated by HIV/AIDS – one of the actors in this role play was Peter, who later took us to his inherited piece of land that he claimed with the help of the watchdog groups after the death of father and mother. His paternal uncle had grabbed the land from him, but thanks to the intervention of the watchdogs, which work in close collaboration with the local administration to make sure that the law is respected, Peter and his sister now have a title to the land in both their names. A key accomplishment of the watchdog groups is their focus on reconciliation of families even in such difficult situations, but also that those who seek help are empowered to stand up for their rights.
However impressive the work of the watchdog groups, however, it is evident that in addition to the problem of property grabbing from widows and orphans, there is a general issue of the perspectives young people have to stay in the rural areas and earn a living from agriculture. The area which we had come to is covered by tea plantations, with farmers producing for a market controlled by the Kenya Tea Board and middlemen buying their harvest for further processing. Peter told us that he was planning to continue his studies, provided he could come up with the money, to become an accountant. He still wants to use the land, but he wants to develop it and will probably, should things go according to his plan, not be farming full time. We all went away from this visit to Peter’s thinking about the pull of the cities, the opportunities opened up by education, and couldn’t help wondering whether staying in the rural areas was feasible or a romantic illusion.
This visit almost eerily prepared us for the next day, when we went to Kayole, a semi-slum (meaning most structures are permanent) on the outskirts of Nairobi, to visit the Young Widows Advancement Programme (YWAP). We were welcomed at the local administration, which doubles up as a community centre, and a dance class was in full swing in the courtyard. YWAP members introduced their stories, moving accounts of women that were infected with HIV/AIDS by their late husbands, who were left in a difficult and previously rarely occurring position of being a young widow, with small children, unable to defend herself against in-laws that wanted property back for their family, as they think that these young women are probably going to remarry, thus taking family property away into another man’s family. In this situation, the women have to fend for themselves, try to earn an income to maintain their children, facing social stigma as widows, thought to be outcasts until remarried. YWAP tries to provide support, immediate with small amounts of money and some space in their offices where women can stay for short periods of time, as well as with information on legal rights to inheritance, including to land in the rural areas. At the same time, they help the women face a live with HIV/AIDS and the fear of death, for instance, through the preparation of memory books about their family history, which they put together for their kids, should they be orphaned at a young age.
In Kayole, we also had a chance to listen to some stories in more depth. We went for house visits in small groups of 4 people, with our host walking to where she lives with us, a building with small bedsits, or rather, rooms, as there are really no facilities to speak of, with a communal toilet outside and the cooking done on a small gas cooker. Our host, Lilian W., is a mother of two who lost her husband, who was a matatu (minibus) driver, and has had to move to Kayole since she could not afford to keep the place they were living in as a couple. Since the death of her husband, Lilian has worked in a vegetable packing factory as a casual labourer, with no social security or anything (no unions allowed, obviously), working night shifts so that she can be back in the morning to take her children to school. Despite this, she has trained to become a paralegal to advise other women, and she told us that she is doing all she can to give her children a good education, so that one day her daughter can be a lawyer. Think of that next time you buy those neatly packed green beans from Kenya!
After the day in Kayole it took us almost two hours to get back to the guesthouse in Nairobi, even though the distance is only about 35 km, the infernal traffic that everyone who lives in Nairobi has to deal with every morning and every evening as they are going to work, be it in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive favoured by expats and rich Kenyans or a crowded matatu that is the only option for the majority of the population, though the latter at least have the liberty to overtake some of the traffic on the pavements and get to their destination just that little bit faster. Day 7 of the learning route was hot, dusty, and tiring, a week of impressions that gave us a lot to think about and ended on a note that was very relevant considering the increasing migration from rural to urban areas.
Day 8: the last day of the Route, a day of closure, as much as that is possible after a week of travelling, listening, discussing, sharing, arguing, singing, being welcomed in diverse places and languages, enjoying hospitality everywhere we went. Before starting, Ariel suggested some time off to go to the Masai market, so participants went and we took some time to discuss how to structure the last few hours. Once everyone was back with their purchases, we worked on the innovation plans, meant to help everyone think through what they learnt, what they liked, and what they think could improve their own work once they get home. It was a quieter day than most as people went off to sit in their project teams discussing what they want to take home. In the late afternoon, everyone presented a short summary of their innovation plans for feedback, and after writing up the hard copies, gave their feedback on the Learning Route itself by filling out the evaluation questionnaire and writing a letter to a future ‘rutero’, i.e. participant in a Learning Route, to tell them about the experience.
On our final evening, at our celebratory dinner, certificates were handed out and many jokes were made, with even those that were slightly at odds with each other during the trip sharing a laugh. We also had a little gift for our massage therapist, Lilia from Madagascar, who contributed a lot to keeping participants happy! After we sang the song composed by Wilkister Oduor from Kenya Land Alliance (“I’m going home to innovate”), there were a lot of hugs and e-mails exchanged, and it seems to me that this was the best result of the Route, it created a lot of contacts, based not only on a common interest in promoting women’s rights to land, but also based on an experience together that all of us will remember for a long time to come.