Shaped by the Slums (1998)
Life is never still in Kibera — not early in the morning, not late into the night. Just outside of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Kibera stretches across 2.5 square kilometers of hard earth and its 1 million residents give the ground not one moment of peace. Back and forth. In and out. Somehow, the ground is steadfast and still there, never conceding to the relentless pounding of 2 million feet. In Kibera, moving is the only way to keep from being swallowed by slum life.
Pieces of stubborn trash (soiled napkins, soda bottle labels, polythene bags — things that refuse to degrade) create an unlikely mosaic when you look down. Look up and you’ll see utility poles pierce the sky. A network of overhead powerlines casts a net over the informal settlement. Find your way to one of the labyrinthine alleyways and duck under clotheslines with garments flailing in the wind like prayer flags. Stretch out your arms and within inches of your wingspan, you’ll pinpoint the space between the across-the-way neighbors. A proliferation of mud-wall houses with corrugated tin roofs choke the land. Perhaps that is why residents say that Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world, is always congested.
Some say Kibera is the face of Kenya. Although the settlement was originally settled by the Nubian people from the Kenyan/Sudanese border, Kibera has accepted Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and someone from almost all of Kenya’s more than 42 ethnic tribes into its family. Kenyans can look to Kibera to see how people from different tribes coexist. Houses are so close that only mud-wall partitions separate lives. Walls are not completely closed off so it’s not unusual for one man to smell what his neighbor’s wife is cooking for dinner. Maybe it’s more fair to say that Kibera is the heartbeat rather than the face. As Kibera goes, so too does the rest of Kenya.
There is a universal truth for everybody who lives in Kibera: Life is hard. This maxim separates the residents into two types — people who have resigned under the crush of slum life or people who are determined to do better and move forward, no matter how small the day-to-day progress is. Jane Anyango is like any other slum woman, solving the problems that plague every Kibera mother on a daily basis. First, it’s How do I keep my children in school? And secondly and most pressing, How do I get money to feed them?
Kibera women are incredibly resourceful. If there is a pan and a bit of oil, then a woman can fry mandazi, Kenya’s version of a donut. A little bit of charcoal means she can roast some maize to sell to passersby. Kibera women come up with 10 ideas a minute, a trait that has woven its way into Jane’s DNA as if she were born here, as if her mother and grandmother were born here. As if she had sprung from the hard Kibera land herself.
Once, Jane had only 50 shillings (equivalent to half of a U.S. dollar) and a bare kitchen. Her two young children were in school. She didn’t have much time before they came home. She could go into the city center and ask her cousin for a loan. But transportation would cost 20 shillings, and what if she couldn’t find him? The 20-shilling ride home would leave her with just 10 shillings. Instead, she went to the open-air market and bought a large cotton dress and a bit of elastic. At home, she already had a small sewing machine (what she bought with the prize money she won from a Coca-Cola contest) and thread. From that dress, she made eight pairs of panties. She went out to the street outside her home and convinced people to buy her goods. She sold each one for 20 shillings. Her pockets grew by 20, 40, 60, 80 shillings. Over the course of an hour, she sold them all. She had made 160 shillings out of her 50 — no small feat. But she had no time to admire her ingenuity. She had to go home and make dinner.
Jane is like other slum women in some ways. She wants to get out of Kibera. She wants to one day buy her own land back in the village and build a house. She wants better for her children. She wants to know what it feels like to be secure, to know that her next meal won’t depend on how much money she makes that day. But she is also no ordinary slum woman, because she will one day empower young girls, mobilize women for peace, get on a plane, talk at conferences, dialogue with government figures, conduct interviews with media outlets, and send girls to school. She will do it all in the hopes that she can leave the slum better than she found it.
Narrative title photo: Jane and her organization, Polycon Development Project, collaborating with the network, Wamama Tunauwezo (Women Have the Power). (Photo provided by Jane Anyango)
Section title photo: Children living in the Kibera slums, playing alongside an open sewer (Wikipedia)
The Trigger (2007)
Jane feels her life in Kibera has morphed into a Sisyphean affair. No matter how far she rolls that boulder up the hill, it always manages to roll back down by the end of the day. Her children are often on the cusp of going hungry, something she cannot accept. She is determined to outwit this threat. She will never submit to it. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t notice the crescendoing strife surrounding the national elections. Small ruptures are happening all over the country, Kibera included.
General elections take place on December 27, 2007. It is a close race between incumbent Mwai Kibaki and the Orange Democratic Movement candidate Raila Odinga, and constituents are feeling suspicious of the tallying process. When word gets out that Kibaki wins by about 230,000 votes, people are incensed. Whatever was lurking under the surface all across Kenya — ethnic tensions, land disagreements, lack of opportunities — comes to the surface with a momentous surge. People are not going to be quiet anymore.
Men fill the streets. Usually in Kenya, protesting and demonstrating are something men do. They sing songs. They recite chants in unison. They carry signs and tree branches. Maybe this could have been just any other protest, when people cry out and then are ignored. So often, it feels like corrupt governments just bulldoze their constituents with no regard. But Kibaki’s hasty swearing-in ceremony, which happens right after final results are announced, gives the already agitated people a reason to believe the election was rigged. That’s all it takes. All hell breaks loose.
Now, Jane is seeing camouflaged police officers march through Kibera with eager guns and poised shields. Young boys in Kibera have gotten together and uprooted a section of the railway that winds its way through their slum — they want to block the policemen’s avenue of getting to Kibera and stop cargo from getting to Kibaki. The police officers are looking for the boys. Throughout various pockets of Kibera, police are throwing teargas into homes, firing live bullets.
But some parts of Kibera ignore the violence as if it will blow over soon. Maureen, an orphaned 15-year-old girl who has just won the pride of her aunt for getting good marks on her KCPE (Kenya Certificate for Primary Exams) is cooking vegetables in her aunt’s kitchen.
“Auntie, there is no more salt for the vegetables,” she says.
“Here’s 10 shillings. Run out to the market,” her aunt calls back.
Maureen never makes it to the market. She is hit by a stray bullet. Her body collapses alongside another innocent victim. Maybe he was going to the market for some salt, too?
On the news the next day, Jane sees these words splashed across the screen of her small television set: 15-year-old killed. Maureen’s hair is slicked back; the only obstruction on her face are big swaths of dirt smudges. Jane recognizes the girl, pools of blood seeping from under her like a rose in rapid bloom.
Oh, God. Jane whispers to herself. She is one of my girls.
Not long ago, Jane began an organization called Polycom Development Project to empower girls in Kibera. Maureen’s aunt had approached Jane about helping Maureen with school fees. Getting good marks on her KCPE meant that she was heading to Form 1 (high school). Her death hits Jane hard. She is grief-stricken. The same questions and thoughts flip through her head.
Why this child? She was innocent.
She didn’t even have a vote or political affiliation.
How will she get home to her village?
Oh, God, how will she be buried?
This is what is looping through Jane’s mind when Muhonja approaches her.
“Jane, you must pay for this phone!” Muhonja demands. “It was stolen when he was at your house. How are you going to pay?”
Jane takes a moment to respond. She looks at Muhonja with wet eyes. She knows what Muhonja is talking about. Her son had brought his father’s mobile phone with him when he came to play with Jane’s son. Kids don’t have much space to play. They set their things down and played soccer. Someone must have had his or her eye on the phone. That’s when it was stolen.
“It was 7,000 shillings,” Muhonja says. “How will you pay me back?” Muhonja is insistent; her husband back home wants to know the answer.
Jane composes herself and says in the most calm voice she can conjure: “You’re worrying about a phone and somebody else is worried about a child.” Reluctant tears make their way down Jane’s face.
Muhonja leaves but comes back. She has never seen Jane like that.
“What is it?” Muhonja asks. “Is there any way I can help?
Muhonja’s kindness takes the wind out of Jane. Sadness is not such an uncommon thing in the slums. People cry and people move on. Muhonja isn’t even from Jane’s Luo tribe. But here she is, wanting to help. Wanting to make things better.
“What is happening in Kibera is wrong. Everybody is talking about Kibera. Kibera is in the global news and nothing positive,” Jane says. “The police are killing us. Why can’t we tell the world that we are tired?”
“If you try that, you are going to get beaten up,” Muhonja says.
“Let the police beat me. I don’t mind,” Jane says. “I want the world to know that women in Kibera are tired and trying to bring peace.”
“But it won’t matter. What will it change?”
“Let’s just try to do something. We may bring a difference. Let’s protest.”
“We can’t just go out the two of us.”
“Let’s talk to people.”
So Jane and Muhonja set out in opposite directions.
Jane has a secretarial and photocopying shop that is always on the cusp of going out of business. As it turns out, not many people in Kibera need photocopying. But the location of her shop places her right in the middle of everything. For this reason, Jane is always the first to know whatever happens in Kibera. From the shop near the law court, Muhonja goes east and Jane goes west toward the main road. They agree to meet at the local administration office.
Jane and Muhonja walk two halves of a circle. Each woman has 15 to 20 mothers behind her. What is more powerful than an army of mothers? The women have their arms around each other. Some are crying. Some are wailing. They make noise and as they walk through the slum, people take notice. More women join. Some think, A group of women have gathered and there’s nobody attacking them. Let’s join, too! Some women drop laundry, stop hanging clothes, walk out of the house with no shoes. After an hour, Jane and Muhonja meet again, and their collection has swelled to 200 women.
The army of grieving and fed-up women walk past the fence that surrounds the administration building. They find an open space on the district officers’ compound. District officers and other Kenyan authorities step outside their offices to see what is going on. When their eyes fall on Jane, she speaks up.
The women are gathered on one side — some standing, some sitting. There is a small stone. Jane steps on top of it and addresses the authorities, who are caught off guard by the swarm of women.
“We are tired. We want peace. We are starving. We are being killed. We are appealing to Mama Lucy Kibaki and Mama Ida Odinga, the wives to the president and prime minister. Our children in the slums are just as precious to us as your children are to you. They need peace. They need to be safe. They need to eat. We lost a child yesterday and we are tired.”
A district officer, Kepha Marubi, responds: “We’ve heard your voices and we hope everything will be OK. We are also tired. Thank you for coming out.”
The exchange lasts for around 10 minutes. It seems so anti-climatic. Jane doesn’t want to just turn around and head back home. Something beautiful has just happened. Women from all different tribes came together to have a voice. To demand to be heard. It’s Kibera’s biggest paradox that the ones who hold up Kibera are also the first to be trampled on. Kibera women are strong but silent.
Even though the swarm of women was recognized, Jane didn’t feel it was enough. They have lost so much. Jane tells them not to leave yet. All the women gather around an acacia tree in the kiwanja, an open space. It is soon called the “Peace Tree.” Jane asks what they want to do. One woman speaks up. Then another. Then another. Jane looks around and sees the faces of the Nubian, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, and Kamba. The women don’t yet know what they’ll do or when they’ll do it. All they know is that it is just the beginning. They don’t have to grieve in silence anymore. They have each other. And they have been heard.
Section title photo: Former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki alongside former United States President George W. Bush (Wikipedia)
The Calling (2003)
Jane is eight-months pregnant with her fourth and final baby. Mosh and Claire are 12 and 10. Trizer is a curious 3-year-old girl. With the daily responsibilities of her secretarial and photocopying shop, Jane could use some help. So she does something not so uncommon in Kibera — she brings a young girl from the village to help her take care of her kids. Many village girls long for a chance to come to the city so they become house girls. Jane arranges for Esther, the 11-year-old niece of an acquaintance, to come stay with her. Jane’s feet have already swollen to the size of grapefruits. Washing clothes, cleaning dishes, fetching water — Jane could put the girl to so much use.
Esther helps carry the burden of all the domestic duties. Jane learns about the girl’s life in the village, how she is the youngest in her family and how her household is now led by her oldest sister ever since their parents died. Being the youngest, Esther was often passed around from relative to relative. Most girls in Esther’s predicament end up in a similar situation and find their own ways to Kibera or another part of the capital city. Sometimes, the new families take advantage of their house girls and beat them. This is not the case in Jane’s house. Jane has grown to love Esther like her own.
One day, Jane notices a peculiar smell while doing laundry. She takes the soapy clothes with her right hand and scrubs it against the flat part of her left wrist. She scrubs and scrubs until it seems the skin on her wrist might disintegrate. But she can’t get rid of the urine scent. Could it be Trizer? Maybe she is wetting herself again? No, she is 3 and has been potty-trained for a year now. Besides, this is the pile of clothes from the big kids and the grown-ups. Trizer’s pile of dirty clothes is separate.
On another night, Jane collapses into bed after a long day on her feet. She is watching a program on her 12-inch television set. She tiredly rubs the globe of her belly.
“Esther, it is getting late. You started washing those dishes earlier this afternoon and it is still not done,” Jane says. “It is looking to other people that I am overworking you but I’m not. Please finish washing those dishes.”
The moment before Jane transports into a blissful sleep, she hears someone banging on the door. Jane jumps up and someone from beyond her window says, “Jane, can you come out? I need to tell you something.”
Jane opens the door to a horde of curious people. An ominous hum is building. People are whispering. Oh, God, Jane thinks to herself. She knows how a small commotion can attract the aggressive nosiness of neighbors.
“What is it?” Jane says to her neighbor.
At this point, more children are spilling out onto the pathways. The humming becomes more palpable.
“There, there she is,” the neighbor says, pointing inside Jane’s house at Esther. He drags her out. Esther is rushed off alongside a man old enough to be her father. Before Jane knows it, the man and Esther are taken to the police station. The neighbors are whispering about something that is unfathomable to Jane: the man, a 39-year-old security guard down at the law court by Jane’s shop, was having sex with Esther. This can’t be possible, not under Jane’s nose. Not under her roof. In fact, Jane doesn’t say much when Esther comes back from the police department. The whole house goes to sleep as if nothing happened.
But all that night, Jane can’t sleep well. When the moon comes out, the dust from the day settles. A white-gray haze lifts. The air is so stagnant in Kibera that even the wind struggles to find its way through. And yet, it is more than this stifling weather keeping Jane awake. She waits until morning to confront Esther. She wants Esther to explain herself.
Surely, Jane thinks, this is all a misunderstanding. There’s no way Esther would let someone take advantage of her like that. But when Jane approaches her, Esther replies plainly, “Yes, I went with him.” Jane is taken off-guard by her dispassionate response, as if she’s referring to a load of laundry or a pile of dishes.
“Esther, how?” Jane says. “How can you just lie down on the grass with that man?”
Then, the realization comes to her like a surging wave. It hits her hard and leaves her cold. It was Esther’s clothes in the laundry that smelled. It makes sense now. In Kibera, there’s a row of pit latrines. But because it costs money to use, the men usually urinate at a fence just behind the toilets. It’s so easy for men. They can just turn their backs and scrounge up a bit of privacy. Jane imagines Esther jumping over the fence and meeting up with the security guard. Jane imagines her lying down on the urine-soaked grass. That’s why the neighbors went to Jane’s house — they caught Esther and the security guard in the act. Jane is disgusted and angry. Esther doesn’t understand why. This was not Esther’s first partner. And she had slept with men for less.
“He was nice to me,” Esther tells Jane. “I don’t see what’s wrong with that.”
Jane is in a dilemma now. Does she want to air her dirty laundry and press charges? That will only invite more whispers and unwanted attention from her neighbors. Jane decides this is something she can handle within her home. Jane tells Esther she doesn’t have to sleep with or even see the security guard again if she doesn’t want to. Jane sees that Esther feels bad but she still doesn’t understand the severity of her actions. Jane decides to leave it alone. Until she walks past the law court and the security guard. He’s dressed in his pressed uniform, twirling his keys.
“There are stupid people here,” he yells out to no one in particular. But of course, Jane knows it’s directed at her. “They go and call a child to come and say I tried to sleep with her. Stupid people!”
Jane was willing to let it go, but the security guard thinks he can get away with his crime. Jane can’t let this happen. Anger rises in her. Who does he think he is? Jane thinks to herself. He’s taken advantage of Esther and now he thinks he’s above the law? Jane goes straight to the police station.
There is a protocol when these kinds of crimes are committed. The suspected perpetrator is arrested and taken to the police station. The victim is taken in for a physical examination with the police doctor. Jane accompanies Esther, who is still perplexed as to why her actions have garnered such attention. But she obeys Jane and goes in for the exam. The security guard, in handcuffs, is already at the police station when the two of them arrive.
Officers lead all three of them to a small truck. Seat beds line the sides. Jane and Esther sit on one side facing the security guard on the other. Jane looks at the guard right in his eyes, her gaze a sign that she is not intimidated by him. But Esther does something to break Jane’s steely facade. The guard whispers over to Esther.
“Hey, Jaber.My shoes are untied,” the guard says. “My hands are handcuffed. I can’t do it.”
The young girl in a black velvet dress — a dress too pretty for this occasion — walks over, crouches down, and knots his shoelaces for him. Jane can’t help but see her own daughter in the girl. When Esther stands back up, she is distracted by a horse fly that has landed on his shoulder. She shoos it away. Jane senses the tenderness in Esther as her hand grazes his shoulder. At this moment, Jane knows she’s wasting her time with the police. And now, they are on their way for Esther to get examined. Jane wonders what other traumas she’s exposing Esther to.
Esther is led to the examination room with the doctor. Jane waits outside, does her best to keep down the unsettling feeling rising in her gut. She pretends that it is queasiness caused by the restless baby in her stomach. She curses herself for going to the police at all. Two incessant questions beg for answers: How will all this help Esther? Am I doing the right thing?
Back at home, Jane tries to resume their normal life. Jane calls on Esther to brush her hair. Esther’s small fingers weave their way through Jane’s long braids. Despite the regret she feels about taking Esther to the police, there is still a hot burning coal burning in her chest. Why? She wants to grab Esther by the shoulder and ask her, “Why would you let this happen?”
But what Jane realized at the police station was that she never considered Esther’s feelings. There was an intimacy between Esther and the security guard. Jane saw it with her own eyes. She doesn’t want to shame Esther. She wants to understand. She peppers Esther with questions.
“When did this start?
“Is this the first man in your life?”
“What is bothering you?”
Esther meets those questions with skepticism at first. But in this room, on this bed, it’s just the two of them. So Esther opens up. She tells Jane that this wasn’t the first man she had been with and that after her mother and father died, many men had come in and out of her life. She liked the security guard because he was sweet to her, even called her “Jaber.”
Even more surprising, Jane learns that the incident with the security guard is not what has been bothering Esther lately.
“You brought me here from my village,” Esther says. “And I see your children go to school everyday. How come they can go to school and I can’t?”
Esther has never been to school a day in her life, but in this moment, she is the one who teaches Jane something. Girls are resilient. They can overcome many things, even things that seem unfathomable. What gives them hope is a chance to lift themselves out of their current situations. All Esther wants is to go to school, learn that there is something beyond the hard times she has experienced in her first 11 years. Jane will be the one to give her the chance.
Section title photo: Outhouses built and left behind by a foreign film crew in Kibera (Photo by Stefan Magdalinski, Flickr)
Space is hard to come by in Kibera. Physical space, mental space, emotional space: it’s almost unheard of in the slum settlement. This is an annoyance for most but can be crippling for a young girl on her period. If she is fortunate, she might have some panties to get her through the week-long inconvenience. But she has to wash them daily and be extra careful about keeping them out of the sights of her brothers and father. It would be an abomination for them to see such private things.
Just washing them is enough of an ordeal. Twenty liters of water cost a family 5 shillings. Mothers across Kibera are well aware of this. And even though they can commiserate with their daughters over the predicament they experience every four weeks, they will still restrict water use. Too often, the family budget takes precedent over the daughter’s desire to be clean. So even if a young girl manages to wash her panties, where can she hang them to dry? Surely not outside on the clothesline. Neighbors and strangers pass that area every day. Not in the house in plain view for the male family members to see.
The young girl might look for an unused corner. But every corner and every square foot has a purpose. The average house in Kibera is 12ft x 12ft — 144 square feet to be shared by six people or more. The parents sleep on the bed. Jerrycans holding precious water also serve as stools or chairs. There is a cooking area. It is wise to have a small clearing around it; a crowded burner can lead to fires. Children sleep on the floor beneath their parents. Even the space underneath the parents’ bed goes to good use. It usually provides legroom for slumbering children.
Amidst all of this, where is a girl supposed to find any privacy for her panties? Her last resort is under the mattress. This solves one problem. Nobody sees them. Nobody even knows they’re there. But it presents another problem. There’s no ventilation. And sometimes, those mattresses contain dirt and grime that can make the panties more unsanitary than before they’re washed. This is how infections happen.
Almost every young girl in Kibera can relate to this. And when they do get infections, they don’t say anything. They’re too ashamed. In Kenya, young girls keep these problems to themselves. Shame drives them into silence. So instead of seeking advice from their mothers or other role models, they’ll figure out their own ways. They might try to fashion something out of leaves. Roll up a pair of pants to make a sanitary towel. They might even swipe swaths of their parents’ mattress to use as a makeshift sanitary napkin. When there’s no other choice and they’re desperate, some girls will resort to finding used pads in the garbage.
Periods are just one thing that is considered taboo in most Kenyan communities. Talking about anything related to a girl’s reproductive organs is considered obscene: periods, sexual health, contraception, pregnancy, defilement, rape. But Jane knows talking about these things is necessary. She has seen how Kibera has grown over the decades and it seems every new generation is ushered in by waves of younger and younger mothers. Ignoring the very things nobody wants to talk about is keeping girls from going to school. And Jane cannot have that. She knows knowledge is the root of all good things.
After Jane discovered the affair between Esther and the 39-year-old security guard, she realized that poor, uneducated girls are ideal targets for manipulation. Esther was a perfect victim because she was easily coerced into believing sex was the proper payment for kindness. She had been conditioned since her parents died. An orphan in her village, she had few relatives to protect her.
Jane wonders how many girls out there are just like Esther. Maybe the knowledge needs to start with the girls themselves. If girls know about their own bodies, maybe they can make better decisions about what to do with them. So Jane decides to go to schools near her house. She asks her daughter Claire, who is 11 at the time, to tell her friends that there will be a girls’ meeting. Jane will soon learn that children are her best ambassadors.
Girls start to file into Jane’s small secretarial and photocopying shop. Girls range from 6 to 13. Outside the door, word continues to spread quickly through Kibera, a buzz moving through the atmosphere like drops of precipitation before a storm. But soon, there is not enough room in the shop. Jane leans up against her desk, looking out into the faces of girls who are brimming with curiosity. This is the beginning of Polycom Development Project, an organization that helps empower young girls through knowledge and self-esteem building. But right now, it has no name or affiliation. It is just something Jane sees as a need in her community.
“I brought everyone here to talk about something very personal,” Jane says. “I want to talk to you about your private parts and how to take care of them.”
It’s as if the whole room collectively blushes. There are a few giggles, but mostly a silence falls over the room.
“Look, I’m not your mother. You can talk to me about these things,” Jane says. “When we’re all together like this, feel free to say what’s on your mind.”
Still, silence. But in that silence, another idea pops into Jane’s head. The girls are too embarrassed to speak up. Jane wants to meet the girls in the middle but they’re not ready to come forward. She must go beyond the middle. The solution? A Talking Box, a box that holds anonymously written notes by the girls. This way, the girls won’t be judged or shamed and Jane can still address the issues that are on the girls’ minds.
The first Talking Box is installed at St. Juliet’s School. The procedure is straightforward. The girls fill the box with questions and requests for two weeks. After that time, volunteers read every note, separating each one into the following categories: Basic Needs, Child Labor, Domestic Abuse, Verbal Abuse, and Sexual Harassment. Then, Jane goes back to the school and addresses the issues, careful to never reveal any identifying markers.
Some notes bring up issues that are easy to fix. “I don’t have enough panties”. Jane has an inventory of panties, along with pads, in her office. These donations have had the most positive impact on the girls in Kibera. Organizations have tried to donate menstrual cups, which seems more practical and environmentally conscious. But when offered such things, Jane’s mouth furls into an obvious frown and she has to respectfully decline. There are only public bathrooms in Kibera. Often times, bathrooms are just pits surrounded by mud walls and a corrugated tin roof. A girl must squat in the midst of piles and puddles of human excrement. To bend and contort to insert and remove a menstrual cup without dirtying herself is nearly impossible. So in Kibera, pads make the most sense.
Other notes require more attention. “My mom has not loved me since I was a child” or “I live with my aunt and she is so mean to me.” These issues require some counseling and possible intervention from the school. Almost all the notes break Jane’s heart in some way. Young girls carry so much more than they should. Then there are times when Jane reads a note that can’t wait. Immediate action is needed.
“My stepfather has been abusing me and now my brother is, too. And now I have wounds on my private parts. I will not tell you my name, but if you come to Standard Class 8, I know you are talking to me.”
The next day, Jane returns to St. Juliet’s School and heads over the Standard Class 8. This is a very delicate situation. Jane just can’t go into the classroom and say, “OK, one of you is being abused. Who is it?” Jane has to be as nuanced as an undercover detective, as precise as a surgeon. She has to ask the right questions, pick up the right cues because if she doesn’t, shame will drive the girl right back into silence. Shame is the reason girls would rather use discarded pads during their cycles than stay at home and confirm indefinitely by their absences that they are indeed on their periods.
So, in front of the class, Jane says, “It’s OK to be sick. Any part of your body can be sick, including your private parts. The best thing you can do is go to the hospital. Don’t keep it to yourself.”
Jane scans the room and looks at each of the girls. She’s looking for some kind of sign that will reveal the girl she’s looking for. Maybe a lowered head. Maybe a crossing of the arms to protect the body.
“If you have wounds inside your mouth or your nose, that is very dangerous because you can’t see them and somehow, they’re so close and the wound can become big very fast,” Jane says. “So you have to go to the hospital immediately. And don’t keep quiet. The moment you keep quiet, you encourage the person abusing you. They’ll come back again and again and again.”
In this class, abuse is a topic that is on the minds of many girls. Jane fields question after question. And then one student asks, “What if your abuser is someone you care about and you don’t want that person to go to jail?” That’s it. That’s her girl. Jane answers a few more questions. One girl is being verbally abused by her mother. Another has a hard time doing homework because her parents often argue at home.
“Alright, we are going to have a Talking Desk. It is over there by that tree. Everyone — everyone — will have a one-on-one talk with me,” Jane says. “Nobody’s remaining. One-by-one, we must talk privately. Even if you don’t have anything to say, just come and give me a hug.”
Jane’s goal for every girl who comes to see her is to make her a bit lighter, to help her carry a burden that has been hanging over her head or in her heart. And then, the girl Jane has come to see comes to the Talking Desk. They embrace for a long time. Jane listens to the girl recount how it started: when the girl got sick once and stayed home from school. The girl’s mother was at work. The girl’s stepfather worked nights and one day, as the girl came out of the shower, he pushed her on his bed and defiled her. Jane’s face does not reveal the revulsion she feels inside; she does not want the girl to think any of this is her fault. These kinds of stories make Jane want to cry. It’s a heavy story to hear, but Jane will hold it for the girl, hold it until she’s strong enough to hold it by herself.
Section title photo: Two young Kenyan girls (Wikipedia)
Something to Call Their Own (2013)
Follow the young men, the ones with two 12-foot metal poles on either side of them. The poles are for constructing buildings like homes and shops. But these men have another idea. They’re doing their best to maneuver around the tight streets of Kibera. They avoid the narrow alleyways between houses, even though they are a faster route to the kiwanja. Passersby are getting annoyed at how much space they’re taking up in the street. They click their tongues at them. They furrow their brows. They say, “You think this road belongs to you?”
“Hey, let’s take this street,” says Kevin. He takes steps in that direction.
“No, it’s too congested,” Ambrose says. “Trust me, this is the way to go.”
“Whatever way, let’s hurry. These poles are heavy.”
When they arrive to the kiwanja, Benson is already there digging a hole. Behind him are four or five volleyballs and a net. The three have to work fast to get the court set up. The first Polycom Development Project volleyball tournament is just hours away.
Jane lets Kevin, Ambrose, and Benson take care of the logistics of the event. Even though it was Jane’s idea to do volleyball in the first place, the young men have taken it over as their own project.
The young men have been volunteers at Polycom Development Project since they finished high school. Even though Polycom is geared toward girls, the program does have its male allies. Jane believes in delegating responsibilities and trusting her team members. And now, as Kevin, Ambrose, and Benson bide time before going to university in the fall, they dedicate their free time to manifesting Jane’s latest project: volleyball games for Polycom girls and women.
Jane didn’t think she could actually make volleyball happen in her community. Like other Kenyans around the country, Kiberans love their soccer, the girls and young women included. When Jane was visited by a Netherlands organization Women Win in 2011, they asked her to come up with a proposal featuring a sports outlet for the girls and women of Polycom Development. She knew soccer was the favorite. So in the proposal, she solicited funding for girls’ soccer. But she felt uneasy and thought about the game she loved most as a young girl. So she sent a follow-up email asking instead for Women Win to fund volleyball.
“You’re going to be our first partner to do volleyball,” the response email said. “And we like it.”
But it will take a lot for girls in Kibera to change their allegiances to volleyball. Two years to be exact. That’s one reason why Jane has asked Kevin, Ambrose, and Benson for help; she knows they can make volleyball appealing by giving the matches an official feel. Before the young men came along, Jane was using soccer balls as volleyballs because she couldn’t tell the difference. It had been so long since Jane herself had played the sport. But now, they have official Mikasa volleyballs.
Kevin, Ambrose, and Benson get the charcoal dust to make the outlines of the court. They set up a proper net. Benson makes up the schedule. Ambrose even gets score sheets for taking score and makes a provisional scoreboard. All three will act as referees. The only thing Jane is in charge of is getting whistles.
“Are you going to chase a thief with these whistles?” Kevin jokes when Jane presents the whistles she found. Apparently, Jane gets policemen whistles — which have more of a shrill than robust sound — not referee whistles.
“How did this become so stressful?” Jane says with a tone that is equal parts playful and exasperated. “Listen, you people handle the set-up. I’ll handle the talking.”
There are four teams in the initial GPendeSports 1 Tournament. “GPende” is a rallying cry for Polycom. The girls arrive in their everyday attire. Another volunteer from Polycom passes out jerseys. The green uniforms go to AIC Training College, red to The Strikers, Blue to The Challengers, and maroon to Amani. The young women love their new jerseys, another professional touch the young men insisted on. They convinced Jane to get uniforms instead of just t-shirts.
“You know what, with the t-shirts people won’t even read everything on it,” Kevin said a couple weeks ago. “But with uniforms, sports enthusiasts, they’ll be reading the messages.”
Jane didn’t argue. She gave the trio permission to make the uniforms. And now here are the young women, all lined up in their new, crisp outfits. They’re proud to be standing there with their friends and teammates. Most of them don’t have the right shoes. Some wear sandals or nothing at all. Other than that, they actually look like four unified teams.
As the players arrive, Jane and the volunteers have them fill out registration forms. Once a team gets 15 forms, their team is ready to play. The girls wait on one side of the kiwanja for their roster to fill up. This is where they’ll talk about their week and what is happening in their neighborhoods. This is the real reason for putting on the tournament — Jane wants to create a space where young women can share freely without shame or guilt. So often, girls and young women have no one to talk to. For girls, their parents are too busy working to spend time with them. And young women feel the social taboos of talking about personal and intimate things. Jane knows all the burdens they carry, and she wants to remind each and every one of them that they’re not alone.
Ambrose blows the whistle. The first match is set to begin. The volleyball has a hard time staying in the air. Most, if not all, of these girls have never played the sport before. Benson and Kevin are on the sidelines acting as impromptu coaches and giving instructions. They have to constantly remind the players they have three chances to get the ball over. A lot of them have trouble clearing the net when they serve. A player goes to the endline, bends her legs, and sticks her backside out. She holds the ball in her left hand and then swings her right arm like a pendulum, hoping to strike the ball in just the right place. Unfortunately, her thumb gets in the way and the ball heads east-west instead of north-south.
Still, the game is attracting spectators. A lot of them. They’re smiling and laughing along with the players, who are sometimes getting mixed up and rotating in the wrong direction. As orange-brown dust rises from the shuffling feet of the players, more and more people fill into the kiwanja on this hot, muggy day. “What is this? Girls playing volleyball?” the spectators say. This kind of crowd usually only convenes for soccer. But in Kibera, young, idle people look for any kind of distraction.
On the court, the young women forget about their problems. They forget about their abusive husbands or how they’re going to feed their very young children or what the future holds for them. They shed their responsibilities. They even forget about their tribal affiliations. Between the lines, they are just teammates and they are united in one singular goal. After four matches, a winner is declared: The Strikers.
Afterwards, Jane gathers all the young women together. The volunteers pass out glucose and bottles of water. The players are winded. They’re breathing hard. Sweat beads slide down the sides of their faces and they’re happy.
“Wamama Hoiyee!,” Jane calls out, waiting for a response.
“OK. Now we can sit.”
Jane leads the large group over to a shady spot, although some can’t find a spot anywhere besides on the warm dirt.
“Today was a great day,” Jane says. “I want to acknowledge the winner, which were the Strikers. But on such a day, we are all winners. I invite every team to come up and talk about today and the challenges that women face every day.”
Eunice from The Strikers stands up. Jane knows her well; she was a part of Nena Tenda Amani, the peace movement spearheaded by Polycom during the recent 2013 elections.
“We are tired of being idle and sitting at our doorsteps,” Eunice says. “We are very happy that you have started this. Let’s keep it up! Jane has started it for us but it’s not hers, it’s ours. Let’s keep this together. We can’t let it die.”
“Remember that we can go back to soccer if you like,” Jane says. “It doesn’t matter what sport we do, as long as we are creating this safe space for each other.”
“No, Mama Jane,” another player says. Even though she is just one, she speaks for the whole group. “We like volleyball. It’s something that’s just for us.”
Section title photo: Girls from the Polycom Development Project (Photos provided by Jane Anyango)
The Stories That Stay With Her (2016)
In Kibera, the skies start opening up in mid-March. Rain falls softly at first. Then the skies turn sinister. A deluge of angry rain falls over Kibera. Here, rain is not cleansing. It is not healing. Rain in Kibera is something to fear. It is powerful and destructive. Rain rivers swell with the help of the slum’s numerous open drainage ditches. Raging brown water swallows everything in its way. Flooding keeps people up at night and prevents children from going to school. Sometimes, it destroys entire houses.
The ground can only take so much. Most of the rain cascades by in a brisk torrent but some of that water will be absorbed by and stay with the ground. That is Jane. Jane is the hard Kibera earth.
In Jane’s work with both Polycom Development Project and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness, she has worked with young girls all the way up to women who could be her mother. Jane has heard stories of sexual assault, domestic abuse, abandonment, rape, and incest. Just when she thinks she has heard the worst story she’s ever heard, another one comes and takes its place.
There’s the story of when Jane opened a Talking Box one week and found a ravaged piece of paper with a few words on it: “mama”. “sick”. “dead”. Jane figured the child writing those words was younger than 6 or 7, before Kenyan kids learn how to write. Jane found the young girl and learned that she was taken to Kibera from her rural community. Her mother worked in Nairobi while the young girl stayed with her grandmother, virtually a stranger. The mother spent months at a time in Nairobi. The young girl spoke very little Kiswahili and was struggling in school. The grandmother fell ill, relieving herself where she lay. The young girl had to clean up after the grandmother. Even though she tried to keep herself and her grandmother clean, the waft of human excrement never left her hands. Classmates found out about this and ostracized her. She didn’t have the language to ask for help. When the grandmother took a turn for the worse, the neighbors took the grandmother to the hospital. Nobody informed the young girl what was going on. Alone, she would visit the same neighbor every night. The young girl could count on her to give her some food scraps. At least she did have a place to sleep, but she had to brave the nights alone in her grandmother’s house.
The difficult stories aren’t only those belonging to girls. There is 11-year-old Felix, whose parents tried to flee Nyeri, where they worked, in the 2007 post-election aftermath. His town was being attacked by machete-wielding fellow countrymen who had been driven into a murderous blind rage by their ethnic pride. Felix’s father had disappeared without a trace. Felix and his mom were fleeing. Felix’s mom was able to push him into a matatu before being taken down by a crude and blunt instrument. As soon as the woman was attacked, the matatu drove off and that was the last time Felix saw his mother.
Or the story of Brenda, who was orphaned when her parents died. Brenda and her sister went to live with their ailing grandmother. Their grandmother gave every shilling she had to pay her granddaughters’ school fees but it was nowhere near enough. Brenda wanted to stay in school so much that she tagged along with her sister, who went to a school geared toward HIV-positive children. But when the school found out Brenda wasn’t infected with the disease as her sister was, Brenda was banned from going. She sought out Jane, who had helped her before, and stood outside Jane’s office every day for a week to ask for help.
It is impossible for Jane to absorb all the stories. The stories are like heavy rains, relentlessly pounding down on her. But there are some that she wants to hold on to, like the one about Sifa and her brothers. It actually started with Alan, the youngest one. Alan is friends with Jane’s son David and the two often played together during school holidays. One day, David invited Alan over for a snack after kicking the soccer ball around. The boys sat down at the table in Jane’s house. Jane set a plate down for David and then for Alan.
Ten minutes passed and Jane saw that most of the food was still on Alan’s plate.
“Alan, why aren’t you eating?
“Can I please take this plate of food home with me?”
“No,” Jane said. “You are welcome to eat it here but I don’t want you taking my plate away.”
“But I’m not hungry now. I know I’ll be hungry later.”
“You either eat it here or you don’t,” Jane said. “Claire, take his plate if he is finished.”
“Mom, why do you have to be so hard,” Claire said.
“Yeah, Mom,” David said. “Why can’t he just take the food?”
“Give him a chance to eat when he can, Mom,” Trizer added. “Stop being hard on him.”
The children were doing what they always do — they ganged up on their mother. Claire walked over to Jane and said in a hushed tone: “Mom, maybe he wants to share the food with his family but he’s too embarrassed to say.” The statement both humbled her and made her swell with pride — Jane had always taught her children empathy.
“OK, Alan. You can take it home. But you have to bring the plate back when you’re done.”
After Alan went home, Jane wanted to know more about him and what would compel a 12-year-old boy to bring food home to his family. Through Trizer, Jane learned that Alan had two other siblings and they were orphans. Their mother died in 2004 when Alan was 2. The dad died after working in Sudan; he was there earning money to send back for his children’s school fees. The dad came back to Kenya before dying so he could shield his family from the expense of shipping his body back from out of the country. In Kenyan culture, it is very important to be buried where you were born. That is the mark of a life well-lived, that you are leaving behind people who love you. The boys had to drop out of school to care for their sick father until he died. Sifa was away at boarding school.
After the dad’s burial, Sifa and her brothers, Alan and Tom, were stranded in the rural village, about an eight hours’ drive from Nairobi. Sifa wanted to return to Nairobi and to her school. She ran away several times but was often taken back to her extended family and beaten. But Sifa managed to find her young aunt, who was staying in Kibera. Shortly thereafter, Sifa got her brothers to join her. But the siblings soon found themselves overstaying their welcome. Their aunt was newly married and the young couple was crumbling under the added responsibility of sheltering and feeding three teenagers that were not their own.
One day, Sifa came to pick up Alan at Jane’s house.
“Let them play a little while longer,” Jane said. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
Sifa’s face scrunched up and her eyes became slits behind her thick glasses. She pulled her face intimately close to Jane’s. The glasses improved Sifa’s vision, but just barely — the prescription was from years ago.
“I’m sensing that something is going on with you,” Jane said. “What’s wrong?”
“I have these huge balances for school,” Sifa said. “I may have to stop going soon.” Jane could tell by Sifa’s slumped shoulders and the way that anxiety seemed to create a permanent cloud over her face that this was a girl who had lost all hope.
“I know it has been tough on you,” Jane said. “Alan has already eaten here, so you don’t have to worry about him tonight. Come back to me in a week. I might have something for you.”
After Sifa and Alan left, Jane got online and posted a message on her Facebook page asking for someone to sponsor Sifa. It caught the attention of Shailaja, a woman in San Francisco. She agreed to help and sent Jane $450. Jane got another woman in Australia to send $50 a month. Jane put in some money herself so that Sifa could pay off her balance of $1,100. Jane even saved some of that money to get her some essentials: soap, body oil, and sanitary pads.
That was the boost Sifa needed. She didn’t squander the opportunity Jane gave her. Now she is at Kenyatta University in Nairobi taking courses in medicine and surgery. Maybe one day, she’ll be a surgeon or a doctor. Maybe she’ll work in Kibera and inspire another young girl. These are the stories Jane holds onto, the ones that remind her that her work is good and her work is important. Yes, sometimes the stories can be heavy, but like rain, they can be nourishing, too.
Section title photo: Jane Anyango (photo provided by Jane Anyango)
A Stand Against History (2008 and 2013)
An ominous cloud hangs over Kibera. Over all of Kenya, really. It’s early January, but the promise that usually comes with the start of the new year has already faded — it’s been replaced by apprehension. National elections are two months away and Jane is just one of the many who fears what this election season will hold. How many people will die this time? How many people will be displaced?
Jane is worried about another possible violent outbreak in Kenya, but she is more worried about how to get her daughter Trizer to school. Trizer has just received excellent marks on her exams, which are taken at the end of primary school. Her score is good enough to earn her admission to the prestigious Sing’ore Girls’ Secondary School in the Rift Valley. Jane likes that the school is a missionary school and that the students are disciplined. No doubt her daughter would be transformed into a proper young lady and high-achieving student in that environment.
Jane had made a promise to herself long ago: to give her children the opportunity for the best education possible. That meant leaving Kibera. Jane had already delivered two of her children to far-off boarding schools — Mosh to Kisumu and Claire to Migori. Both schools are about a seven-hour’s drive west, but once the bus hits Kisii, Mosh goes north and Claire goes south. Now here Jane is, ready to send a third child out into the world.
Sing’ore Girls’ Secondary School is nothing like Trizer’s previous school, Kilimani Primary School just outside of Kibera. For one, there is room at Sing’ore. Students roam the open space on campus like giraffes on safari ground. Jane’s daughter wouldn’t have to compete with 45 other students for her teacher’s attention. And there is variety. She can take classes in music, drama, or debate — a much more robust curriculum than she is used to.
But Rift Valley is a Kalenjin stronghold. And the Kalenjins have just merged allegiances with the Kikuyus, making them a target for citizens all around Kenya who are ready for President Mwai Kibaki (a Kikuyu) to be out of office after more than five years. His impulsive inauguration just hours after he was announced the winner back in 2007 sparked the violence that led to deaths all over the country. Jane is already hesitant about Trizer leaving home for the first time. She isn’t willing to put her child in the middle of possible political turmoil.
Jane takes the rest of January to think about where her daughter will start Form 1. But as February comes along, Jane knows she has to make a decision. So she decides to enroll her at Ng’iya Girls’ High School, a boarding school nestled in the Luo community of Siaya. This would be Jane’s longest send-off yet — the drive to Siaya takes nearly nine hours.
Loud music spills out of the windows of the matatu as it arrives. As Jane settles in, she can feel the bass, throbbing and incessant, through her feet. It’s a short ride to the Central Business District in Nairobi, where Jane and her daughter will board the Easy Coach, a bus that seems palatial in comparison.
The sun sets as Jane pulls a metal trunk behind her. In it are blankets, bed sheets, and toiletries for Trizer. There are also her mandatory books for school: her dictionary, logbook, and atlas. Trizer wanted to bring her favorite book, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, but Jane wouldn’t permit it. Those are the kind of things that get stolen. It was hard for Jane to say “no”. Her daughter has always been a reader. In fact, Jane would catch her staying up late, eyes glued to the pages of the latest Harry Potter novel. Jane will miss going to check up on her and seeing the glow of the flashlight underneath the makeshift tent of a teenage bookworm.
The bus is leaving at night, so passengers have the choice of combating the long, arduous road trip with some substandard slumber. Jane is thankful for this as Trizer won’t see the worry and anxiety cloud up in her mother’s face. Trizer will be fast asleep. She always falls into a deep trance in moving vehicles. Something about the droning sound of rubber against asphalt puts her right into a slumber.
There is a lot for Jane to think about on this long journey. She thinks about how her daughter might be bullied for being one of the youngest in her class. After all, she is still just 13. She thinks about Mosh and how close he is to finishing at the University of Nairobi. She thinks about Claire and how she is adjusting to the rigors of college life. She thinks about her youngest David and how he’ll get along without her for a few days. She thinks about how safe each child will be when the elections happen next month. How will the children’s schools shield them from the violence? A weariness falls over Jane. Trizer is resting her head on her mother’s shoulder. Jane desperately wants to stay awake throughout the whole trip, be alert and conscious should her daughter wake up in the middle of the night. But she can’t escape that soothing sound of wheels rotating against the smooth road. Pretty soon, she is swallowed up by the rhythm and is lulled to sleep. She goes to sleep thinking, What if what happened in the last election happens in this one?
It is March, 2008. Kibera has been looted, set on fire, and tear-gassed. Nobody in Kibera has been untouched by the post-election violence. Kibaki, the Kikuyus’ choice, has just won the election. But Kikuyus in Kibera don’t celebrate because they know what that means. They fear retaliation from their mostly Odinga-supporting neighbors. Jane wishes she could talk to both sides calmly, like she often does in her meetings with the girls in the Polycom Development Project.
For two weeks, Kenya is on fire; the whole country is going down in flames. In Kibera. In Naivasha. In Eldoret. Jane can’t stop watching the news. She hears reports of people being hacked by machetes. She sees footage of bands of young men destroying homes by setting them on fire and of police officers shooting innocent victims. Sexual violence affects both women and men. Women are raped. Men are mutilated. The euphemism used is “forced circumcision” but people around the country know that some Kenyan communities see uncircumcised men as uncivilized. “Penile amputation” might be a more accurate term.
The worst story she sees — the one she’s been trying to get out of her head lately — is the one of a group of people who took refuge in a church and was burned alive in Eldoret. Blankets and mattresses drenched in gasoline were thrown into the blazing church. When women with babies in their arms struggled to get out, they were pushed back into the inferno. A woman in a wheelchair was found in the charred remains. This story stays with Jane because the murders happen in a church. If people can’t even find safety in God’s house, where can they go?
It has been a month, and there are reports that 600 people are dead as a result of the post-election violence. 250,000 people displaced. But Jane is skeptical of these figures. Statistics given by the government or various media houses never tell the full story. In Kibera alone, Jane believes there have been at least 500 deaths. The exact number? She doesn’t know. But what she trusts is that many people are dead. Many people are displaced. Isn’t that enough? Why do people need an exact figure?
Jamhuri Showground — a place where livestock breeders show their cattle and the Kenyan Armed Forces Band marches during celebrations — has been a refugee camp for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) since the violence erupted. Now these events are put on hold because almost every inch of land on the Jamhuri Showground is claimed by white canvas tarps that have been provided by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. People risk sickness and starvation living here, but people choose to accept this in exchange for some semblance of safety.
But Jamhuri is not a refuge for long. Officials are now ordering the IDP camp to close and to start transferring people to other camps or resettle them. Many people in the camp are from Kibera. They are in disbelief. Where will they go? They have been chased out. They have lost everything. They think, “Why is the government putting us back in the lion’s den?”
Jane has some questions for the government, too. Why is no one in a position of leadership condemning the violence? Kibaki has been silent after every brutal transgression. When will the leaders step up?
People, mainly women and children, start showing up at the administration building in Kibera. Kepha Marube, the district officer, doesn’t know what to do with them. They know about Jane and the group she has just started, Kibera Women For Peace and Fairness. They go to Jane for help. Jane knows some of the women in Marube’s shadow. She’s seen them around Kibera. She approaches one who looks the most familiar.
“You live in Kibera, right?” Jane says. “I think I’ve seen your son walking to school. What is your name?”
“My name is Njoki and yes, I live in Kibera,” Njoki says. “But I don’t know if my home is still there.”
Jane turns back to the women sitting by the Peace Tree.
“What do you think, ladies? I think we can help Njoki by leading her back to her home.”
A collective “yes” rings out.
“Where are your things?” Muhonja says. “We’ll help you carry them back. Where is your house? Show us the way. We’ll go with you.”
In Kibera, there are no such things as directions or street names. People know their way around by heart. The fruit stand over there or the mandazi cart over here are the only landmarks of calibration. Njoki, along with her three children, lead Jane and the other women deeper into Kibera. They pass the Makina mosque and cross over Kisumu Ndogo. When they arrive, Njoki’s neighbors call out to her.
“Mama Njoki! What happened? Why did you run away?” All the people in the open space in the front of this cluster of houses also joke and tease her. The house has been virtually untouched. She had nothing to worry about, although that’s not how she felt when she fled a month ago or even on the walk with Jane and the other women. There has even been someone living in Njoki’s house — the grown son of one of her neighbors. The government sees these characters as squatters but Jane sees them as heroes. Unattended houses are almost always looted. Even if he did sleep in the house without permission, he protected Njoki’s things. And now Njoki has a house to come back to.
Then there are the women who are not from Kibera. IDPs from surrounding areas came to Kibera believing the people there would be the most inviting. Jane meets Mama Atieno, an IDP who has come to the kiwanja. There is no house for Jane and the women to bring Mama Atieno back to. They coordinate for Mama Atieno to stay with Abuba, a Nubian elderly lady who has space to spare in her house. They ask their friends for donations. They pull together 200 shillings to give Mama Atieno. One woman donates a cup. Another a blanket. One even provides a stove top. Mama Atieno can’t believe the generosity. She is so relieved to have a place to sleep, but more than that she is happy to have a new beginning. With the donated money, Mama Atieno starts roasting maize. It is something that will sustain her for many years to come.
The next day, Jane and other members of her group return to the kiwanja. They return another family to their home. And another family. And another family. In total, they bring 20 families back to their homes. Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness, with their knowledge of the layout of Kibera and their familiarity with the residents, team up with International Medical Corps to provide medical services. Jane and the group organize medical camps but before residents get treatment, Jane makes sure to talk to them. She asks them how they’re feeling and how they can heal. The past two months have been traumatic and Jane and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness want to address the psychological damage as well as the physical.
Jane herself has been traumatized. It’s been hard for her to suppress her anger at the government’s apathy. Or the hurt she feels for her fellow Luos. They were among the most badly affected.
There’s a part of Jane that wants to stand up and say, “Luos have suffered so much. What about us? What about the injustices we’ve seen?” But after leading Kikuyus, Kalenjins, and others back to their homes, she realizes that everybody feels the same hurt despite being from different tribes. She wants to understand everyone’s hurt as she understands her own and move forward. So she tells herself, “Let me be a leader before anything else.”
After a fitful night’s rest, Jane wakes up early on Monday, March 4, 2013. The sun has not yet found its way over the horizon and yet people are bustling and carrying on as if the sun is in its high-noon place. People are starting to line up to vote; they will choose among eight candidates for president but it really comes down to Uhuru Kenyatta (Kikuyu) or Raila Odinga (Luo). Many people believe it’s time for change, time for Odinga. He believes he was cheated out of the last election but there is momentum in his favor. Surely, his chances at the presidency are better, considering his opponent is under investigation for his part in the post-election violence in 2008. He’s accused of consorting with Mungiki, an organized gang with a membership of somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. In the Kikuyu language, mungiki means “a united people”. When Kikuyus were being massacred by fellow Kenyans in the immediate aftermath of Kibaki’s electoral victory, the Mungiki retaliated. It is believed that Kenyatta financially supported the retaliations.
Along Kibera roads, there’s singing. There’s chanting. An electric white noise sears through Kibera. But the noise is not what kept Jane up all night. She wonders if anyone in Kenya was able to sleep, because today is election day and it’s starting much like the last one did. Jane walks outside the house and sees people arrange themselves along the road like a line of dominoes. Jane can’t see where the queue ends. Young boys form barricades in the road, making checkpoints — they want to do their part in guaranteeing that no one comes into Kibera to start any trouble.
Whatever is ahead, Jane is prepared. For the past couple of months, she has been training to be a peace monitor. Through a program by UN Women, Jane became well-versed with the country’s electoral laws. They even coordinated a mock election. She brings her knowledge back to Kibera and, with that, continues her Nena Tenda Amani campaign, which had been promoting peace through action and advocacy throughout the last year.
Jane has always been a believer in informing constituents about all their rights so that if they choose to break the law, they know what law they’re breaking. The things she’ll be looking out for today: groups of five or more people gathering around polling stations, anybody wearing shirts or carrying signs supporting a candidate, and people disseminating anything that could be construed as propaganda. All of these would be violations of the electoral laws.
Women from Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness show up one-by-one at Jane’s house. Jane sends a group of trained 40 women to four different regions around Kibera. She hands out fluorescent safety vests to each of them and they will be based at various polling stations. There are so many things that can go awry today. Since it’s the first year that the country is using an electronic voting register, some ballots may be miscounted. This is also the first election under the new constitution, which was written in 2010. As a result, instead of three ballots, there are now six. Color-coded boxes represent a different office — orange for Member of Parliament, blue for Governor, green for Member of Assembly, pink for Woman Representative, yellow for Senator, white for President.
At 6 a.m., when the polling stations open, the women in the fluorescent vests find their way near the front of the voting queues. As constituents finish voting, the women encourage them to go home. But some people are leaving the polling stations very upset. The implementation of new voting practices are causing problems. People who registered to vote in Kibera are showing up as being registered in another county. After hours of waiting, some voters are being turned away because their names aren’t showing up on the register.
“No matter the outcome, let’s just go home.”
“We don’t want a repeat of ‘08.”
“Let’s wait for the results at home.”
“If we don’t agree with anything, then it can be taken to court.”
The women repeat these phrases over and over. They stand out at the polling stations until the sun reaches the highest point in the sky and then falls back down under the horizon line. Like Jane, the women don’t eat all day. Under the relentless sun, they fight hunger and fatigue. At times, they feel overwhelmed, looking out at the never-ending queue. But as dusk falls over Kibera, a steady quiet settles in. People are in their homes. The women have accomplished their goal.
Throughout the day, Jane spends her time going between polling stations to see if her group members need anything. She also sits down with various media outlets. The BBC World Service asks her what it’s like on the ground in Kibera. They ask her how thick the tension is. The local radio station, Pamoja FM, is also a stop for Jane. She goes on air to remind the listeners how important it is stay at home and away from any possible trouble. Before the day started, she received 2,000 shillings from Caroline Testud, a friend and supporter of Jane’s causes. All that money goes to keeping the peace that day.
Jane does not vote until the very last hour. Many people assume that since she is a Luo, she will vote for Odinga. But her preference is not something she shares with anybody. Although these assumptions may be right, she reminds the women in her group as well as her neighbors that she is not voting for a tribe or a political party, but a person. At 5 p.m., the polls close and Jane heads home. She and the rest of the country will hold their breath until morning.
It is 10 a.m. and Jane is on edge. She’s already heard reports of car hijackings. But so far, nothing more severe has happened. The TV is on at her house, and the dial is permanently settled on the local news. She finds an activity for her nervous energy: rearranging her furniture and cleaning her house. She moves her desk over there. She puts the chair over here. She scrubs the fixtures in the kitchen, wipes down any open surface. Her youngest son has never seen the house cleaner. Jane looks at David, who is oblivious to the root causes of the tension all around Kibera. But he did ask her last night why things felt so funny. She fears that every election that her children experience will be marred by this unsettling uneasiness.
The lights go out. The electricity often goes out in Kibera, anywhere from three times a month to three times a week. But it’s almost expected around election time. Jane thinks it’s a way for the government to control constituency reaction. Still, people find a way to tune into the news. Hand radios pop up all over Kibera and seem to be set to the same station.
The new constitution requires that the victorious candidate have at least 50 percent plus one vote of all ballots cast and 25 percent in at least half of Kenya’s 47 counties. Otherwise, candidates have to have a run-off. Even though tallying started Monday night, results are elusive. Two days after voting, officials find a software discrepancy in the electronic tallying process. It has been said that as many as 300,000 votes were spoiled due to technical glitches and voter confusion. But the constitution clearly states that all ballots cast are to be counted. This creates another dimension of uncertainty that hangs over the country Thursday and Friday. Jane feels the community can bend no longer. The people are all about to break.
After five days of excruciating waiting, the results are in. On Saturday, the election process ends just as it started — at 4 in the morning. At this time of the day, before the sky begins its luminous transformation, sounds of celebration and protest weave together before making their way up to the heavens. Kenya will start a new day with both euphoria and sorrow. The electricity is back and Jane turns on the TV. The ticker tape gives her the information she wants: Odinga receives 43.6 percent of the votes. Kenyatta receives 50.07 percent, narrowly avoiding a runoff. Jane hears yelling and protest erupt from the streets. From her house, Jane sees a young man come up the road and hit a parked car. The man starts yelling, cursing the voting process and the new president. Jane rushes outside, forgetting to put shoes on her feet. She confronts the young man.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jane warns. She is aware of all the media outlets in Kibera. She knows any one of them would love to be the first to cover the beginnings of a riot in Kibera. “Are you really sure this is what you want?”
The man stares hard at Jane for a moment and then leaves. Jane heads back to her house. The TV is still on. It shows Kenyatta giving his victory speech.
“My fellow Kenyans ... today, we celebrate the triumph of democracy, the triumph of peace, the triumph of nationhood. Despite the misgivings of many in the world, we have demonstrated a level of political maturity that surpassed expectations. We dutifully turned out, we voted in peace, we upheld order and respect for the rule of law, and we maintained the fabric of our society. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the real victory today — a victory for our nation, a victory that shows that Kenya has finally come of age.”
His sentiments reflect the international media’s stance of commending Kenya for a peaceful protest. But Jane believes this admiration is shortsighted. Yes, there were no major violent outbursts, but the same issues that caused the violence of 2008 are still there. There is a large part of the country that is resentful and a lot of Kenyans who feel excluded from the changes going on in their country. Jane feels the bitterness and resentment still brewing in Kibera. There is no peace, just calm. But for now, that is enough.
Section title photo: Voters line up in Bungoma at 6 a.m. on election day, 2013 (Photo courtesy of The Carter Center)
Corruption and Impunity (2015)
There is commotion on the Kamukunji grounds behind Olympic Primary School. People are gathered around the soot-stained newly constructed public toilet, shaking their heads in condemnation and disbelief. In the news, it is reported that youth from Kibera lit these toilets on fire. Jane has learned to be wary of the news. In actuality, the boys burned trash that was set in the outhouse. The reports are overblown. Still, the boys are successful in one way: they get the attention of the media. The structure was just one of the many targets of a loosely organized group of youth who began demonstrating at Kibera’s Olympic stage at 7 p.m. the previous evening. Anger and resentment blanketed the crowd like a thick humidity. Setting the public toilet on fire was the mirror manifestation of sentiments bubbling in the cauldron that is Kibera.
The rage has a target. The public toilet is part of a slum infrastructure improvement project. Backed by the Ministry of Devolution and Planning, the National Youth Service (NYS) is in charge of building toilets and showers and improving the notoriously ineffective sewer system. Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru had lofty goals when she came into Kibera a little less than a year ago. A surrogate for President Kenyatta, Waiguru had plans to build police posts, posh mills, sack gardens, and dispensaries in slums across Kenya. A tarmac road from the Darajani Bridge to Mbagathi Road had been approved. The new construction would bring in much-needed employment and with it, economic empowerment. The government decided to start in Kibera first.
But all those goals have turned into the same ash left behind by that fire. The protests are in response to Waiguru’s forced resignation after allegations that she stole 791 million shillings from the NYS. Her abrupt departure leaves hundreds of Kibera’s youth once again without jobs or options. For Jane, the latest episode of government corruption is not surprising. Things like this happen often. Government bureaus or nonprofit humanitarian aid agencies come into Kibera promising change and improved conditions. Kibera attracts all the good intentions in the world.
But most times, Kibera becomes collateral, an afterthought. Many organizations want the recognition of tackling the extreme poverty and infrastructural mess in Kibera, but there isn’t much improvement of conditions in people’s everyday lives. For that to happen, the organizations — whether through the government or nonprofits — need to collaborate with the people who live in Kibera, to see that Kibera is their home, not just a project that needs to be fixed.
Jane remembers the day when she saw a government truck navigate the jagged, uneven roads of Kibera. Waiguru and other government officials spilled out of the truck. They might as well have been explorers surveying an unknown planet, they looked so out of place in their official uniforms. Jane noticed the new visitors and headed over to the district office at the administration building; she wanted to know if she could get involved. Muhonja, who had been with her for so many milestones at Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness, went with her. Jane and Muhonja came into the building and found the assistant county commissioner. There was a palpable shift in the mood of the room.
The commissioner looked at Jane and Muhonja as if he were a threatened wild bird, puffing up his chest and spreading his wings to scare her away.
“Can you tell us what is going on with the government trucks? We know there is a program coming in,” Jane said. “Can we be included so we can help or advise them?”
Jane had seen so many well-intentioned programs collapse due to ineptitude or cluelessness. So many outsiders think they know how to fix Kibera. They don’t understand that money alone is not the answer. How can the issues be fixed if those in power don’t understand the issues? And who knows the issues better than the people who actually live there? Jane and Muhonja could walk around Kibera with their eyes closed.
Besides that, Jane knew about the programs that were already in place. Kibera residents organized and found ways to make things run smoothly in their neighborhoods. People started urban gardens and water delivery systems. Earlier that year, a group of entrepreneurial young boys came up with a system for trash collection. They went around Kibera and distributed disposable bags. They collected trash in her neighborhood every Saturday and charged 20 shillings. Jane was proud of the boys, identifying a problem and doing something to resolve it. They were being productive and earning money at the same time. Jane knew how rare those opportunities were — the young people in Kibera want so badly to be able to earn money for themselves.
“This program is on and we are set,” the commissioner said. “What else do you people want?”
The commissioner’s defensiveness took Jane and Muhonja off-guard.
“We just want to be involved,” Jane said. “Let’s work together so we can make the most of this opportunity.”
“No, we are set and we have people we are working with,” the commissioner said. “This is a project that is unstoppable. So there’s nothing you people can do about it.”
“But … ” Jane said.
“I have many things to attend to. Like I said, there’s nothing for you to do.”
And with that, Jane and Muhonja were pushed out the door. Later, Jane learned that the government truck was part of the NYS and they were surveying the land to implement a garbage clean-up effort. Jane wondered what would happen to those boys.
The rage that leads to the fire on the Kamukunji grounds runs deep. It is a reaction to demonstrations held earlier that week. Demonstrators skewered politician Raila Odinga, who criticized Waiguru for stealing from the NYS. Waiguru supporters, who believe the NYS has brought positive change, believe Odinga benefits from keeping conditions poor in Kibera. One action sparks another reaction. The chain continues until there is an explosion. And once again, Kibera becomes a pawn in a political game. But this time, Jane tries to take as many positives as possible. Even though she has doubts about the NYS projects, she urges young people to be proactive.
“When a government decides to do something, take advantage of that and you people try to do as much as you can,” Jane says to the girls in Polycom and the young men who hang around the Olympic Bus Stage. “It may work or it may not. Even if it’s not a community gain, you’ll still have your personal gain.”
Jane chooses to be optimistic. Maybe one day, Kibera streets will be lit up by lampposts. Toilets will be accessible to all without pay. Garbage will have a designated area. Homes will be made from bricks instead of mud. Paved roads will expand far and wide under the feet of bustling Kiberans. Jane doesn’t realize that in the coming months, Waiguru will face corruption allegations related to the NYS. That Odinga will call for the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission to carry out a full investigation. That Waiguru will be cleared of any wrongdoing in what will become a 1.6 billion shilling ($15.7 million US) NYS scandal. That the streets will continue to be dark and roads continue to be unpaved. That business will go on as usual.
Section title photo: Protesters running from tear gas in Nairobi, Kenya (Flickr)
Mothers Find a Way (2005)
Mothers in Kibera know failure. They know what it’s like to start the day selling mandazi and not earn enough by the end to buy food for their children. They know how it feels to put their life savings into paying school fees but still come up short. And yet, they keep going. They try again. They try something new. They think about their kids and how badly they want to see them outgrow and leave Kibera.
Jane knows these failures. Sometimes these failures stalk her, hunt her down, and envelop her. But she never lets it stop her. She always finds a way.
As the face of Polycom Development Project and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness, Jane has garnered attention and, as a result, she has gone to the United States, England, Nigeria, India, and Uganda — just to name a few countries — to champion her causes. But contrary to common belief, Jane has not gained monetarily from these leadership positions. The same struggles and failures she saw early in her peace career are the same ones she sees now. She wishes she could gain a stronger financial foothold, at least enough to pay the Polycom and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness volunteers who have stayed loyal and dependable since each program’s inception. While she lacks funds, what she does have is connections. And she uses those connections to give the girls and women of Kibera something she herself cannot give them.
Heather, a graduate student from Eastern Michigan University, is in Kibera to learn more about peace initiatives for her master’s program. She volunteers with Polycom for a couple of days and sits in a weekly forum, where women gather to share their daily struggles. After the meeting, she approaches Jane.
“Jane, if I give you $100 today, how would that improve the lives of these women?”
Jane doesn’t have to think long about her answer.
“With that, I can help three women start businesses.”
“Three women? With $100?”
“Yes. That is enough to get them started.”
So instead of giving just $100, Heather gives $300. Jane calls a meeting. She will change the lives of nine women.
The meeting is held in Jane’s secretarial and photocopying shop, which doubles as headquarters for Polycom and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness. Fifteen women are scattered around the room. Some sitting, some standing. All are eager to see what Jane has called them all here for.
“I want to introduce a business idea to all of you. I’ve seen women trying businesses before and failing. The reason why these women fail is that they’re just so overwhelmed,” Jane says. “The little you have, you end up losing it because you have not sold enough. So people don’t move. People are so stagnant.”
“Yes, so how do we move up?” one Kiberan women says. “It seems impossible to get ahead.”
“In business you have to fail. You are only interested if you try more than once. But you need money to stabilize a business,” Jane says. “I have recently been given a donation, and I want to help women get their businesses going. Come up with some business ideas, and I will pick nine to support.”
Jane has worked out that she will give each woman about 3,000 shillings (about $30 US). The rest will be put in an emergency fund. But Jane quickly realizes that no-strings-attached monetary gifts aren’t productive. Most of the women take the money and disappear — it’s too easy not to. On the surface, this seems to be another failure. But Jane sees it as an opportunity to come up with something more sustainable. She doesn’t want to give up because she knows this is the way to economic empowerment for a lot of women. She calls another meeting.
It’s small, one with her closest Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness allies. She tells them her idea: to start a loan disbursement program. This time, there are no donations, so the women must be self-sufficient. Besides, gifts are too risky. Loans make the women accountable. She wants to get 15 women together and have each give 300 shillings to show their commitment. Each woman represents a rung on a ladder. Every woman contributes 300 shillings each week. One at a time, the loans are paid back; the woman paying back the loan that week contributes 500 shillings.
Jane’s idea is complex but will transform lives if they can pull it off. After each weekly collection, the next woman on the ladder will get a 3,000-shilling loan and so on and so forth for 15 weeks. The program is called Funding Hope. After the first round, the group hopes to be able to give 5,000-shilling loans. And by the third round, maybe it will pick up enough steam to distribute 10,000-shilling loans.
Once the women pay back their loan, their business can start making a profit. The businesses can’t be too big. One idea is perfect: a stand to sell boiled maize. Beatrice is already roasting maize, but she wants to expand her selection of goods. It is hard to do that, though, because there is never enough money to buy in bulk. That’s true for people all over Kibera. Women don’t shop for food. They buy what is necessary: a cup of sugar, 10 grams of salt, a half-kilo of flour. With 3,000 shillings, Beatrice can buy a pot and a bag of charcoal.
Women in Kibera work so hard, but individually, their efforts don’t go very far. Collectively, though, women can pull each other up. Before, the women didn’t have a system for success. There wasn’t a strong culture of saving and budgeting. This is what Funding Hope provides: a tangible goal every week. As the loans move down the ladder, the women become more empowered. The government is not helping them. Men are not helping them. They are helping each other.
The women of Funding Hope have been meeting every week but Jane’s attendance has been spotty. The constitution is clear — founding members must attend meetings or face a 200-shilling fine for each one missed. At this point, Jane owes 1,200 shillings and the constitution states that six missed meetings means automatic termination. At the seventh meeting, the group struggles over whether to let Jane stay.
“Jane started this,” says Evelyn, a member of Funding Hope and one of Jane’s most loyal supporters. She makes a plea to the rest of the group. “We can’t kick her out.”
“I accept your decision to kick me out. It’s in the rules,” Jane says to the group. “You’re staying true to the business model.”
“If we make an exception for her, we have to make exceptions for everybody,” another woman adds.
“I am not above the law,” Jane says. “There can’t be this impunity. You guys are a great team. I’m not running away from you guys but I don’t need to be a part of this. This is the right thing to do.”
Jane realizes there are other challenges to face, other failures that need to be overcome and rectified.
Jane’s son Mosh has received one of the best exam scores in his class. In fact, his score puts him in the top 100 nationally. He has fulfilled his responsibility. Now, Jane has to fulfill hers — to give him an opportunity to study at one of the premier high schools in Kenya. But his distinguished marks can’t pay the astronomical school fees at Maseno School, a national school that has just admitted Mosh. But Jane is determined. She will find a way to get him there.
She has 20,000 shillings but all that money quickly disappears to buy necessities for school. After all, Mosh will be leaving home for the first time. There are things that he needs that will last throughout the year, things like a mattress and sheets. Jane needs 34,600 shillings by the time they go to the school to register. She has three weeks to get it.
Jane sets out to earn what she needs. With Christmas coming up, she knows she’s not alone in trying to find some extra money during the holiday season. But she tries anyway. She offers to clean houses or wash clothes for people who live in a more affluent part of Nairobi. All the while, Jane is careful not to let too many of her neighbors know what’s going on because they think her efforts are futile. “Why do you aim so high if you know you can’t afford it?” is a question she has heard often. But through silent determination and faith, she continues. She won’t let herself give up.
Jane is at a public transportation stop and sees Janelle, a woman she does laundry for. Janelle has a child her son’s age.
“Hi Janelle, how are you?” Jane asks. “How is your baby?”
“Oh, we just found out her KCPE score,” Janelle says. “We’re getting ready for Form 1 next month. Isn’t your son getting ready, too? How did he do?”
“He scored 437 out of 500.”
The number brings a surprised look to Janelle’s face. It’s not often students get scores that high.
“What are you doing nowadays?” Janelle asks. “What school is he going to? How are you going to pay his school fees?”
“We are looking at Maseno School. I really don’t know. I don’t make that kind of money to pay those kind of school fees,” Jane says. “But as a believer, I know I won’t be let down.” Jane’s matatu arrives. The women part ways. Jane continues to think of ways to save more money.
Jane receives an unexpected call from Janelle. The small talk is succinct and Janelle gets right to the point.
“People in our church sometimes sponsor bright children from poor families,” Janelle says. “When you get the admission letter, just bring it to me.”
It is not exactly a promise but it gives Jane hope. She brings Janelle the admission letter from Maseno School as soon as she gets it and she continues to hustle to buy the things the school asks its students to bring, things like slashers to cut grass and a hockey stick. The hockey stick the school requires costs around 3,500 shillings. Jane walks to the nearest store and buys a second-rate hockey stick, one that has visibly rotting wood. Better something than nothing. If they want to send him away because of this, then it’s up them, she thinks to herself. With every shilling she spends for her son’s schooling, she holds on tighter to the small chance that he’ll make it there. Despite all of her work, she still needs a miracle.
“Jane, go to my house.” It’s Janelle on the phone. “Someone has decided to sponsor your boy.”
Jane stops everything she’s doing. She needs a moment to think, a moment to herself. She wants to make sure she heard Janelle correctly. But Janelle chimes in before Jane can ask any questions.
“Go to my house. You’ll get my daughter at this number and she’ll give you something for your boy.”
Jane fights the urge to let her knees give out and give thanks right then and there at her office. She finds public transportation to Janelle’s house.
Jane arrives at a gated house. She rings the bell. A girl Mosh’s age comes out.
“Are you Jane?”
“Yes,” Jane says through the bars.
The girl goes back to the house and retrieves a brown paper bag. She slips it through the gate. Inside the bag is a Bible, a tube of toothpaste, a 1,000-shilling note and a banker’s check for 24,600 shillings. Jane doesn’t even remember walking back to the bus stop. She doesn’t remember paying her bus fare. Jane is so excited that she feels delirious. What kind of miracle is this? After doing odd domestic jobs and paying for the hockey stick, she had 3,000 shillings before coming to Janelle’s house. The donation takes her a long way but she is still short the 7,000 shillings she needs for Mosh’s school uniform. But how can God allow her to fall short now? Her faith in Him has taken her so far already.
Jane and her son take the bus to Kisumu, the town where Maseno School is located. Sleep takes up most of the time on the bus but Jane’s sleep is interrupted by anxiety. Jane reminds herself to not be intimidated by the large, black SUVs that pull into the school parking lot. It is a very wealthy school, after all. It is to be expected. Jane reassures herself. My son deserves to be at this school, too. He belongs here, too.
The new day arrives the same time the bus arrives at Kisumu City Center. Jane takes one side of a large trunk and Mosh takes the other. The trunk, which holds all of Mosh’s possessions, is heavy but they’ll manage between the two of them. They must walk to the school, which is about a mile away. Jane hopes with everything she has that this will be Mosh’s home for the next four years. They arrive at a main hall. A row of desks is set up to register students. Mosh wonders off to tour the school.
“Please attend to every table to make sure your student is registered,” a school official announces. “If you don’t have anything, don’t line up. Go and see the deputy or chaplain.”
This makes Jane nervous. She hesitates to go to the first table. She watches other parents go through first. She sees students being turned away. She sees parents pleading for their children. She sees school officials refusing to hear any explanations. She stands and observes. Angst builds up in her for the next couple of hours. By 10 a.m., Jane forms a fortress around her nerves. She wills herself to be confident and stand her ground. Jane goes to the table to pay the main school fee. She uses the banker’s check. After the payment, she arrives at the table for school uniforms.
“I have everything except 7,000 shillings,” Jane says to the official.
“We announced that if you don’t have anything, then don’t line up.”
Jane meets the resistance with assertiveness.
“Listen, we have everything except this. You can’t possibly reject this child just for a school uniform.”
“You need to speak to the chaplain.”
Jane readies herself for the next battle. She needs to show the chaplain that she will not take “no” for an answer. She feels weak; she hasn’t eaten anything since she got off the bus and it is well past lunchtime. She ignores the grumbling in her stomach.
“You know what? I’m not going to lie to you and tell you there’s any more money. And I’m not going to ask anyone else for money,” Jane says. “My well-wishers have helped me. I’m not going away with this child.”
“Yes, but you are short,” the chaplain says. “And because of this we can’t take your child.”
“I’m not going away with this child. He is staying here and he is going to school.”
Jane’s phone rings. She is relieved for the distraction. She tells the chaplain it’s a call she must take.
“Jane, how is everything going?” says Esther, Jane’s little sister.
“I’m so tired. They need to accept this child. I don’t know what to do,” Jane says. “I’m so hungry. I haven’t eaten anything since morning. And he’s hungry. I feel so helpless.”
Jane’s voice carries. The right person hears her. The school deputy approaches Jane, whose head is in her hands. She’s sitting on the ground and she’s close to accepting that she has come all this way for nothing.
“Can I help you? You look so distressed,” the deputy says.
“Let me talk to him,” Esther says through the phone. Jane is too tired to object.
“My sister has come all this way,” Esther says. “Is there any way you can take my nephew?”
“The policy of the school is that if we accept him, then other people will ask then, ‘why is that?’”
The deputy is talking to Jane’s sister on the phone right next to Jane, but it’s as if the voices around her have become muffled. So many questions run through her head. What will happen to Mosh? What will we do if he can’t go here? What else can I do?
Jane looks up. The deputy hands the phone back to her.
“When you’re ready, take your son back to registration.”
Jane is not sure what she’s hearing.
“What just happened?” she asks her sister.
“I just told him that I’m looking for the money,” Esther says. “And he agreed to take Mosh. Mosh can stay. Now, head home and get something to eat.”
Jane stands up and brushes the dirt and dust off her clothes. She goes to find Mosh. When she does, she throws her arm around his shoulders.
“I’m leaving now. You be good here. I’m expecting good marks from you,” Jane says to her eldest.
“Is everything OK, Mom?” Mosh says.
“Yeah,” Jane says. “Everything’s going to work out.”
Section title photo: A general store set up in the Nairobi slums (flickr)
An Insect in the Forest (2015)
Jane is in her best — a black and white knee-length dress — standing in front of a video camera. She’s been in front of plenty of cameras before but this is her most important interview yet. She’s talking about the latest event she has put together: a two-day Urban Thinkers Campus here at the United Nations office in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
“At Polycom, we came up with the name ‘Wamama Tunauwezo' because we want to emphasize the importance of women’s roles when it comes to planning,” Jane says. “It is time that women be a part of the process.”
Jane never thought she would be here on this kind of stage. For so long, she has felt like an insect in a vast forest. She has been buzzing and hissing and chirping for the better part of the last decade. At times, she feels completely hopeless. How will anybody notice her in that forest? Nobody has heard her. Nobody until now.
The Urban Thinkers Campus was conceived by the United Nations and is intended to be an open space for meaningful and critical dialogue among urban researchers, decision-makers, grassroots organizations, stakeholders, and private citizens to work together to achieve positive urban transformation. The United Nations put out three calls for proposals throughout the year and 28 were selected. Urban Thinkers Campuses are expected to be held in cities across the world. Four of these events will be in Africa, but Polycom’s proposal was the only one in Kenya that was accepted.
The goal of all these events is to collaborate and come up with a New Urban Agenda, a global strategy for urbanization for the next two decades. This agenda will be presented at the U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (or Habitat III) in Ecuador the following year. The objective of this particular Urban Thinkers Campus is to focus on how to plan around safety, sanitation, and services with sustainable peace for girls and women in mind.
Jane walks toward Room 10 at U.N. Headquarters. It’s surreal to see the words “Wamama Tunauwezo” in print on the blue screen outside the door. Jane enters into a bright room with desks aligned in two big rectangles, one inside the other. There is a projector in the middle of the room. The room is so packed that the men and women occupying the seats are separated by a space no bigger than a chalkboard eraser.
On Day 1, Jane has brought together influential local groups, members of Nyumba Kumi (a devolution of security to the grassroots community to help promote national prosperity), religious groups, and most importantly, women and youth from Kibera to address trends in urbanization and to talk about ways to ensure safety and security for everyone who lives in urban areas. By the end of the day, they hope to produce a document of recommendations, which will be compiled in a report called, “The City We Want is Safe.”
The first day of the Urban Thinkers Campus is a success. At moments, exchanges became intense but respect and civility prevailed. People listened. People were heard. So many people in positions of leadership underestimate the power of being heard. Jane is almost in shock by how smoothly things run. Who would have thought that a community woman would be capable of pulling this off? There has always been a nagging voice in her head, the one that questions whether anyone would take a woman from the slums seriously. She felt that on her first trip to the United States through the International Visitors’ Leadership Program in 2010. Her colleagues equated her lack of proper education to ignorance and weakness. But Jane stayed quiet. Absorbed all the information she could, came back to Kibera, and made her message stronger. And now, her message finally has a platform.
She wouldn’t have been able to get here without the help of Carole Nyambura, who Jane calls her Kikuyu sister. After Jane’s proposal was accepted, she wanted to hone her event to be more professional. She called on Carole, a gender consultant in Nairobi. Throughout the day, Carole makes sure things ran according to schedule while Jane attends the meetings. When a couple of U.N. officials demand to see the latest version of the “The City We Want is Safe” report, Jane panics. It’s not ready. She worries that refusing to give them what they want will offend them.
“You stay quiet, Jane,” Carole says. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle this.”
Carole then heads down one of the corridors with a confidence that puts Jane at ease. Moments later, UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign Project Leader Christine Auclair approaches Jane. The women are surrounded by a lush setting of meticulously landscaped palm trees and fronds. Purple flowers from the nearby jacaranda trees make exquisite piles of petals by their feet.
“Jane, this is such a very rare opportunity,” Auclair says. “This is just the beginning of things that have never been done before.”
“Thank you, Christine,” Jane says. “I’m so happy for the opportunity.”
Jane flashes her signature contagious smile, the one that bears almost all of her teeth and makes her eyes squint. She goes back to her hotel room with even higher hopes for the second day.
Today will see the formation of a different group, one with county government officials, members of the Ministry of Devolution and Planning committee, academics, researchers, and peace practitioners among others. The goal for today will be to discuss how to achieve safety in urban areas and develop the documents of recommendations to add to “The City We Want is Safe” report.
After initial meetings, the 75 pupils break out into smaller groups. Jane walks around the room and checks in on each group. In one plenary, a girl from Polycom talks about a new project they are working on. They got the idea from a sister organization in India. Funding from a Vital Voices grant allowed them to implement it: a project that crowd-maps sexual violence in public spaces. They’re working with Safecity, who has trained them on how to campaign, organize, and use the crowd-mapping technology. Over the past few weeks, Polycom has been working to build evidence and data about sexual violence in public spaces. With the help of stakeholders and volunteers, the evidence and data can be used to implement campaigns and interventions based on trends and patterns that they see.
The crowd-mapping is vital because it focuses on preventing sexual harassment instead of responding to sexual assault. It’s always easier to prevent an assault than to deal with the aftermath. The girl talks about how Polycom has already mapped 15 locations, which are usually dotted along various school routes. These locations are where idle young men congregate, where young men can ogle or catcall or touch girls who are on their way to school.
“Sometimes, the men pretend they are urinating,” the girl says. “And really they are timing it so they can expose themselves to us. The project is good because it tells us what areas to avoid.”
Jane is so happy that the girl has brought it up because she believes the program’s benefits are twofold: it keeps girls informed by telling them which places to avoid and also gives girls a safe space to dialogue with adults about what is happening to them when they’re in the streets of Kibera. Jane remembers being surprised to hear one girl say that she and her friends are curious and sometimes go back to places where men expose themselves. It is these situations that make the girls very vulnerable.
By the time the young girl finished explaining the mapping project, Jane is beaming. This shows that good things are happening in Kibera and that girls and women there are taking charge to ensure their own security. Everybody in the room leaves with a new perspective of Kibera.
“This was so wonderful, Jane, one of a kind,” Auclair tells Jane at the end of the Urban Thinkers Campus. “So many people at different levels had the chance to talk and bring up their issues. This is one of the best campuses we’ve had.”
At the end of the two days, Carole has the complete “The City We Want is Safe” report. Jane doesn’t know it yet, but on the strength of the report and the mapping innovation discussed, Jane will be invited to New York City to make a presentation at the United Nations. She will be named a policy expert for the Habitat III process and be invited to Washington D.C., London, and Abuja to speak about responsive gender budgeting. She will take her message of empowering girls and women around the world. In the list of contributors for the New Urban Agenda, she will find her name prominently among other changemakers.
Even after all this, she will still consider herself a tiny insect in a vast forest. But she will remember this Kenyan proverb: a flea can trouble a lion more than a lion can trouble a flea. She will continue to buzz and hiss and chirp. She will have faith that out in the forest, she will continue to be heard.
Section title photo: The flags at the U.N. Office in Geneva, Switzerland (UN Photo)
The World Beyond Kibera (2010)
Jane is nervous. She has flown in a plane before but not this long. Not this far. She is sitting in the middle aisle of a Boeing 787. Her fingers are wrapped tautly around the knob of each arm rest. Her knees are a perfect 90 degrees. Her youngest son marveled at the size of the aircraft when he and his siblings dropped their mother off at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport just a few hours prior. An uneasy question crosses Jane’s mind. How will this giant airplane stay in the sky?
All of Jane’s senses are unsettlingly acute — all she can do is feel the vent’s whooshing air pounding down on her, smell the cabin’s musty stench as people settle in, and hear her heart beating as if it jumped from her chest to her ears. She remembers her first flight two years ago. It was a mercifully short 45-minute ride to Uganda. It was short enough that she could stay up throughout the whole trip, be completely aware that she was indeed still alive and still in the air. Those types of thoughts were absurd, Jane realized, but they were natural. So many people in the slums saw planes fly overhead, spring-boarding from Jomo Kenyatta and flying to exotic and exciting places all over the world. Nobody in the slums ever imagined he or she would ever sit in one of those planes.
Jane tries to settle herself, but knows she can’t stay awake for this entire flight. She’s headed to Amsterdam, Netherlands. The plane ascends and as soon as it reaches the cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, Jane begins her prayers. She unlatches her hands from the arm rests and takes out her rosary. She does 10 Hail Marys, sliding her fingers over every bead. She prays for a safe passage. She prays for her family, whom she is leaving behind for the next three weeks — the longest she has ever been away from them. She prays for herself and the opportunities this trip could present.
Please protect me on this trip. Please let me be open to all America has to offer.
Jane is headed to Washington, D.C., as a part of the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), which brings people from all over the world to identify the necessary skills for women to take on leadership roles in their own countries. Eleven women from across Africa will come to America to examine and analyze the roles of women who are in positions to make social and political change. They will meet with prominent figures from Women’s Campaign International, the Genevieve Society, and the Muslim Community Organization for Women and Girls to observe how the government gives support to women leaders.
Jane is the only one from Kenya and the only one from a slum settlement such as Kibera. She was surprised when she was first told she had been nominated for the program since there is no application for IVLP. Participants are nominated by the staff of U.S. Embassies in that particular country. Jane’s work with Polycom Development Project and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness had captured the attention of the necessary people in Kenya. Still she had to fill out forms and make her case after her nomination, but she soon found out she had been selected to participate.
Over the course of three weeks, the cohort of African women will go to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Iowa City, Phoenix, and New Orleans. After an eight-and-a-half-hour journey from Nairobi to Amsterdam, a six-hour wait in the Netherlands, and another eight-and-a-half trip from Amsterdam to the U.S., Jane’s plane descends into Washington, D.C. The sun is setting and she looks out her window. The White House and the Washington Monument rise above the vibrant green foliage and the view of those commanding monuments welcomes Jane to America.
By the time Jane arrives at her hotel, it is dark. She retreats to her room and the bed looks inviting, but after a long trip Jane is hungry. She is looking forward to what the U.S. has to offer. She freshens up and heads back downstairs to the lobby expecting a welcoming feast. But when she gets to the lobby, there’s no one there. In Kibera, all the shops are welcoming because doors are always open. Not here. Maybe it’s just because the air conditioning is running but Jane feels shut out. Jane walks outside the hotel doors but there aren’t many eating options. Jane feels unsure about how to order and how to pay. These are the kinds of things that orientation addresses. But back in Nairobi, Jane could sense that the official leading the orientation was thinking, “What is this slum woman doing going somewhere international?” The official didn’t properly inform Jane on what to expect.
Another thing Jane wasn’t expecting: for people to try to engage her so deeply in Kenyan politics. Jane is not a politician. She doesn’t deal with policy; she deals with reality. She addresses the things she sees right in front of her face. She mobilizes women and they brainstorm ways to empower themselves economically. She talks to young girls and finds sponsors so they can attend school without worrying about paying the seemingly insurmountable fees. She relates to young boys around Kibera who feel disenfranchised and helps them learn job skills. In Kenya, politics can be so dirty and divisive. Jane chooses to engage in activities where she can still effect positive change. That seems to not make a difference here. The theme of her cohort is “Women in Roles of Political Leadership.” Jane feels inadequate. Maybe that Kenyan embassy official is right. Maybe this is no place for a slum woman.
No, don’t think that, Jane tells herself. This is an opportunity to learn. People have always tried to keep you down. You’ve never let them do that. So Jane decides to be an open vessel, to fill herself with as much knowledge as possible. In Philadelphia, she learns what it means to have a thorough understanding of one’s country. In New York City, she learns about America’s suffrage movement. And surprisingly, Iowa City turns out to be her favorite stop of the trip. She is comforted by the small-town feel and the old cobblestone roads. The IVLP group meets with officials from the city’s largest school district and talks about how to deal with students who have various learning issues. Jane feels energized — for the first time on this trip, she feels she is learning something she can use back in Kibera.
New Orleans is the last stop of the three-week trip. Jane loves the diversity she sees there, and the fishing boats make her nostalgic for her girlhood days, when she would visit her grandparents’ lakeside village. The group goes to the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council. They are welcomed by a staff that is as diverse as their group, all various shades of brown. The council takes Jane and her colleagues to the New Orleans police station, where Jane sees something remarkable: institutions in place that put the victims first. The court and the police station are in the same place. She thinks back to Esther and how arduous it was to press charges against the security guard. They had to travel from the police station to the police doctor back to the police station. Here, in New Orleans, everything — psychosocial, medical, and legal help — is in one place. Traumatized victims don’t have to carry the burden of fighting through more bureaucracy than they have to. There’s also a hotline for people to call before situations get dire.
This is another thing I can bring back to Kibera, Jane thinks to herself. We need to focus on prevention rather than the crime. Jane’s American excursion is coming to an end but she is feeling a burst of momentum. What she has seen in the past three weeks has emboldened her and validates the work she is doing. She sees how much further Polycom Development Project and Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness can go. She wants to make her work more official and professional.
On the plane ride back to Nairobi, Jane sits a little bit easier. Her hands are clasped gently in her lap. Her head is not filled with doubts about whether the plane will stay in the sky. Instead, she thinks about the positive changes she will bring back to her programs. She thinks about proving that embassy official wrong, that a slum woman does have a place in a program like IVLP. She thinks about all the people living in Kibera, how all of them have one dream in common. Everyone who lives in Kibera hopes it’s a temporary stay. Many dream of going back to the village, settling on a piece of earth that they can call their own. Seeing their children run far and wide on open land. Jane is just like any other Kiberan in that sense. She dreams of going back to the village and building a home. She dreams of the big rocks she used to climb and the river she used to swim in as a little girl.
Like any Kiberan, she dreams of leaving the slums, but she’s different in another sense. As she looks outside her plane window and sees the White House and Washington Monument become smaller and smaller — like drifting memories — she now believes she has the capacity to leave the slums better than she found it. It’s a comforting thought, one that lulls her into a peaceful sleep. And when she gets to Kibera, she’ll be ready to go back to work.
Section title photo: Photo provided by Jane Anyango
About the Author
Maggie Thach Morshed is a former sports journalist whose byline has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee and other news outlets across the country. As a high school and college sports reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune, the largest newspaper in Utah, she became an award-winning journalist. Since leaving the newspaper industry, she has received a master’s in fine arts in creative nonfiction from the University of California at Riverside and become a teacher of writing and literature at Hamilton College Consulting and Summa Education. She now works for the Writing Center at the University of California, San Diego. She is working on a memoir about teaching English in South Korea. Much of her writing revolves around the ideas of immigration, assimilation, and identity. In 2015, Morshed worked with Glenda Wildschut of South Africa and wrote the narrative “A Bridge to Truth.”
Conversation with Jane Anyango
The following is an edited compilation of questions and answers between Woman PeaceMaker Jane Anyango and her peace writer, Maggie Thach Morshed, during the 2016 residency.
Q: You’ve held many roles throughout your peace career. Can you talk a little more about your role with the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC)? What was the goal and what do you remember from that time?
I was a part of the TJRC. When Kenya had its post-election violence, we had this committee of experts and we signed a national accord to share power. The position of prime minister was introduced. But we had all these issues underneath. The chaos erupted because there were so many underlying issues. Our goal was to go deep into these things and help Kenyans heal.
There were a lot of issues, especially land injustices: people whose land had been taken. We had mass killings. We had extrajudicial killings. We had communities that had never been developed completely, communities that had been sidelined. We had political assassinations. We also had unequal distribution of resources. We have areas where people can access so much and then there are people who can’t access anything. Also, the gap between the rich and the poor. People come and settle in your communities and they get a lot of resources for their village. We also have the issue of cattle rustling. This is among the nomadic communities, where we have a lot of stealing of cows and it’s never taken as a crime. At the end, we came up with a report.
We were a group of 20 or 30 and we went around the country and we listened to people. We went around for nearly six months. I would go around and ask people, “Now, what do you want? What is workable for you?” I remember this woman. Her son’s name was Udungusi. He was the only young man from his community that went to university. With the political madness (in 2007) and things like that, he was really talking against the government. He was a student leader and he was killed. In fact, he was killed and burned in his room. The body was badly burned, so when the body was brought home, there was no viewing, no nothing. It was buried. All the mother got back was his cardigan. Nobody ever talked about it. That’s all she got from her child. She’s still very bitter. She’s mourning her child to date.
Q: What is the “We Can” campaign and how does its message relate to your work?
I went to India to be a part of the “We Can” campaign, which works to end violence against women. We saw a project they were doing there and replicated it. We worked with SafeCity to map 15 locations of sexual harassment in Kibera. We collect data from the girls. The girls were given notebooks so the could write down who, when, where, how. So then, they were just giving us narratives. We call them “Ambassador’s Diary.” They’d say, “When we pass, this is what they do to us.” We collected this content with the talking boxes. They can talk about a dark corner, then they can call authorities to bring light to these corners. We collect data from the girls and we applaud them over the internet.
You can go online and see a full map. We designed our own data collection tool. If you look at the reports, you’ll see categories: “defilement”, “touching”, “incest”. It’s in real time, and with this website you’re able to see the exact location. You can send a report and someone can stay away from that spot.
I want to focus on prevention of sexual harassment and not really on the sexual assault. Because with the assaults, mostly there’s a way [the perpetrators] convince the girls to accept. But the harassment starts before the point of assault. It starts with touching and ogling.
Q: Your slogan at Polycom Development Project is “GPende.” Can you talk about what this stands for?
Gpende is a kiswahili word meaning, “love yourself.” So if you love yourself, you take care of yourself. You work hard. You get your values. This is my advocacy for both the women and the girls. Love yourself.
Q: Polycom Development Project is about empowering girls through knowledge and building self-esteem. What else does Polycom provide for the community?
In our culture, we don’t nurture certain talents, like in arts or sport, especially in our girls. The challenge is that we don’t give girls that space. Maybe it’s a global problem, but I see it here in Kenya. My goal for Polycom is to provide better than what I got. I remember when I joined Form 1, I was a serious traditional dancer. I was good. But nobody really saw [that potential] in me. Polycom is what I wish I had when I was a girl.
Q: Girls in Kibera have few outlets as their parents are often working and their teachers are preoccupied. Polycom seems to fill that void. Can you give an example of how you might relate to a young, struggling girl? What is your approach?
So the Friday before coming to this program, I heard about this young kid who was being beaten every now and then and he was being washed in cold water. Now, it’s cold in Nairobi. So the boy started crying and one of my girls came in. I have so many girls. One of them came in telling me, “This girl is beating this child.” I called out to her. I said, “Please come.” I asked, “Has he messed himself up?” Then she started beating him harder. She said, “This kid is giving me a hard time.” I told her, “Come, come.” I told her how we can help her. I told her, “Hey, you know what, I feel you. As a young girl like you, touching this mess. Woowee. Even me, I won’t touch it.” Then she started smiling and we started talking.
I had seen this girl around. Her name was Samantha. She was a 15-year-old girl. I told her, “I’ve never seen you in our programs. Why?” She told me she couldn’t because she had to take care of this kid (her young cousin). He was messing himself up (wetting and soiling himself). In Kibera, we don’t have flush toilets. The toilets are always very dirty so they give children the papers. They poop on it and then it’s thrown in the toilet or trash. This kid was used to the toilet and since he moved here, he wasn’t used to the paper. So I went to buy her a potty.
She came into my house and we had a long talk. She had been through so much. We cried together. She’s out of school and she doesn’t have money. Then I used one of my connections and talked to a woman from Australia. And that is how this girl got her scholarship.
Section title photo: Photo provided by Jane Anyango
Political Developments in Kenya and Personal History of Jane Anyango.
Britain gains political control of Kenya. Ethnic communities come under a central administration led by a British governor who represents the British crown.
British government designates over 4,000 acres for the settlement of Nubian soldiers, who fought for the British in various battles during World War I. This land is located right outside of Nairobi and would late become Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya.
During World War II, Britain establishes an allied base in Kenya.
Kenya gains independence. The first free elections are held. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenyan African Union, is elected prime minister and his party wins the majority of seats. From this point until 1978, Kenyatta suppresses all political parties other than the Kenya African National Union (KANU). A small segment of the population, mostly Kikuyu and allied with Kenyatta, take over ownership of most of the country’s land and wealth.
Kenyatta declares Kenya a republic and himself the president.
Jane Anyango is born.
Kenyatta dies in office and is succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, who is of the Kalenjin tribe. Most of the country’s wealth and land is transferred to Moi’s allies.
Moi and the National Assembly declare Kenya a one-party state.
Opposition groups are suppressed and politically active individuals are arrested. That, and human rights abuses, draw international criticism.
Jane marries and moves to Kibera, where her new husband lives.
Moi wins another term in widely criticized elections. His main opponents are former vice-president Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.
Ethnic tensions lead to numerous violent episodes across the country. In December, thousands flee and people are killed in rent battles that involve Nubian and Luo communities in Kibera.
After a 24-year rule, Moi is constitutionally barred from running for president again, which ends KANU’s four decades in power. Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, is elected president. Kenya grows economically but corruption continues and wealth remains in the hands of a few wealthy Kenyans. Disparities increase between rich and poor. Ethnic clashes for land and urban violence increase.
Former President Moi is granted immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.
The draft of the new constitution is completed, requiring Parliament’s approval and proposing to curb the president’s power and creating the post of prime minister. The deadline for enactment is missed.
Jane establishes Polycom Development Project, an organization to help mobilize, empower, and engage with girls and young women in Kibera and other informal settlements.
Parliament approves a draft constitution which keeps the president’s power unchecked. In what is seen as a protest against President Kibaki, voters reject the proposed new constitution.
National elections are held with many parties participating. Kibaki is declared the winner but his main rival, Raila Odinga, a Luo, disputes the victory. Because many people vote along tribal lines, controversy and tribalism ensues. An outbreak of violence leads to more than 1,500 deaths and up to 600,000 displaced people.
Jane mobilizes Kibera women and establishes the organization Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness. In the tumult of the post-election violence, her organization helped resettle IDPs, internally displaced persons. Within two weeks, her organization grows to 800 women.
The National Accord and Reconciliation Act is enacted. It is necessitated by the 2007-8 Kenyan crisis and temporarily re-establishes the offices of the Kenyan prime minister, along with the creation of two deputy prime ministers.
February — Kofi Annan and a team of prominent African leaders broker a power-sharing deal which sees Kibaki become president and Odinga prime minister.
March — Three new bodies are formed to investigate election: the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, the Commission of Inquiry on Post-Election Violence, and the Independent Review Committee on the 2007 Elections.
October — The report into post-election clashes calls for an international tribunal to try those implicated in violence.
Jane is selected to take part in the prestigious International Visitor Leadership Program, a professional exchange program that exposes emerging foreign leaders to the United States and helps cultivate lasting relationships with American mentors.
A new constitution designed to limit the powers of the president and devolve power to the regions is approved in a referendum. For the first time in Kenya’s history since gaining independence in 1963, there is no voting-related violence.
Jane receives the the Community Peacebuilder Award from Peace by Peace, which is a distinction that recognizes a person or organization that builds peace at a community level.
Jane is given the Outstanding Leadership Award from the women’s international network Women Win. She flies to Los Angeles to receive the award.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former minister William Ruto, who were once bitter political adversaries, confirm that they are forming an alliance for the 2013 election.
Jane becomes a member of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Reference Group. She is appointed to help develop a reconciliation agenda for the crimes that happened since Kenya gained its independence in 1963.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first elected president, wins the election with just over half of the vote. His opponent, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, challenges the result but the result is upheld by the Supreme Court.
On the International Day of Peace, Somali militants linked to al-Shabab attack the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and kill more than 60 people, demanding that Kenya’s military pull out of Somalia.
Jane receives a fellowship from the UN Women Civil Society Advisory Group.
Jane is selected as a Vital Voices Lead Fellow. Vital Voices is a global partnership that focuses on identifying, training, and empowering emerging women leaders around the globe.
al-Shabab militants carry out a massacre at Garissa University College in northwest Kenya, killing 148 people.
Jane receives the Millennium Milestone Maker Award for her humanitarian service to the United Nations regarding the Millennium Development Goals.
Jane is named an International Peace Ambassador by the International Women Peace Group, based in South Korea. The organization works on multiple peace initiatives, including drafting an international law on the cessation of war.
Jane is selected as a Woman PeaceMaker at the Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies.
Section title photo: Photo provided by Jane Anyango
Conflict History of Kenya
Kenya, like many other African nations, was colonized by a European power. Between 1893 and 1963, the British seized great swaths of land which stretched from the Indian Ocean to Uganda and the Great Rift Valley. Prior to that, Kenya was a country of 42 diverse ethnic nations that had inhabited the region for thousands of years.
British colonial rule was brutal. Indigenous Kenyans were on the receiving end of unprecedented acts of violence, which included sexual assaults, massacres, and torture. The British employed divide-and-rule policies that laid the groundwork for ethnic and racial tensions that still simmer today. The colonial government appropriated valuable land from the local population. White European settlers were invited to purchase large parcels of the most fertile land for plantations in the Rift Valley and Central Province and the surrounding highlands. Primarily Kikuyu — but also Luo, Embu, Maasai and other ethnic groups — were therefore forced from their ancestral lands. As a result, many became squatters or tenant farmers working for settlers in exchange for a small plot of land. Kenyan farmers were left with undesirable dry, marginal territories. They were also required to pay taxes despite being denied political representation and rights.
When independence was finally won in 1963, however, the policies enacted by founding president and liberation leader Jomo Kenyatta failed to meet the needs of the displaced population. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu, a member of Kenya’s largest tribe, and he was widely accepted as one of the founding fathers of the nation. He emphasized a model of forgiveness for past injustices. Kenyatta urged citizens to overcome tribal and racial differences in favor of national unity. It was perhaps through this model that he didn’t fully acknowledge affected communities who had been grieving for decades.
What became the Kibera slum first started as a settlement for Nubian soldiers in 1918. Starting in the 1880s, these Nubian soldiers from Sudan fought for and alongside the British in East Africa. They formed the King’s African Rifles in 1902 and continued to fight for the British in World War I and World War II. In 1915, when the colonial government started classifying Kenyans and placing them on “native reserves,” the Nubian soldiers were declared not native to Kenya. The soldiers could not return to Sudan and were not considered Kenyan, so the colonial government allowed the Nubian soldiers to settle on land plots just outside of Nairobi.
Despite the Nubian soldiers’ role in developing Kenya for the British, the British did little to secure them a place to dwell. After Kenya gained independence in 1963, the Nubians were not allowed to claim their land and the Kenyan government changed Kibera’s status to an “unauthorized settlement.”
Since the 1970s, landlords have illegally rented out their property to a significant number of tenants, making Kibera one of the biggest and most populated slums in the world. Kibera continues to grow despite its unauthorized status. People from rural areas move closer to the city for opportunities and eventually settle in Kibera. Every one of Kenya’s 42 tribes is represented in Kibera. The influx of multiethnic tribes together with the tribalism of Kenyan politics has caused many small ethnic conflicts throughout Kibera’s nearly 100-year history.
Other pressing issues have further exacerbated feelings of disillusionment among Kenyans, especially those in slum settlements. Lack of infrastructure and communal facilities stoke hopelessness among residents by keeping living conditions substandard. Land grabbing, illegal land acquisition, has also proven to be a major point of contention. Land is one of the most important assets for development and production. With loosely defined laws and regulation regarding land rights, land is acquired through illegal means to financially benefit corrupt government officials and/or other individuals in positions of power. Often times, those accused of land grabbing escape punishment, adding to the country’s rampant culture of impunity.
In 2002, Kenya had its first free and fair elections since the country gained independence and saw National Rainbow Coalition-backed Mwai Kibaki get elected president. But his ascent to the position didn’t come without controversy. Constituents tend to vote along tribal lines and voter intimidation was widespread; candidates and voters on all sides were attacked.
The new government ushered in some positive change; within the first five years of leadership, the economy grew around six to seven percent. Unfortunately, this growth did not trickle down to the poorest Kenyans, vulnerable people living in extreme poverty in urban slums like Kibera.
The government also failed to resolve issues regarding land, squatters, corruption, and impunity. For decades, land grabbing by corrupt powerful leaders rendered ordinary citizens helpless. In 2004, the report of the Ndung’u Commission — the result of an inquiry set up by the National Rainbow Coalition government to examine irregular allocations of public land — was handed to the president, but no action was taken. Serious allegations concerning human rights violations had been made against Kibaki’s government which included unlawful detentions; torture and ill treatment; assassinations and extrajudicial killings; and economic crimes and grand corruption.
The 2007 election between Kibaki and Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga occurred during a time of immense disillusionment with the president and the political system. Strong ethnic overtones in the campaign period intensified long-held historical grievances that successive post-independence governments had ignored. The campaign was intense, with each side taking unprecedented steps to try and gain an advantage. Politicians exploited ethnic differences to drum up support for their political benefit. As a result, violence escalated around the country. Opinion polls conducted a few days before the election indicated that Odinga held a minor lead, fanning the hopes of supporters. There was a record turnout, particularly of young voters, on December 27.
Tensions began to rise during the vote count after the chair of the Electoral Commission of Kenya hinted at fraudulent activity. ODM pointed to significant discrepancies between the tallying center results and the figures filed by returning field officers. Nevertheless, the commission announced Kibaki the winner.
Late in the evening of December 30, Kibaki was sworn in at a hastily convened ceremony. At the same time, ODM held a press conference and repudiated the results. An election officer claimed the announced figures had been concocted at the tallying center. Both spontaneous and premeditated violence immediately erupted in ODM strongholds and throughout various parts of the country. Security forces were deployed to contain the situation but their intervention exacerbated the violence.
Fueled by ethnic tensions and the controversial election results, violence spilled into the new year and erupted in Kibera. Communities separated and aligned themselves with Kibaki (from the Kikuyu tribe) and Odinga (from the Luo tribe). Small shops and homes were looted, people fled their homes, and dozens were killed in Kibera. According to international sources, 1,200 Kenyans were reported killed and 500,000 Kenyans fled their homes. The tumult lasted for several weeks.
Since then, some important inroads have been made. For example, institutions such as the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission were established and mandated to identify and address the root causes of the conflict. The former has made efforts to curb hate speech and set up an early warning and early response system in collaboration with the police operation department, the criminal investigation department, and the national steering committee on peace. The Commission of Inquiry on Post Election Violence completed its investigations and submitted its major report to the government.
The promulgation of a new constitution in August 2010 was a significant milestone in transitioning to a stable and cohesive democracy. The vote passed peacefully and overwhelmingly, with 67 percent of Kenyans supporting it. The vote itself was heralded as a great success for the country; despite a proliferation of ethnic hate propaganda, it was the first time a voting process had proceeded without bloodshed since independence in 1963. The new constitution provided the basis for legal and institutional reforms and encourages an equitable distribution of resources. Power in the presidency would be dissolved through the introduction of a devolved, two-tier model of government, which sees 47 county governments possessing semi-autonomous status.
The referendum vote in 2010 that brought a new constitution demonstrated Kenyan’s courage and capacity to go to the polls calmly even in a tense and volatile environment infused with fear mongering.
With the 2013 race between then-prime minister Raila Odinga and Jubilee Coalition’s Uhuru Kenyatta, many feared a repeat of the 2007-8 post-election violence. But the election under the new constitution proved to be relatively peaceful. Kenyatta received 50.7 percent of the vote. Odinga challenged his victory and took his grievances to court, but the Supreme Court upheld the results.
Although Kenya avoided a potentially violent outburst, there were still many pressing issues the country had to face, including high unemployment, land reform, ethnic tensions, resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs), regional and socioeconomic inequality, and a culture of impunity.
On top of these issues, girls and women who live in Kibera face other unique challenges. In Kibera, most people live without electricity, running water, accessible toilets, and continuous schooling. Life expectancy is short and teenage pregnancy is high. Lack of access to clean water and faulty sewage systems pose significant obstacles to women, who are for the most part the heads of the households. It prevents mothers from providing a stable and safe environment for the children to grow up in. High rates of HIV/AIDS and incidents of rape are other crises that girls and women in Kibera face.
Chiu, Stephanie. A Leopard’s Tail: The Life and Work of Alice Nderitu of Kenya. Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego, 2012.
Flood, Zoe. “Kenya’s slum dwellers fear violence as voting in presidential election to begin.” 3 March, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/9904514/Kenyas-slum-dwellers-fear-violence-as-voting-in-presidential-election-to-begin.html
International Crisis Group. “Kenya After the Elections.” May 2013. https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya/kenya-after-elections
Section title photo: Rebel fighters in Kenya (Wikipedia)
The Women PeaceMakers Program
The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice’s (IPJ) Women PeaceMakers Program annually hosts four women from around the world who have been involved in human rights and peacemaking efforts in their countries.
Women on the frontline of efforts to end violence and secure a just peace seldom record their experiences, activities and insights — as generally there is no time or, perhaps, they do not have formal education that would help them record their stories. The Women PeaceMakers Program is a selective program for leaders who want to document, share and build upon their unique peacemaking stories.
Women PeaceMakers are paired with a Peace Writer to document in written form their story of living in conflict and building peace in their communities and nations. While in residence at the institute, Women PeaceMakers give presentations on their work and the situation in their home countries to the university and San Diego communities.
The IPJ believes that women’s stories go beyond headlines to capture the nuance of complex situations and expose the realities of gender-based violence, thus providing an understanding of conflict and an avenue to its transformation. The narrative stories of Women PeaceMakers not only provide this understanding, but also show the myriad ways women construct peace in the midst of and after violence and war. For the realization of peace with justice, the voices of women — those severely affected by violent conflict and struggling courageously and creatively to build community from the devastation — must be recorded, disseminated and spotlighted.