While participating and being actively involved in development work, a bilateral exchange usually occurs whereby the Westerner learns more from the community than aid or help is actually given. During these bilateral experiences, people use clichés such as, “enlightening, life altering and change.” This idealism, and “do-good spirit,” quickly transforms, when one actually sees the harsh reality facing the developing world. As an African American, I was completely ignorant about Africa before coming to Kenya. My knowledge consisted of a romanticized view of old culture and ancient wisdom. Before arriving, I promised myself to fully throw my being into the culture and the ways of the people in Kenya. I knew I wanted to work in human rights; as a lawyer in the States, rights are coveted, and we are trained to zealously defend people’s rights. Once I arrived at my host family’s home, visions of Africa were streaming into my mind; some of the images were stereotypical but there were also colors, bright ones, with mamas selling sweet breads and fruits. There were men with the arduous task of pushing carts of produce, with the fierce sun blessing their skin, along with graceful Swahili women wearing bui bui and hijabs. I completely emerged myself into my family life; I gave up my vegetarian diet and I dedicated myself to learning Swahili. For me, Kenya started to change from the stereotypical picture of Africa being a dirty place, corrugated iron roofs, and idle men, into a burgeoning culturally complex country with a lot to offer the world. My volunteer experience truly started at F.I.D.A (Federation of Women Lawyers) office in Mombasa. F.I.D.A is an international well-funded organization that promotes equality and due process of law for women.
Kenya is a country fighting its colonial history and present day social and economic problems. Many of the economic calamities facing sub-Sahara Africa are rooted in cultural, social, economic and legal upheaval that occurred during the colonial era. Many of the citizens in Kenya believe corruption is rife and that ethnic tensions are thwarting economic and infrastructure development. All of these issues came to head during the 2008 elections with full-scale ethnic violence and the creation of the Grand Coalition Government.
Currently, the citizens are growing weary of the Grand Coalition government. The citizens want more transparency and accountability. Food prices have surged and the local newspapers are inundated with stories alleging corruption by government officials. Local organizations and NGOs are actively engaging in dialogue and addressing issues pertaining to human rights and good governance. In fact, G10, a prominent women’s group, urged fellow female citizens to boycott sex to pressure the government to act more responsible and accountable to the citizens. Many citizens are discouraged. The resonating theme of doom and self-destruction is all too common as Kenyans discuss their plight. Speculations of extra-judicial killing and assassinations are troubling to the citizens and the human rights activists’ community.
Constructive dialogue is the precursor for ideological and paradigm shifts in society. Sustainable development has to be rooted in fostering and creating safe spaces for dialogue, in order for true change to take place. My work with F.I.D.A is inextricably link with empowering the local citizenry, primarily women. Kenya, like some other African societies, is patriarchal. Therefore, certain cultural customs can at times violate Kenyan law and Western perceptions of fundamental rights. As a western trained lawyer, it is difficult to juggle cultural autonomy and fundamental rights. Many women are solely supported by their husbands, which can place them in a precarious situation if their rights are violated by their spouses. F.I.D.A offers an avenue of legal advocacy and a safe space to foster dialogue to empower women. It is an awesome experience to actively advocate for women to take ownership of their lives and watch them challenge their spouses in court by exercising their legal rights. A voice, an avenue, a safe space to challenge and debate is essential in equalizing society and addressing the imbalance of power in Kenyan society.
F.I.D.A concentrates on women’s right, but women’s rights are not exclusive, nor does the topic operate in a vacuum, but in a civil society, everyone must have equal protection under the law. F.I.D.A , at times, is viewed as an agitator or “un-Africa,” but the dialogue and discussion the organization fosters concerning human rights is vital. Mombasa, Kenya is perfectly blended with various cultures, ethnic groups and religions. Discussions about rights can easily be muddle with discussions about cultural sensitivity and religious freedom. Well, the issue of human rights is not an easy discussion and answers will not be black or white but with dialogue and constructive debate cultural sustainable answers can be reached to address the legal ills facing Kenyan society. During the historical Obama presidential campaign, I witnessed Kenya come together under the umbrella of pride for the son of a fellow statesman, such zeal and energy was magical. I firmly believe that same energy can be used to transform society. And with organizations such as F.I.D.A , the dialogues about empowering women and women’s rights are opening doors and challenging the status quo. Granted, F.I.D.A’s work is just a small piece, but that little piece will fit in the large piece of creating a society that can adequately provide shelter, clothing, food, health care and sanitation to its citizens, while ensuring that people live with dignity.