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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Modest? Not me

The other day I had an interesting experience with some friends in my circle that has left me with much to reflect on. I had been going through a rough period where for a month it was one bad news after the other until I felt I couldn’t hold up, but had to keep going. In between losing two friends and two relatives; losing some personal items like my mobile phone and my bank card, the world was really looking grey to me. I skipped weekly coffee with my buddies but kept in touch when I could while appreciating their support. Now here I was, when I could say the storm is over, and one of them commented, “Sophie you are strong, you look good considering what you have been through?”

I ignored this knowing it was to pass but my friend Mercy was not to let it go!! Soon the discussion became even more focused and in using mathematical language I literally became the subject of the formula!! They started pushing it down my throat that I am very modest when I am given compliments and my efforts to change the topic seemed to give them even more energy to go on. I wanted to go underground but the corner I was in didn’t give much advantage!!!

By the end of the evening I had a lot to reflect on, am I modest? If you ask me the question right now, I will tell you HELL NO. I know that I have a high self esteem so how can I be modest? No way!! Yet I know there are many times when I feel people are giving me more credit than I deserve. In fact, more often than not I think someone is talking about someone else, that can’t be me!! Sometimes I laugh as I tell someone u can’t use such a big term, which is for people with greater

I remember while in a training session where one of our colleagues had won some prestigious award but was not talking about it, the facilitator had to literally remove the words from her mouth and we got discussing about how many times as women we are too modest about our achievement. I was one of the most vocal in this reminding the sister that she is being too modest about her achievements at any opportunity I got!! Now I got into the shoes, and it pinches!!

As I reflected more about this, I realised that I was more bound to accept positive or even negative feedback if I agreed with this. The challenge for me is to realise others also watch and may think differently. I am now working at accepting compliments graciously. It feels nice, but then that would mean that I stop asking myself “really” and soar as high as I can when I can. That is not easy for me.

Many times we are so used to getting negative feedback and only get to get the positive words said when we can no longer hear them, when we are long gone. I take it upon myself to compliment others but I am cautious when receiving compliment. I believe that the much criticism we receive every day of our lives with rarely getting compliment make us more accepting to negative feedback than positive. Sometimes it makes us not believe in how good we are and hence not see our self worth as high as we should.

I am taking a lesson on accepting positive feedback without modesty, I am trying!!!!

Thanks to my buddies.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Revolution, Lets dance !!!

I came across a title of a book, yes a book on activism that was far from the dull topics, I normally come across, , ‘What’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance?’ by Urgent Action Fund Woo!! May be the reason I first picked this book is because I like dancing!! In addition, if I am to connect activism and dancing, why not! This publication brings us the experiences of more than 100 activists from around the world. The book is written in a very easy language and unique style. It describes what women go though in the process of activism in a way only a woman can. It touches on issues that sometimes women find themselves not able to talk about, lest they are seen as not being committed to the course. It touches on their fears, hopes, exhaustion, grief, pleasure, pain, loss, funding issues, burn out…you name it in a very personal way.

I picked the book since it speaks to me. In the process of human rights and any kind of community work, there is rarely cause for joy, in fact what is a cause for joy may not be look so to an outsider. Why would one be happy that an abused woman has accessed medical help? Abuse is sad enough!! But when you are in that field you know there are millions of abused who don’t access treatment, then it is good news, but there is no dance. There is no celebrations coz you are wondering what next.

I finished reading the book put it down, and back to life and being busy is part of life, isn’t it? While working with people, with communities, any kind of social and community work, sometimes we forget ourselves as we delve into work, work and more work. I remember some community based volunteers I used to interact with while working in a project that didn advocacy on violence against women in Makueni District. Every time I went to meet with the volunteers in the field, it was one ugly story after the other and I could not get enough words to console them. The stress levels were always quite high and despite the motivate ion they got in different ways, I always felt their fatigue. It didn’t make matters any better that I carried back with me the stress of more than 100 persons, but it made it easier to understand their experiences, demands etc and hence work at making their work easier in small ways that the organization could manage. At one time during a field session, we decided to have a dancing night for the volunteers. Even after working with them for sometime, I had never seen these side of them!! They danced and made merry and one could feel some days had been added into their lives!! For once, there was no issue of the clients, the police case, and the hospitals….just caring for the carerer. For many of them I did not know they had such beautiful smiles, or such energy….

Self-care is not a new concept but it is new in implementation. In between the every day works schedules are other places within our social and family circles where we need to participate in offering voluntary service, and in African context this is not just expected, it is obvious. In fact many times friends and family will not ask if you are available for an event, but rather inform you of the time and place. You have to be antisocial not to be there. Since it is tit for tat, you don’t want a day when you will need them and they are not there. Unfortunately, our bodies can only take so much and hence the body hangs up and one has to switch off not restart. In 2008, my body sent me this message but I did not get it clear. I remember traveling to Cape Town for the AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development - awid.org) international forum and before that, I was just busy which like someone commented to me the other day ‘as usual’. I actually did not feel tried or fatigue, or rather I did not listen. The AWID forum was not only exciting but long hours. As we traveled back, from Cape Town to Jo’burg I felt somewhat tired but apart form avoiding any of the snacks, all was well, just a little tired. Fate was not on our side as the plane from Cape Town was a bit late so it was helter skelter at the airport to check in to the Nairobi bound flight. About 45 minutes later, I realized I had a problem with breathing. When the flight attendant put oxygen mask, I removed 10 minutes later, telling her I was okay, but 5 minutes later, I had to accept the mask again as I couldn’t breath at all and travel with mask until we arrived in Nairobi. I knew I was sick but after several tests, the doctor confidently told me, that is fatigue. Despite not having studied medicine I confidently told him, that yes, I knew I had some fatigue, but I was also sick, He smiled and explained what prescription he would be giving me ( yes you see I was sick) for the fatigue. I did not know fatigue can get that severe, but I was a major lesson learnt for me (not that I implement this fully…but at least I know).

Incidentally, during the AWID forum I attended several sessions where many women shared on how fatigue had worked on them at one time or the other. Many shared how they got ill and had lifetime complications because of fatigue. I remember waking up one day and thinking, cant I just be selfish today and it be just about me, just for today? Not handle anyone’s problems, not care, just sleep, just for today? Some will tell me that will only happen when you are under the grave, but I want to believe that in this life, there is a time for being carefree and rejuvenating.

I still wonder.

I still wonder why I feel guilty when I want the ‘me’ time. Life will always have ‘urgent’ issues to be handled, but I will not handle them if I collapse. There is no consolation that since I have not collapsed today, then I should just go forward. I like putting across this comment to my network of pals ‘ I know I need to go slow, but until I figure out how I need to do…’ and list out all the ‘urgent’ things I ‘need’ to do. This morning I woke up seriously thinking about this more. I still do not have answers. As a try to prioritize and see what urgent and not important etc is, I end up with ALL IMPORTANT list, so I need to rethink.

But until I figure out how I leave with this comment which is found in the book, ‘What’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance?

Sometimes it just takes that fresh spark of an idea to get you thinking about different ways of being,

To open up possibilities.

To wonder what it would be like to dance naked, without worrying about wobbly bits and anyone watching.

And why not?

Let’s dance and see where it takes us”

Meanwhile, I hope to get less eyebrows raised if I ask, where is the next dance!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mending her torn dreams

Tabitha Ndila*(not her real name) was a humble young woman, determined to go past her secondary school education yet her family could not afford the fees required. She decided to go to work at the local centre as a cyber attendant where she sold air time and did photocopy, printing etc for her boss. It didn’t pay much but at least it gave her hopes, hopes that one day she would be able to get a college certificate and make her chances in life better.

She had big dreams.

Her father did not support this, “why should be a girl live away from the house”, he asked, yet he was not willing or able to pay a cent for her college education. He felt that Tabitha was old enough for marriage, at 22 years of age she ‘should get married and give him wealth not ask from him’.

Tabitha persisted and worked hard while saving the little she earned. She hoped to save at least Kes 40,000 (approximately 460 USD) despite earning only Kes 4,000 (45 USD) per month which she used for her upkeep and house rent. She underwent difficulties at work despite her determination; the boss was making sexual advances which she refused and continued working hard and ignoring his advances. She felt that the boss would soon give up on her; after all she was dating his son. She was in charge of the cyber hence she had constant interactions with the boss. The tension continued but she had no much choice, couldn’t just resign, she didn’t have a college education, skills or capital hence felt her hands were tied.

I first met Tabitha in some unfortunate circumstance. It was a day she will never forget in her life! She was woken up by her boss in wee hours of the morning demanding that she gives back the keys to the shop and the cash she had carried with her. It was not unheard off for the boss to come for the day’s profit from her but not at this hour of the night or rather morning, 4.00am. The boss had threatened with terminating her employment the day before so this was the final handing over, but at 4.00 am? She woke up and fumbled with the lights to get the hand bag that had the documents needed and tried to give her boss by opening the door slightly, but this was not to be. The man apparently had other plans and pushed the door on the unsuspecting and shocked lady and raped her! She screamed but nobody came to her aid.

I met Tabitha in 2006 as when I managed violence against women program. She had been referred to the community based advocates. The case was quite sensational and hence I intervened from the Nairobi office to offer more support. Despite the trauma that she suffered she managed to think straight and take actions that many women who would be seen more empowered that Tabitha would have hesitated to. The perpetrator left her in shock but also very bitter. She called her sister who is nurse who advised her on the dos and don’ts and she had the courage to take action. I still marvel at this lady! Neighbours were unresponsive and she had to make the decision stand on her own and start the long journey to the police station with her soiled night dress and pants as evidence well packed in a bag. The perpetrator was waiting at the road but she managed to run as the perpetrator followed her to the police station, what guts!! As she recorded her statement the perpetrator shamelessly offered her Kshs 40,000; just what she needed for her college. She declined. Despite reporting to the police station at 6.00 am she was not given escort to the hospital until 11.00am. At that time, it was a legal requirement in Kenya for a P3 form to be filled at the police station before seeking treatment.

The District hospital offered her the Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) but the journey had just begun; and it proved a long and painful one. The small town was alive with news as the rapist was a popular man in the locality. I cannot claim to understand what Tabitha went through, but the little that I journeyed with her was enough to tell me that this soft spoken ordinary lady was no ordinary girl. I assisted by taking her to a rescue home for some time to get away from the hype in the village. Her father was particularly not pleased with her, after all, “why did she stay in the town centre alone”. However, after talking to the father I saw a victim of flawed masculinity and my heart went out to him. He was bitter with himself for not having protected his daughter; another man had injured his pride.

I was with Tabitha when the Anti retroviral Drugs (ARVs) reacted so negatively on her and on our way from Nairobi where she was in a rescue to Makueni her rural home, we kept making stops for her to throw up. She was nauseated throughout and could barely keep anything in her stomach. Sometimes I would look at the tears in her eyes and pray that she gets the strength to move on. Sometimes I felt that I am in her thoughts and wondering, ‘is it worth it? Can’t I just leave this and forget it ever happened?”

But she didn’t.

Sometimes I went to see her at the rescue home and felt I had no words for her. Her life had been turned upside down!

She spoke out for herself and for many others. The neighbours refused to give testimony for the court process after intimidation. With counselling and the support that she received through the organisation, she persisted. It was disheartening to realise the far that the perpetrator (who was a teacher, demoted from a head teacher after sexual abuse cases) was willing to go. It took a lot of work to block his corruption as he tried to bribe his way in different areas. He tried to get early retirement and process benefits before the case was determined (yes he was one year from retirement, 54 yrs!) but with help of some good lady officers we were able to block this, hopefully he didn’t manage later on. The determination of this young lady encouraged us. As is common in the Kenyan and other justice systems, the case took so long and by the time I left the organisation, it was still going on in court. I gathered later on that it was transferred from the local court to Nairobi to avert corruption. She had done everything to the letter as sexual gender based violence (SGBV) survivors are advised, yet it was not smooth sailing for her.

When I think of great women I have encountered, she is one of them. I have not forgotten Tabitha to this date, I am proud of her that she was able to speak out!! It took a lot of strength for her to do this and for sure she is a great woman. As I keep wondering what became of the case, I know that Tabitha is a winner. I hope she is the last woman or girl that man ever touched!! For sure he felt haunted as his ‘40’ days had expired. I guess he could not understand why the organisation was interested in this girl who is a ‘nobody’ in the social status. My interest was in Tabitha and the many other girls that this man had defiled and got off easy. My interest was with the many other women and girls that were at risk since this man was free. I later met another young woman in her mid 30s who disclosed that the same man had sexually violated her in teenage years! How many more had he violated and went scot free?

But Tabitha is a shero, for she spoke out; she spoke out for them for me, for us. She spoke for the school girls who had suffered under this man and could not do much about this. She spoke out despite the challenges of doing so in the community. Her life would not remain the same, but she could pick up her torn dreams and move on with life. She could make sure the incident does not define her.

I hope the world will support her as she mends her torn dreams.

I will make a difference in my small ways

There is a quote, which I like “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in the same room with a mosquito”. Whoever came up with that quote must have lived in Africa and you must have been in same room with a mosquito at night to understand what this means. The almost invisible creature can cause so much discomfort that you would have to be dead not to wake up to sort it out!

Many times, I have felt disillusioned in my own country and what comes to mind first is the referendum 2005. I had just arrived from an exciting training on anti-corruption and good governance in the USA and I really felt I had changed my mindset, I was thinking like a Kenyan after the 5 weeks experiential learning. I arrived back to Kenya in the middle of the Banana / Orange craze. First, I did not quite understand when friends sent me email asking ‘are you banana or orange?’ Immediately I landed, it was like being hit with some air balloon (never been hit by one anyway) but it was a stark reality that I was not ready to face. After the dreams I had this was not what I wanted to see. I was in desolation and for more than one month, I felt I was in my own world!! I actually felt physically sick and thought this was some jetlag but after one week, I knew otherwise. Nothing could lift my spirit as I found that the people close to me didn’t quite understand where I was coming from when I insisted I was neither orange or Banana. That I did not think we needed the referendum to go ahead as things were etc. Many even told me, that they knew my stand!! Before I spoke they knew which side I was going to vote (due to my second name!!!).

My voter card took the advantage to disappear and since I had no intention of voting I made no effort to replace it. By the time I figured that I should spoil my vote rather than not vote it was too late... can I admit I have no regrets? I struggled to be positive about Kenya but it was very difficult.

Fast forward, 2007 I went to work in South Sudan and this was a 3 months experience that I am not likely to forget. I did not know what it means to have been at war, and I saw dilapidation that I had never seen. What strikes me now is that whenever there was some insecurity threat, or curfew we ( my colleague Justa was a Tanzanian) reminded each other about our air tickets, passports etc just in case. We knew that if the worst came the UN would be in no position to evacuate every foreigner there but at least there was hope. Two weeks after I came back to Kenya, excited to be back home, sweet peaceful home, the Post Elections Violence was here! It was a nightmare for everyone. I woke up every day imagining that this was the end of it all, but every day brought new fears. While talking to Justa (she stays in Kenya but had gone to Tanzania for holiday) as she sought information on what was happening she reminded me of precautions “remember to have your documents ready”.

That was when reality struck me, “Where to? It doesn’t matter Justa, I have no where else to go this is home” I told her. After our telephone conversation I thought more about those words and I felt in despair, yes, this is Kenya, this is home, where else would I ran to?

That is my inspiration, that I am the one to make a difference in Kenya.

I am committed to the initiative ‘Kenyans Making a Difference’ (KMD) because this is my home, there is no short cut. I am convinced that I am part of the difference that Kenya needs. The difference that will make every girl and boy, lady and gent, man and woman say, I am proud of being a Kenyan. A Kenya where women and girls are not feeling like their bodies are the war zone, a Kenya where men and women will not be dying of hunger, where we are neighbors to each other.

The more I share with other Kenyans the more certain I am that Kenyans are ready and willing to make a difference, problem is we do not put our efforts together. The simple things like being positive about one another, saying ‘hi’ when I am seated to other Kenyans (and I take Kenyan to mean anyone within the borders at now, whether as a citizen or a refugee), not running away from the beggars on the street, not looking for excuses not to do the best……..all simple little things, that add up.

I now have a strong believe that I am making a difference wherever I am. I make a difference in my own small ways and if a mosquito can cause enough discomfort then what about me?

I am an optimist!!