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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.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christ is born, the season is here

I am not sure why, but I am looking forward to this Christmas season. What is special about Christmas? Why the joy that seems to bubble out of the seam of our hearts? For some it is because this is the end of year. We are thankful that the year is coming to a close and cannot wait to get some rest and conclude chapter 2012. In Kenya it is common for many organisations and businesses to close for this break for about two weeks, whether as a break or compulsory leave days for all staff. Whatever the case, many would rather take leave days at this time of the year than be working. We want to celebrate, visit places and simply do those things we may have looked forward throughout the year. For some Christmas places are decorated, presents bought and go into great length to connect with family and friends. The essence of Christmas for Christians is that we commemorate the birth of Christ. One of verses in the old testament that is likely to be read in many Churches this season declares “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6). The date when Christ was born is not relevant as to the fact that he was born and there is joy because of this. He came to be like us, God living as man, the highest form of love bringing joy and peace to the world. The closest I have come to understanding this is a reflection I read some years back that remain edged in my memory. A certain lady was watching some geese freezing in the winter weather and she dressed up warmly and went outside to try and get the geese into a warm place. She tried herding them and the more she tried the more they ran away from her. She struggled and frustrated that the geese do not realise she was out to help them thought “I wish I can speak their language”. That is what God did in sending the second person of the trinity to live as a human being. Different cultures have different traditions of celebrating Christmas. When I was growing up I knew Christmas as the time I was assured of a new dress and special dish of chapatti and a lot of meat and other delicacies; goats were killed and we would have many relatives visiting each other and rejoicing. I would see people I had not seen in a long while, and if I was out visiting with my sister (RIP) as was common for me, this was the time to back to the village and join the family. It was unheard of to spend Christmas in town! In the Church, the Catholic Church has some of the most memorable traditions. As a child I got very mesmerised by the portrayal of the nativity scene using various sculptures that gave a good idea of what the birth of Jesus was like with many stars (lights of different colours). For a child, that memory was enough to realise ‘there is joy in the air’. The other most memorable aspect was singing Christmas carols moving from one house to the next. I recalled this when I attended a beautiful Christmas carols’ show at St Paul Chaplaincy Nairobi. I love singing, and hearing old memorable Christmas songs was heavenly. In particular there is this song ‘Indulci jubilo’ that I sang during Christmas while in university choir but not heard a choir sing it since! In addition to others like to mention but a few the Handels messiah songs ‘for unto us a child is born; Halleluya’ that graced the night. The theme for the show was geared to the elections in 2013 with the theme of peace. The message could not have been more opportune. In Kenya, one can hardly thinking about elections without thinking about violence and in less than three months we will get into elections. Already we can see violence in various areas of different magnitude which could have political ramifications or even more likely has political causes. Political and ethnic intolerance has been a major cause of violence coupled with other socio-economic causes; yet the message of peace and joy is the Christmas message. During the Christmas season, we are likely to send goodwill messages to our loved (and not so loved) ones, we remember people we have not spoken with for some period of time. We will scroll our phone books, email addresses and wish many people ‘a prosperous year and a merry Christmas’. We will not confirm political affiliations, their ethnic or other identities but simply wish them a happy peaceful period. I pray that as we celebrate and have good wishes for Christmas, we will extend the same spirit throughout 2013 and have a peaceful Kenya, no matter how elections go. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Silence should not be spoken here

Violence against women is further fueled by language of silence

For more than 10 years of professional work, I have had opportunity to interact with many young women and young men in mentorship and life skills. My first job was as a trainer on life skills and in this way got to interact with thousands of young boys and girls, primary and secondary school students in various parts of Kenya. These young people have impacted my life; and I hope too I have impacted theirs in enormous ways. However, among the thousands of young girls that I have had the privilege of interacting with, one girl remains edged in my mind. That was in 2002, ten years ago and I was very new in the field of guidance/ life skills. I still recall her, because she is one girl that I failed in a big way. After giving lessons to a form two class in one secondary school, the young woman asked to speak to me in private. I readily accepted, but what she told me left me confused.

She was a victim of defilement and incest and she needed my help. I had only had minimal experience and I felt this was too huge a responsibility and I asked her if I could refer to my supervisor who was more trained in counseling than I was. She refused; she was only comfortable speaking to me. I remember trying to explore options with her while my head was hitting more blanks! The abuser was her uncle who she depended on for her upkeep. She was the first born in a family of four and her parents had passed away, leaving her under the mercy of her relatives. The uncle was ‘taking care of them’ but of course nobody knew he was taking care of himself. The uncle paid for her school fees and that of her orphaned siblings, and generally ensured they were well provided for. However, as a ‘favor in return’ he was sexually exploiting her. 

According to Joyce* the uncle threatened her that if she ever spoke out, he would not take care of her and her siblings in any way. To add salt to the injury, the uncle was a well-known and respected pastor! 

“People are not likely to believe me and my family will treat me as an outcast if I ever speak out” she said. 

This was one of the most difficult issues to come across in my early career life. She was not ready for ‘public’ action, but she knew what was going on was wrong and she needed this to stop. She did not know how. The only person she would have considered disclosing to was her auntie, her mother’s sister. However there was a fear that the auntie could not face the uncle or the family. She would be seen to be interfering. The respected, well respected pastor was her late father’s brother. Her auntie would be seen to be interfering in her in-laws’ family yet this family was influential. 

I have never felt so helpless in my life.

By the time I left the school, my head was spinning and she was not ready to disclose to anyone else. It was a burden I carried for some time and I still remember her years later. 
How did her life turn out?
Did she ever manage to get help? Did she ever break the cycle of violence?

I will never know. She was a victim of silence. 

During my work on issues of gender based violence, I have come to believe that one of the major causes of sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence is ‘the language called silence.’ Issues of gender based violence are usually treated as ‘private’ hence allowing violence to continue. While community mechanisms have been known to work in curbing violence and other vices gender based violence is often not seen as community agenda. If two brothers are fighting in the homestead, the likelihood is that neighbors will come in to separate the fighters. However, if a man and wife are engaged in a fight the “those are domestic issues” is often used to ‘not interfere’. In many cases where a spouse has killed the partner and often children, we often see in media neighbors giving ‘evidence’ on “how the two have been quarreling for some time”. 

Sexual violence is even more sensitive kind of violation and the language of silence is even more rampant. Various forms of sexual abuse exist, and sometimes are not recognized but someone who has been abused in always knows it has happened. 

The UN declaration on elimination of Violence against women adopted in 1993 defines gender based violence as “any act of gender based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including THREATS OF SUCH ACTS”. Sexual gender based violence in particular affects different communities across class, age, race, religion etc. World statics on violence is shocking, according to UN, between 15% and 76 % of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, with data varying in various countries. Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with many women (ranging from 9 to 70 %) reporting their husbands or partners as the perpetrator. In addition, it is reported worldwide that up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls less than 16 years of age. (http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/299-fast-facts-statistics-on-violence-against-women-and-girls-.html) Many girls are also abused in the family setting and other familiar grounds. This may seem like mere statistics but for the woman or girl who has experienced violence, this is a life time scar. 

The UN definition of violence acknowledges not only the violence but also the “threat of such acts”. The emotional scars and fear caused by the threat of such kind of abuse, impact individuals in different ways. 

Many girls like Joyce are violated by the persons who are meant to be their protectors. They know ‘better’ than to speak out, hence silence is the language spoken in gender based violence. 

Let us break this cycle.
Let us support those who dare to speak out.

 *Not her real name.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Reflection: When Kenya unites!

The last few weeks have been crucial for Kenya and for the whole world, attention has been directed in one place where ‘all action is’- The London Olympics. This is one event that Kenya looks forward to since we have made a name through talented youth athletes who have over time continued making Kenya proud. This year’s Olympic games have been a bit of a disappointment for Kenyans since our athletes do not seem to be getting as many medals as anticipated. However we (Kenyans) managed to get several medals and recognising some individuals and the team work with ‘TeamKenya’ becoming a common phrase in the social media. While many were not able to physically join the Kenya House in London joined it though social media. The talk in the social places, work places was Olympics! The gold medals seemed elusive and Kenyans were yearning for them. Ezekiel Kemboi won Kenya's first gold medal in 3,000-meter steeplechase much to the rejoicing of Kenyans. However spirits were low as the runners kept missing anticipated medals in women and men’s races. I heard some Kenyans declaring they are giving up watching Olympics, disappointed by performance of Kenyans and watching the social media space the same information was echoed. Kenyans anticipated at least one more gold medal, almost certain that this had to be! It was therefore with bated breath that Kenya sat to watch the Captain of the Olympics team, David Rudisha on 9th August in the 800m race. The spoken and unspoken word on everyone’s mouth is that this was the next gold and nothing less was expected of him! Rudisha was not disappointed and earned Kenya the second gold in Olympics 2012. There was so much jubilation, capturing the moment and within seconds his photos were splashed all over the social media and made headlines in the newspapers the following day. It was really a moment when Kenyans felt KENYANS. I was reflecting on three main issues that struck me as I watched the events. The first one was on the team work of Kenyans and other participating teams. From the results it was obvious that team work played a major role and in fact the failure and success could to a large extent be attributed to team work. Running is done at individual level, everyone proves her/himself in the tracks. However, several times I observed the Kenyans helping each other; passing on water on long races, nudging each other to run faster etc, this was impressive. Some team members reported how they had strategised, helped each other keep pace etc. I wondered how much better we would perform in many areas of life if we are to be supportive team members. One may achieve quite something on their own, but with team we go further and it is lonely alone at the top. This is expressed in the poem by Edga A. Guest (1881-1959) It is all very well to have courage and skill, And it is fine to be counted a star, But the single deed with its touch of thrill, Doest tell the (wo)man you are; For there is no lone hand in the game we play, We must work to a bigger scheme, And the thing that counts in the world today, Is, How do you pull with the team? The may sound praise and call you great, They may single you out for fame, But you must work with your running mate, Or you will never win the game, Oh, never the work of life is done, By the (wo)man with selfish dream, For the battle is lost of the battle is won, By the spirit of the team. You may think it fine to be praised for skill, But a greater thing to do, Is to set your mind and set your will, On the goal that’s just in view, Its helping your fellowman/(woman) to score, It is forgetting self till the game is over, And fighting for the team. The second issue that struck me is the age of the Kenya team members, YOUTH. In Kenya, mention the word you and what comes to mind is arrogant, uninformed, violent demonstrations, illegal sects etc. I agree some of these groups carry quite a ‘youth face’. This easily escapes lips of many as they justify why youth are not quite ready for some responsibilities. A bad action or performance by an individual youth or a group of youth easily leads to condemnation of all youth, how youth can not be trusted with responsibilities. However during the sports like Olympics where Kenya rejoice in the good performance, rarely do we find the term youth used to describe them. The young people should be given a fair deal, praises and rebuke. The youth have made major contributions to the country and this is often not attributed to ‘the young people’. The final and most critical issue is the aspect of negative ethnicity. One of major hindering factors to peaceful coexistence is the negative ethnicity. Kenya is rich with diverse ethnic groups, cultural practices, natural environment, faura and fauna that makes us a rich nation indeed. However, many a times our diversity has been the point of divergence. Violent attacks on members of certain ethnic communities have been experienced with the victims getting blame for actions that a few individual members who happen to belong to the same ethnic group did or were perceived to have done. Negative stereotypical comments are not rare with some people not willing to share platform with others of a different community. Some times one is tempted to think we can not, or are not yet ready to unite under one nation but as different ethnic groups. However, during Olympics I observed Kenyans cheering and rejoicing about Kenyans, getting disappointed by performance of Kenyans and owning it. I did not hear the tribes of the winners or losers coming into play, we are Kenyans. This has left me wondering, what happens when it comes to the politics? We are already starting the electioneering hype, and usually this is the time we remember our ethnic cocoons! How I wish the spirit of the Olympics can be carried to the political sphere, as we ask God of all Creation to bless us and our land. How I wish we can live in unity, peace and liberty as our national anthem calls for. I wish, I pray.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


“The mediocre mentor tells. The good mentor explains. The superior mentor demonstrates. The great mentor inspires, encourages and takes you into the trenches.” Navtaj Chandhoke

Last weekend was a momentous moment for the Dare to Dream mentors as we met with the parents of the pupils we have been inspiring and mentoring for the last two years. Dare to Dream (D2D) is an initiative that I had been toying with in my mind for several years but only thought of that name after the initiative commenced. A little background would help understand why this. I was born to village folks in Mang’u village of now Kiambu County, less than 15 Kilometers from Thika Town. As I grew up, my environment was the normal life of a rural Kenya in the 80’s; the role models outside of the home were the teachers. There was no much interaction with other professionals apart from the doctors and considering how dreaded visits to the Igegania Sub-District Hospital which was the nearest public hospital or the missionary hospital a few kilometers from my home, there was no much motivation to the medical profession.

I was lucky to have a big sister who was a teacher (RIP) and a brother who was a student at the university (he must have influenced my love for reading and especially novels as he was holding a novel every day of his college holiday). I was lucky to have older siblings who I could look up to. I remember getting a glimpse of secondary school (the good and the ugly) through my older brother and sister who were at Chania High School then. I could not wait to join high school as I admired my sisters sky blue well ironed skirts, white tops and maroon sweater and tie to match. For me visiting my sister in school was one of the events I look forward to! I was a regular visitor in her dormitory and had a very good idea of what high school life was all about, and yes I looked forward to being a high school student. With my older sister who was a teacher, I got to practice my Kiswahili as she was very keen in learning new words (or so I thought as I bragged on the new words I had learnt in school). My sister Jane was very good at massaging my ego and encouraging me to learn more. Being a primary school teacher herself, she taught me quite a lot and I remember most when she was in teaching practice and watching her do her lesson preparations when on holiday. I got glimpse of her books which I was very curious to read and stole in her absence, curious to see what teachers read!

My older brother George was by then at the university and one of the roles I had was picking his bag from the bus stop when he came for holiday or in most cases when the universities went on strike, for a fee of course! I still recall vividly when I went for his graduation while in class seven. Those were the days when a whole delegation (-clan- as the university students refer to them) went to get their son (I had not known of any girl at university by then) on his graduation. That must have been one of the greatest days as I got to attend the graduation. I was very keen to check the program and see my brother’s name among his engineering colleagues. I had no idea what engineering was but for sure sounded ‘nice’. I remember looking at the program and thinking it would be nice to also see my name printed there. However the highlight for me on that day was when I noted ladies graduating, young ladies! That was when I knew I would go to university, after all there were young women at the university graduating too. Before then my picture of university was mostly men and older persons. That was the background I grew up in, I had big sisters and big brothers to look up to, and this made a lot of impact in my life. What of the young boys and girls who do not have anyone to look up to? What of children growing up in abusive homes or with drunkard parents? Do the have any hope?

That was part of the motivation for the Dare to Dream mentors initiative. Having schooled at Mang’u primary school I had passion for this school and what it represents in my life ‘herstory’. I had this desire to go back and see how I can contribute to making a difference in the school. My greatest motivation was the poor performance of the school in the recent years. When I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams, four of us managed to go to two top performing girls’ schools in Kenya, Alliance Girls and Loreto Limuru Girls and I strongly felt that the boys and girls in my village could do the same, why not? I wondered. That was a thing of the past with very minimal transition. We started visiting the school and addressing various life skills topics. I felt that one of the things that had shaped my life was the mentorship / guidance and counseling sessions we had in High school. Alliance Girls had a practice of dedicating three full days to guidance and counseling sessions. We looked forward to the last week for second term in school where for three days we had a different kind of learning. This was a valuable practice where we interacted with various mentors on different topics and the evenings were spent watching relevant movies. Apart from the every student desire to be in school without having to read…the forums were very crucial. We asked questions about life, relationships, leadership, career, sexual violence and all other topics that we would not learn in class. I felt that these and other impromptu sessions very much shaped my life and lives of many ‘Busherians’ hence the desire to replicate this among other boys and girls. Several friends have been a pillar of support in this, including my two sisters. They sacrifice their time and money once every one –two months to be with the pupils. Most of the friends, are from different localities altogether, but keen to make a difference in the lives of younger ones for a better tomorrow.

I believe that one of the challenges that we all face is that we fear to dream big. I felt that if the young boys and girls could dare to dream big, they can achieve great things, hence ‘Dare to Dream’. The mentorship forums in the school have been regular while we also get opportunities to mentor other young people in different schools and other forums. However, Mang’u primary is our pilot project and we have been seeing some changes in the school over time. One of the memories I have of primary school life, is having prizes awarded to us for best performance. I looked forward to collecting a prizes and this was a great motivation for me. As D2D, we introduced this and held prize giving day in August 2010 and continued with the same in 2011. One of the amazing lessons and aha moment was the impact that prizes for the most improved pupils had on the pupils. It led to remarkable improvement from the pupils to out amazement and that of the teachers. Two years later, we saw a remarkable improvement in the transition to secondary school which we can partly attribute to the mentorship forums. The idea is to have big sisters and big brothers that they can look up. We share on issues that otherwise look insurmountable to teenagers. We share our challenges and life lessons and they get to know that it is human to struggle, fail and rise up. They get to understand that we were not born with silver spoons but have struggled to where we are, and that they too have what it takes to make it in life. With time the pupils have relaxed more and they have accepted the mentors as part of their lives. The teachers are also realizing the contribution of mentorship hence offering more support and often request for more of our time.

In March 2012, we had the opportunity to interact with parents of the pupils in upper primary in a joint meeting. We have interacted with a few of the parents during prize giving days but we had not had the opportunity to share with them. This meeting therefore presented an opportunity for the parents to understand more of what we do and for us to hear from them. It turned out that the parents were eager for the opportunity and shared among themselves on what they feel need to be their role in the lives of the pupils. Some parents shared how they had seen improvement in grades from their sons and daughters owing the encouragement. They challenged each other and committed to do more. This was a key highlight for the D2D as we were able to interact with very critical stakeholders in the lives of the pupils. The enthusiasm of the parents was remarkable and we were assured of their support as we continued playing the big brother big sister role to the boys and girls. I believe that this addresses a gap that is missing in the lives of many young people.

Anyone can be a big sister or a big brother, all it takes is the desire and dedicating some time to make a difference in another person’s life. As John Crosby said “mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction”.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The elasticity of the human will

Sometimes I go through some experiences that make me feel like giving up and flowing with the tide, not a positive tide but the “I give up, life is unfair” tide. I guess any ‘human’ human being gets to that point at one time or the other, some more often than others. Moments when life is throwing to us so much that we feel “can’t take it anymore”. It reminds me the theory of elasticity as used on objects in physics; different subjects like economics define ‘elasticity’ in different ways. I especially like the physics definition of elasticity. According to Wikipedia encyclopaedia (or stretchiness) is the inherit property of a body which tries to regain its original shape after removal of its shape by applying any force on it. I have been reflecting on this as regards human beings and the experiences people face.

Towards the end of December 2011 as usual I embarked on my ‘monthly’ purchase of books for January 2012. (Ideally monthly but this never happens as I get excuse to purchase more any time I pass by a bookshop or other book stands). Among the books I purchased is the memoir by Immaculee Ilibagiza, Left to tell.

This is one book that is very hard to put down as Immaculée shares her miraculous story of how she survived during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. She describes her experience in words that left me glued to the book, turning page after page not able to put it down. She was a 22 years old university student who happened to be at home by chance during the Easter holidays when horror struck. She was the only daughter in her family and her brother was not allowed to stay in the hideout for long. She and seven other women huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house for 91 days! They could not speak or even flush the toilet until another toilet in the house was flushed to avoid being detected. The pastor made efforts to give them food and that was assured hence they had to battle hunger, unhygienic living conditions to extent of having lice in their bodies. Several times they came close to being discovered by the blood hungry young men that were slaughtering mercilessly. Reading the book once I could not help but wonder where she and the other women got the courage to live on another day. Sometimes one feels that they were worse of alive than dead. However, Immaculée didn’t give up but even used this opportunity to see a positive thing she could achieve, she learnt English language. In this captivating and inspiring book, Immaculée shows us how to embrace the power of prayer, forge a profound and lasting relationship with God, and discover the importance of forgiveness and the meaning of truly unconditional love and understanding—through our darkest hours.

It is an amazing sharing that when I finished I sat back and just wondered if there is any limit to the stretch that a human can go through. Her faith increased and she learnt to depend more on God in this very difficult situation. Praying and believing that she would be safe even when the killers were ransacking the bedroom next to which they were hiding. Imagine 7 adult women in a small bathroom that they can barely flush or even sit down, and their biological needs are not on break! After finishing the book I found myself strolling inside a bookshop determined not to impulse buy another book but just have a look at another book that I had earlier noted by Immaculée and just note it for the following month.

I succeeded for several minutes as I skimmed through several autobiographies until my eyes caught one title “not without my daughter” and my resolve dissolved as I literally grabbed that book. I had watched the movie many years ago and the movie had remained edged very vividly in my head. I was thrilled to discover this book and could not wait to start reading. My curiosity was not let down as I immersed myself in this book that describes the story in more horrifying language than the movie. The book by Berry Mahmoody is based on real life story of a woman married to an Iranian. She goes on a trip to visit the husband’s relatives with her daughter but the two weeks turns to be a long term arrangement. The husbands turned her and the six year old daughter into prisoners as she was not free to leave Iran at will. She also suffered a lot of violence in the hands of the once very loving husband. Her trauma and attitude of Iran is depicted on how grisly she describes life in Iran, barely appreciating much of what Iranian culture had to offer. The only chance she had of getting out of Iran was if she went alone and left her daughter hence assuring her return. While the movie and book have been surrounded by controversy with the husband indicating bias as several reviews indicate, the experience leaves one moved. The near giving up incidences were so many, the patience that she had to gather in order to carry out her plans is amazing.

The movie doesn’t really capture the whole story as depicted in the book!

I have just finished reading another book, real life experience of a Kenyan man “Solace in sorrow” by Steve Mbugua Thoithi. He narrates how after being a successful career man, getting a good paying job immediately after his Masters degree, he suffered a mysterious disease that baffled even medics. He underwent surgery and many scans without the problem ever getting resolved. He found his peace in God, starting a relationship with God, something he had neglected in his youthful days. As he narrates his experiences that made the simple act of breathing being a painful experience, his wife Mary stood by him all through.

These experiences confirm one thing, human beings can stretch and undergo a lot and snap back with efforts. The three books have a common thread of developing a close relationship with God and having faith that all will be well. This is easier said than done, but reading these books I thank God that I really have never been through ‘an experience’! I gain strength in knowing that faith is can move mountains! There is no limit.