By Yulia Yugay
Contrary to popular belief, I did not roast under the Kenyan sun for three months. In fact, we caught the second half of the rainy season and stayed in Kenya during the coldest months of the year. In July, the temperature can go as low as 15 degrees; it is at this time that people take their warm leather or down jackets out, wear long thick scarves and hats. In other words, when Nicole and I went outside wearing a blazer or a light sweater, Kenyans thought we were the most warm-blooded people that have lived on this earth. Unsurprisingly, when they found out about average winter temperatures in Canada, they could not believe their ears.
These differences in perspectives were obviously not limited to climatic issues, which is why my experience in Kenya makes up a full spectrum of emotions. One of the most shocking, yet unsurprising, things we’ve witnessed is the treatment we received, as wazungu (white people) during official events, from government officials and people on the streets. When visiting police stations while trying to find out the status of a case, going to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow up on the progress of an appeal, or when asking for help from court staff, we were offered a seat in the waiting room, directed to the right person or given an answer. While this sounds totally ordinary, our Kenyan colleague said that he felt like he was in a different country. Later we were told that this was due to the fact that everyone thought we were “important” people who are coming to check on their work.
Another instance where we got preferential treatment because, once again, people thought we were “important” was at the celebration of the Day of the African Child. We were officially greeted, given water bottles, and seated right next to a highly ranked government official whose arrival (30 minutes late) required the interruption of the entire parade. This time, we received special treatment because it was very likely that we were some of the donors who sponsored the event. While this treatment can be understood, it also showcases a frustrating reality: an experienced university graduate working in a Kenyan NGO with issues as important as defilement cannot always do their work as efficiently or to the same extent as two foreign students who do not even speak decent Swahili.
With that said, there was an overwhelming amount of wonderful people, customs and precious moments that kept us warm in fifteen degree weather and in spite of the different surprises on the way.
One of the highlights of my internship were the school visits we paid within the framework of the Justice Clubs initiative. The objective of the Justice Clubs is to educate a group of primary school students about human and children’s rights, the 160 Girls decision, and the issue of defilement more broadly. Selected students learn the curriculum through specifically designed workshops and activities and then pass the message on to the rest of the school and members of community during launch events and closing community shows. Having visited and selected the schools and trained the teachers (Justice Club patrons), it was extremely comforting to see the effort, dedication and enthusiasm that both the school administration and students had invested into organizing, preparing for and performing at the launch events. The level of student engagement and parent participation instills hope that the Justice Clubs initiative contributes to women’s and girls’ empowerment and brings us one step closer to the longterm, systemic change.
However, every moment spent with the girls at the Tumaini shelter was, without a doubt, the most memorable and heartwarming. Working with their individual cases, knowing their stories made my work very emotionally challenging. Nevertheless, all the time spent cooking, playing, reading, colouring books, and painting nails with the kids added the invaluable human component to the human rights work I did all summer. I cannot stress enough how loving, sincere and generous are these souls who, thankfully, haven’t forgotten how and what it means to be children
To conclude, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude for all the people I met over the course of my three months in Kenya who made up for the many cold and rainy days. I am grateful for the people who introduced me to and taught me to cook some of the best Kenyan dishes. I am grateful for the famous Kenyan tea with milk and sugar, religiously served every morning and afternoon, that I shared with my colleagues (this definitely helped me cope with the unbearably slow wifi or the lack thereof). I am grateful for the lady at the market who always greeted me with a warm smile and threw a couple more sweet potatoes or bananas in my bag. I am grateful for the women working at the tea plantation who welcomed me into their group and showed me how to pluck some of the best tea in Kenya. I am grateful for the friendships created not only with the people in the office, but also with their families. And finally, I am grateful for having been able to experience the sense of community that is so deeply rooted in Kenyan people.
Asante sana, my dear Kenya, and until next time.