Don’t tell my family, but I’m coming to think of Kenya as my second home. This isn’t just because it’s already my second trip this year (as the immigration official helpfully points out whilst flicking through my passport “You come here a lot! You’re wearing the same coat as last time!”), but because it’s very hard not to feel welcome and inspired by all the people I meet and work with during my visits. And this is in spite of the challenging situation which many of them face on a daily basis.
As MRG’s Head of Law, I’m visiting Kenya to work on two international land rights cases before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the first for the Ogiek, an indigenous hunter-gather community who live in the Mau Forest and around Mount Elgon, and the second for the Endorois, a pastoralist community who last year successfully challenged their eviction from ancestral land around Lake Bogoria. My trip coincides with the first appearance of the “Ocampo Six” at the International Criminal Court in the Hague: six key Kenyan figures face an international criminal trial for their involvement in the ethnic violence following the December 2007 elections , which resulted in the death of over 1,000 Kenyans and thousands more displaced. Unsurprisingly, it’s hot news; it features on the front page of every paper throughout my visit, and televisions blast out live reports in each restaurant that I enter. It makes a stark contrast to my last visit to Nakuru, when the only thing showing was the World Cup!
I spend my first day with the Ogiek of Mount Elgon, who come from Western Kenya and, in common with many Ogiek of the Mau Forest, face eviction from their ancestral homes. I’m gathering evidence and information for the upcoming session of the African Commission, during which their case will hopefully be considered. We discuss the challenges they have faced over the past 60 years, and the progress of their case. During our discussion, I ask them what they feel about the ICC process – and they respond positively, saying that they feel it will send a message to the Government that there must be accountability for its actions, and that human rights and the rule of law must be respected. I admire their optimism. And given the thousands of people that flock to Uhuru stadium in Nairobi to welcome back the Ocampo Six a few days later – which feels like impunity – I can only hope that they’re right.
My remaining days in Nakuru are spent at a workshop focusing on women’s rights. Nearly 30 women from throughout the Mau and Mount Elgon attend the two day workshop, during which they learn the basics of minority and indigenous peoples’ rights, how the new Kenyan constitution protects women’s rights, the aim of the case before the African Commission, and what we hope it will achieve for them. The lack of Ogiek land rights has had a particularly striking effect on women, which becomes ever clearer to me as the training progresses.
“There is no respect if we don’t have land…. once we have lost our land, we have lost our identity”, they explain. One woman, Sarah (who speaks excellent English and very kindly translates from Swahili for me at points), has her arm in a sling following a violent attack several weeks before as a direct result of her activism around the Ogiek land rights issue. Yet the majority of Ogiek women still have quite traditional roles, as one speaker identifies when he asks them to tell him what would happen if they didn’t work for a day. “My family would go hungry”; “My family would be naked”; “My family would be dirty”; “My family would be lost”, the participants respond.
But by the end of the seminar, the women are inspired and motivated to try and step out of those roles, to seek education for their daughters, to participate more in politics, to empower themselves, and to seek their land rights. “We are enemies of ourselves!” one woman cries, as we discuss the way forward.
I leave Nakuru hoping that she is right, that these women will feel empowered to act on what they have learnt, that their husbands and families will allow them to do so, and also that they have learned as much as I have in the space of just 2 days.
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