Kenya Moving into the Future
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, September 19 / 10
My dad once told me he thought it fitting that it takes a day or two (depending on airport layovers) to travel to East Africa.
After all, once you step off that plane, he told me, you it is as if you have arrived on another planet.
Everything you can possibly imagine – language, dress, food, basic infrastructure – is different in East Africa compared to here in Manitoba.
As soon as you enter the destination airport, the air even smells different and, as I breathed in that cool Nairobi air over eight months ago, there was no doubt in my mind that I had arrived (again).
You may remember the articles I wrote back in 2005 for this publication, which followed my time working with rural youth and women in the Mwanza region of Tanzania, in collaboration with Brandon University and the Marquis Project.
Now, nearly five years later, I have just returned from Kenya, where I spent six months working with the Federation of Women Groups (FWG), a national non-profit organization working to improve the opportunities and lives for women and youth.
Most of the funding that FWG receives goes towards the implementation of initiatives in Nyanza Province, in Southwestern Kenya.
The organization was started in the town of Nyamira and, even with decreasing funding opportunities from government and international sources, it has continued to play a major role in the area, especially with the events leading up to the recent referendum on the new proposed Constitution.
This volunteer work was part of the degree I am currently completing in Women’s & Gender Studies and Conflict Resolution Studies from the University of Winnipeg, in association with Menno Simons College.
The Republic of Kenya is located off the coast of the Indian Ocean, bordering Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.
Kenya is well known for being one of the major safari destinations in Africa, as well as for producing activist Wangari Maathai, who was the first African woman, and first environmentalist, to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Kenya borders the Eastern shores of Lake Victoria, the third largest fresh water lake in the world, land of the Luo ethnic group, which has now become the famous site of U.S. President Obama’s “family home.”
Kenya made its way into news headlines when violent conflict broke out there after disputed election results in 2007.
The clashes left about 1,200 Kenyans dead and hundreds of thousands internally displaced.
This was followed by a power-sharing agreement between the two main political parties, under the supervision of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and a new push for reforms in political processes and institutions.
The foundation for these reforms would be realized with the passing of a newly amended Constitution, changes for which Kenyans have been fighting for a generation.
Those leading the “Yes” Campaigns included not just the President and Prime Minister, but women’s organizations, various minority groups, and civil society groups pushing for increased access to political participation for Kenyan citizens.
On August 4th, just last month, Kenyans voted 65% to implement the proposed new Constitution, which includes a complete overhaul of sections relating to a free and democratic system of government, human rights and gender equality, culture and citizenship, and the Bill of Rights.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend many of the meetings and events, along with representatives of my women’s organization, as part of the constitutional debate and leading up to the vote.
After the results were in, President Mwai Kibaki began the official process of implementing new legislation and regulations across the country.
Those heading the “No” Campaigns, many of whom were national church leaders and political heavyweights, have publicly announced that they accept the results of the referendum and will work within the new system.
Though for now all appears well and the process of social reforms is moving forward, I am concerned about that other number which I have not yet specifically mentioned: that 35% who voted against the changes to the Constitution.
That number represents a huge rift in the country that continues to cross borders of language, religion, ethnicity and political affiliation.
Even if the country continues to discuss and debate these contentious issues – land ownership, freedom of religion, human rights – in a democratic way and without violence, as we all believe it can, it may take another generation for conflicts between groups to be alleviated in any meaningful way.
I have been told by my Kenyan friends and colleagues that the inter-group meetings taking place after the referendum will be the beginning of a slow and rigorous process.
But, they tell me, it will be worth it in the end, and they can’t wait to see how the future leaders of Kenya, and indeed all citizens, will move the country forward.
ZoŽ Gross is a university student who has just returned from almost eight months in East Africa and is a daughter of regular Small World columnist Zack Gross.
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