Monday, May 30, 2016

The Learning Continues!

So I recognize that  I just posted yesterday, but today was such an informative day that I felt like I wouldn't capture all that we learned if I waited and included it with something else.  We had the privilege of visiting the Human Rights Watch office in Nairobi today as well as the National Gender and Equality Commission.

So, just to give a little background, we are here as part of a travel study course through Widener University, which I have been co-teaching with Linda Houser, who also runs the PhD program at Widener.  The travel study is focused on transitional justice, which is a framework for countries moving from wartime to peacetime, dictatorship to democracy, or some other form of chaos to stability.  It's main objective is to address human rights abuses and mass atrocities through judicial proceedings, truth telling, institutional reform, and reparations.  If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the International Center for  Transitional Justice's website.

Outside of the Human Rights Watch Office
Waiting for the meeting to begin

With this in mind, you'd understand why we would visit Human Rights Watch.  We were lucky enough to spend a little over an hour meeting with their researchers working on Kenya and Burundi and what an educational experience this was.  In terms of Kenya, we were interested in how the country is managing the recommendations from the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission's report, made public in 2013.

According to the researcher, the challenge has been getting the government to acknowledge the report and its contents, because it implicates the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, as well as Kenya's first president and father of current president, Jomo Kenyatta.  The report was supposed to go to Parliament where a law would be passed calling for implementation of it's recommendations, but that has not yet happened and HRW feels that it will be a long time before that time is reached.  The major concerns of HRW at this time revolve around extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Northeastern area of Kenya.  This is the border area that Kenya shares with Somalia and concerns are high regarding terrorism and other activity by Al-Shabab.

As you can imagine, the situation is challenging for Kenya.  They have been providing refuge to thousands of Somalis for two decades, most of whom are innocent people, but there's no scanner for terrorism and likely some of those seeking refuge in the camps are members of Al-Shabab or informants for them.  The country must balance a concerns for human rights with security for their country.  This has led to some members of the government and military taking matters into their own hands and disappearing people suspected of terrorism.  HRW has collected stories from many people held and tortured who were victims of mistaken identity that now suffer permanent disabilities.

What was maybe even more impactful and what has really fueled my desire to write this post is the current climate in Burundi.  As the researcher for Burundi explained, no one cares about Burundi.  No one knows where Burundi is.   No one has economic investments in Burundi and no one depends on Burundi for services.  This has left the people of Burundi in dire straights.  The President of Burundi was a member of the rebel forces before taking office and likely has a long history of violence and human rights abuses.  Opposition arose and in April of last year began to bubble over with instances of tit for tat violence.  In May there was a failed coup d'etat and bodies began showing up on the streets of Burundi, people started to disappear, and hundreds have been tortured beyond what any of us could imagine.

A map for reference
Diplomatic efforts have failed.  The President and his government seem not to care about any threats to cut off funds or resources and have made the people so fearful that they don't know where to go or who to trust for help.  On the surface, it appears that the situation isn't that bad because, according to HRW, they've pushed all operations underground.  They've cut off the radio and access to media and people are disappearing more now instead of being murdered to ensure not too much attention is drawn to the matter.  I asked the researcher how many times things like this must happen, thinking about the genocide in Rwanda that the entire international community ignored until almost a million people were slaughtered, before we stop being reactive and start trying to be preventive.  He said it's challenging because of the size and position of Burundi in the global market.  So, here  I am, writing this blog post and sharing the situation with my little corner of the world so if nothing more we at least know what's happening.

Sitting around the table with researchers from Human Rights Watch
Our second visit of the day was to the National Gender and Equality Commission, which is a mandate through the 2010 Constitution and provides oversight and assistance to organizations seeking to meet the requirements of the government for services to women, children, the elderly, disabled, and marginalized populations.  A great deal of our discussion focused on gender based violence and the efforts of this commission to ensure that men, women, and children have access to the services they need to report their situations and seek medical and psychosocial supports.  

One of the gentlemen we met with was an attorney in the legal department and he was excellent about explaining the different articles of the Constitution and which efforts were laid out in which parts of the Constitution.  Another program director, focused on the elderly and disabled, discussed the cash transfer system in Kenya.  He said they borrowed heavily from the US social security model, but instead of being universal, their funds are targeted to the most in need, both financially and physically.

Learning from the program directors of the National Gender and Equality Commission
Group photo!
In both visits we were welcomed incredibly warmly with tea, coffee, and snacks.  I was so honored that both offices took over an hour of time out of their incredibly busy, important schedules to sit and speak with us.  We even got a shout out complete with photos on the National Gender and Equality Commission's Facebook Page.  Check it out!  We learned an incredible amount today and I'm so happy that I get to share it with you!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Cultural Many Forms

We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya last Wednesday afternoon and really hit the ground running.  I'm here this year as a co-leader and instructor for a travel study course offered through Widener University.  The course topic is transitional justice, my area of interest for my doctoral studies, and we chose Kenya because it just recently went through the transitional justice process itself.  For those of you who followed my trip to Kenya last year, this will be a different ride for sure.  Last year was a service focused trip and we spent the majority of our time in Nyeri, about three hours outside of Nairobi.  This year, we'll be staying in Nairobi for about ten days before spending the following ten days traveling all around the country.  I'm excited to share our journey with you!

Our group, R to L Tiffany, Aisha, Pam, Linda, Rae, Olivia, me

Clearly very excited to be on board the plane
Lights of Alexandria, Egypt as we flew over the coast
Our group loaded into the van at the airport

Dinner our first night at Carnivore, a Brazilian style steakhouse.  I ate ostrich, crocodile and rabbit!  Passed on the ox testicles...
We began our trip with a three day cultural immersion course offered through Tangaza College in Nairobi.  Tangaza offers the only accredited Master's degree program in African Studies in East Africa and the faculty and staff are incredibly committed to teaching African Studies in Africa through an African lens (go figure, but you'd be amazed at the number of programs that exist in the US with American faculty and no requirements to spend any time in Africa at all!)

Learning from our third lecturer, Dr. Ochilo
The course was amazing.  We spent our mornings focused on African history and tradition, African religion, and politics and economics.  We were assigned field assistants on a one to one basis who then took us out into the city to meet with people practicing in the areas we learned about during the morning lecture.  Our first day we met with a diviner and an herbalist.  A diviner is someone who is believed to be chosen to provide services to the community, guided by their ancestors.  The diviner we met with stressed the importance of the role his ancestors play in guiding the work he does with community members, who seek his services primarily for issues of fertility, marriage conflict, and community disputes.  An herbalist, likewise, is often chosen and guided by ancestors, but their primary role is to supply the community with herbs and natural mixtures meant to relieve a variety of ailments.

The second day I met with a pastor from an evangelical church.  I was primarily interested in how he balanced deeply embedded African traditions and beliefs with Christian demands that seemed in direct contradiction.  I was somewhat shocked when he said that he didn't ascribe to the African traditions that his ancestors had and so the conflict was not an issue for him.  Despite this initial statement, he referred to culturally traditional expectations several times and I wasn't convinced he had actually given up what he was sure he had.  I also wondered how his conversion to a religion brought to Africa by Europeans and Americans was just one more way in which the African culture was slowly being removed and replaced.

The third day we met with Sakwa's dad.  Those of you who followed last year's trip will remember Sakwa worked at St. Mary's as a social worker and we became good friends.  He's no longer working at St. Mary's and has played an integral role in setting up our trip this year.  He has been our eyes on the ground and there's no way we could have done this trip without all of his hard work. Our third day focused on politics and economics and Sakwa came through for us again when our field assistants were struggling to find someone within the government willing to meet with us on a Saturday.  His dad is the Deputy Director for the Disaster  Management Unit and a police officer.  He's also worked for the UN and traveled all over the world.  He sat with us for over two hours and I think what he shared was just as, if not more, informative for our field assistants than it was for us.

Taking notes during our meeting with Sakwa's dad, Pius Masai

A little school's out, Saturday night fun!

Our first four days in Kenya have been a whirlwind.  We were non-stop from the moment we landed, but our course is over and we had a free day today, which we spent visiting elephants at an orphanage and feeding giraffes at a sanctuary.  I decided to adopt an elephant this year.  I really wanted to do it last year, but didn't and this year  I decided not to let the opportunity pass by.  His name is Rapa and I chose an elephant the same age as Amare.  He was rescued after falling down a well at five months old.  If you are interested, you can visit the orphanages website here.  Fostering an elephant is just $50 for the year and it seems to be a very reputable, worthwhile organization.

This week we'll be visiting several organizations that work to advance human rights in Kenya as it relates to our course material.  Wednesday is Independence Day and Sakwa and his wife have invited us to their home for a celebration.  Friday morning we depart for Nyeri.