Thursday, January 17, 2013

Minister for Education, Kenyan minister Mutula Kilonzo threatens to ban The Whale Rider . Reason is that the author, Maori Ihmaera Witi is gay

To: The Minister of Education, Kenya

Dear Mutula Kilonzo,

An article by Evans Mwangi in a Kenyan newspaper informed us that the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) had selected The Whale Rider by Ihmaera Witi as a set book. Prof Mwangi wrote that he knew that the author of this book is gay. He also mentioned that there was a time he withheld this information because he knew what that would lead to in Kenya. He wrote that he knew trouble would arise on the chosen book. The Whale Rider is praised for its artistic content and indeed some students in Kenya have already studied it for examinations. http://www.nation.co.ke/News/KIE-censors-score-a-first-by-picking-gay-authors-novel-/-/1056/1657730/-/14qow9s/-/index.html

The next headlines on the book came swiftly. They indicated that the Minister for Education was trying to slap a ban on The Whale Rider. As expected many Kenyans jumped into the fray to discuss how we cannot have such 'immoral people' writing books that are read by 'our children'. A few people wrote to question your hasty judgement and the idea of banning our book in our days was rejected. Others  supported your idea. The churches too called for the ban of the book as expected.

 Short skirts

Well, you more than anybody else knows that directly.  It was only in July 2012 that an uproar ensued from a comment that you made regarding girls' school skirts. The girls wanted to wear short school uniform skirts. There was an uproar. You mentioned 'nuns' saying that the school girls did not have to go around dressed like nuns. Some nuns asked for an apology. It was very clear that you were not giving a directive but speaking lightly but they reminded you that you are a heavyweight and must not speak lightly. The church and many Kenyans expressed serious reservations. You tried to explain but I think you ended up apologising to the imaginary nuns you were talking about in your speech for really you never had mentioned any particular group or convent. 

I still remember Sister coming to check if our skirts were more than three inches above the knee with her fingers and if they were, one had to let down the hem. But the nun was funny and we often laughed.  She would call you from far and she would quickly hold up three fingers before holding your knee down to see exactly where the skirt was. Looking back at old photos once I saw that none of us in school wanted long skirts. This was a very important matter for us. Indeed some girls were very offended when they had gone into real minis and the nun stood by them to bring down their hems. At that time in the 70s, we did not even know that homosexuals existed. Now everything is on the internet.  We read words here and there but no educator would touch on the subjects of sexuality. To be very honest, this same nun prayed very hard before we opened Mackeans Biology book on the Reproduction Chapter. But she loved the skeleton in the lab.  

Whereas I remember with humour our lives in the schools, I know for a fact that Kenya is directed by a very strong grip of some churches. That we badly need to thaw some lines and to see a different picture. We have been to a point where parents who are involved in such schools will come together and bring down such pressure to bear when they do not agree on an issue, and woe unto you if the issue has anything to do with sexuality. You will remember the debates on whether or not to have sex education in the school curriculum. It is their right to do this but not to ban books on the basis of the sexuality of the author. 

I remember I attended some debates with you on Crossfire with Judy Thong'ori, Otieno Ka'ajwang and  Kogi Wa Wamwere. We often spoke about the fundamental freedoms of all people regardless or origin and that people cannot be discriminated upon on the grounds of sex, religion or gender. I know you quoted and can quote these sections very well and many more as a lawyer of long standing. I do not then understand what is going on. Knowing how some people will use their churches to say that certain books are unclean or when the government of poor quality also subversive and since you experienced yourself how unreasonable discussions can become, why do you use your office to try to ban this book? Is this not an affront to freedom of expression?

How is it that in Kenya we can tolerate no difference except if it is the same and therefore does not exist? We have deep problems of tribalism based on games politicians will play for votes. But this book or the author actually do not require tolerance. They deserve respect and reverence. This is because as one teacher and a few other people already wrote to the papers to say, the book is enjoyable reading and it is not pornographic. No one would have allowed pornography on the Kenyan syllabus. 

Institutions


Then the unilateral way of responding as a matter of your own taste and opinion. Why? If a book has been approved by the KIE surely there must be a different process for getting it off the syllabus rather than a minister saying it to the press?

It is urgent that through our institutions we make ourselves understand that there is more to how we can do issues than just according to our own taste. I am glad the article by Prof Mwangi was published even when some rejoinders have come up to disapprove him strongly as was to be expected. But I remember one thing Prof Mwangi wrote. It was that he did not wish that his child should ever think that he was a homophobe. Can we afford more homophobia than we already have in our country and the region as well as in Afrika? I know that this is also to be found in Europe. Of course there are many people who  may not want to know that gay people exist. The fact is that they do and they are super gifted in many cases. And the bigger fact is that we cannot say we are defending human rights and then turn our backs on some humans.

I know that the coming election takes all your attention now and that there will be a new minister in office soon. We hope to see the end of this threat to ban a book because its author is gay. We have a constitution and a duty to the young people and our nations with regard to free thinking. Let the K.I.E be respected. Lead in helping people to distinguish how to always act in order to take the course of justice for all. Homosexuals had to wear a distinct mark before being sent to the gas chambers under Hitler. Jews, Homosexuals, the Romani, the disabled and intellectuals were gassed to death. We cannot approve of discrimination at the level you are suggesting. The book pages stay open to be read and criticised.

Philo Ikonya
Voice and Vote

Monday, January 7, 2013

Kenya's worst enemies cannot be Human Rights Activists



What is the use of intimidating those who speak openly in Kenya when troubles surround so many people like seas? Are you safe in the hands of power hungry politicians who will kill for votes? Are you then not thrown to many a wolf in sheepskin posing as a preacher with heavenly dew to take your money? Have you ever been invited to take tea by a Multinational or Five Star Hotel or to take your children for help when as now nurses are on strike  in Kenya? Were teachers and doctors not on strike the other day and the matatu workers? Why are you afraid of human rights activists? This is a job you can do well yourself and for no pay.

What are we afraid of when people are transparent and strong in their stand and speak out? When human rights activists are abused in Kenya, it hurts personally and I wonder how on earth anyone or a group of people have set themselves up to constantly downplay human rights activism for?
There is so much greed and hunger for political power that we are lucky to have some voices that only point out what is wrong, but we treat them badly. Why do these people who discourage such work not instead join the people who ask questions, educate and are there to see how laws work on the ground and who gains or suffers from the national institutions that we as the people of Kenya have?

So some politicians have even taken to talking about the Chief Justice of Kenya, Dr. Willy Mutunga lightly as an activist and many other things simply because they wish that the Kenyan judiciary were weaker and this way they could manipulate elections. Too bad for them. Dr. Mutunga is learned. He worked hard and gave extra time to form a strong civil society in Kenya. He has never been afraid to be seen as an activist.

Dr. Mutunga personally encouraged those who spoke up against injustice and he still does. So that means you will find politicians who are to be arraigned before the International Criminal Court for the violence that rocked Kenya in the election year 2007 saying he is working with the west. They are the same ones and their followers who bad mouth Kofi Annan. He stepped in to help Kenya but now many forget what he did. What we must define in Kenya is what we really want. Do badly want a progressive nation or are we happy to see years go by without making all the progress that we can make together?

I am sure that these are not the type of people we need to be afraid of. A good Chief Justice, a man who works for peace in the world and ordinary Kenyans who step out without protection and point out what goes wrong in the country. Kenyans worst enemies cannot be these people. It is a shame that activists still receive threats from different quarters. The last one I heard about is on the person of Kamotho Patrick with whom I have worked for many years. He blogged about this himself. http://barazalataifa.blogspot.no/2012/11/how-my-poor-community-responded-with.html

I am passionate about human rights and the word activism does not seem cheap to me. It happened that I often responded to issues that disturbed people in my area in Kenya. Some of them would be arbitrary arrests of women selling vegetables to make a living. I remember clearly that one big concern for me was for those whom houses were demolished without notice and left to live on their own in a cruel city. I have not forgotten the demolitions of Kibagare. This is a slum area that sat in a valley between two progressive areas on the higher level, Kyuna, Lavington and Loresho.

If one crosses the main Nairobi-Nakuru Highway at Kangemi, one has below the area where Kianda School lies and along the main road well developed facilities and homes. Not too far from there and just a few kilometres behind the main road lie the slums of Kibagare on the one side. They were demolished so often that I would be surprised that they still exist. A nun, Sister Wanjiru used to run a school there and many people lived in shacks around the school. Some of them had lived there since the 1960s when they claimed they were given land there. I was a teacher in Kianda School and often walked around this area.

The demolitions of Kibagare woke me up to the pain of the people living in the slums. This often came into my writings and I was never the same again. That was in the late 1980s. It was Christmas time and they had nowhere to sleep. It rained and they prayed, got sick and died as the City Council abused their rights. It was my frequent visits and enquiries in the area that started off many referring to me as a human rights activist. Indeed one editor just asked me whether after a commentary I had written he could add that am a human rights activist and I gave the go ahead.

Maybe seeing that in writing led me to even more commitment. I have defended human rights in Kenya for many years. This means that I run workshops almost entirely on my own on women issues and more, and had public discussions in many markets long before I came to the notice of the national media as an activist. So many times we set up meetings about HIV and Aids and human rights. People who received them taught us a lot. They were always grateful. I have discussed power with women and political participation. In the areas where we did this there was always great joy. It is some people and among them the Intelligence who disparage the work of activists. They do not go a day without commenting in the media about the uselessness of activism.

In 1992, I witnessed the home and school of the late Sister Wanjiru flooded with people who were leaving the Rift Valley where ethnic cleansing was going on at election time. I remember one family came to Kianda School and we received them. The old man with them and his son told of how pregnant women were being slashed in the stomach to be checked if they were carrying a boy child. I was filled with dread especially as we saw some of these reports in the media as well. It was then that I went to write about a group of children who had gone to camp in the area.

I interviewed them about their journey on foot from the Rift Valley to Nairobi and their story was carried by the Daily Nation. I will always remember how traumatised these homeless children were. They would get up and run in the middle of our conversations, all of them if a sound was made and hide. Nothing could convince them that they were safe anywhere. I remember how the words they repeated and said they heard when being chased away. There is a very deep wound in Kenya with regard to this violence which is often equated with election time. From this to going to sites where police shot young people dead

All you need is to pick up recent comments on articles in Kenyan media and see how often people insult human rights activists. Yet very many human rights activists are people who often without much training and for no pay at all, respond to human rights abuse in neighbourhoods. Some, especially those who started early are well known and sometimes, like in all parts of the world, they receive some media coverage. But for sometime now there is a consistent thread of responses that trash human rights activists in Kenya and the reasons given are shallow.

So what if some human rights activists failed in the past? Or as is so often said, got into government and then stopped being active on defending human rights issues? That does not mean human rights are irrelevant or baseless. How can they be when we are talking about a country where human rights were first abused so severely by a colonial outfit that also left much suspicion and hatred between different peoples in the country? How when in all parts of the world good records of human rights go hand in hand with democracies that are striving to be just that, having the people be their own force unto goodness?

We do not forget that many people who are human rights activists sign no contract with anybody to be whom they are. It is a commitment that they embrace and that should be engaged by many more people in the country. For even though Kenya has a new constitution since 2010 and a strong judiciary, there is so much work to be done. Activists as some people say to paint them poorly are not in charge of everything that goes wrong. You will often hear people saying that they are of no use since they do not campaign for everyone.

Activists voice out on some cases which they can manage so that following those cases much more abuse can be uncovered. In Kenya activists are often told things like "Why are you speaking now and you did not speak when policemen died in an accident or were shot dead by gangsters?" The truth is that this is done just to ridicule them. It is not even said out of concern for those who died. In other words, they should be quiet rather than speak out about what strikes them as evil. And why do not these critics take up the work then? Activists hold authorities accountable and there is much to be done in that regard for women, children, refugees, victims of police brutality, land grabbing and evictions.

After five years since the last election on December 27, 2007, Kenya is not looking up but many are optimistic that she will do well in the election on March 4th 2013. Optimism has always been our strength but we have to do more than to be optimistic to really make a difference. To begin with, what is it that we can all look at together and say is ours in Kenya. Well, there is plenty. Let us look at the Judiciary and the new constitution and act so that there will be peace in Kenya after the elections of 4 March 2013.