Victoria Apostol, of Promo-LEX Association from the Republic of Moldova, recently visited Kenya on a study exchange organized through MRG’s Global Advocacy Programme. Here she reports back on the minority communities she visited and the valuable lessons learned during her trip.
Learning from others could become a universally recognized solution for the problems faced by many minorities around the world. Exchanging thoughts, ideas, opinions, and even business cards, represents an important and necessary step in promoting and maintaining diversity in this modern world.
Not as simple as it sounds. But learning and exchanging are two processes which require attention, passion and good intentions. Over seven days, myself and four other friends from European organizations had the pleasure to be involved in such a process through a study visit to Kenya, organised by Minority Rights Group International.
Kenya is an amazing and interesting country from a social and cultural point of view; home to a rich diversity of minority communities, all trying to build a democratic country through involving themselves in promoting and protecting minority rights. Additionally, the new Kenyan constitution represents a myriad of new opportunities for the inclusion of the country’s citizens, and in particular for minorities.
It all sounds good, however in practice to realise their rights provided for in the new Constitution minority communities need first of all to be involved in elections, not only as voters, but also as electoral candidates. In this sense, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to observe and participate in preparatory meetings during our trip, which aimed to inform minority communities about their rights according to the new constitution, and how they should take part in the election process.
We visited three communities: Endorois, Ogiek and Maasai. Each of them is unique, but on the other hand, all of them are minorities and have common needs as such.
Endorois land was originally appropriated by the Kenyian government in the 1970s to create the Lake Bogoria National Reserve. The fact that they were evicted from their land affected their life-style and livelihood. Therefore, the main issue for this community is land rights. However, they try to improve their own situation through different socio-economic initiatives and are not waiting around for the state to help them. For example we visited an Endorois honey factory which has double importance for the community. On the one hand it is a source of employment, and on the other it provides an income for all 15 members of the community involved.
The Ogiek community, who live in the Mau forest, near to Nakuru, was the second place we visited. Ogiek are a traditional forest dwelling people, who were also driven from their homes by both the British colonial and Kenyan governments, in order to log the forests and make way for agricultural projects.
We visited two Ogiek schools, both of which are financially supported by parents who farm for a living, whilst most of the teachers work voluntarily. The school buildings are small and rudimentary, but this aspect doesn’t stop the children going to school. Education is of great importance for the Ogiek community, but still there are things which need to be improved. The schools do not have a proper libary, nor enough books, whilst space for school activities is limited.
The Maasai from Magadi live in one of the hottest places in Kenya, meaning access to water is a real issue for them. This community is distant from any towns which also creates some difficulties in terms of access to health and other services. What struck me most about the visit to the Maasai was how the community endeavours to empower women through community-based activities. For example, women are organized as a distinct group, addressing issues concerning them directly. One of them was even appointed as a community leader, a major breakthrough in this male-dominated traditional culture, while the majority of women are no longer afraid to speak out about their problems.
All these things impressed me in a special way. I enjoyed discovering Kenya and learning from minorities what it means to work in a community; to share the spirit of collectivity; to find the power and strength to fight against cruel injustices; to be optimistic and to exercise democracy together by knowing our rights as minorities and claiming those rights.
The experience was incomparable for me. I realised how wrong it is to assume something about another culture before fully understanding it. Most of all the study visit brought to my attention the many things which we Europeans could learn from African communities, not least for instance how we should appreciate more the education we receive, despite the conditions under which we sometimes study.
I left Kenya wishing to be back as soon as possible to discover more about this country, and more importantly, it set my mind to thinking how I can do something concrete in support of its minority communities.