Queer Activism in Tunisia

Image caption: View from the rooftop of a carpet store in the Medina of Tunis.

Setting the Scene

When I was on the plane crossing the ocean from Canada to Tunisia, I reflected on the fact I was landing in a country that penalizes sexual acts by three months to three years in prison (Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code). I must admit I was not expecting to learn more about queer activism in Tunisia than any of the other countries I’ve travelled, considering I assumed the political climate was too dangerous. Writing this article is important precisely because I did not expect to be writing it.

After explaining my positionality and providing a brief background on the legal context and existing socio-economic studies about the Tunisian LGBTQ population, I will share the activism I witnessed in my first two months in Tunis and reflections about intersectionality and inclusion. Key moments included meeting the screenwriter for the first queer play “TranStyX” in the Arab world (2018), seeing the first queer play “Flagranti” staged in Tunisia (2022), attending an LGBTQ+ refugee focus group discussion through my internship with the UNHCR, attending an art event hosted by the Argentinian and British embassies for queer artists, and celebrating pride month. Although my perspective tells a fragmented, superficial view of the reality in Tunisia, I defend writing this piece because it will hopefully foster further learning and difficult discussions. Preconceived notions of a place are dangerous when they are so entrenched you do not realize they exist. My assumptions were false. Tunisian LGBTQ organizations, such as Mawjoudin and Damj, are working on defending and promoting queer rights, and I am thrilled and humbled at the opportunity to be learning from activists in Tunis.

Since I hope this article will be read by people not necessarily familiar with the topic, I want to set the groundwork for common terminology. Although often confused as interchangeable, sexual orientation is fundamentally different from gender identity. Sexual orientation refers to the gender or genders a person is sexually attracted to. Gender identity refers to a person’s gender identity or expression. Therefore, while terms including “gay,” “bisexual,” and “asexual” are used to describe sexual orientation, terms like “woman,” “man,” or “non-binary” are used to describe gender identity. Finally, the word “queer” is an all-encompassing term signifying that a person belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, which can refer to sexual orientation or gender identity or both.

Positionality

Positionality refers to one’s position in the arbitrary but quite naturalized reality of socio-economic hierarchies and geopolitical privilege. As a person who identifies as a white cis Canadian woman who identifies as part of the queer community,  I have multiple privileges which likely influence how I understand the world. For the purposes of this article I mention only three.

Image caption: A shopowner (left) and a passerby sit looking at his shop across from the Zitouna Mosque.

Firstly, I have the privilege of coming from a certain country where LGBTQ+ rights are recognized. This not only affords me legal protection back home but also a certain degree of social protection abroad. As I learned in Ecuador, the country on my passport also somehow offers me flexibility which is not always afforded to locals. In other words, since I come “from elsewhere,” then in some cases it is easier for people to come to terms with my sexual orientation than if I was a neighbour coming from the same culture.

Secondly, as someone who is cis-gender, my gender identity aligns with the sex I was assigned at birth. This means that seeing me on the street will tell you nothing about my sexual orientation, and it is also easy for me to “hide” my queerness in order to protect myself, as I wrote about regarding my experience in rural Kenya. Trans or gender non-conforming people face more violence than cis-gendered people all over the world in part because their sexual orientation is erroneously deducted from their outwardly presented gender identity. (I say “erroneously” because as mentioned above, sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same, which means one can be trans without being gay, even though people often assume sexuality based on gender expression.)

Thirdly, I have the privilege of knowing I am legally protected somewhere. The same may not be said for certain individuals born in countries with little to no prospects of having the legal right to love who they love, and even less to marry who they want to marry. Even if there are countries these people could technically go to have legal protections, moving is expensive and visa access is limited. Psychologically and emotionally, knowing I can hop on a plane to Montreal and live my romantic life without fear makes a world of difference.

I note these privileges to ground this post in a certain perspective. For Tunisian accounts of queer life in Tunisia, see Nawaat’s article “Protests in Tunisia: Queer Activists on the Front Lines,” 42 Degrees article “Self-reconciliation, self-acceptance: Interview with Khawla,” New Frame’s article “The realities of being queer in Tunisia,” and Where Love is Illegal personal testimonies. In order to draw guidance from some of these voices, I had three Tunisian members of the queer community provide me with feedback on this article before publishing. I did this in order to both verify that the information I was sharing was accurate but also to make sure they felt they were reflected in the forthcoming representations I share.

Image caption: The Kasbah (or “citadel”) of Tunis is now the site of government headquarters, although the Tunisian Parliament was recently dissolved a few months ago.

Legal and Social Context

Tunisia’s legal context entrenches social discrimination and vice versa. Highlighting laws and statistics before diving into the activist scene emphasizes the extraordinary context in which activism takes place.

The legal context in Tunisia continues to sanction same-sex relationships, specifically sodomy, punishable by up to three years in prison. Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code criminalizes sexual practices between two individuals of the same sex and Article 226 and 227 for “indecent exposure” and “indecent assault.” Dating from French colonial laws in 1913, this Penal Code contradicts the rights entrenched in the 2014 Constitution, which arrived a century later. The 2014 Constitution protects privacy in Article 24 and equality and non-discrimination in Article 21. Despite the Constitution, the 1913 Penal Code has not yet been repealed despite ardent efforts by activists. The book by human rights activists Ramy Khouili and Daniel Levine-Spound, called “Article 230: A History of the Criminalization of Homosexuality in Tunisia” is one such effort.

Although compared to its neighbours Tunisia is often considered a relatively safe place to be part of the LGBTQ community, these laws make it difficult for organizations to create a meaningful community that is not fragmented, considering the legal dangers posed. Article 230 continues to be applied in Tunisia, as you can read about in a story covered by Democracy in Exile‘s “The ‘Nightmare’ of Being Gay in Tunisia.” In order to prove sexual intercourse between men, the state even engages in rectal examinations. The play “Flagranti” I attended had a scene depicting how degrading such examinations can be. Emotionally, they take a toll. As one person told me, “I’m a criminal for letting my poor heart fall madly in love.”

Activists advocating for Penal Code reform are often met with demands for precise statistics. Unfortunately, the absence of quantitative data is used as a disqualification argument for investing in legal reform or social programs. During my first week in Tunisia I spent time at a feminist organization where I read three studies about LGBTQ rights. As explored in the next few paragraphs, these studies shed light on violence, discrimination, and psychological impacts linked to sexual orientation or gender identity. They also highlight the great work of NGOs committed to improving conditions for LGBTQ people, and are a testament to data gathered by NGOs in a context where queer activism cannot rely on state-funded research. 

The 2018 “Study on Violence Against LGBTQ Individuals” was a result of collaborations between three organizations called Mawjoudin, Damj, and Chouf.  This study interviewed 300 individuals identifying as part of sexual and/or gender minorities, and documented experiences of physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological violence as well as soci0-economic discrimination. Over half of those surveyed had experienced verbal harassment in public spaces in the year preceding the survey and nearly 24% were physically threatened with a weapon or had experienced a murder attempt in the last 6 years. 51.4% of respondents had attempted suicide, 49.3% self-harmed at least once in their lifetime, 36% often felt tense, stressed and anxious, and 27.2% were unhappy and depressed. Blackmail in this context refers to threatening a victim to reveal their identity to the police or others to ensure their silence. The survey found that more than a quarter of sexual touching and rapes were obtained by blackmail. In one discussion with an activist, I heard about a landlord using blackmail (“I’ll tell the police about your sexual orientation if you dare report me”) as a way of keeping an extra month of rent. 

Seeking a need for more information, Mawjoudin completed a demographic study of the socio-economic situation of LGBTQ+ people in Tunisia, “LGBTQ+ People in Tunisia” in 2020. Conducted with 288 individuals, one important finding of this study was that 13.2% of people identifying as LGBTQ+ have found themselves homeless for a period of time. Housing discrimination is only one indicator of difficulties faced by this diverse population. The National Institute for Statistics of Tunisia found that 15.1% of the general population holding a university degree didn’t have job in the first trimester of 2020, but this survey found that 74% of LBGTQ people surveyed did not have a job despite over half holding a university degree. In all categories trans individuals fared worse.

The third and final study I read, called “Cartographie des sites de population Transgenre” or “Mapping of Transgender population sites” (my translation) was completed in 2019 by L’Association Tunisienne de Prévention Positive, an organization fighting against discrimination for those living with HIV/AIDS. Considering the dangers associated with speaking about being transgender, their pool of 400 transgender interviewees across Tunisia was impressive in its own right. While all participants identified as being either trans or being born in the body of the wrong sex, only 5.1% of respondents had requested a change of sex in their civil status with the authorities. 71.6% declared having been verbally abused at least once in the 12 months preceding the study because of their identity, the majority (88.3%) citing strangers as being the people who verbally abused them, followed by police officers (57.1%), family members (51.9%), sex workers (18.2%) and paying sexual partners (14.3%). With limited options for stable employment, 27% of those interviewed reported being sex workers. On the positive side of things, 99,5% of those surveyed knew of HIV/AIDS.

These studies are examples of increasing LGBTQ visibility in Tunisia. Although I have heard both positive and negative things about the government since the 2011 Revolution, one thing Tunisian society benefits from is an extremely active civil society that pushes the boundaries on public discourse. By way of example, the Civil Collective for Individual Liberties (CCIL) was created in 2015, includes more than 40 NGOs, and has been advocating for LGBTQI rights. One action it took was to draft two alternative Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR), or reviews of the human rights records of all UN Member States to the UN Human Rights Council, about the LGBTQ situation in Tunisia. While many countries have laws similar to Tunisia’s (in)famous Article 230, not all have the same relative safety for NGOs to publish these studies.

Challenging Assumptions 

My prior knowledge of the legal context utterly misguided my assumption that there would be a void of queer activism in Tunis. To add an element of texture to the glum statistics above, I now turn to the lively LGBTQ+ scene I witnessed in the first two months in Tunis, starting with a wholesome story about where I live.

“Medina” translates to “old town.” Dating from the year 698, or approximately 1500 years ago, the Medina of Tunis is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its impressive history. On the southeast side of this Medina, you will find a little blue house tucked inside the labyrinth of tiny streets with bougainvillea bushes and jasmine flowers growing around the door. That’s where I live.  Since people call the house “home” for different amounts of time, the next roommate is picked by group consensus. Completely by fluke, we are a majority queer household in the most traditionally Muslim part of the city. Let that sink in for a moment. My house is a safe space and amenable to meaningful conversations about queerness and experiences related to LGBTQ issues, right in the hustle and bustle of “traditional” Tunis. Thanks to my quick integration as part of the household, my four French and Tunisian housemates kindly introduced me to the city, opening doors to not only meaningful friendships but to LGBTQ circles and events. (For an inside scoop on the house and Tunisian adventures see my personal blog where I wrote a post about my first month in Tunis).

During the second week of living at the house, my housemates decided to hold a potluck to watch the sunset from our rooftop. One of my housemates is a queer Tunisian activist and human rights defender, currently writing a book about love between two women. She told me it was important to mention in this article that difficulties faced by queer people impact everyday life, especially regarding harassment of police, misogynistic comments, and the persistent pressure to stay silent. When I got home from work and head to the roof for a glass of wine with the potluck invitees, I met some of her friends. One of them just happened to be the Tunisian man who wrote and directed the first queer play in the Arab world, “TranStyX” a few years ago (now a book and art project), which addresses transgenderism, near-death experiences and the afterlife in a one-person show, explained well in this interview. He explained with passion and dry humour what encouraged him to write it and its dystopian sequel, called “Church of Euthanasia.”

In two different conversations, both my housemate writing the book and this playwright paving the way for queer theatre made clear they are using their artistic mediums as venues for outreach, in part because they would have benefitted from it when they were kids. In the words of one, “I’ve been trying to do something, not for myself but for the young me, the people who still have a chance to live in peace as I’ve always dreamed to live.” Making information available for younger generations seems to be a main motivation not only for them, but for other activists in Tunisia. For example, Instagram activists @khookha.mcqueer and @yulia_bouteraa have thousands of followers and use social media to raise awareness about their daily lives as trans people. The high number of youth who participated in the surveys above may indicate an increased willingness to discuss these issues.

Image caption: Street art between Marsa and Sidi Bou Said neighborhoods, both upper-class areas where most foreigners live.

During my third week in Tunis I went to see the play called “Flagranti” at the Rio Theatre in Tunis, organized by the local grassroots NGO called Mawjoudin, which translates to “We Exist.” As a side note, Mawjoudin is a grassroots trailblazer in terms of human rights, considering in 2018 it organized the first queer film festival in all of North Africa, and continues to do impressive work advocating for the rights of sexual minorities. (Note that before Mawjoudin’s queer film festival there was a feminist festival organized by no-longer existing organization, Chouf).

“Flagranti” was written by Essia Jaibi and tells the tale of a group of friends who report a disappearance to the police and are placed in police custody when the investigators discover their sexual orientations during an interrogation. The play was an edge-of-your-seat, heart-wrenching, humanizing, utterly raw play about being gender non-conforming in Tunisia. Considering the politics of the conservative country, I was both surprised and found myself beaming at the more provocative scenes which gave me goosebumps. Mindful of the heavy subject, the play included both humorous moments and education about the legal context, encouraging empathy and understanding that queer people in Tunisia are people who deserve to live with dignity.

This play provided a glimpse into understanding the wider dynamics of activist work in Tunisia. Firstly, the cast and crew were extremely courageous considering the play directly critiqued the government’s laws. Although some made off-handed jokes about the possibility that an Islamist mob might attack the theatre at the end of the play, there was tangible apprehension underlining those lighthearted attempts at humour. There is always a fear that such work can result in violence. Secondly, while the evening brought together people mostly between the ages of 18 and 35 (from my best guesses), one of the most talented actresses in the piece was clearly much older, pointing to the important groundwork that had to be set in place for decades before such a piece came together as it did. Today’s activism does not stem from a vacuum. Thirdly, this event brought together the LGBTQ community in Tunis, and for the first time I saw queer people expressing their love for their partners in the closed theatre — a light touch on the arm, eye contact only found in relationships — that I had not seen in public before. Fleeting moments like these in events held only occasionally indicate the importance of these events and the need for a wider network of safe spaces.

Beyond grassroots NGOs, international organizations and embassies are paving the way for discussions about LGBTQ issues. Although we should not forget that the Penal Code article criminalizing same-sex relations stems from a colonial law put in place by the French, it would be an incomplete account of French activities in Tunisia to end the story there. For example, the Institut français de Tunisie (IFT) is a French institution mandated to carry out linguistic and cultural events in the spirit of upholding cooperative agreements between France and Tunisia. After going to an outdoor concert at the IFT of an artist duo reviving traditional Tunisian music mixed with electronic modern beats, I reflected on the fact that this exploration of Tunisia music was financed by the French state. Although I have personally not attended, the IFT hosts LGBTQ-themed workshops, discussions, artistic expositions, films, and performances in collaboration with local NGOs. By no means do I defend French colonial pursuits from years past, nor continuing neocolonial ideas all-too-present on the continent (a common topic of discussion in our house). However, such initiatives are worth considering when it comes to financing LGBTQ events and fostering the LGBTQ community in Tunis.

Thanks to a partnership between the Embassy of Argentina and the Embassy of the UK, during my sixth week in Tunis I spent a magnificent evening celebrating queer Tunisian artists during pride month. L’Art Rue supports local artists and organizes art events in the Medina.  My housemate works at L’Art Rue and set up a magnificent evening at the British Embassy after being contacted by someone from the Argentinian Embassy. Coincidentally, when I arrived at the cocktail I met not only a UNHCR colleague whose partner worked with my housemate on organizing the event (small world), but also the man who wrote TranStyX and the main actress who starred in it.

The art was varied and meaningful. The installation included paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures, film, and other mixed-medium pieces. Although most people enjoyed the photography most, my favourite was a realistic portrait of two women wearing burkinis looking in each other’s eyes. Another aspect I enjoyed from the evening, beyond casually meeting two Ambassadors, was meeting a fashion designer with impressive makeup, wearing an outfit he designed that mixed aspects of traditional men’s and women’s clothing. He was a walking art piece!

Intersectional Reflections

Intersectionality refers to how different privileges and oppressions intersect, including class, race, sex, gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, age, immigration status, language, education, and in some cases political affiliation, caste, etc. An intersectional approach is more likely to capture the complexities of LGBTQ  realities than by looking only at membership in the LGBTQ community.

Classism intertwines with other forms of social organization, influencing how LGBTQ people live their lives. One person I know went so far as to say, “only the rich can be gay here,” referring to the fact that “safe” restaurants where one can go on dates are relatively expensive. One of the “safest” bars called Yuka is owned by visible members of the LGBTQ community, found in the suburbs of the city in the posh Gammarth district on the ocean. So far, that’s the only place I’ve danced with friends and colleagues in a non-heteronormative environment. Taking a step back, my entourage is perhaps one of the reasons why my impression of Tunisian queer activism is generally positive, considering my foreign friends have purchasing power and my local friends are university educated.

Image caption: one of many such doors in the Tunis Medina.

While classism plays an important role in Tunisian society, it bears mentioning that some Tunisians I’ve met here across are so frustrated by the status quo that they cannot imagine not living outwardly as themselves, regardless of their social class. While some have supportive families when it comes to their queerness and others have lost their families for the same reasons, this does not appear to be based strictly on class lines. Recalling the Mawjoudin study summarized above, one of the aspects I found particularly interesting was that respondents and their parents were well educated, which challenges the assumption that educated people are more accepting of sexual diversity. Queer activists in Tunis who defy social norms are found in various neighbourhoods with varying income levels and backgrounds. There is not just one prototype, and suggesting as much is a danger to understanding the diversity within the community.

Still, making progress for LGBTQ rights in Tunisia might mean breaking down assumptions about class. When I first arrived in Tunis, some well-intentioned women told me that the area I lived was so uneducated/dangerous/simple that they had never visited because it was too traditional for feminist work to take place. Although perhaps I’ve been lucky, part of the reason I stayed in this area of the city was because the locals know me, smile when I walk by, teach me arabic phrases, and help me find taxis. I do not feel in danger in this area as long as I respect the local dress code of long pants and say “salem!” whenever I walk by. In fact, I might go so far as to say these supposedly uneducated/dangerous/simple people are more willing to consider different points of view than those unwilling to have conversations with them based on their perceived social class. Just like individuals are hierarchized, so too are activist organizations. For example, some feminist organizations have been boycotted by university students for practicing a sort of elitist feminism that does not include all women – notably lower class, Muslim, or trans women. Other activist organizations roll their eyes when these elitist organizations are named, and the concept of “inclusivity” takes on a whole new meaning. Nobody is “too poor,” “too uneducated,” or “too religious” to discuss equality. If activism only benefits the empowerment of upper-class LGBTQ people, then from a structural perspective, the impacts are limited in scope.

Image caption: Walking home from work one day in the Medina of Tunis, I see the common sight of a man smoking shisha.

My reflections about class are not fully formed. They are further complicated when the conversation expands beyond the urban context of Tunis to larger Tunisia, which I have a limited understanding of considering I’ve only lived in Tunis and only lived here for less than two months.  Just like in other places I’ve lived, from Ecuador to Canada to Kenya, understanding the fight for equality requires discussions about class. When it comes to LGBTQ causes, I’ve found these dynamics are sometimes more complex than at first glance.

Although I do not want to dwell too long on religion, considering I have a limited understanding of Islam and how it shapes Tunisian society, I do want to make clear that some of the most ardent feminists I’ve met here wear veils, and some LGBTQ activists go to the mosque. (Note: wearing the veil is not obligatory in Tunisia, and from my very rough estimates, perhaps only a third of women in Tunis I’ve seen wear the veil). The reason I mention this is to counter the narrative that religious people cannot be progressive. In fact, I spoke more openly about my sexual orientation with a Muslim Tunisian woman dressed from head to toe in black garments than to an atheist foreigner woman on a beachfront in a bikini, because I felt safer doing so with the Tunisian activist than with the French tourist. While religion plays a role in shaping our understanding of equality, so too does family upbringing, social circumstance, education, employment, friend group, personal interest, etc. etc. etc. In short, stereotypes are harmful when it results in the exclusion of certain voices which have contributions to make to activist efforts.

Image caption: Every year thousands of individuals perish in the Mediterranean attempting for a better life in Europe.

I am in Tunis completing an internship with the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although the internship experience is not directly relevant to this article, there are key aspects of my work that relate to the topic. Working at the UNHCR with refugees from countries as diverse as Libya, Algeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Chad, Niger, the Congo, Syria, and others has shed light on how race and immigration status complicates social inclusion in the queer community.

Tunisia has a complicated history with race and continues to socially entrench beliefs about skin colour that are contrary to goals of inclusion. I heard multiple accounts of racism in various settings, but I’ll only provide one example for brevity. I learned during a conference about unaccompanied migrant children that racism (alongside lack of identity papers) is one of the main factors which detrimentally impacts unaccompanied migrant children’s educational prospects. This population is already vulnerable enough without having to think about their skin colour, but any intervention with the objective of assisting them must consider that despite being children, they experience racism, which either directly or indirectly alters their survival tactics and interest in pursuing further education.

While I am unable to discuss details of our interactions for reasons of confidentiality, I will say that I attended a focus group discussion in which trans, gender-nonconforming, and gay-identifying people with refugee status recounted their experiences fleeing countries where they experienced death threats and violence for their sexual orientations or gender expressions. Queer refugees or asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa face difficulties above and beyond queer Tunisian nationals due to compounded factors including identity, race, economic opportunities, and increased levels of stigmatization. Perhaps the most direct, however crude way to put it, is the following: it’s hard to be queer in Tunisia, especially if you don’t “look” like you fit in the heteronormative mould, are black, have non-national immigration status, and have experienced trauma for factors related to your queerness.

UNHCR Tunis has an extensive referral program which, after completing individual assessment counselling, points people with refugee or asylum seeker status to organizations that can support them, including LGBTQ organizations. That is a major step forward. One of my coworkers at UNHCR used to work at Mawjoudin, and has played an important role in ensuring the refugee protection team is properly trained on gender and sexual diversity. That is another major step forward.

While much more could be said, I’ll tie but this section by concluding that one thing I’ve learned from my experience at UNHCR Tunis is that a particular effort must be made to include populations that may not hear about word-of-mouth programming for LGBTQ events. Inadvertent exclusion is felt as exclusion all the same.

Image Caption: Art on the cover of the 2020 Mawjoudin Study, “Cartographie.”

Final Thoughts 

Learning is an ongoing process which requires questioning our assumptions and embracing our ignorance in the spirit of learning more. I learned more about queer activism in Tunis in two months than I did in two years in Montreal, and without even coming to Tunis for that purpose. Hopefully, my reflections will encourage readers to consider what assumptions or biases they hold in order to collectively unlearn and relearn for a more honest approach to activism going forward.

Activists in Tunis are using various tools at their disposal — reports, statistics, plays, artwork, books, events, local and international support systems — to make noise about the LGBTQ community. Although Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code continues to be a significant barrier to empowerment, courageous projects are raising questions about heteronormative and cis-gender expectations. These projects are taking place in a context where pan-African struggles are gaining momentum on the global stage, rightfully demanding to be heard. 

An event or a process? Thinking about the origins of human rights abuses

by Ella Johnson

The views expressed in this post are my own.

My internship is already about halfway done. It has gone quite quickly. The work has been a whirlwind, sometimes very heavy, sometimes very light. Each week is different and I am still getting the hang of that rhythm, of trying to wrap up small tasks quickly, as I never know when something bigger might come in. I am really enjoying it – I like the work and the people. I have mainly worked on two big projects so far, one examining whether Russia’s actions in Ukraine meet the legal definition of genocide under a State responsibility framework and one looking at State and individual responsibilities for chronic human rights abuses by one government. The work has not taken me to a new place, but it has exposed me to some new ideas.

Working on these two projects at the same time and against the backdrop of the January 6th hearings back home in the U.S. has caused me to think about how human rights abuses develop. All three of these case studies have emphasized for me that they do not come out of nowhere. Much of the literature I have been reading about genocide describes it as a “process”, a risk that we can become aware of ahead of time if we watch for certain shifts in governing that indicate the slide towards that kind of violence. And Fiona Hill wrote an opinion editorial after January 6th arguing that Trump had committed a “’self-coup’ [in]… slow motion and plain sight”. She identified a number of warning signs that had indicated where he was heading long before the 6th.

One shift that can incite or indicate a potential for human rights abuses is dangerous speech. Part of our report on whether Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine was centered on the question of whether the Russian regime is inciting genocide through dangerous speech. The question of incitement to violence through speech and misinformation has also been raised in the January 6th hearings. I noticed some similarities between the evidence the subcommittee is using to make the case that former President Trump incited the violent insurrection to the logic that our report followed to analyze whether the Russian state bears responsibility for inciting their ground soldiers to genocidal violence.

The ability of speech to incite violence depends of course on the nature of the speech and the narratives it constructs. But the genocide jurisprudence we examined for the Russia report also identified as key “the influence of the speaker, availability of alternative sources of information, and whether the audience was conditioned by the repetition of incitement”. Evidence that can be important for evaluating these questions therefore relates to systemic questions, such as how the speaker has influenced the media landscape in the country in question, as well as empirical evidence about the extent to which the audience has internalized the message.

In Russia, the existence of systemic control is very clear. Russia has state-run media and they have a tight hold over independent news sources that they have only tightened since the invasion, making it nearly impossible to access alternative sources of information. Most of the speakers promoting violence have a great deal of influence, as they include President Putin and other high-level officials. The Defense Ministry has also been requiring their soldiers to read an essay that Putin wrote called “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, asserting that Russia and Ukraine are “one people” and that any Ukrainians who suggest otherwise are indulging neo-Nazis and Nazism. The soldiers also seem to have absorbed these messages – there are many reports of them parroting lines from Putin or the state-run media while committing violent acts.

Trump, similarly, is a speaker with a great deal of influence as a president. He does not exercise the kind of governmental control over the media that Putin does, and the people who stormed the capitol did have access to alternative sources of information that could have told them that the election was not stolen. However, he did repeat his lie that incited the insurrection over and over again between the election and January 6th, to the point that experts say was enough to incite a reaction. The committee further presented evidence that that conditioning was successful, that his supporters were acting in direct response to his messaging.

The question of dangerous speech was not as central to the other report I have worked on. That report was mainly a list of human rights abuses, largely arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders (lawyers, educators, journalists, protestors, union organizers, members of the LBTQ+ community, environmentalists and others). That difference seemed to me to have something to do with the fact that my other two case studies were focused on particular moments in time (one day for January 6th, and the few months since Russia invaded Ukraine), whereas this case study centered on a chronic problem. Since we were not looking at the beginning of a problem, incitement was not really a question, and I think that is why speech was not as important (though I could be wrong!!).

Still, if one were to look into the origins of this country’s human rights abuses, I am sure they would find a point in history where a person began constructing increasingly violent messages while slowly heightening their control over information and the media, because human rights abuses do not come out of nowhere. There are always early warning signs, because for people to incite these abuses, they need to sow seeds that lead towards them. But people struggle to see them.

This could be its own blog post, but I will close with the thought that this incredulity is a very human thing. After finishing the Russian genocide report, I spent time reading about the history of genocide and genocide responses to write a couple of opinion editorials placing the report in historical context. Again and again, there were people who did notice those early warning signs, but when they tried to warn the people who were at risk, they often could not believe that such a thing could happen where they lived. Many people stayed because of that incredulity. I felt and observed in people a similar disbelief about the risks posed by Covid-19, right up through the first lockdown, and as we went into lockdowns but clung to the idea that the pandemic might somehow end if we just spent a few months in our houses. I also saw it in Minneapolis (my home town), as the unrest following George Floyd’s death grew more violent. We all struggled to believe how violent things might get in our own city. And I saw it with how unwilling many Americans were to believe that Trump would go as far as he did. And yet, it is human too to adjust very quickly once these events do occur and shift the face of one’s life.

Time Travel & Tug of War in Sofia

by Aliya Behar

The views expressed in this piece are my own.

My first few days in Sofia made it clear that walking through the city center feels like walking through time.

As you exit the bustling downtown Serdika metro station, you spot ancient Roman ruins scattered around the underground. Built directly atop of the old Roman city stand memories from the Bulgarian communist era, hastily modernized after the Regime’s fall in 1990. The contrast is unmistakeable. The 4th Century Church of Saint George stands surrounded by the Bulgarian presidency – once bearing the hammer and sickle, now the European Union flag. Just a few steps away, the golden statue of Saint Sofia – a landmark of the city center – having only recently replaced a stone monument of Lenin.

Statue of Sveta Sofia (Статуя на Света София)

Church of Saint George surrounded by the Bulgarian presidency building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Nonetheless, echoes from the past continue to sway the course of Bulgarian politics and public opinion. The country held three parliamentary elections last year, and now seems to be stepping towards a fourth. Just a few days ago, Slavi Trifonov – the leader of the populist There Is Such A People party – withdrew from Bulgaria’s quadripartite ruling coalition due to disagreements with the prime minister’s position on budget amendments and North Macedonia relations. Growing political instability and inflation rates due to the war in Ukraine pave the way for increased fear and uncertainty.

Monument to the Soviet Army

A protest in support of Ukraine, ending in front of the Russian embassy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This precarity feels inseparable from the tensions I’ve noticed in my day-to-day – a tug of war between old and new ideologies, ways of life, and visions for society.

Most of my time is spent in the BCNL offices, surrounded by politically engaged, socially conscious, and well-educated people who work every day to fight for the protection of civic and human rights in Bulgaria. I’ve had countless discussions about the country’s difficulties with media freedoms, rule of law, and social inclusion of minorities. I’ve learnt about how BCNL and other NGOs tackle these issues in a sustainable manner – awaiting results that may take years to attain. The passion and perseverance of my peers astonishes me every day.

Increased public resistance and flat-out rejection of these same fundamental principles astonishes me just as much. Over coffee and banitsa,[1] one of my peers told me about Bulgaria’s rejection of the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence due to fervent public debate resulting in the Constitutional Court asserting its unconstitutionality. The Convention sought to protect women and children from domestic violence. Instead, nationalist, conservative, and religious groups subverted the public narrative, spreading fear of the Convention’s purported imposition of the “gender ideology”.[2] Fuelled by religious and nationalist dogma, public outcry ensued against Western and European interference and the erosion of traditional Bulgarian values by the Convention somehow opening the door for same-sex marriage.[3] One activist I spoke with described the propagation of conspiracy theories, creating “the narrative that the child protection strategy was empowering NGOs that were supposedly helping Norwegians take children, like, it’s a nonsense story.”

The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a landmark Bulgarian Orthodox church

These same conservative, nationalist, and far-right ideologies pervade the geography and social structure of Bulgarian society. Just a 10-minute drive outside of the modern center of Sofia reveals communities like Fakulteta. Effectively, these communities are ghettos, regrouping impoverished and socially-excluded Roma people. Homes are dilapidated, lacking adequate sewage systems, running water, and electricity.[4] I spoke with a sociologist specializing in the Bulgarian Roma community a few days ago, discussing how Roma hatred and scapegoating run rampant across Bulgarian society. I observe terrifying similarities between far-right outlooks of the “Roma Problem” to Nazi Germany’s “Jewish Question”.

A news reporter during a far-right nationalist rally in front of the presidency

One of my coworkers attributed some of the dissonance in Bulgaria to top-down approaches to democracy, human rights, and liberal values. Though Bulgaria recently joined the EU and its laws are in accordance with European standards, large portions of the population lack proper understandings of the abstract ideas of “human rights” and “fundamental freedoms”, simultaneously remaining sympathetic to its previous close ties to Russia. Fraught with an antiquated educational system and a lack of digital literacy, conspiracy theories and extremism often run unchecked.

Despite all of this, I remain inspired. Bulgarian civil society, though relatively new, is filled with passionate people – young and old – who are committed to doing good.

This past week marked the 10th annual BCNL Summer School for NGOs, uniting 19 brilliant trainees through their passions for civil society and activism. Participants gathered by the Balchik seaside for a week of intensive lectures and discussions, honing their advocacy, negotiation, and decision-making skills. They left motivated to spark positive change in their communities, equipped with the tools to do so. One participant expressed gratitude for “the opportunity to feel the power of joint efforts; the realization that there are organizations on different scales, with different missions, but we all need to work together”.

Participants in BCNL’s Summer School for NGOs exploring Queen Marie of Romania’s Balchik Palace

Throughout my short time here, I’ve spoken with activists who work every day to protect human rights and vulnerable people in the country. I’ve learnt about strategic litigation cases for the advancement of same-sex marriage and trans rights, about grassroots initiatives uniting Roma and Bulgarian youth to empower disenfranchised communities, and about the restoration of rural chitalishta.[5] As my supervisor expresses, activists and NGOs are the “immune system of democracy”. Walking through Sofia may feel like walking through time, but the hard work of civil society members paves the way for a stronger future.

Winners of BCNL’s LET’S GO competition and training for social entrepreneurship

[1] Banitsa is a traditional Bulgarian snack made of cheese and filo pastry – it’s delicious.

[2] See Zahari Iankov & Nadia Shabani, “Activizenship: Civic Space Watch Report 2021 Stories of Hope in Dark Times: Political Turbulances Affect Civic Space” (2021) at 5, online (pdf): Civic Space Watch <https://civicspacewatch.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Bulgaria.pdf>.

[3] See Isobel Squire, “Gender Ideology and the Istanbul Convention in Bulgaria” (May 2018) at 33, online (pdf): Projekter <https://projekter.aau.dk/projekter/files/281553551/Istanbul_Convention_in_Bulgaria_300518.pdf>.

[4] See Yuliya Shyrokonis, “EU citizenship, but no shoes: the Roma of Bulgaria” (20 January 2020), online: Open Democracy <https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/eu-citizenship-no-shoes-roma-bulgaria/>.

[5] A chitalishte is, in short, a traditional community and education center. Chitalishta are the cultural and educational hearts of small Bulgarian villages.

Bogotá: A Dynamic City of Contrasts

by Nathan Leung 

It has been over a month since I arrived in Bogotá for my internship at Avocats Sans Frontières Canada (ASFC), and although there were some bumps in settling down, adapting to life in Colombia has been extremely rewarding. I will dedicate the first section of this blog post to my work and apartment situation, and the second half to observations and recommendations about living in Bogotá.

During the first two weeks, I found it difficult forming a routine as work in person is still only two days per week as per COVID restrictions in Colombia. I did not see my colleagues often, but they were quick to respond to any concerns I had on Whatsapp and were extremely happy to help. I have learned that it is important to be patient as I started to feel more comfortable when I finished furnishing my apartment and received research work about Colombia’s armed conflict. 

Another challenge I had during the first few weeks was my apartment. The owner and security guard were friendly and accommodating, but the building was located in an area with abandoned buildings. Many people cautioned me against walking by myself as they told me they had seen people selling drugs on the street. 

The surrounding streets of my first apartment

I eventually moved to Chapinero Alto, a hilly and upscale neighbourhood that was worlds apart from my initial residence. Nevertheless, I enjoyed having the experience of living in a not-so-safe neighbourhood vs a pristine one. 

My new neighbourhood in Chapinero Alto

An important lesson I learned at work is that not all issues can get the attention they deserve. When I first learned about ASF’s project on human trafficking, titled “No Más Trata” (No More Human Trafficking), I was interested by how Venezuelan migrants were affected by this issue. However, my colleague reminded me that the project is mainly focused on women, children, and the LGBTQ community, and the focus on migrants would be out of scope.

Colombia’s armed conflict is also complex from the multiple actors that are involved against the government, and the government itself that has also perpetrated crimes against humanity. Reading about the armed conflict to prepare for my research tasks has reminded me that often there is no black and white for who is “right” and who is “wrong”. 

Our lovely team at work

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Bogotá can be a city of contrasts. The weather is infamously unpredictable, with it being warm and sunny one moment and the next, chilly and rainy. The pollution from cars is also variable depending on whether you’re on a major city road or a smaller residential one. It is also possible to get lunch for $11 000 COP (around $3.70 CAD), complete with soup and a drink, and the same menu item at a fancier restaurant for almost triple the price at $33 000 COP (around $11 CAD).

Traffic jams are common in Bogotá, being a city of around eleven million people yet not having a metro system. I have learned to avoid travelling during the peak hours when possible: 7am to 11am in the mornings, and from 5 to 8pm in the evenings. Transmilenio, the city’s bus rapid transit system, is often filled to the brim from my glances at it out from the taxi window. I have been told that Transmilenio is not quite safe to ride and that robberies are not uncommon. I recommend having multiple taxi apps such as Cabify, Taxis Libres, and Didi, as there may not always be drivers on one app. 

Traffic jam and a Transmilenio Bus in front

Making a cédula de extranjería (foreigner’s ID card) is useful for daily transactions and identification in Colombia, though an appointment is required in advance with Migración Colombia. You are also required to know your blood type as it is printed on the card. With a cédula, there is no need to carry your passport outside, and it enables you to register for services such as phone plans or points at the local supermarket and restaurants. 

Migración Colombia – the place for visas, cédulas, and all other paperwork related to staying in Colombia

Bogotá does not disappoint for adventurous eaters. Tropical fruits such as maracuyá (passion fruit), lulo, papaya, guanabaná (soursop), and granadilla can be easily found.

Fruits at the local market

Bogotá is known for soupy and hot foods, due to it having a relatively cool climate in the Andes Mountains. Ajiaco, chocolate santafereño, changua, caldo de costilla are among some of its delicacies. However, it is good to be cautious with what you eat as I got food poisoning that set me back for a week. I have heard that as Bogotá is not on the coast, seafood is not as fresh, and it is always good to check that the restaurant is reputable. 

Bogotá’s signature dish and one of my first meals in the city – ajiaco

Overall, people in Bogotá are generally friendly and willing to help even though the city can be chaotic, polluted, and dangerous at times. I have come to appreciate the city’s lifestyle and am excited to become even more familiar with the city by the end of my internship. Having read multiple books at the start of my internship, I am looking forward to putting it to use in my research work for the next two months. No matter what happens, I will remember to stay tranquilo (“calm”, “no problem”) as Colombians say and to view this city through their lens.

Traces of Transience

By Nicolas Kamran

The views expressed in this piece are my own.

I noticed two things upon first entering Iqaluit’s RCMP detachment center. First, its rather pleasant atmosphere, provided you ignore the human beings in cages. Second, the conspicuously displayed portrait of Elizabeth Windsor. In fact, I have found it nearly impossible to escape Her Majesty on a day-to-day basis. After enjoying a brisk walk down Queen Elizabeth Way to visit a client held in the RCMP detachment (emphasis on the R), I reach the courthouse where my supervising lawyer is negotiating with a Crown prosecutor. A decision will be rendered today at the Nunavut Court of Justice in the matter of Regina v AB. “All rise, the Nunavut Court of Justice is now closed for the day”. Silence. The clerks glance at one another until one lets out a hearty “God save the Queen!” The judge repeats the expression, and we all leave. It is hardly what one expects of the British Empire’s death rattle.

In recounting these details, I do not wish to describe colonialism as a mere collection of pretentious symbols. This would be missing the point entirely. In Nunavut, colonialism is the air one breathes. Permeating everything and everyone, it does what power does: grant strange and unjust realities the appearance of normalcy. Language is particularly fertile ground for this phenomenon, for the words we use frame our world. Consider how the Bush administration described obviously violent practices during the War on Terror. “Collateral damage” replaced the more accurate label of “dead civilians”, with “enhanced interrogation techniques” giving a friendlier face to “torture”. American “air support” did not “lay Iraqi fighters to rest” by tucking them into bed at night. It murdered people with bombs. And yet these terms filled up headlines for the better part of a decade, sporadically appearing in Canada on occasions where the RCMP used “lethal overwatch” to describe sniper units targeting Indigenous blockades. Again, this is what power does: it obscures patently unjust realities when said realities ground established hierarchies.

Power is why, despite having the highest suicide rate of any place on Earth, Nunavut does not have a single mental health treatment center. Power is why a single psychiatrist[1] serves a territory where ten-year-old unilingual Inuktitut-speaking children can flawlessly pronounce terms like “schizophrenia” and “fetal alcohol spectrum disorder”. Power is why Iqaluit has aviation fuel in its drinking water and an $18 million RCMP detachment center. Power is why Iqaluit has an ongoing housing crisis and a $90 million prison. Sorry, I did not mean “prison”­—I hear it is called a “healing facility” now.

An abandoned Hudson’s Bay outpost. I hear that an Inuk man bought it a few years ago.

In a sense, the situation I describe above makes writing this blog a remarkably difficult task. At the risk of saturating this text with metaphors, I find myself turning to a joke made famous by David Foster Wallace: Two young fish are swimming along, as they happen upon an older fish. The elder politely nods at them and says, “Morning, fellers, how’s the water?” The two younger fish continue swimming on for a while, until one looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

The most obvious and crucial realities are often those hardest to see and understand; age and experience can progressively reveal them to us. Now imagine that the younger fish is tasked with writing something worthwhile about water. Of course, no one has expressly tasked me with writing about colonialism. Interns have considerable editorial freedom in this program, and it would probably be far easier to write about hiking the scenic trail to Apex and eating Narwhal for the first time. But I do not want to do that, for as important as those moments were, they do not occupy my thoughts. Colonialism occupies everything, and to spend six weeks immersed in Nunavut’s criminal justice system without discussing its defining character seems inappropriate. Even so, opining about the nature of crime and punishment after six weeks here also strikes me as comically premature. Doubtless, I swim along in the water. But I remain the younger fish. I still have much to learn and digest before I can escape Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous injunction: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

On the topic of that about which I cannot speak, two more problems emerge. The first is that many of the more insightful stories I would like to recount from my time at Maliganik are subject to confidentiality. The second is that much of what I would like to say could adversely impact my organisation’s relationships in town. Nunavut Legal Aid’s mandate renders its services available to nearly everyone in the territory, and we work in collaboration with (and depend on) the Crown’s office, the Government of Nunavut, and all members of the judiciary. To engage in criticism, even if warranted, could be inappropriate. I will tread carefully.

Midnight in Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park.

My job at Nunavut Legal Aid has allowed me to work at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system. I have assisted lawyers in fielding “10(b) calls”, interviewing clients in cells, preparing bail hearings, drafting memos for trial matters, putting together sentencing ranges, and even writing Charter challenges. Each task has its difficulties, and each has taught me something new about the theory and practice of criminal law. With that said, I have found no process more fascinating than bail. During my first few weeks, I accompanied lawyers to Justice of the Peace (“JP”) Court every day on bail matters. As I met our organisation’s clients for the first time, my mind turned to something I had heard while working as a group assistant for the first-year criminal justice course. Around November 2021, Professor Mugambi Jouet organised a panel of defence lawyers and prosecutors to speak to our class. I remember seeing them huddled outside the Moot Court room, each trading stories about the first time they saw someone in handcuffs. What struck me was their sense of reverence for the moment. It was as if the physical manifestation of bondage made the stakes of criminal justice seem real.

X was the first person I saw in handcuffs, and everything about them expressed fragility. Their face oscillated between anguish and anger. They could not have stood at more than five feet tall nor have weighed more than one-hundred pounds. We spoke separated by a thick glass pane, a sheriff towering outside the room “for our safety”. In twenty minutes or so, a person X had just met would be arguing for their release.

A contested bail hearing in Nunavut’s JP Court is an experience in contrast. On one hand, there are few processes more legally significant. The right to show cause is one protected in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the outcome of a bail hearing is quite literally the difference between freedom and captivity. On the other hand, I have seen very little substantive law involved in any proceeding. What I have seen, mostly, are stories. Defence lawyers take what they know about the accused to construct sympathetic narratives about their lives, attempting to spin anything and everything in their favour. Crown prosecutors often rely on the alleged facts of the criminal offence and the accused’s criminal record to paint a portrait of a human being whose freedom poses a risk to public safety. JPs absorb both stories and produce a third, where they tell the accused, counsel, and the record how they reached their decision. The accused sits confused while people who did not know of their existence an hour earlier opine on their life and character. Sleek wood panels cover the courtroom walls. A golden leaf adorns the flagpole where rests our national symbol. X squirms as the sheriffs carry them back into a cell. There is hardly a more visceral sense that this system has been violently imposed on its subjects.

Some Northern dietary staples.

Preparation for the IHRIP emphasised “expecting the unexpected” and understanding how some things that are “good in theory” may be “bad in practice”. At the outset, a part of me found these points fallacious: To “expect the unexpected” is impossible and what is “bad in practice” must have some theoretical flaw. Nevertheless, I understood both points as calls for patience and adaptability when pushed outside of my comfort zone. These first weeks have unquestionably pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and I have endeavoured to uphold these values.

With that said, I struggle with being a “transient”. The latter term is one that locals typically use to designate those living and/or working in Nunavut for a short period of time. Understandably, the word has a rather negative connotation here. There is a sense in which those who are “just passing through for a job” refuse to fully engage with the culture, language, and history of the North. Worse yet, some feel that “transients” use Nunavut as a prime destination for “human rights tourism”. This phenomenon would be problematic anywhere, but its impacts are especially deep in smaller, more insular communities. A fitting metaphor is that of the tundra: Some years ago, a pipeline burst near where I live, requiring a cleanup operation of two trucks and one hour. Today, children play along the tire marks. There is a tundra that grows so slowly that everything passing over it remains embedded in the soil. Transience leaves its trace.

Tire tracks and a pipeline. Qikiqtani General Hospital looms large in the background.

My 40-hour work weeks do not feel like tourism, and I have tried my hardest to be a respectful guest in land which is not mine. Still, I recognise that the nature of this internship forces me into transience. As I document my twelve weeks here, I hope to chart my trace.

[1] See “A Primer on Nunavut”, 5th Edition, Office of the Senior Judge at 25.

Kenya 101: A practical guide for newcomers

By Noémie Richard

It has already been four weeks since I arrived in Kenya, and I have enjoyed every bit of my time here. My internship is in a rural area of Kenya, called Kianyaga. However, I also had the chance to stay in Nairobi and experience urban Kenyan life. I decided to dedicate this blog post to providing a practical guide for future interns in Kenya, focusing on the contrast between urban and rural life in Kenya.

 

Urban experience in Kenya: Nairobi 

Nairobi is a very fun city. There is something for everyone. However, it does take some adjusting. To have the best experience in Nairobi, there are a few things one needs to be aware of. Here are essential lessons I have learned:

 

Inside of a matatu

Getting around: matatu, bolt/uber, bodaboda…

There are several modes of transportation in Nairobi. Uber does exist, alongside Bolt, which is a similar app-based taxi service. Bodabodas (motorcyclist drivers) can also be ordered by using Bolt. Finally, the streets of Nairobi are full of colourful buses called matatu. I discovered that every matatu is unique: each has a dedicated theme and is decorated according to that theme, inside and out. Some even have a playlist that fits the matatu theme. When getting inside a matatu for the first time, I realized that Canada’s public transport needs to step up its game. The only downside of matatus is the lack of indication as to their itinerary. Local friends are your only chance of knowing where you should go to take the right matatu.

 

Get a local SIM card

Having a local SIM card is a must for data but also as a payment method. M-Pesa is a money transfer app linked to a local SIM card. It is the main method of payment in Nairobi and is used to send money to individuals, to pay for goods at a store, or even to withdraw money.

Don’t take out your phone in the CBD (downtown area)

Nairobi is informally called Nairobbery. Pickpocketing is very common, both for tourists and locals. Kenyans will only use a non-expensive cell phone (flip phone) while walking around the city. I have very few pictures of Nairobi CBD for that reason. I once took out my cell phone in a matatu and my friend closed the window beside me as it could get snatched by someone outside.

Don’t navigate Nairobi’s CBD on your own at first.

First, you need to know where you are going. Kenyans themselves do not ask for directions from fellow Kenyans. Second, Nairobi CBD can be overwhelming. The streets are full of people, cars, matatu (public buses), and bodas (motorcycles). The general rule of Nairobi driving is: “if there is space, I go”. The concept of car lanes, one-ways, direction of traffic, or streetlights is secondary. Kenyans have mastered the art of calculating the speed of incoming traffic to be able to cross Nairobi streets. Third, you can’t take your phone out to look up directions without risking being robbed. The best way to go is to move around Nairobi CBD with a local friend until you adjust to the ways of the city.

Make local friends!

Having the help of local friends, at least at first, is very helpful. The good thing is that Kenyans are very nice people, easy-going and ready to help.

The rural experience in Kenya: Kianyaga

Kianyaga, Kirinyaga, Central Kenya

Rukenya Fall

Rural life varies greatly from urban life in Kenya. It is laid back and slow-paced. Kianyaga, where I am located, is a small town very near to Mount Kenya. Going around in bodas is my favourite activity as I can admire the scenery: driving through the forest, rivers, and waterfalls, or passing by fields of tea, coffee, banana, and rice plantations.

Mount Kenya

 

The first thing to know for newcomers in rural Kenya is: get ready to be noticed. Locals are very excited to talk with a muzungu (white person) and to welcome them. Walking down the streets of Kianyaga or while riding a boda, I hear locals greeting me: “Muzungu, how is you?” “Karibu Kenya (Welcome to Kenya)”. Children and adults will follow me, either to ask to touch my hair or simply to talk. Getting all this attention was overwhelming at first as I was still figuring out local customs. However, it didn’t take long before I was integrated into the community and felt very comfortable living there.

The second important element in rural Kenya is the language barrier. The official language is English, and the national language is Kiswahili. However, in rural areas, people speak the language of their tribes first, Kiswahili second and English last. In Kianyaga, the tribe language is Kikuyu.

Tea plantation

The last element about rural Kenya relates to food. Kenyans are self-sufficient in terms of food. Most will have their own chickens, at least one goat or cow, and banana and avocado trees on their properties. Most rural households will grow crops, mainly tea, coffee, maize (corn), rice, and garden vegetables. This means that I get to buy fresh products, straight out of the farms. I found it hard at first to know where to buy what I needed; there are no stores selling everything. Instead, I needed contacts for each product (eggs, farm milk, chapati, etc). Once I did get contacts for everything I needed, the freshness of the products made it worth the wait. Sometimes the products were too fresh. Here, when you want to buy chicken, it comes straight from the farm, alive, something I did not know until I bought one. Let me just say that it was an interesting afternoon.

 

Overall, my experiences in both rural and urban Kenya have been incredible. Kenyans will make you laugh and feel welcomed. Time is flying by, and I know that I will get to the end of my stay feeling like I wished I could have stayed longer.

An unexpected turn of events yet, invaluable lessons learnt

It has now been a bit more than half-way through my internship. I wanted to pause and reflect on everything that has brought me to this very moment and how things unfolded. If someone were to teleport me back in time and ask me whether I believed that all this would happen, I would surely have denied it.

Indeed, everything was perfectly planned. My internship was to start end of April in-person in Lima, Peru at the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos (IDEHPUCP). Being as excited as I was, I had planned every detail raging from my Airbnb accommodation to my flight there and back, as well as my luggage. Every day I would listen to the news of the country so that I would be informed and well-prepared when I would be there. Every night, I would watch documentaries on Peru, to learn more about the culture, customs, country, and places to visit. I also got in touch with locals and friends for helpful tips.

However, a real-life plot twist took me by surprise. A few days prior to my departure, violent protests including tear gases, injuries, deaths, and blocked roads emerged in the country—and specifically, very near to the region where I was going to stay. To say the least, I was devastated. Due to this turmoil and upheaval, my plans got flustered. My supervisors and locals there, advised me against travelling. Everything went up in the air. In that very moment, despite my confusion and disappointment, I knew that I had learned a very important lesson which was that I should always expect the unexpected.

Now it has already been a few weeks since my start date and I feel grateful despite the rocky beginning. I work with the Institute daily on a fixed schedule, I join meetings with them and help with multiple projects. In fact, this turn of events has not only allowed me to expect the unexpected but also to learn how to adapt to the unexpected once it happens. Further, I feel very happy for all the pre-research that I had priorly done since in some way it, allowed me to travel to Peru without actually having travelled and it helps me understand the context of the work I do.

As much as flexibility was emphasized by the organizers of the IHRIP, I would like to highlight it even further as it was the core theme of my past few weeks. I have learned first-hand what it is like to have to be flexible and do the most out of a situation you can sometimes not control.

Three main lessons I would like to engrave as I move onto the last weeks of my internship, are:

  • Expect the unexpected
  • Flexibility is key to learn how to adapt to the new normal
  • Desire to be constantly challenged

I still have much learning to do, and I am eager to keep on pursuing this process as I complete my time as an intern. With all this in mind, I cannot wait to see how much more I will have learned in just a few more weeks.

5 lessons from my first few weeks in Uganda

by Rebecca Clayton 

It’s been a few weeks since I have arrived in Uganda to work for the summer with the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD). It’s early days yet for all the learning still to be done, but I thought that I could sum up the first 5 big lessons I’ve experienced while here!

 

 

  1. Living in a country on the equator is hot.

In related revelations, I don’t drink nearly enough water at home in Canada. Turns out those two things are connected and required quite a bit of correction. But I am happy to report that I am used to the heat by now! Mostly.

 

View of Kampala from the highest point in the city – the minaret of the mosque!

 

  1. It’s okay to go slow while you adjust to new places.

I think that there is an instinct to want to move quickly and fill our days with all sorts of activities to ensure we are “making the most” of our time away, but taking my time to settle was the best thing for me to make the most of my experience. Prioritizing rest, balance and health is the best way for me to ensure I can engage fully in the work I am here to do. And as time has gone on, I have added more and more fun to my days and weekends as well.

 

The office!

 

  1. Human rights work necessitates a separation of your individual values and the work your do.

Last week, CEHURD hosted a Judicial Colloquium for Magistrates and other justice actors in the Ugandan legal system. It was a training day on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and the work that CEHURD does to advocate and litigate in this field, particularly in the arena of maternal health. Naturally, under this umbrella is a host of controversial and challenging issues that CEHURD regularly addresses in their work, including abortion laws, sex work, LGBTQ laws, HIV health, and many other sensitive, and often personal, topics. Throughout the day, speakers and facilitators were all hammering home a specific message to the judicial actors in attendance: we are all somebody from somewhere. We all bring our own values to the table when we interact with the people around us, and without any awareness of what those values are, we risk allowing them to cloud our judgement. And when our role is to be a judge, a police officer, or any person who has a measure of control over the lives of another, that risk needs to be addressed.

I think that one of the most interesting parts of the day for me was an activity where we placed ourselves on a continuum based on our own personal beliefs in these topics. As it turns out, CEHURD employees personally believe a range of different things about abortion, sex and gender. However as an organization, those individuals advocate with such strength and commitment for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights because they know that they are an essential component of the Right to Health. What I saw in practice was an incredibly admirable separation of individual values from the practice of human rights work. There is no denying the toll that unsafe abortions are taking on the women in Uganda, no matter what you personally might believe about it. And as an organization that focuses on human rights in healthcare, it is the health of these women that matters above your own beliefs. It was a profound moment of learning for me, and deepened my already-huge amount of respect for CEHURD and the people who work there. I hope I can continue to learn from their example about how to keep untangling my own biases from rights-based work throughout the summer and beyond.

 

Tracy, one of the lawyers I work with on the Strategic Litigation team.

 

  1. Bodas are a much more efficient means of transportation than cars.

There is something very satisfying about zipping around cars as they sit in a traffic jam. It’s the best way to get around in Kampala – just don’t forget your helmet!

 

My view every day while I commute to work.

 

  1. Lean into support systems, because you really can’t do it alone.

No matter what I might believe about my own independence, I am never reminded of my reliance on others quite so intensely as when I venture abroad. Perhaps the most recurring lesson in travelling for me is the grounding in my own vulnerability, and it seems to arise and need to be re-taught to me again and again. I am so lucky for the support system provided by IHRIP and Professor Ramanujam. I am also very grateful for the connection she provided to Arnold, a former McGill student from Kampala, who arranged for his brothers-in-law (Jacob and Kester) to pick me up from the airport and spend an entire day with me getting settled. They taught me about Mobile Money in Uganda, helped me exchange currency, get a SIM card, learn to use the boda system, get groceries, and have generally been available to help with my transition to living in Uganda. My colleagues at CEHURD have also helped me get settled, helping to arrange logistics for me, checking in on my wellbeing, and offering rides when I needed them. I have also really needed the support of loved ones at home as I transition and process my new experiences. Of course, having someone else doing their internship in Kampala has been significant for feeling connected, and exploring Uganda with Somaya has been a joy! Without all of these support systems, my experience these past few weeks would have been entirely different. It is because of them that I have felt such a sense of security, enjoyment and comfort as I settled into my new routines. So, I have been reminded by this experience once again to make my peace with being helped. Better yet, I have been reminded to lean into it. We all need help from others, especially in new spaces. Leaning into community is a part of being human, and I am grateful that this experience has served as yet another opportunity to learn that lesson.

 

Somaya in a market last week, when we were on a walking tour of Kampala.

 

I am deeply excited to continue to observe, research, reflect, explore, chat, connect, present, and socialize for the next couple months. It’s been an incredibly rich learning experience, and I am looking forward to where it will continue to go!

 

Matoke, the staple food of Uganda. There are truckloads everywhere!

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