Keeping Warm During the “Cold” Rainy Season

By Yulia Yugay

Contrary to popular belief, I did not roast under the Kenyan sun for three months. In fact, we caught the second half of the rainy season and stayed in Kenya during the coldest months of the year. In July, the temperature can go as low as 15 degrees; it is at this time that people take their warm leather or down jackets out, wear long thick scarves and hats. In other words, when Nicole and I went outside wearing a blazer or a light sweater, Kenyans thought we were the most warm-blooded people that have lived on this earth. Unsurprisingly, when they found out about average winter temperatures in Canada, they could not believe their ears.

In Meru Law courts with a public prosecutor and Nicole

These differences in perspectives were obviously not limited to climatic issues, which is why my experience in Kenya makes up a full spectrum of emotions. One of the most shocking, yet unsurprising, things we’ve witnessed is the treatment we received, as wazungu (white people) during official events, from government officials and people on the streets. When visiting police stations while trying to find out the status of a case, going to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow up on the progress of an appeal, or when asking for help from court staff, we were offered a seat in the waiting room, directed to the right person or given an answer. While this sounds totally ordinary, our Kenyan colleague said that he felt like he was in a different country. Later we were told that this was due to the fact that everyone thought we were “important” people who are coming to check on their work.

Another instance where we got preferential treatment because, once again, people thought we were “important” was at the celebration of the Day of the African Child. We were officially greeted, given water bottles, and seated right next to a highly ranked government official whose arrival (30 minutes late) required the interruption of the entire parade. This time, we received special treatment because it was very likely that we were some of the donors who sponsored the event. While this treatment can be understood, it also showcases a frustrating reality: an experienced university graduate working in a Kenyan NGO with issues as important as defilement cannot always do their work as efficiently or to the same extent as two foreign students who do not even speak decent Swahili.

Justice Clubs launch event at Ncuui Primary School

With that said, there was an overwhelming amount of wonderful people, customs and precious moments that kept us warm in fifteen degree weather and in spite of the different surprises on the way.

One of the highlights of my internship were the school visits we paid within the framework of the Justice Clubs initiative. The objective of the Justice Clubs is to educate a group of primary school students about human and children’s rights, the 160 Girls decision, and the issue of defilement more broadly. Selected students learn the curriculum through specifically designed workshops and activities and then pass the message on to the rest of the school and members of community during launch events and closing community shows. Having visited and selected the schools and trained the teachers (Justice Club patrons), it was extremely comforting to see the effort, dedication and enthusiasm that both the school administration and students had invested into organizing, preparing for and performing at the launch events. The level of student engagement and parent participation instills hope that the Justice Clubs initiative contributes to women’s and girls’ empowerment and brings us one step closer to the longterm, systemic change.

At the tea plantation with a group of strong and beautiful women

However, every moment spent with the girls at the Tumaini shelter was, without a doubt, the most memorable and heartwarming. Working with their individual cases, knowing their stories made my work very emotionally challenging. Nevertheless, all the time spent cooking, playing, reading, colouring books, and painting nails with the kids added the invaluable human component to the human rights work I did all summer. I cannot stress enough how loving, sincere and generous are these souls who, thankfully, haven’t forgotten how and what it means to be children

To conclude, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude for all the people I met over the course of my three months in Kenya who made up for the many cold and rainy days. I am grateful for the people who introduced me to and taught me to cook some of the best Kenyan dishes. I am grateful for the famous Kenyan tea with milk and sugar, religiously served every morning and afternoon, that I shared with my colleagues (this definitely helped me cope with the unbearably slow wifi or the lack thereof). I am grateful for the lady at the market who always greeted me with a warm smile and threw a couple more sweet potatoes or bananas in my bag. I am grateful for the women working at the tea plantation who welcomed me into their group and showed me how to pluck some of the best tea in Kenya. I am grateful for the friendships created not only with the people in the office, but also with their families. And finally, I am grateful for having been able to experience the sense of community that is so deeply rooted in Kenyan people.

Sunrise at the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Asante sana, my dear Kenya, and until next time.

Learning About Kenyan Challenges, Beauty, and the Very Relative Concept of Time

By Yulia Yugay

At the Maasai market in Nairobi

“Karibu Kenya!”, says our smiling taxi driver, as he welcomes Nicole, my co-intern from University of Toronto, and myself. We spend the night in the hot (for us, Canadians, who just got out of 6 long months of winter, but definitely not so hot for the locals) and humid Nairobi. The next morning, our driver Charles, who is an hour and forty minutes late (our first encounter with the notion of “African time”), picks us up, and drives us to Meru. On our way, we get a brief insight into Kenyan history, politics, economy and climate. We discover that we arrived right in time for the avocado season and learn about the infamous Kenyan nyama choma (roasted meat) for the first time. Within 5 hours, we drive past countless hills, maize fields, and banana trees. We cross through very dry and then rainy regions, follow along the Tana river (that, as I tell my mom to reassure her, did not flood the Meru region) and, of course, catch a glimpse of Mount Kenya.

Ripples International as an organization

As an intern at the equality effect, a Canadian NGO fighting for the rights of women and girls in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, I have an opportunity to spend my summer working with one of its international partners in Meru, Kenya called Ripples International. The latter works with children through a number of platforms that include a primary school, a medical centre, an access to justice program, the New Start baby rescue centre and Tumaini rescue shelter that most of my work revolves around. 

Tumaini stands for “hope” in Swahili, which perfectly reflects what this shelter is to Kenyan children. Girls and boys aged between 3 and 18 who were and/or are at high risk of being victims of defilement (child rape), child labour, early marriage, and FGM are rescued and sheltered there. Most of the girls at the shelter were victims of defilement; many of them are (very) young mothers, who stay there with their babies. Spending time with these children is my favourite part of the internship so far. During every visit, I am amazed by their good heartedness, love for learning, sincerity, and joie de vivre. On the other hand, every time I discover their individual files that explain why these innocent children are rescued in the first place, my heart breaks anew.

On one of the visits to introduce the idea of Justice Clubs to primary schools

Court watch, police monitoring, home visits

In addition to sheltering and counselling, Ripples International takes on the monitoring of the girls’ treatment by the police and of their court cases. An important part of my work consists of preparing for, attending and accompanying girls to their court hearings. Moreover, we contact and visit police stations and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to follow up on cases, when things slow down and fall through the cracks.

Unfortunately, simply getting a defilement case to proceed in court is a challenge on its own. Firstly, the incident(s) has to be reported to the police, where it is recorded in the Occurrence Book and a P3 form (medical examination report) that has to be completed both by a police officer and a doctor/medical specialist is issued. The police has to take the witness statement of the victim, visit the crime scene (which is almost never the case due to either reluctance or logistical issues/inaccessibility of the place), collect evidence and/or admit the evidence provided by the victim, interview and take the statements of other witnesses, where applicable, and finally take the required steps to arrest the suspect and lay charges. This process is not extremely time consuming and complicated but each of the multiple steps is an opportunity for the police to ask for bribes and frustrate the victim’s access to justice.

Saturday morning with the girls at Tumaini Centre

Our internship takes place five years after the ground-breaking 160 Girls decision that previous interns had described at length had been rendered. In short, Ripples International, together with the 11 petitioners, won the constitutional challenge, as a result of which the High Court of Kenya found that police treatment of victims of defilement violated their constitutionally protected rights and “created a climate of impunity for defilement as perpetrators were let free”. Thus, the National Police Service was ordered in May 2013 to conduct “prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations”. Five years down the road, although significant improvements can be seen, the work that Ripples International and the equality effect do on police monitoring is far from being completed.

Secondly, even if the victim is past the first hurdle and the case does proceed in court, they face issues ranging from delays to absconded perpetrators and even corrupt magistrates. Because Ripples International admits girls from all over the country, I had the opportunity to attend several defilement cases before different regional courts. In my six first weeks in Kenya, about half of the hearings I attended were pushed to a further date because “the court is out on official duty”, the testifying Investigating Officer is caught in preparations for a national holiday, or the accused’s lawyer isn’t ready to proceed, to name a few. Even if witnesses fail to appear in court for no good reason, the most severe consequence they face is a 500 shilling fine (roughly equivalent to $5 USD).  Furthermore, in a significant number of cases, the matter is either withdrawn or abandoned because the perpetrator escaped and cannot be found (or the police are not looking for him).

At the launch of the Day of the African Child celebrations in Isiolo

Home visits are another insightful part of my internship; they are both eye opening and humbling. Being welcomed into homes of ordinary people, have them open up and tell us about one of the most desolating events in their family history makes riding 3 matatus (community cars) with at least 7 other people in it and a boda boda (motorbike) each way worthwhile.

All in all, while writing this blog post I’ve come to the conclusion that with all its issues and challenges on both individual and institutional levels, Ripples International offers a strong shoulder and great support to loving children and their families while they undergo the roughest and most challenging times. This support is particularly important in a system where things being done the way they should be is a tremendous achievement, and where the government and its organizations do not make access to justice for victims of defilement easy.

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