Wanjeri Nderu, from Nairobi in Kenya, is a self-employed human rights activist. Wanjeri discusses in this interview her beginnings, and how her anger for the injustices faced by the people in Kenya still drives her to be vocal and seek justice after 6 years of activism. She also talks about the pros and cons of utilising social media as a platform to conduct human rights activism, and how the work can take a toll on defenders on the front line. In this insightful interview wellbeing is emphasised – and particularly the need for organizations to do more in this area and to extend their resources to reach not only the well-known activists, such as Wanjeri herself, but all the other women on the ground who need the same access to these valuable resources.
Could you please give us a little background about what you do, how long for, how you began, what initially inspired you?
I am from Nairobi, Kenya, and I am a human rights activist. I am what they call a ‘social justice crusader’ because I cannot really pin my activism into one specific item. I do a range of things.
I have always been a volunteer, but 6 years ago I decided to take one year break to focus on my activism, and then go back to work. But it’s now been 6 years - and I have been unable to go back to work. The workload is so much, and the needs are so many.
What inspired me? I tell people I am angry, and I think that is the only thing. I am angry, for the state of my nation. I am angry about the connection between leadership and corruption – or’ theft’ as I prefer to call it - and the quality of life of the Kenyan people. It’s the anger that drives me.
I was a financial planner, but I am a journalist by training - although, I didn’t practice for more than two weeks. I was supposed to be a newsreader, but during one of my orientations a producer came and stuck his hand on my blouse and said he was checking if my breast was real. Everybody laughed and that really pissed me off because – It’s my body.
Sexual harassment is very common back home, or being made to feel that as a woman you need to submit to your male superiors to secure your jobs, especially in the media industry. So I quit. I ended up going into marketing and finally did financial planning for more than a decade.
In your experience what are the main difficulties women human rights defenders face? Can you think of any regional trends in your experience?
A lot – women especially suffer more than the men.
This is because they come after us in multiple ways. Not only do they beat up and arrest us like they do with the men, but they also come after us sexually.
In my case, they come after my family – my kids, my husband, my parents – and harass them because of my work.
All the insults online are focused on your anatomy as a female, they hope demeaning you sexually puts you down. They also try and create a rumour about you as a woman, and this hardly ever happens to men. They will say you’re promiscuous or something, which would be fine if you were a man, but because you’re a women society shames you.
I’ve experienced trolling online, and offline I have experienced illegal surveillance.
They follow me, they follow my kids, they follow my husband, they come to my house.
I can't go out to public space, especially by myself. For instance, if they know I’m having a drink somewhere, they will come to the table and make it very clear they’re harassing me for my work.
Also threats over the phone.
I have been arrested several times, I think the last count it was maybe 13 times. But these arrests never really make it to court because it’s illegal what they are doing, it’s just for purposes of harassment and intimidation. They keep you in the cells for a day or two, but then they release you, so you never even end up in the official books.
That is also how they disappear people, because if you are not officially recorded as being arrested, where do people start looking for you?
Luckily what I have done is create a network for myself, so if I am arrested they will know immediately, and they will go online or to the police station to make the cops know “we know so and so has been arrested”.
Have you found certain groups of women are more at risk to specific issues than others?
Yes. If you look at the Kenyan protest, for instance, a lot of people who do the hard work are the grassroots activists – the women in the trenches or informal settlements, in the “slums”, the ones that do literally all the work.
These women may not be able to protect themselves because they don’t have the resources to, they cannot hire themselves bodyguards or immediately access help because they may not even have money to make phone calls. They are more at risk than women working in the same spaces but have employment.
For instance, the police won’t come and arrest Wanjeri if she’s working for a human rights organisation, doing the same job as somebody who is not employed by this organisation.
So yes, there is a very big difference, your economic power as a woman determines your level of harassment as an activist.
In your experience as a defender, what are the main concerns when carrying out your work in the private, public, and digital sphere?
I use digital spaces, especially social media like Facebook and Twitter, for my activism.
The reason for this is because I am not funded, I do not have an organisation backing me, so it’s more affordable for me to have data on my phone to access people.
For example, if I want to plan a protest I go online and say, “you know what I don't care if I will be the only one, I will be at this point on this day protesting about ABCD”, and that gets people following me out there onto the streets.
Social media is very powerful back home. Our government spends about 200 million a month on paying salaries for people employed to just stay online to counter all our protests, or to counter us when what we are saying is waking people up.
People call Kenyans slaves because we are enslaved by our tribal politics and things like that.
Being online, where a lot of people are able to share their views, I can say anything I want and it's not illegal as long as I am supported by fact.
Although, we did have a problem about two years ago. Some governmental officials took some of us and charged us with the misuse of telecommunication devices in court. It took two years for the court to tell them “you know what, there is nothing like that in the Constitution”, while people were facing jail times of up to three years for saying something that you believe needs to be said in public, but online.
But the politicians have also discovered the power of social media and dedicate so much campaign machinery exclusively towards messaging on social media.
We do not have any other channels for activists without resources, so we combine two things: online presence and people on the ground.
If, for instance, I have the case of a child who has been raped in a slum, there will be people on the ground who are telling me “we have got this child” and I will have gone online and tagged all the relevant authorities and say there is a child that has been raped in such and such space.
We combine all sorts of strategies to make sure that whatever is offline comes online because where the noise is - is offline.
In fact, if you tweet the president online, you are guaranteed somebody might respond to you, because they always have people who are willing to counter and things like that. I cannot walk into a State house and talk to him, but he knows what I am saying and thinking online.
In the face of all these challenges, what has given you the impetus to continue?
When I began, I didn’t expect for it to get this far.
It’s not like I was looking for trouble, but I started to realise people were getting it.
It may take a long time, but people are getting angry about the mismanagement of resources in Kenya and are getting to a stage where they are demanding accountability from the leaders. But this happened because some of us took the face of that fight. Right now I can’t stop because people are going to say, “Wanjeri, you started this, we are all here now. You cannot back out because then the whole movement collapses”.
But I have tried to connect networks all over the country, so that even if I am not there, I know whatever work I am doing back home continues.
If I am talking about corruption, like today all our headlines were about what we call the ‘ruling family’ because they behave like a monarchy, and how much money has been lost in one year by them, and I say we need to go to the street - I am guaranteed that seven other parts of the country minimum will also go to the streets, but I am not there physically.
The usefulness of networks helps, and seeing other people wake up, rise, and talk more. And express their feelings more. It keeps me going because there is always going to be someone who will say, “oh Wanjeri you said this 3 years ago, I am seeing it now”.
I am a Kikuyu, but the president is, I am sorry to say, messing up. You get what I mean?
As a Kikuyu woman, especially, you are not supposed to be discussing or talking about anything to do with the presidency because he comes from your tribe, you are supposed to respect him, he is a man, and all that kind of thing.
Can you think of any good practices (legal, administrative, policy, etc) that allow you to carry out your work safely? Can you think of how these practices could be made more gender-sensitive? Can you think of how protection measures could be made more sensitive to activists from marginalised groups (race, class, sexuality, disability, indigenous, etc)?
Kenya has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, but nothing on paper can protect me because we are a country that does not follow the rule of law. But we have taken advantage of the Constitution as activists to go to court on various issues.
Last week I went to court with five other Kenyans about the power company which has the monopoly in Kenya. They cook the books. They steal then inflate the profit margins and recover the money by over-billing to close the gap. Then the state uses companies to fund the ruling parties’ campaigns - Kenya Power helped the jubilee campaign. We have gone to court to stop them with a campaign called Stop These Thieves On Your Own. It’s been really successful in Kenya, and everyday people are using the hashtag to describe the theft of public resources. I used “thieves” deliberately because although we tend to call theft of public funds “corruption”, a common person won’t know what corruption is. If I went to a lady selling onions on the side of the road and told her she is dying of her sickness because she can’t afford medicare because of corruption – she will not get it. She will keep doing her thing. But if you give it context and simplify it, they can understand corruption is just a sexy word to describe theft.
We also compare, for instance, what leadership are doing. We do have good leaders in Kenya, for example the Makueni governor has just built the first ever hospital in two years that the county has ever had for a decimal point fraction of what it should have cost, whereas our own president's daughter came up with a company and faked that she is disabled and was given 5 billion shillings for the heathcare sector and she just stole it. She kept it and she did nothing for healthcare. Now how we look at this woman, who is what we call a “mamboka”, this woman who is in the trenches selling onions on the road side. We need her to understand what 5 billion Kenyan shillings could have done for her.
The simplification of calling them thieves has helped people get to that point of “oh, oh, oh! That is true! They are stealing from me!”. If you break it down completely its coming to 25 thousand Kenyan shillings per second. If we look at the official figures given by the government itself, we are losing 600 billion to theft. The woman selling onions on the street will have to wait three months before she can hold that amount of money in her hands, and that is only about 200 pounds.
How do you think we can strengthen the women’s rights movement globally? What kinds of things do you think would better enable women to participate in the promotion and protection of human rights? Do you have any ideas regarding how the internet could be used for activism?
I think the protection structure right now focuses on well-known activists. If I go into the trenches, I can identify people who don’t have the privilege of being known but are still doing great work. If there was a way in which we could decentralise protection mechanisms that are already in place, that would be amazing.
Another thing concerning me is the continuing focus on protecting us physically as activists, rather than on protecting our minds. Even Amnesty International has lost two people in what, the last year? Two suicides. Imagine what is happening to grassroots activists in Kenya, in what we call the “slum” or informal settlements. Those who wake up every day and the first calls they get are from people who have had their kids killed by cops, they need to go to the slum in the gutter and pick up children. These young men - because being a young man in Nairobi really is a crime to the cops, and their head has been blown off. We are the ones to come take care of the body and make sure it’s gone to the mortuary, because the cops will just dump it.
How do I go from seeing what I have seen to taking are of my mental health? My wellbeing as an activist is so important because while I am not okay, I cannot take care of other people.
But we do not focus on it, we are supposed to be strong and be the heroes, but in reality we are not. We have activists in Kenya committing suicide every day because of what we encounter every day, but nobody wants to talk about it. They say the solution is to stop doing what we are doing, but that’s not the solution for an activist – You cannot tell me to stop, it’s in my DNA. I cannot stop. So, they give you some drugs, which turn you into a zombie. We have a big gap when it comes to wellbeing and self-care.
All the international organisations, and even the local ones, are doing okay when it comes to physical protection, but even that isn’t reaching everyone. I have a friend without the resources to hide, even though her and her son are being watched. I’ve told her to come to Nairobi, bought her a bus ticket, and hid her in my house. But this isn’t a solution – she doesn’t have access to people like Freedom House, or organisations which can help her. For her to be helped she has to be known.
In your experience which techniques and practices have been particularly effective at keeping you safe? Which factors have been most important in achieving your goal at the time?
What I have been doing is setting up a programme when I realise we have a problem. With activist mental health, I invite them to my house once a month and we meet, have a drink, cook, and vent and vent and vent. Therapists in Kenya are expensive, and that’s why we need networks – I have spoken to therapists and doctors to see if they can help, but in Kenya there are so few and the need is so high, so they don’t take on a lot of pro bono work. There is one therapist who comes with me and gives group therapy, but this needs to be all over the country.
I’m doing it from my home which is not really ideal – I have to get my children out, and we leave at 4 o’clock in the morning. You cannot tell someone who wants to continue talking to stop because of time. But it is better than nothing.
I have knocked on so many doors of organisations in Kenya asking them, “can you put a deliberate self-care and wellness plan in your work?”, and nobody seems to get it. People are getting addicted to either alcohol or marijuana, depending on what they can afford, as a way to cope and it is breaking homes. We bring the frustrations of what we see out there into our homes. Then you worry you won’t be able to afford to take care of your family, especially if you are a mom. I’m lucky, my husband helps whenever he can. Men are the breadwinners in most cases, and a majority of activists back home are men, but they cannot afford to risk their families because they are busy trying to get justice for their communities. On top of that, they are not getting any therapy – they cannot afford it – so they start drinking, violence comes into the home, and they become absent fathers. We have an unhealthy cycle.
One thing I want to actualise when I get back home is to create a safe space, no longer in my home, where activists will be able to walk in and find a therapist to speak to, or find a group therapy – and then replicate this in grassroots movements. We also need to be able to recognise when someone is tipping, and make sure we can get that person therapy, because hospitals back home are very very expensive.
What kind of support networks have you found to be the most useful?
Networking is something I think really lacks, because it only happens among the elites. Women in grassroots movements don’t get the opportunity to go to a conference, for instance, unless they are well known or invest, so they don’t get empowered. We don’t have opportunities to network back home, to meet people in decision-making positions who are going to advance our work.
That, coupled with our lack of resources make our work almost impossible – we work as slaves, really. There are times I see activists saying on twitter they are sleeping hungry, and they really are. But if you call them and say, “help, my son has been arrested” they will be there with you. They will make noise with you. We need to get a system, a fair system, of getting as many women as possible connections they need for their work to be supported.
If we look at Kenya, it’s always the same faces at international meetings, getting asked “how are you doing”. But the people actually need the help – down there. Recognition can also help at times. My safety became better when I did an interview for Human Rights Watch in 2016 and when I was awarded the Anti-Corruption Integrity Award for Kenya. This doesn’t work for everyone, some people don’t want any visibility, but for some it helps to recognise their work.
What advice do you have for other women activists, particularly for young women interested in getting involved in the movement?
Don’t give up. It’s hard, I know, but remember this is not a job.
This is maybe what they need to know – that this is not a job. It is a calling fuelled only by passion. If you look at this like a job, you won’t be able to do it.
In fact, a lot of activists can’t get jobs. Back home my profile as a trouble maker won’t get me a job. I can’t even access higher education because the people in charge are appointed by the government, and don’t want you in their schools.
Some people think that if they don’t know what to do in life they will become an activist, but if you are going to do this it really has to be from your heart – your soul must really want to do it. It consumes you, especially if you are a young woman. I regret not starting this earlier, but if I had done so I wouldn’t have my family and my children, and my kids are my life. I think, “why didn’t I begin this 15 years ago?”, but I would be someone really different now. Because activism becomes your entire life, you have to know what you are doing. I encourage as many women as possible to be activists but know it is not glamorous, we are not heroes – that has to be clear.
If you could give your younger self, just beginning in HRD, one piece of advice – what would it be?
Do it better! I have been very erratic in my activism and at times I let anger take over, instead of being rational, and that is not good. With time I have learned to do it in a way whereby I achieve my goals without letting anger win, because when you are angry you don’t always make the right decisions. So, don’t let anger drive you, and don’t let the anger of what is happening to people around you consume you so much that it drives your decision making. Planning, too.
I would say, sit down, plan. You have a campaign, plan. Now I have notebooks for different campaigns, for my tweets. My tweets – I write them down and ask myself, do they make sense? Do they give a story? Only then do I put them out there, whereas before I would just react. That was counterproductive because it would attract a lot of attacks and negativity, but now it is structured, more fact based, I’m not using my emotions to think as much. I’m looking at the evidence, checking it, simplifying it, and then I post. I’m a calmer person now, before I was just driven by my frustration.
I wish I was calmer from the offset, because I think I have lost a lot of opportunities to get my work into a space where it can be bigger and better and more supported.