Kenya: Together We Go Forward

A textile workers' self-help group finds the strategies to take civil society forward after Kenya narrowly averted a civil war earlier this year.

By Maggie Ziegler | 2008-10-01 12:00:00

Where the Thika Road roundabout joins the road leading to the Ruaraka industrial area, a twenty-minute ride from central Nairobi, crowded buses and matatus swerve off the asphalt to disgorge passengers, while chickens tied together by their legs are tossed from the top of a bus and sweating men pull carts of maize.

In February, 2007, my husband and I alighted at the roundabout to join three former union organizers from the textile factories in the Ruaraka Export Processing Zone (EPZ). Kenya's export zones are part of a global system of outsourcing labour to places where governments offer special tax incentives and pay little attention to labour conditions. You may be wearing something now from the Ruaraka factories, made by low paid workers who work under sweatshop conditions and live in poverty.

As we walked down a muddy road with David Musungu, John Otieno, and Judy Wangui, past barred factory gates where vendors squatted with bananas and hot lunches for the workers, and past a long line of tired job-seekers leaning against a concrete wall, none of us imagined that a year later this area would be devastated by Kenya's post-election violence. None of us thought that the energy of our activist friends would turn to peace-building or that walking these streets together again would seem like a miracle.

At that time, we talked together of how the workers, a few years earlier, had organized to improve their lives. In 2002 the 24-year-long dictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi lost power to the pro-democracy rainbow coalition (NARC) and Mwai Kibaki became president. Optimism ripped through the country with a fire that equaled the violence following the next elections.

In the EPZ textile zones, early in 2003, 30,000 workers went on strike for better conditions and the right to unionize, part of a massive outpouring of grievances and labour activism across the nation that included Coca-Cola distributors at a Nairobi bottling plant, workers at a paint factory and a rubber company.

There was hope that Kenya's problems -- the root causes of the violence that underlay the political class's exploitation of tribal grievances for crass vote-getting -- would be addressed. Perhaps solutions would be found to corruption, the increasing gap between rich and poor, land conflict and urban migration and the impact of globalization. But civil society hopes were dashed, the Ruaraka union drive was smashed, and our friends lost their jobs. Recent events have risen, in part, out of broken promises to end corruption and build a more equitable society.

"This is our home," said John Otieno. "We're not going to go away." Determined to find a new strategy to take workers' issues forward, Otieno and a small group of comrades formed Tuendelee Mbele EPZ Workers Welfare Organization. Tuendelee Mbele (Swahili for together we go forward) envisioned an education program about HIV/AIDS, labour and human rights, and self-help initiatives.

Back in Canada, my husband and I joined with a small local NGO to raise funds for the AIDS program -- which came to a halt in December 2007, when accusations of a rigged election quickly escalated to violence that blazed across the country.

A shattered community

In January, 2008, David Musungu wrote from his local cyber-café. "I can hear canister shots and I can smell the tear gas as a result of riots between the Luo and the Kikuyu. Many of our group members were displaced. Some are at the police station or the church. Vincent the treasurer relocated to my house. So many people across the country are displaced. Women and children suffer most. We have become refugees in our own country."

As gangs of young men raced through the housing estates and slums of Kariobangu, Dandora, Huruma and Mathari, and as police responded with lethal gunfire, Tuendelee Mbele found their community shattered.

February, 2008. David wrote: "Despite the ongoing mediation with Kofi Annan, security is not good. We have had to relocate several people according to their tribal lines. You have to be very keen not to trespass to the other territory as you might lose your mobile, money, and lastly get hacked to death. We have tried our best to keep this difference out of the EPZ but when it comes to residence we have no choice except to ensure that each one lives where they feel secure."

I spent a great deal of time in front of my computer, reading emails and following the news on-line in Kenya's Daily Nation. Sometimes I put my head down on my desk and wept.

"We are not sitting back. We won't leave our problems to our leaders -- we must all get involved. Even without material things to offer, we can offer ourselves as volunteers. Just talking to the victims reassures them and gives them hope and helps bridge the ethnic divide among the workers. We encourage them to live in harmony as before."

After the Kofi Annan-brokered power sharing arrangement between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga -- the contested winner and the opposition leader -- a tentative peace emerged on the streets.

In the displaced people's camps

It was May when we walked together again with David, Judy and John through the industrial zone and worker's neighborhoods, also accompanied by Vincent Wanyama and Consolata Tungata. The mud had dried and the streets were dusty, but that was not the only difference. Now there were burnt-out stalls and buildings, deserted concrete housing blocks, and a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) at a police station. Another camp was on church grounds a few minutes walk from an empty and desolate area that was once a crowded village of one-room shacks.

John Otieno visited those camps. Deeply respected for his organizing work, he almost lost his life when company-hired thugs beat him for his union activities and he often touches the long scar that curves across the back of his head. Yet the displaced workers and community members were surprised to see him. "I am Luo and the camp was for Kikuyu," he said. "But it made a big difference that I came to talk and listen and didn't leave. One person said, `Because you came, I won't hate all the Luo, despite what they did.'"

Walking down a narrow alleyway towards Judy Wangui's home, we bent our heads to avoid the edges of the low tin roofs as we stepped carefully to the side of running sewage. Pausing at the leaning gate to the family compound, Judy told how she, her mother, and their neighbors were determined to protect their homes. When the roving gangs came looking for Luo, Judy said, "We responded, `There are no Luo here. They've all gone.' When the gangs came for Kikuyu, all the neighbors said, `There are no Kikuyu here. They've all gone.' That way everybody stayed safe."

Now people mingled freely again on the streets, something precious that would never be taken for granted again. But Consolata looked down the street and said, "There are so few people here." Too few stalls were open, too many neighbors still languished in camps or had relocated to areas where they feel safe. We saw almost deserted stretches of dirt road that had bustled with street vendors the year before.

There is peace but there is not justice. Vincent said, "Up there in the government they have agreed to share power, but down here there is still trouble." This is all about poverty, the friends agreed. But although they grappled with the deeper causes of the violence, they were also caught in tribal conflict.

Tribal identity is stamped on Kenyans' IDcards

After our walk we sat in a workers' restaurant at the roundabout, which serves as a de facto office as the group has no office (and no paid staff and only a miniscule amount of project funding). I was apologizing for how little we had been able to help, and they were saying that our assistance might be small to us but the peace forum had been hugely important to them.

"It was at the peace forum," John Otieno said, "that I saw that we could continue. From that day I was released." He knew that peace on the ground was needed to support the Kofi Annan-brokered agreement, but described how Tuendelee Mbele's first attempt to bring EPZ workers to a meeting failed because people were too afraid to come. They tried again, and the second time seven people came. Their efforts built slowly to a well-attended forum.

I realized that they had not known if they could continue. The peace forum -- just one day -- wasn't only about supporting others to reconcile and make peace, and it wasn't only about bringing a sense of hope and possibility to shattered lives, although it did all that. It was also a chance for Tuendelee Mbele to face themselves. They spoke of the distrust that existed even amongst themselves and about how difficult it was to climb out of the tribal boxes in which they had been placed, how hard to free their own minds in a society where tribal identity is stamped on national registration cards and determines who gets hired, who becomes shop steward, where the workers live.

David Musungu learned at the forum that they all had to question themselves and to push at the edges of knowledge about their complicity -- what each did or did not do. Consolata agreed. Traumatized by seeing dead and mutilated people on the street, and by a seriously wounded nephew who came bleeding to her house, she found that she had to address the hostility in herself.

"People asked what had happened and I said with anger, `the Kikuyu did this.' I became sick because of what I had seen. I realized this was creating hatred. I had to find a way and I found it at the peace forum."

Learning about anger and conflict resolution and how identity is constructed was important to all the participants in the forum. But it was the opportunity to tell their own stories and listen to each other that began to repair the rifts between them and within their own hearts. As one group member put it succinctly, her participation in Tuendelee Mbele helped her "in killing this big disease of tribalism."

Tuendelee Mbele hopes to one day open an office and provide support and counselling to workers of all ethnicities, as well as provide a base for their AIDS and labour rights projects. They envision bringing people back to the streets by initiating dialogue with landlords to build a trusting environment in which EPZ workers can safely return to the empty buildings and once again fill the streets.

One step at a time Tuendelee Mbele is changing Ruaraka zone with their commitment and understanding that justice for workers and peace on the streets cannot be separated. "It will take so many days. Months," said John Otieno. "But we can do it. Pole pole. Slowly by slowly."

Maggie Ziegler is a member of SOLID, B.C., a Salt Spring Island NGO that supports numerous projects across sub-Saharan Africa, including Tuendelee Mbele.

For more background on the political crisis in Kenya, see Katie Meyer's article, "Kenya: Healing the Nation," in the April-June 2008 issue of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2008

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