When poor Kenyans need help, whether because a family member has been raped in one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums or someone they know disappeared  after an interaction  with the security services, they are unlikely to go to the police or to a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Instead, they seek out an activist like Wanjeri Nderu or Ruth Mumbi as their best hope.

The two women are part of a shadow army of human rights defenders in Kenya’s capital, and their work does not come without risks. Both  women have received death threats, and  they  have  been followed, physically assaulted, and  viciously  harassed. Their work  brings in  little,  if any,  money. They have  no access to the  institutional support that provides physical cover and  resources.

The  recent killing  of Nairobi human- rights lawyer  Willie Kimani, along  with  a client he was representing in a dispute with a police officer  and  their driver, has drawn international attention to  a problem that freelance activists like Mumbi and  Nderu face  every  day. Security forces  in  Kenya enjoy  almost absolute impunity, including when they are accused of retaliating against human rights whistleblowers. The brazen- ness  of the Kimani  attack – plucking a lawyer and  his client from  his taxi after  a court appearance, kidnapping, mutilating and then brutally murdering them – suggests the problem is getting worse.

The  government has  disparaged the support of NGOs for the International Criminal Court’s investigation of the explosion of violence that followed the  2007 presidential elections. The  ICC cases  against now President Uhuru Kenyatta and  his deputy, William  Ruto,  have  collapsed, but  many activists say  that the  stigma against the human rights community remains.

Wanjeri Nderu at a protest against extrajudicial  killings and police brutality in Nairobi, Kenya. © Edith Honan

Wanjeri Nderu at a protest against extrajudicial  killings and police brutality in Nairobi, Kenya. © Edith Honan

Nderu and  Mumbi, like the  hundreds of other activists who  operate outside of formally organised civil society, are among the  most vulnerable as Kenya’s civil space shrinks and  their activism becomes more risky. “They’re at the sharp end of the spear. And the fact that they have  no institutional infrastructure behind them makes them incredibly vulnerable,” said Abdullahi Halakhe, a researcher at Amnesty International in Kenya.

It’s no  surprise that they  have  thought about giving up. But they  don’t give up, for one  clear  reason: if not  them, then who? “I think, OK, if I quit,  that child  who’s going to be raped tomorrow, who is going to help them? That woman who’s going to be beaten up  tomorrow, who’s going  to help  them?” said Nderu.

Nderu, who  micro-blogs about human rights in Kenya  on  Twitter and  Facebook, tries  to  help  people who  fall through the cracks left by an overstretched, and  some- times uncaring, civil  society  and   NGO sector. Every  week  her  inboxes fill with desperate messages and  pleas for help  – a woman trying to flee an abusive husband, a girl who has just been gang-raped. The victims who reach out to her say there’s no one else – but not everyone in the community is grateful that Nderu steps in.

A year ago, she was attacked in a grocery- store parking lot in Nairobi’s outskirts. It was around 8 pm,  and  she had  just finished her shopping. “This guy came to me with metal knuckles and  he told  me in Kiswahili, ‘You need to shut up,  or otherwise we will shut you up.’ And he just  swung at me.”  He hit the  side  of her  face. A doctor later  told  her that she  came close  to losing  her  eye, and for three weeks  she barely left her house. “I was in-between, thinking, ‘Do I give up? Do I continue?’”

Horrible as the attack was, Nderu, who is 37, says  it did  not  ultimately slow  her down. Nor does  the  regular deluge of hate mail,  including vivid  threats of  assault, or  the  sudden intrusion of memories of that night in the  parking lot. “He had  this cologne that, still today … You know,  it’s a common cologne in  Nairobi among the men. I just freeze, because I remember how he smelled.”

Ruth  Mumbi, who  is 35 and  works  in the Huruma slum  in eastern Nairobi, traces her  activism to an  early  awareness of the risks that poor women like her faced  in the slums, and  her frustration at the absence of a support structure. Women could be gang- raped, or they  could die in a poorly man- aged  maternal-health clinic,  and  nothing would happen.

Much of her  work  was done in obscurity until  she began advocating for a victim of police brutality. Then she received death threats and  noticed that she was being followed.

Much of her  work  was done in obscurity until  she began advocating for a victim of police brutality. Then she received death threats and  noticed that she was being followed. Early one morning, as she was rolling chapattis in her kitchen, a message flashed on her phone. “It said, who do I think I am? I’m just a small cockroach who can be eliminated any moment, if I don’t stop what I am doing. And then it named all these people who had been assassinated.”

Kenyas President Uhuru Kenyatta(L), his wife, Margaret (L) and Deputy president William Ruto (C) at the Afraha stadium in Nakuru on April 16, 2016 following the collapse of cases against them at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC). Photo: AFP / TONY KARUMBA

Kenyas President Uhuru Kenyatta(L), his wife, Margaret (L) and Deputy president William Ruto (C) at the Afraha stadium in Nakuru on April 16, 2016 following the collapse of cases against them at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC). Photo: AFP / TONY KARUMBA

A group that protects human rights workers whisked Mumbi off to  northern England and  enrolled her  in a protection programme. When  she returned to Nairobi six months later  and  was installed in a safe house with her three children, she decided she had  had  enough. “I hadn’t realised that what  I had  ventured into  was  that risky. I think I was even going crazy,” she said.

Just  a  month later, her 17-year-old brother-in-law,  Steven Gichuru, a young acrobat so good  he  had  toured in China, was shot and killed in broad daylight by two police. Mumbi was thrust back into  her old role, this time  successfully campaigning to have the officers dismissed from their jobs.

When  it comes to sustaining the  day- to-day work,  money is a  problem. What has  brought Nderu to the  brink of throwing in the towel  is not  the fact that she was viciously attacked, but the feeling that she is letting down her husband and three kids by not having a paying job.

Both women know there aren’t many other activists like them, willing to work more for the mission than the money, making sure their communities don’t fall through the cracks.

Nderu gave up a good job as a financial advisor to commit herself to her  brand of activism – connecting people with  NGOs, providing support, and  drumming up pub- licity to pressure authorities to act. But she does all this as a volunteer. She sells the cab- bages  and  kale she grows  in her  small  gar- den  to fill her car with petrol, but  she’s not the income-earner she used to be.

“I can’t afford  to do this anymore. I am not  bringing anything in, and  I am  taking everything out,  so it’s becoming a problem even  at home, even  with  my spouse. We’re in, you know,  a very serious financial position  because of  my  decisions,” she  said recently, sitting in  her  brightly coloured living room, wearing a Save the  Elephants t-shirt. “I’ve even posted on my social media accounts, please stop sending me any more cases.”

Nderu says  her  former employer will always  welcome her  back,  and  sometimes she  even   goes  through the   motions of her  old  routine. But  she  can’t seem to  go through with  it. “Last week,  on  Monday, I got in the car and  I was already calculating the route I was going to use to avoid traffic. I had  my suit,  my stockings, my heels. The works,” Nderu said. “And then I just walked back into the house.”

A few hours later, she got a new message. An unemployed widower living in Mathare, a Nairobi slum, had  returned home to find that his teenaged daughter had  been gang- raped and  his son had been attacked with a machete. Nderu didn’t know if she even had enough petrol in her car to drive there.

Mumbi,  who   supports  herself with various small businesses, also has financial pressures. A single  mother with  three children, she  worries constantly about what would become of her  children if anything were  to  happen to  her.  There  have  been times when she had to take money intended for food  for the  children to fund  her  case- work.

Both  women know  there aren’t many other activists like them, willing  to  work more for  the   mission than  the   money, making sure  their communities don’t fall through the cracks.

Mumbi has struggled with the  limits  of Kenya’s space for activism and  the  silence that often accompanies cases involving women and girls. In 2008, she helped set up a Grassroots Women’s Parliament to champion local  social  justice issues like police brutality, sexual  harassment and  access to quality maternal healthcare. One  of their first  acts  was  to  do  away  with  the  membership fees that were common with other community organisations. The  fees,  she said,  had  effectively barred women from participating.

“For  us,  we wanted to  have  a unique platform where women  can   share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,” she said. “At the end of the day, we wanted to see if maybe we could intervene, and also break this cycle of silence.”

Nderu’s work is very much in the trenches. Most  of the  cases  she  takes  on are  low-profile and  fall through the  gaps left  by  well-funded professional human rights organisations – groups she  says are too  bogged down or  simply  uninterested in picking up  the  cases. She  believes this approach makes her  different from  Nairobi’s highly visible and mostly male “celebrity activists”, the  ones who are invited around the  world  to sit on  panels and  talk  about human rights in Kenya.

“I know  so many activists, especially in the slum  areas, who do so much more than most celebrity activists do,” she said. “Being an activist is not just about making noise, it’s about making sure  that what  you’re doing actually changes someone’s life. If you see me going online, it means I am frustrated up to here.”

 

This article was first published in Perspectives magazine by the Heinrich Boll Foundation