William and Mary Law School

Two Weeks on Foreign Soil

     Today marks two weeks since I left the U S of A, and I’ve settled into life here
much more than I had when I made my last post.  As promised, I’ll talk a bit about
Evans’ work first, and save my cultural/personal observations for the end.
    Following the successes of his JusticeMaker project for IBJ, Evans has
undertaken an ambitious new project to establish twenty “people forums” throughout
his home district of Vihiga as well as in surrounding districts by the end of June. 
Currently operating through an NGO called NOVOK (National Organization of
Volunteers of Kenya), his continuing commitment to sharing information and
encouraging others to share his passion for justice is clear, and often sees him
working long weeks (conducting meetings on Saturdays!) and late evenings…I tag
along for most events, and we often arrive home after dark, much to his wife’s
chagrin. 
    The forums are part of the Western Kenya Rights Support Initiative
(implemented through NOVOK with the support of amkeniWaKenya and the UNDP), which
shares many of the same goals as Evans’ JusticeMakers project; namely to increase
political participation within rural and marginalized populations, to increase the
awareness of rights and the capability to monitor and report abuses, and to provide
a framework for discussing community problems  and proposing solutions.  Ideally,
the forums will ultimately also serve as a nexus for dialogue with members of local
government.  Evans envisions local Commissioners (executive branch administrators)
being invited to and attending future meetings, where citizens would have the
opportunity to bring forth problems and possible solutions and hear the
Commissioner’s responses.  Admittedly, this process may not always be sunshine and
rainbows, with Evans suggesting that, “Sometimes they might hear things they don’t
want to hear.”  However, it’s the dialogue that remains the most important focus,
potentially allowing citizens access to a political process that has historically
been unresponsive to their needs.
    Drawing on many contacts that he made during his IBJ project to help
mobilize people, groups congregate in churches or schools and wait patiently for
Evans to arrive and explain the project’s goals and structure.  My role in this is
to (sometimes) help hang the banner proclaiming, “Human Rights: Dignity and Justice
for You,” as well as to sit at the front of the forum and eventually introduce
myself and try to explain my presence as a future lawyer interested in justice at
home as well as internationally.  Yesterday I invited people to ask any questions
they wanted, and the first one (from an old lady, no less!) was, “Are you married?” 
Not what I expected when I made the invitation!
    Though still largely in the formation phase, some successes are already
materializing.  The initial meeting sets up a governance structure for the group
with the election of four officers – a Convener, Chairperson, Secretary, and
Treasurer.  After that, they’ll be in charge of calling their own meetings, and
coming to each one prepared with an agenda of items for discussion.  As long as the
group holds up its duty to meet twice a month from now until March 2011, NOVOK will
continue to provide a small “transportation” fund to be split equally among all
attendees (incentive is apparently a universal language, i.e. I’m thinking of pizza
lunch lectures at the law school…).  Yesterday, a group on its first independent
meeting decided to focus on the rights of elderly people to periodically receive
government aid in the form of food.  Apparently, the aid is supposed to be provided
to them, but often never arrives and is presumably lost somewhere along the delivery
channels.  The group was able to get a local administrative official on the phone,
and discuss the problem with him as a group and press him for assurance of delivery
in the future.  I am very interested to see what other groups choose to focus on in
their meetings, particularly in the realm of problems with the judicial system.  I
have been working on my first written work for IBJ, which tracks pretty closely
some of the things already related in this post, and hopefully I will be able to
submit that to them by next week.
    I am anxiously counting down the days to the World Cup, which is now just
two days away!  People here seem excited, but I think they’d be more pumped if Kenya
were participating.  I am taking a short hiatus from Kenya to head down to South
Africa myself (with the prior approval of my supervisors, or course) starting next
week, and I pretty much couldn’t be more excited.  I have my USA jersey all ready to
go…
    My cultural observation of the week:  I can see why Kenya produces awesome
marathon runners.  The trip to and from the office sometimes involves very fast
walking (borderline jogging) up and down very very steep inclines – a dose of cardio
to start the day.  Even Evans’ ten year old daughter walks fast enough to easily beat
me in a race, probably on one foot and without breaking a sweat.  That’s another thing
– most people wear long sleeves, probably with a jacket or blazer over top, and they
don’t seem to get hot!  It’s amazing – I’ll arrive at the office drenched in sweat,
like I just went for a run, and Evans looks like he just strolled in from a car that’s
parked right outside! 
     Lastly, I’ve discovered that (not coincidentally I’m sure) the word “muzungu,” in
addition to meaning European or just white person in general, also means “newborn
baby.”  Sweet comparison, right?
    I apologize that there are no pictures again this week - I tried to upload some
earlier but it was taking FOR-EV-ER, so I'll try again soon! 

     Hope you all noted that Joe Biden is here this week, so I'm in good company.