My name is Hafsa Omar Mohamed. I was born in Toronto, Canada and now reside in San Diego, California. My family is from Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. I consider myself Canadian American. The concept of identity is perplexing but when analyzed and discussed, I find fluidity (I’m not confided to one national, ethnical, or preferable identity). Although I was born in a “western” country, I know the hardships of trying to make it as an immigrant in America by having witnessed my parents try their best to instill in their children an appreciation for higher learning and strive to help us obtain an education. They understood that doing so would later alleviate the burdens of capitalism and poverty. I am student at San Diego State University, majoring in Sociology and minoring in Women Studies. My mother prefers I specialize in a profession related to the medical field. However, I strongly feel that in order to be an effective advocate for change in my community, I’d have to learn something within the fields of sociology or law. I decided to minor in Women Studies because I want to change gender inequality. Although I don’t live in City Heights anymore, I live in close proximity to it and am there every day. Most of my relatives live, work, and or attend school in City Heights. I currently work and volunteer at progressive organizations such as Alliance San Diego (Formerly known as Equality Alliance San Diego), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Horn of Africa, and American Federation of Teachers. All of these organizations help mobilize underserved communities–district three and four. This past summer, I was in Kenya for about a month (I really wanted to stay longer). My trip there was very different from the first time I visited about fourteen years ago; a lot has changed in terms of society and infrastructure. I want to share some of my experiences with you all. Here we go!
A country of highly educated, hardworking, and beautiful people.
Kenya is a marvelous and diverse country. The food is amazing and human interaction is authentic. Streets are forever active with people visiting shops, riding buses, and fresh food vendors. There are huge shopping centers, theme parks, monkey parks, art museums, live street music, and everything in between. Believe it or not, there is way more to Kenya than the stereotypical safaris, Maasai warriors, and long-distance runners you see on television.
The people in Nairobi were hospitable and quite social. I’d walk the roads, ride the “matatus” go to shops, eat at restaurants; I felt sincerely embraced. Matatus are crazy miniature-dancehall buses that take you from one place to the other faster than any compact car ever. In these matatus, many people are reading, talking politics, enjoying the scenery, and or dancing. Come evening, a lot of these matatus turn into rave-like buses – flashing colorful lights and bumping to danceable music; it’s so much fun. In addition, almost everyone I met was well learnt, an avid reader, and or a diligent hustler. It was a slice of paradise. As I made observations, I vowed to somehow implement the Kenyans’ hard work ethic in my own life. The majority of Kenyans I met took civic engagement, education, and politics very seriously. I’m not accustomed to seeing much of this type of overt intellectualism and or interaction here in California, so imagine how elated I was to converse with and gain knowledge from new and creative perspectives. People were easy to befriend. When I was stranded at Java House (a coffee shop) and waiting on a ride, I met Patrick Bakira. He immediately struck up a conversation with me about politics and social issues. I knew I had to put aside my beliefs to truly be objective and open to learning and appreciating other ideas. What Americans consider to be social justice, feminism, or inequality, is not necessarily applicable in Kenya. Interpretations are dissimilar; also, we must keep in mind that their conflicts and experiences have been totally different than the West. For example, economic inequality in the United States differs than that in Kenya. Why? A couple of reasons could be due to their varied values and constitution. Although the approach, outlooks, and processes are unique, the objective is universal–the betterment of society. Patrick Bakira is an academic researcher, community leader, and a commerce degree holder. Yes, I said “academic researcher”! He passionately described his past efforts to bring social and economic mobility to the Kenyan youth, despite the disparities. I was able to relate since I too work closely with my community in elections, council meetings, and discussions to bring more resources to the underrepresented. Bakira expressed that the main problems in the Kenyan government are the misuse of funds and “lack of visionary leadership”. Corruption is rampant and as Bakira says, “anything goes when you have money. You can buy yourself into prestigious jobs and or out of almost any predicament”. Due to this, the many Kenyan youth encounter joblessness and disproportionate destitution. According to Bakira, the number one issue his country faces is a 40% unemployment rate. Were it not for corruption, some Kenyans argue that their country would be more prosperous both within the continent and globally. With all that said, the upcoming election and a new constitution are both very promising for the nation. The Kenyan election is set for the 4th of March 2013. Establishing a new constitution was far from easy; Kenyan people worked collectively for about two decades to achieve this massive change. The new constitution was promulgated in the summer of 2010 with a high approval rate amongst the majority of Kenyans. If the upcoming election is successful, it will strengthen Kenya’s lead position in the Horn of Africa. The new constitution promises equal opportunity, fair leadership, and prosperity for all Kenyans. The promulgation of this constitution gives hope to all those living in Kenya because it will play a key role in eradicating issues of corruption, nepotism, and tribalism. Patrick urges all Kenyans to unite and take advantage of their rights such as voting, speaking out against corruption, organizing protests, involving the media, and so forth.
I cannot emphasize just how seriously education is taken in Kenya. It is a sight to see. Every Kenyan (or resident) I spoke with discussed the vitality a good education can lead to in a critical manner. This made me ponder about our drive for life-long learning in the United States. For instance, most of us living in America do not value the written word – particularly the youth. I’m no statistician but the number of Kenyans clutching something to read (or a resume to share) on a daily basis is incalculable. Moreover, given my love for education, I decided that I couldn’t leave Kenya without visiting a few schools. I wanted to get a feel of what the educational institutions were like for the youngsters in Kenya. After my first week in Nairobi, I asked a university student to take me to the primary schools and ‘slums’ of the city. Vivianne Muthoni, a student at Nairobi University specializing in Space Law, took the time to show me around Kibera and Mathare slums. Yes, I said “Space Law”! Vivianne spoke in detail about wanting to be the first to represent the Horn of Africa in the field of Space Law. Honestly, I didn’t know what Space Law was until I met Vivanne and the more I looked into it, the more I admired this young studious woman. Who would have thought there are rules regulating both national and international law that oversee whatever happens in outer space? Furthermore, no matter where Vivianne and I went, it was the same at every educational institution- an abundance of astuteness and ingenuity. To put this simply, let me give you a comparison. The children here usually dread the “end-of-recess” bell, right? Well, Kenyan children welcome it – partially because their parents are really involved with their education and if one were to gripe about school, they’d get in trouble. I started by visiting a parish at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa located in Kibera. This church-school reaches out to families by assessing their needs through education and spirituality. I sat down with a former student, Naomi, who is now the Administrative Secretary and Accounts Assistant at the school. Naomi highlighted that “in order to change a community for the better, you must offer skills training and education rather than just food or clothes.” Though I was carrying a digital camera to document as much of my trip as I could, I sensed much tension from the staff as well as from the students upon seeing it. Out of respect I turned it off. After meeting with the children of Presbyterian Church of East Africa, I realized why I should not have brought a camera in the first place. I overheard a kindergarten student speaking with his classmate, “Look at her. She has a camera ‘like the whites’. She’s trying to exploit us.” I was surprised at what the child said but I understood the weight and reality behind his reference. It surprised me that a child could be so mindful of the widespread exploitation and misrepresentation of Africa (many American adults are not). Naomi later stressed that countless aid-hungry “activists” come to Kibera with aimless promises and digital cameras yet do nothing else but treat them like commodities. Self-righteous and aid-oriented “activists” constantly bombard Kibera and eventually becoming a permanent fixture. Unfortunately many of these self-proclaimed activists merely photograph and document the plight of Africa (they capture only a miniscule representation of the social condition) purely for monetary gain. By auctioning and or advertising pictures of hungry black children, activists can make big bucks by getting funds through United Nations. Even though there are some well-meaning activists out there, we need to dispel and discuss the myth that all Africans are in need saving. Slums exist everywhere, not just in non-Western countries.
Mr. Kristof, I Presume?
saving Africa in the footsteps of Nicholas Kristof
Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights by Makau Mutua
Garissa was an overwhelming five to six hour drive from Nairobi. Garissa is located in the Northeastern region of Kenya and is approximately 370km from Nairobi City. After our arrival in this small county on the 30th of June 2012, we checked into Nomad Palace Hotel and relaxed. Good thing because the following days were eventful and semi-terrifying. The main purpose of our trip was to visit my father’s extended family. I also intended to take photos of Kenya’s lovely landscape. Things didn’t go as planned. As we made our way through our relatives’ neighborhood, blood-chilling screams filled the air as grenades and guns went off. Confused and dazed, I found my feet running alongside others who too were seeking safety. I would describe it as surreal. I knew full well it was happening, but I couldn’t believe I was in the middle of it. My father tried reassuring us by half-heartedly explaining how the “nearby military base” was “conducting routine exercises”. I thought to myself, “Ha! I seriously doubt the Kenyan army practices on its people!” My younger brother and I knew something terrible happened. The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Oh shoot I’m going to die! Then I said to myself that we only die once so I might as well finish eating my pineapple and hide! Within minutes of hearing the loud blasts, we were notified that two churches were attacked in the area– the same churches we passed a few minutes earlier! The word on the street was that the attackers took off in a vehicle. After the attacks, I realized how my attire made me stick out like a sore thumb. Not a good look for the moment. The women in Garissa either dressed traditionally or Islamically. I didn’t quite fit either category. I was carrying a camera while wearing a small red scarf, ears poking out and everything. My clothing and the fact that I was carrying a camera, advertised to everyone that I was not a resident. The people in Garissa were resilient so I refused to be rigid. Thankfully we were near the one uncle with a compound-like house. We hid and waited while the military and Criminal Investigation Department (CID) crackdown went on. Whilst waiting at my uncle’s home, I changed into a bigger scarf and hid the camera. After a couple of hours we left for the hotel, which faced barricades and officers who were ready to shoot. Seventeen innocent Kenyans lost their lives that day and over fifty people were injured. The fact that the killings took place less than two hundred meters from where we stood was unsettling. Although I was well aware of the security alerts, I didn’t expect to face any “terror”. I managed to take some landscape pictures on my way to and from Garissa. When I speak to others about my trip, I try to leave the part about the attack out because I would hate for people to think of Kenya as some poverty-stricken warzone.
Kenya church attacks kill 17 near Somali border
Garissa Church Attacks
Just like any other traveler, I arrived with my own ideas and assumptions. I departed from a “developing nation” with a deep void because I now yearn to see everyone around me engrossed in some type of reading material. Nonetheless, I achieved my main goal of visiting family. Everything else was secondary. I wouldn’t classify myself as a common sightseer as I didn’t engage in visiting typical tourist attractions. Rather, I had the opportunity to witness people in authentic real life situations. I also miss hearing the elders say that engaging with your community and being a role model to the youth are both very vital in generating a conscious society. If you were to ask me what resonated with me the most, I would have difficulty pinpointing one particular experience because the accumulation of them have had a profound effect on me. Nonetheless, I have to mention one thing I found amazing: primary, secondary, vocational schools, and institutions of higher education are constantly being built throughout Kenya. This made me think of California’s educational system and our current budget cuts; we face school closures, teacher layoffs, defunding of essential programs, etc. This trip transformed me into an even more educationally focused individual and I am grateful for that. Overall my journey was memorable, gratifying, and most of all, didactic. I recommend everyone visit Kenya and take-note. We should try to be innovative and determined in fostering societal changes that will lead to equal opportunities for all, not only the underprivileged. Besides the best fruits on earth, I think I would sneak back some Kenyan endurance and educational values – if customs would let me that is. All in all, I can’t wait to go on holiday…back to Kenya!