Fast forward, part III
This is the third article in a weekly series of interviews with young Kenyans who are helping to develop their nation from within. Read the first article on photographer Boniface Mwangi here, the second on political strategist Nerea Musita here and the fourth on refugee camp newsletter editor Abdirashid Abdullahi Mohamed here.
After studying botany in Nairobi and spending time in the US, Eda Esilaba returned in 2007 to a Kenya plagued with post-election violence. She was shocked. And that was despite growing up with Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, as her backyard. Coming from a middle-class family and attending school with ministers’ children, Esilaba was no stranger to the effects of disparity within a single nation.
Last November, the 32-year-old mother of two little boys, founded Mkenya Halisi. The Christian NGO, whose name means ‘the true Kenyan’, offers a 10-week workbook-based course encouraging participants to discuss the wrongs of local society and ways to make them right. RNW recently met up with Esilaba at a cafe in Nairobi. In between bites of a giant samosa, she explained – with great enthusiasm – how to change her country. Lesson #1: “begin with yourself”.
What were you thinking after the post-election violence?
I was holding my baby, praying for Kenya and just thinking: “What’s happening?” I started to ask myself questions, like how did we get there? I felt that I needed to do something. But at that point I didn’t know what. Then I sat down and just started typing. It was just burning in my heart. I didn’t even know what I was typing about. I started going to the library, and read a lot about why African politics is broken. I saw it is very intentional – many people are benefitting from the broken politics here. Eventually, I ended up with five issues that I decided to address: corruption, tribalism, greed, injustice and the man-eat-man mentality… You can see it everywhere, even in traffic – how we drive, it’s so crazy. It’s just about getting ahead; it doesn’t matter if someone is affected by it.
How did all this typing lead to the foundation of an NGO?
Initially, I was just going to write a book. But as it progressed, I decided to make it interactive. It ended up being a workbook, a conversation starter… And I decided this is more than a book. It’s a movement. So we registered Mkenya Halisi.
Can you give an example of what you talk about in your course?
We talk about when you watch someone’s bag get snatched in Nairobi and you just shake your head and keep walking. “So sad” you think, but you don’t do anything about it. We paint certain scenarios like that and we ask: Why don’t we do anything about it?
Are people willing to talk about this?
Yes, because we are all deeply religious and we all know we are doing the wrong thing. Everybody knows that. They just justify it. We all know what’s happening, we just don’t want to see it. It’s an uncomfortable conversation. We approach it in an approachable way. We make a safe environment to admit we have done the wrong thing.
Why do you specifically target middle-class Kenyans between 17 and 24 year olds?
As a middle-class Kenyan you have to ignore how things are [in order] to keep going. You learn how to ignore the poor. You can’t come to a café every other day and pass by a guy who has no food. We grew up saying “Not today”. After a while you get numb. The numbness means that you don’t feel like you should change it. So you grow up and you tell your kids “Don’t look there”. If the middle class woke up and really began to think “It’s up to me”, I think then there could be a huge change.
How many people have you reached since starting in November 2011?
We have reached more than 300 people – mainly in Bible groups – with another 600 people waiting to get the book. And we’re talking with youth camps to do the course. There we would reach over 2,000 young Kenyans… In terms of success of the course, I feel like we will see the fruits in the next generation.
Don’t you want to access politicians as well?
People say that the leadership has to change, that’s true. But I also think that the leaders are a reflection of us. Part of my philosophy is: don’t wait for the big people to do it, just do it yourself. But then sometimes I think it would be very nice if the big politicians did a Mkenya Halisi course. I would sit them down and have this discussion in Parliament… But we have to keep looking at ourselves too, keep holding up that mirror.