She dreams big, inspires women and men and is not afraid of sacred houses – such as the balance of power in the world of human rights. A meeting in Nairobi with Rachael Mwikali, feminist and activist. It starts at home: “In global forums, our president says he supports gender equality, but our own parties are not inclusive, and women cannot walk the streets safely at night or are even murdered.”
Text: Eunice Mwaura and Marc Broere, Pictures: Jimmie Nicks
Rachael Mwikali’s house stands out immediately with the slogans painted on the front.
This house is out of bounds for patriarchs.
Feminists take over with love.
Human rights defenders’ lives matter.
Inside, the bookcase full of feminist literature and a huge bed that friends gave her stand out. “To do my job, you have to be able to sleep well,” she says with a laugh. The proud 28-year-old feminist and human rights activist is a striking phenomenon in Mathare Valley, the large informal settlement in the east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. When we ask for directions and only mention the name Rachael, almost everyone knows exactly where she lives. Moreover, a broad smile immediately appears on the faces. “Pussy power“, people sometimes shout.
She was born the oldest in a family of four, with a single mother. After her came two more girls and a boy. Mwikali describes herself as a community child raised not only by her mother but also by many others; in a community that is, on the one hand, warm and close-knit but at the same time lacked the most basic things for girls in particular; ranging from parental love to food and sanitary towels.
And in which violence was normalised because of patriarchal structures and systems, making the position of girls very vulnerable. Many flee into “toxic relationships” with older men who offer a false sense of security but ensure that sanitary towels and food can be bought. You are forced into adulthood long before your time.
And so did Mwikali, who ended up in such a toxic relationship with someone nine years older at the age of thirteen. She describes him as “super violent,” and he preferred to hit and threaten her in public places where everyone could see. What makes her sad to this day is that her environment always asked her not to report a new case of violence to the police. “You are too activistic,” it was said. She now also knows that the sex was essentially rape, as it was never mutually agreed, and she was also a minor. “I never enjoyed my childhood,” she says. “It was a lot of violence and trauma, but it is the source of my activism, feminism and the desire to mobilise the community. I don’t want future generations of girls to go through the same thing as I did: having to fight daily as a young woman and black feminist from an informal settlement.”
She is still in therapy to heal her past wounds, but she is no longer afraid when she sometimes runs into her ex-partner on the street. “For me, that was the moment I realised I had taken back my power and regained it.”
If Mwikali had not become an activist, she would have wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist, but her real passion is activism, feminism and community organising. At first, it was difficult for her family and loved ones to make that choice. “They are supportive, but in 2019 there came a time when they thought it was too risky for me. Then they said, “Go do something else, go and sell tomatoes. Please don’t fight the government.” I then explained to them that everyone has the freedom to choose their own path.” She personally experienced the harsh downside last year and had to go into exile for a year. Mwikali felt lonely, stressed, desperate and frustrated. “You fight for your country, but people don’t see that enough. They publicly shouted that I should be murdered and raped: “Have her raped and found in the morgue, just like Caroline Mwatha.”
“This is the price you pay as an activist,” she continues. “But it also bothers you in a subtle way. As an activist and feminist, it is quite difficult to get a paid job as an employer sees you as a troublemaker.”
According to Mwikali, there are divisions of killer cops in the country and a Facebook group called Nairobi Crime Free. Once you’re on their radar, it becomes life-threatening.
It started with her after she confronted the police spokesperson on a television program about increasing femicide and violence against women, and she criticised the government for not acting against it – despite the law. She also criticised the criminalisation of activists and feminists like herself. “Over the next few days, photos of me appeared on the affected Facebook page, which has 300,000 members, portraying me as the leader of a gang. It also said that I was a dangerous accomplice of criminals. When Caroline Mwatha was murdered, people from my community came by and warned and advised me to go into hiding.”
She managed to escape to Sweden via Tanzania. I had the privilege and the contacts to create an escape route for myself. “Don’t forget that most people don’t have that.” She calls the people who helped her, both in Kenya and outside, her S/Heroes. “They were there for me at that one moment, the moment I couldn’t get out on my own”.
We go into the neighbourhood to distribute bread. Mwikali says that almost every grassroots-based human rights organisation in this age of corona has been forced to become a humanitarian organisation as well. For a few hours, we walk through the neighbourhood and visit families living close together. Some homes are underground. There are a striking number of young men who volunteer and wear T-shirts with feminist slogans. Whenever she gives a loaf of bread, Mwikali adds that this is not charity but that according to article 23 of the constitution, every Kenyan must not be hungry and have the right to food. “For that, you need to keep the leaders accountable and on the ball,” she added.
The men also respond positively. “Rachael is an angel,” said one of them, the leader of a group hanging out outside. “I can’t give her anything, but what she is doing is very good. Many families do not have bread. Now they no longer have to buy bread but can do something else with the money. These women are pussy power.”
After which, the whole group chants: “Pussy power! Pussy power!”
We sat down in one of the two offices of her organisation. The rooms and her house are within twenty meters of each other; private and work are intertwined. In this room, they give workshops and training, and the loaves are also piled up there. Mwikali would like to thank all the volunteers for their help this morning. We ask how people in the neighbourhood view her. That broad and open smile reappears on her face. “Both as an activist and feminist and as an ordinary neighbourhood girl – and some as a troublemaker.” To add to this, “Not everyone agrees with everything, I think. I am outspokenly pro-LGBTQ, which is a step too far for many. But I’m proud that my queer or LGBTQ friends can just come and visit me freely, without fear. I talk a lot in the neighbourhood about the need to have inclusive spaces where everyone feels at home.”
In addition, Mwikali simply delivers and takes charge of important matters that concern the whole neighbourhood. Mathare Valley is infamous for demonstrations and resistance. “Crossing Juja Road” is a household name. If there is no water, then Juja Road is crossed to demand it – and all kinds of provisions or injustices are done to the residents. But first, Mwikali usually tries with dialogue. “When the corona crisis broke out, and we didn’t have water to wash our hands, I went to the local government’s neighbourhood office after a first campaign. She made sure there soon was water again. People often see us as noisemakers, but I actually like to follow the rule of law. Only when that doesn’t work do we cross the street because it is the only language that the government listens to anyway.”
Rachael Mwikali is the founder and coordinator of the Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders Kenya, of 150 organisations or individuals. Each member has their own speciality. She holds a daily consultation hour, to which people with problems come. Cases range from land rights to access to water and sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR), from domestic violence to police brutality. Mwikali then looks at who can best help within her coalition. She herself also looks at all cases separately, through a feminist lens and from the perspective of human rights and social justice.
In the waiting room are a few women whom she introduces to us, including an elderly woman whose son has been murdered by paramilitary police and a young woman of twenty whose husband has been murdered. She checks whether there is room within one of the programs. The coalition supports communities with actions and solidarity. “It’s really about support, not about setting up actions yourself. If you take over, you deprive local people of their power and dignity. Then you mourn more than the people who have been robbed.”
Another aspect is providing education in the neighbourhood. Not only to create tolerance for LGBTQ people but also to make residents aware of the Kenyan constitution and their rights arising from it. A more recent program is the provision of mental aid. “We do this in discussion groups. We call it community therapy and collective community care. It is very good that people talk to each other to see how everyone is doing. With the outbreak of COVID-19, this has only become more necessary.”
Mwikali co-founded her coalition in 2016 after winning a major human rights award because she saw a gap between mainstream human rights organisations and activists, feminists and grassroots organisations rooted locally in communities. “The support of the large organisations did not get through enough. It was difficult to get support or protection, not just for me, but for all female human rights defenders and activists in the community.”
According to her, there is a difference between employees and activists in the human rights world. For the first group, it is a paid job at an international or national organisation. For the second group, it is about working at the foundation, about being on the frontline. “In professional organisations, people are usually only hired with a university degree. That immediately excludes a lot of people. No one in my movement will get such a job because they could rarely afford to go to university – or because they don’t speak English fluently, or because they don’t know the global jargon. But they are all people with tremendous qualities and with a lot of experience in working to protect human and women’s rights in practice.”
It does bother her that the financing flows mainly go to the regular human rights organisations, women’s rights and poverty reduction, and too little to grass-roots organisations. “I find it striking that donors find it perfectly normal to hire an expensive consultant or hire people for a six-figure salary, while activists are expected to actually do it for free. We also have bills to pay; we are also part of the change. Suppose your landlord hears you talking about residence rights on television, but you haven’t paid your rent – because you can’t afford it. Or you fight for children’s rights, but you have no food to feed your child properly. As an activist, that diminishes your dignity. Here in Nairobi, staggering salaries are sometimes paid to human rights and aid workers. I don’t want to discredit their work, but I think it’s way too much compared to the results they are achieve in the community.”
“I often challenge the big donors: why would you invest in high salaries and not where the work is done instead? It made me unpopular…” While laughing, “I was even blacklisted because people from the donor circuit consider me a troublemaker.”
She also believes that the academic world should treat activists differently and compensate people for providing knowledge. “Many Western scientists come by and do research in informal settlements such as Mathare Valley. They come here and collect knowledge and that without compensation or referencing the source. Then they take credit for their research themselves. I am having a difficult time dealing with that. You should know how many researchers ask me if they can interview me, or even if I would put together an entire program for them.”
An activist needs about fifty thousand shillings (about four hundred euros, ed.) per month to make a reasonable living, she thinks, including expenses. Ideally, the community would pay for that itself.
“In Kenya, pastors are maintained by the community. If I were a pastor here in the neighbourhood, the parishioners would pay my rent, give me food, and pay school fees for my children. In fact, we do the same work. Jesus was also an activist, and you can call us his modern-day disciples. In the same way, we activists have disciples and people who turn against us.”
Then there is the balance of power between donors and recipients that is unequal and does not feel right to Mwikali. She tells about a clash with an elderly white feminist woman from a large international human rights organisation from England that convened various young feminists and organisations with financial support in Nairobi. “Together with a colleague, she started to tell us how we should organise ourselves in Kenya. I then made it clear to her that I am only accountable to my own team and not to her. She used her financial power and privilege that led to divisions within the feminist movement in Kenya, which her organisation supported. Some wanted to follow the donor’s demands and course, others did not. Inequality within the human rights and feminist movement itself is also enormous. In fact, the same system of inequality and oppression is used towards feminists, activists and grassroots organisations. This inequality is something we need to fight just as hard as the outer oppressor and the patriarchal system.”
You can also see this inequality in determining the global agenda, she says. Governments and, in particular, Western civil society organisations have chosen the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a handle and a framework in which to work, goals that are not binding.
Grassroots organisations often see that these SDGs, which Mwikali says are good in themselves, provide a wonderful way out for their leaders to avoid their obligations. “Our president has also embraced the sustainability goals and speaks about them regularly,” she says, “but I would rather have him put his energy into Article 43 of the Kenyan constitution, which deals with the social, political and economic rights of our people.”
“The Kenyan people have the right to food, the right to safety and clean drinking water, the right to housing and gender equality. It appears that getting involved in international discussions about sustainable goals provides an opportunity for our government to hide from its responsibilities at home. In international forums, our government calls for the SDGs to be embraced, but she has not even implemented them in her own constitution. That should be our first priority; only then can you talk about sustainable development goals.”
While shaking his head, “Our president even talks about the importance of gender equality at such forums, SDG 5. That is pure hypocrisy. You say you support gender equality, but our political parties are not inclusive, and women cannot walk the streets safely at night or are even murdered. Women face a lot of violence and sexual harassment. Opportunities are being taken away from us based on our gender. Many women still die from unsafe abortions because they cannot afford a safe abortion. We still have to make noise to show him that femicide is a national disaster. Start at home, clean up your own house first. Under our constitution, the Kenyan woman has the right to be protected by the government.”
We say goodbye. She poses with a girl in front of a wall with graffiti on it. “In Kenya, graffiti plays a big part in activism,” she says, “but you do not often see the role of women at the centre of it. I think this narrative needs to be changed. African women need to know their own story – the story of those fighting day and night for their country and continent rarely makes it to the public domain. If you look at the percentage of African women on Wikipedia: there are very few, even that space is dominated by men, just like journalism. Take the recent months, with the corona crisis. Take a look at the incredible role women are playing in the fight against COVID-19; it should be highlighted much more. If we do not showcase these inspiring examples ourselves, our children will never see them.”
In terms of her own future, she mirrors the Kenyan actress and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who always says that dreams are valid. You can always dream big in life. “My dream is that one day we will have a feminist government here, with a feminist policy. That everyone is free to be who they want to be and that girls have opportunities and do not have to go through the same childhood as I had. And let there be many more young activists who are doing even better than me.”