Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Rising above adversity to tackle human rights violations

In the popular collective imagination, Majengo area in Mombasa, conjures up an image of violence. This imagery precedes the ‘War on Terror’ narrative that has become a prevalent government speak which has permeated the minds of Kenyans. Basically Majengo is seen as the “Ground Zero” of recruitment of youth to join the Somali based militant group, al- Shabaab.

With the advent of Kenya’s counter-terrorism war, central to Majengo’s narrative has been Masjid Musa Mosque, where the once silver-tongued suspected al-Shabaab recruiter, Sheikh Aboud Rogo used to preach. Sheikh Rogo was shot and killed by an unnamed assailants on 27 August 2012. His death triggered rounds of riots, and forever changed the relations between the community and the security agencies.

But one human rights defender, Hamisa Zaja, is out to provide an organic and locally anchored alternative narrative about Majengo. To her, it’s neither a utopian site nor is it an exclusively about violence, Majengo is more than that. This is a testament that sweeping view about Majengo is insufficient. Using her personal story of triumph over layered adversities, Hamisa Zaja, a woman who is living with a disability, in a community where the culture of patriarchy is deeply entrenched, is attempting to provide an alternative worldview about Majengo, one youth at a time.

Tell us about yourself and your background?

I was born in 1970 in Mvita, Mombasa County. When I was nine months old, I was struck with polio which paralyzed my left leg from the knee downwards. Initial treatment failed to cure me.
I attended Port Reitz School for the Physically Handicapped for my primary education. The school had facilities that addressed my needs, since all the pupils were handicapped. When I started secondary school at Mama Ngina Secondary School I got a system shock.
On my first day at school at 4:00 pm, the bell rang. Unbeknownst to me, the bell was for the students to gather and fetch water. Since Mama Ngina, unlike Port Reitz is not a physically handicapped friendly school, I had to device creative means of going through the school chores like fetching water. So in exchange for my class mates collecting water for me, I offered to braid their hair on weekends. This worked. Since then, innovative approach to issues has been my stock-in-trade. My disability has not prevented me from being a human rights defender.

What role do you play in Majengo?

I have always been vocal about the problems in the community. This has made me the community’s go-to-person whenever there is human rights violation especially by the police. Constant interaction with security agencies and government officials also helps in resolving a lot of cases, and reuniting families.

Why do you think the youth are easily recruited by extremist groups?

The youth lack opportunities for meaningful life. The rise of Aboud Rogo in Majengo, was a function of his oratory prowess, and also biriyani [ a Swahili delicacy, often eaten on special days like Friday]. Biriyani is also a metaphor for lack of opportunities, which has made the youth susceptible to exploitation by al-Shabaab, and Rogo.
Given a chance, the youth in Majengo have no reason to join al-Shabaab and can be rescued from their clutches and other extremist radical groups.

What relationship exists between the community in Majengo and the security agencies?

The treatment by security agencies of the youth in Majengo has only succeeded in pushing them into the hands of al-Shabaab. Typical security operations in Majengo entails arbitrary raids. Often women – mothers, wives, and daughters are beaten while being asked about the whereabouts of their men or boys. Lastly, if a raid happens at night, no one in the house is given time to get dressed, instead they are publicly exposed to the rest of their family members and their neighbours.
Whenever there are security operations in Majengo, we send our sons to our relatives outside of Majengo … Sometimes we dress them in bui bui, the free robes worn by Muslim women, to protect them from being rounded up.

How have these security operations affected you personally?

They have affected my security and safety in three ways; as an activist, a person living with disability and as a mother of boys who are the same age as those suspected of terrorism or being in a criminal gang. My eight-year-old boy can tell you the difference between the sound of a transformer blowing up, gun shots and a grenade explosion. It is hard to see your neighbour’s children being picked up by police, and not knowing why they were arrested, and where they are. I always put myself in their shoes and that drives me regardless of my fears.

What do you think should be done to remedy the problem of recruitment of youth by groups like al-Shabaab?

One of things that can be done is empowerment of youth in Majengo in order to prevent them from joining violent extremist groups. However this has to be as personal as it is communal.
I have children. One of them is at the age where he could join al-Shabaab or be killed by the police for fitting the ‘profile’. When I noticed early tell-tale signs, I sat him down and warned him against joining violent extremist groups. I also helped him start a juice vending business. He has since changed his ways. He has enough income such that he cannot easily be lured into joining groups like al-Shabaab.

Isn’t the government already initiating youth empowerment projects?

The government’s attempt at giving youth revolving funds shows they are focusing on ways to empower youth but it is flawed. The biggest gap with most youth projects in Majengo is that the government requires the youth to form groups and then provide them with revolving fund. How can you give a hungry person a revolving fund and expect them to thrive, when they are extremely poor in the first place? The government should instead look for ways to give grants to the youth with good ideas. Each county should have youth programs that provide skill training while generating income.
Further, the success of youth empowerment projects, and the police’s fight against crime can only succeed if there is a change in approach. By mistreating the youth, the police are only pushing them into the hands of violent extremist recruiter’s.

What would you like the world to know about you?

That I, Hamisa Zaja, rose from being a disabled lady whose hand once no man wanted to ask for in marriage, to a fierce human rights defender. I will continue to fight for the people of Majengo, and hold police accountable especially in counter-terrorism operations.

Ms Hamisa Zaja is a board member for the  ACE partner organization in Kenya, Young Women's Leadership Institute (YWLI). You can also find the story published on Amnesty International Kenya's web page  

YWLI is one of the four partner institutes of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership program run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) , Ethiopia Office.

For more on IIE , ACE or YWLI please follow the links below.