“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”
— Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize
I found my nose deep in the readings of Wangari Maathai throughout my time in Western Kenya, having been introduced to her work by the parents of my friend Micah Fialka-Feldman, Janice and Rich.
“You are headed to Kenya this summer?” Rich has asked me. “You have to read Wangari Maathai. It will be a great read while you are there.”
Knowing what strong social justice activists Janice and Rich are, I took their advice. I ordered a few of Maathai’s books that evening. As I dove into her readings, I noticed recurring themes: her struggle against oppressive government policies and exploitive ways of thinking, and her engagement in activities that created a change for a more just society. Her words struck me deeply as I found myself interacting with Kenyans who exemplified her message. Though Michelle and I were in Kenya to help facilitate the development of a more inclusive education system for people with disabilities, I found the work to have so much more depth because of the professional company I was keeping.
The teacher strike began three weeks before Michelle and I started collaborating with educators in Kenya. The cause? A teacher contract that has been ignored by the government since 1997. Teachers banded together across the country and shut down schools in protest of the government’s idleness. Their request? An increase in housing, commuter, and medical allowances that were more than a decade and a half overdue.
Michelle and I were hopeful that we would be able to work with teachers in the region. However, if the same scenario were to play out in the United States, there is absolutely no way we would be able to provide teacher trainings during a country-wide educator strike. But Benson assured us, “Teachers will show up.”
Benson was right. Over the course of two weeks, Michelle and I worked with 15 teachers representing eight schools, two members of the local Ministry of Education, and the Assistant Director of Quality Assurance in the national Ministry of Education. Teachers consistently showed up, without pay, and showed their commitment to inclusive education. Michelle and I contributed 300 Kenyan shillings (~$3.44 USD) per teacher each day to cover the transportation cost the government would have paid them if schools were in session.
During tea and lunch breaks, the teachers tuned into the local TV news and anxiously awaited any word about the ongoing strike. Headlines such as “Striking Teachers Have Been Sacked by the Government” and “Kenya’s Public Primary Schools Closed Indefinitely” flooded the media. In the face of government threats, the teachers consistently showed up to trainings to learn about equity for students with disabilities in their classrooms.
Over time, Michelle and I saw our teacher community grow. Teachers took professional risks to be with us. They also took pedagogical risks by trying out the new inclusive strategies we introduced in the trainings. We were lucky to observe teachers implement these strategies in their classrooms once schools reopened. Not only were these teachers actively engaged in a struggle against the government, but they also disrupted the traditional discourse about who is entitled to an education in Kenya.
Our time in Western Kenya was more than simply collaborating with teachers. It was about engaging with people who are committed to empowering their own communities to create change by creatively utilizing existing resources. The change revolved around members of the community co-constructing plans that enable people to co-exist in spaces that value social justice and basic human rights.
Access to basic human rights was evident when Benson invited Michelle and I to participate in an event that distributed maize, clothes, and teddy bears to orphans in the community. With a 32 percent AIDS rate in the region, there were 153 recipients of the donations. The local chief, a few community volunteers, and some employees of a local HIV/AIDS clinic showed up to ensure these vulnerable children received community support. Some children lost parents from accidents, but many lost parents from disease. Rather than tuck these children in an institution, the community places these children with their extended family.
Though the communities we collaborated with in Kenya would be considered “poor” by much of the world, I continued to discover an immense richness that is incalculable by anyone’s standards. To be invited to participate and live within a community that is so committed to social justice in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles commands my deepest respect and gratitude. To collaborate with communities of people who are dedicated to creating spaces where even the most vulnerable and marginalized children in the world are not only valued, but at the forefront of the decision making process, is something I am fortunate to experience.
What I take away from these unique collaborative opportunities is far more than any wisdom I could ever impart on people who are so devoted to advocating for the rights of many. Words like “We do the right thing not to please people but because it’s the only reasonable thing to do, as long as we are being honest with ourselves, even if we are the only ones,” were uttered by Wangari Maathai to inspire the work of the people I have had the privilege of collaborating with this last month. Experiences with these people have shaped my life, and will hopefully continue to influence the lives of those who are lucky enough to find themselves in their company.
“These issues of good governance, respect for human rights, equity, and peace are of particular concern in Africa, a continent that is so rich in resources and yet has been so ravaged by war. The big question is, who will access the resources? Who will be excluded? Can the minority have a say, even if the majority have their way?” —Wangari Maathai