2010 Community Peacebuilder: Anyango Jane Odongo
In December 2007, a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis erupted in Kenya after disputed presidential elections. The death toll quickly rose to approximately 800 and 600,000 people were displaced. Nairobi’s slums were hardest hit—including Kibera, which is home to between 350,000 and 1 million people.
Amidst the on-going violence in Kibera, one woman overcame ethnic and political divides to mobilize hundreds of women. She organized cross-community peace forums. She reached out to armed men who had turned against their neighbors on tribal and political grounds.
This woman is Anyango Jane Odongo.
Today, Anyango Jane continues to speak out for the rights of slum women and to advocate for peace among ethnic groups in Kenya.
In recognition of her heroic work on behalf of Kibera’s slum women, Peace X Peace and its worldwide members, award Anyango Jane Odongo the 2010 Community Peacebuilder Award. The Community Peacebuilder Award honors a person or organization that builds cultures of peace at a community level. This peacebuilder is responsible for spearheading activities that promote a peaceful, just, equitable, and healthy community, and inspires others to do the same.
We asked Anyango Jane to tell us more about the Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness–the organization she formed as a platform for the women of Kibera to express their needs and to work out collective solutions for the reconstruction of their homes and lives. There is no doubt that there is much we can all learn from these women!
What motivated you to start Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness?
Kibera women have suffered too much. In the post-election violence, my friend and I wondered: “Why can’t we get together and tell the government what we think and what we are feeling? Why should people talk for us? So many people are talking about what is going on but the Kibera people are not speaking. Let’s bring the women together so their voices can be heard.”
That day, my friend took one route and I took another and we agreed to meet at our District Officer’s place here in Kibera. By the time we got there, together, we had assembled roughly 200 women. This was in less than two hours.
When we reached the District Officer’s building we made a very strong statement. We said, “Let’s talk. Let’s unite as Kibera women. Let people hear our voices.” The District Officer supported us and gave a strong statement in response. What encouraged us most of all, though, was the way the women had just dropped what they were doing and joined us. At that time, people were so divided on tribal, political, and religious grounds. Yet, when we called for women to join us nobody cared who we were. It quickly became just everybody united in one voice. This inspired us to keep meeting together.
Currently, we meet in 5 different locations within Kibera. We encourage women to come when they have time. If they have an issue, we tell them that they should come and share it. We believe talking about these issues will lighten them in their heart so that they can live peacefully.
What do you feel like has been the greatest accomplishment of Kibera Women for Peace and Fairness?
The greatest achievement is that we’ve broken the tribal barriers that had been created by the political classes within Kibera. We united women from different walks of life—women from different backgrounds and different political groups.
I can also say that it is very hard to get more than 700 women to come together for the same cause. This is a very big achievement to us. It has brought us a lot of publicity both locally and internationally.
What lessons have you learned that you can share with other women trying to mobilize women in their community?
What I can share is that I think we should all learn to accept other people the way they are. We should learn to accept that people are different, yet we have things that bring us together. We should learn to co-exist irrespective of what somebody else believes in. That person has a right to live her life. And you have a right to live your life. It is very important to accept the differences among us so that we can move on together and peacefully.
We should not be stressed by what other people believe in. I should not be so negative about somebody’s religion or somebody’s tribe. I should respect people the way they are and understand that yours is your best and mine is my best. We all live and one day we die—we need to learn to co-exist and respect one another.
What do you want the world to know about women in Kibera?
What I want the world to know about women in Kibera is that the women here are hard workers and they know what is good for them. All they need is to be empowered to be able to manage their life on their own. I believe that Kibera women have the potential to decide their destiny if they are empowered.
People look at our lives here in Kibera and they think we are living this way because we are lazy or because we never went to school. But the truth is, whatever we are doing we are offering our best. This is our best.
We are women who wake up earlier than 5am in the morning and most of us go to bed later then 11pm at night. We are working very, very hard. It is just that the income is very low. I want people to understand that we can do more; we just need to be empowered.
Things should not be done on our behalf with assumptions that we don’t have the capacity or the ideas. We have them. But we need the skills and the know-how to do them in a better way.
So, this is what we are really struggling for. It is a concept that many people do not understand. When I go to forums I tell people, “Empower us to better our lives. Don’t do it for us. If you do it for me you may not get the best result. I know what works for me and you cannot better my life without involving me.” That is an idea that not many people understand. And I think it is the only thing that is going to help Kibera people. If women are empowered and given an opportunity to better their lives, then I think we can have a better community.
I’ll give you an example. If you come to my house you will find me walking barefooted. However, the solution is not to just get me shoes. The solution is to consult with me and talk about why I am not wearing shoes. Maybe I have a condition that makes it difficult to wear shoes. If we are able to talk and I tell you this, then perhaps I can be taken to the hospital and the condition can be healed. And then I can work to get the shoes. That would be a lasting solution.
What gives you hope?
The response and the positivity of the women in Kibera gives me hope. This is a group that started with nothing. All we had was the urge to do something for ourselves.
We came and sat together—and we continue to do that. We leave what we are doing every week to meet and reflect on our lives. The other women’s presence and their persistence keeps me going and gives me a lot of strength. Their dedication to this group gives me hope.
I face so many challenges that sometimes I feel that I should quit. But then I look at the situation and I see how far we have come. We are moving all together. You listen to the women share their stories. You listen to someone explain how she used to fight with her neighbors but now she doesn’t. You listen to people talk about how they used to not buy items from people of another tribe but how now they get together with that tribe to enjoy music and dancing together.
When we started our organization we were only using our first names because your second name tells the community you come from. Eventually, we realized that we have to learn to co-exist with one another. I can’t erase my history for you to accept me; you should learn to accept me with my history.
When you talk of the face of Kibera we are it. We symbolize the unity of the country. These are things that inspire us a lot. Because we have everybody in Kibera— people who went to school, people who never went to school, people who have nothing—and our group has united everybody. It is very inspiring.
Join us in congratulating Anyango Jane! And help spread her motto: “Mine is my best and yours is your best. Respect mine and I respect yours. And we move on in peace.”
Watch this video to witness the difficult circumstances women in Kibera slums are struggling to change–and the remarkable accomplishments they are making.
To read about the other Women, Power and Peace Award winners click here.