dangerous women

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

~ Thucydides

Back in October I spent an energizing and inspiring day with 33 women committed to a single goal: reducing rape, assault and gender-based violence in their neighbourhoods of Nairobi. They were learning not only how to kick some serious ass, but also how to teach other women to do the same.

at the training hall in Korogocho, women defend themselves against attacks from behind

My article on the course was published in the features section this weekend, but here it is in a nutshell: US-based No Means No Worldwide is a train-the-trainer initiative started by Lee Sinclair, a microloan-officer-turned-self-defence-teacher. Instead of  flying trainers to Nairobi from Boston or San Francisco to teach women in slums how to defend themselves, NMNW trains Kenyan women to become self-defence teachers themselves. These newly-minted trainers go back to their communities and spread the gospel.

The women featured here are the first graduating class of NMNW. They rock. There is no other word for it. They are confident, funny, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful, energetic, passionate about women’s rights. And if you cross them, they can kill you.

Sheila and Liz, mid-battle

Despite the fact that these women are now equipped to violently destroy an attacker — or multiple attackers — in a variety of situations, what I found to be most interesting about this course is that Lee tries to focus on the verbal elements of self-defence. She said courses in North America are very focused on physical fighting, because that’s what the students seem to want — but she told me that 85 percent of assaults can be stopped with voice alone. Verbal defence skills are a major part of the NMNW curriculum.

What exactly is verbal defence? Reasoning and negotiating, yes. But also screaming, yelling, raging, shouting, and basically scaring off a would-be rapist by acting like one crazy bitch.

Paps and Liz practice fighting from the ground

Witnessing one of their training sessions was inspiring. The class welcomed me into their tight-knit group, and they were eager to talk. I was surprised by how openly they shared with me their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The rape statistics in Nairobi vary, from the government’s official rape rate of 2 percent of the population, to some NGOs’ estimates of 40 percent. It’s impossible to know, but the NMNW graduates would definitely tell you that it falls closer to the higher end of the spectrum, at least in their communities.

One woman in her early 20s told me about being raped by her boyfriend. Another told me her cousin sexually abused her when she was 11, and it has taken her until her early 20s to be able to trust men. A third woman shared the story of a police officer who tried to rape her by luring her into his home with promises of a gift in remembrance of her father, who had just passed away.

There is no question that the women I met have experienced trauma and horror, but the most remarkable thing is how positively and passionately they have emerged from those challenges. There were no whining/excuses/wallowing in self-pity in that stark concrete training hall in Korogocho — only a fierce determination to prevent any more women from having to tell stories like theirs.

As one graduate put it, “We don’t want to take a woman to the hospital because she has been raped. We want to take an assailant to the hospital because he has been beaten by a woman when he was trying to rape her.”

graduation luncheon, downtown Nairobi

So far, so good. During the final week of class, two of the students were attacked not once, but twice, in a single evening. The first attack was two men, the second was 11 men. These men couldn’t have picked smaller women to attack — Paps and Liz probably each weigh 90 pounds soaking wet — but they stood their ground, used their voices, and got away without a scratch.

I don’t really know how to sum up the experience of spending time with these inspiring women. Maybe another inspiring woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, said it best: A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.

(PS: Speaking of kickass women, I really enjoyed this Vanity Fair article.)

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gardens and grenades

It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.

The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.

Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.

note the lush green that Gai has created against the background of a parched savannah

It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.

My bedroom for the evening.

Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.

Dear Canadians, you are suckers.

Breathing space.

But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.

let the wild rumpus begin

I had no idea that Maurice Sendak, author of my favourite book, also wrote the book that haunts me most from my childhood. (In a good way.) He recently gave a fabulous interview to the Guardian, where he airs his views on Gwenyth Paltrow (“I can’t stand her”) and Roald Dahl (“He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him”)… you can read it here.

Also, new article in the Daily Nation today, about solar-powered water pumps in rural Kenya. Here.

tools of the trade.

save the elephants

My article on poaching in Kenya was published this week. Here you go. Interested to hear your feedback, friends.

I would tell you the next story I’m working on, but I want to make sure I get it first. Ridiculous, I know, but it goes with the territory. Back in the day, Maclean’s international correspondent Michael Petrou gave a guest lecture to my fourth-year international reporting class at Carleton. When it was over, we asked what story he was working on next. He wouldn’t tell us, for fear someone would steal his lead… at the time I thought he was being ridiculous, but now I understand the irrational paranoia of the international reporter. Like my fellow reporters in Nrbi are obsessively reading this blog and just dying to steal my pedestrian idea. Watergate, this ain’t. (I’ll give you a hint: it involves a lot of cow poo. My life is so glamorous.)

Unrelated: I really enjoyed this mashup of Tom Petty and Notorious B.I.G. by The White Panda. I thought you might too. Perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

milestone

My first article was published in the Daily Nation. It made the cover of the features section, if I do say so myself. Here is the online version.

the view from the Daily Nation newsroom -- intersection of Kimathi Street and Banda Street.

Tomorrow I’m off to Langata Women’s Prison with a local entrepreneur and social activist, to deliver sweets and treats to children living with their mothers in prison. I don’t know if I’ll get a story out of it, but if the last two weeks are any indication, I’ll certainly meet some interesting people.

a day of contradictions

As Nairobi shook itself awake on Saturday morning, I was already beelining through downtown, averting taxi-drivers and newspaper vendors with a smile and “hapana, asante” (“no, thanks” — one of the Swahili phrases I use the most). It was nice to be out early, before the crowds gobbled the streets and it became more a matter of weaving than walking. I was off to visit my cousin — in town on business from Ottawa — who had kindly offered to treat me to breakfast at his glorious hotel. But when I entered into the lobby of the Serena Hotel, I thought maybe I was still dreaming. A day of contradictions began.

one of many tables sagging under the weight of my desire

The breakfast spread was stunning. It would have been decadent in North America or Europe, but the smorgasbord of food on display was even more amazing when you think that just a few hours’ drive north, Kenyans are literally on their deathbeds due to malnutrition. There was hot and cold cereal with all the toppings: hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, dates, pecans, toasted coconut. There were fresh-squeezed  juices: watermelon, passionfruit, paw-paw, papaya, cucumber, orange. A server was on hand to make custom waffles or crepes, topped with maple syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce. There was lime jam, croissants, chocolate ganache, brioche, crusty breads, marmite, pain au chocolat, peanut butter, marmalade. There were foods I couldn’t recognize and can’t pronounce. Cut fruit was piled high on platters: papaya, jackfruit, watermelon, pineapple, kiwi, banana, strawberries, passion fruit, honeydew melon. Smoked sailfish, ham, Italian salami. Most of all, there was cheese. Gouda, blue, herbed goat… OH MY.

Oh, and that’s not even including the hot buffet — eggs with caviar, lemon chicken, two kinds of sausages, potatoes fried or curried, rice, beans, grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, chapati, ratatouille, grilled fish, Mount Kenya toast. I can’t even remember what else. Oh. BACON. (My now-favourite cousin — I’m easily bought — invited me back for breakfast again this morning, and it’s possible that I’ve eaten an entire pig in the last 48 hours.)

there's a famine in this country?

I’m not going to lie. I gorged. Many, many thanks are due to my amazing cousin Curtis for his generousity. And for not judging how many times I went back to the buffet.

Stuffed to the point of verging on pain, I returned to reality to do a few more interviews for my feature article on the Kenyans for Kenya campaign. Across the street was Uhuru (“freedom”) Park, where hundreds were gathered to raise money for the 3.5 million Kenyans at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from my fortunate self — those that are at risk of starvation, living in the arid and semi-arid areas of the north, north-east and south of the country. It was the last day of the four-week campaign, which mobilized corporate and individual Kenyans to donate to the Kenya Red Cross — and had raised more than 680 million shillings (CDN$7.2 million) before the concert even started on Saturday.

400 tonnes of UNIMIX -- high-nutrition porridge -- bound for southern districts of Kenya

Even though the campaign only ended this weekend, the Kenya Red Cross has already been able to use 101 million shillings of the funding to buy 1000 metric tonnes of high-nutrition porridge, which has been distributed to about 200,000 children through school feeding programs. The outpouring from “ordinary” Kenyans has amazed many of the organizers, as donations as small as 10 shillings rolled in from thousands of people. Kenyans gave what they could. I spoke with the partnership coordinator of the Kenya Red Cross, Rosemary Mutunkei, and she said that in a strange way (a contradictory way, one might say, if they were trying to engineer a unifying theme for their blog post), this crisis is actually allowing Kenyans to regain their dignity — to demonstrate to the international community that Kenyans can look inwards and test out local solutions to their internal problems. Aside from food aid, the Kenya Red Cross is working on a number of long-term food security initiatives for the drought-affected areas, like greenhouses and boreholes… initiatives that have been successful in other parts of the country. (For more, pick up Wednesday’s copy of the Daily Nation!)

The Kenyans for Kenya benefit concert in Uhuru Park -- the skyline of Nairobi in the background.

The concert was uplifting — the sunshine and the dancing and the laughter in the lush greens of Uhuru Park made it easy to forget that it was a fundraiser for people who are on the verge of death, in parched lands only a few hundred kilometers away. As the head of the Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet, said, “You just have to get a few hundred kilometers out of Nairobi and you face a different terrain.” It’s easy to forget that Nairobi isn’t Kenya — gotta get out of the city soon.

sightseeing, fried chicken and the first president of kenya

Hard to believe I left Canada only a week and a half ago — nights warming my toes by the bonfire, breezy afternoons on the back porch with a book, and sleeping-in mornings in my cluttered bedroom at home seem like years ago. (Yet, I have no doubt that clutter will be waiting patiently for me in seven months.)

Exploring downtown Nairobi, finally in the sunlight.

Saturday was a glorious day for exploring the city — just wandering downtown to see what we could find. We got almost-hustled at a Maasai market, dodged traffic, and predictably found a bar with a couple cold Tuskers, some samosas and a football game.

Monday was the big day. Paige and I started work at the Daily Nation. It was an early morning coming off a late night, but we managed to scrape ourselves out of bed for an 8 a.m. start, which we promptly re-negotiated to a 9 a.m. go-time starting on Tuesday. We’d already been to the office last week for a quick tour and HR logistics, but this was our first time reporting to the newsroom.

On the editors’ desk there is a big book, with line-upon-line of loopy handwriting. This book is the bible of the Daily Nation — it lists all the assignments for the day, and beside each assignment is the name of the reporter slated to cover the story. Paige and I each got to pick a reporter to shadow on their assignment, and that was that — we were off to the races. (For the moment, we’re working at the Daily Nation, which is the English-language daily newspaper. The Nation Media Group has many, many media holdings, and once I figure them all out myself I’ll fill you in.)

Waiting for a glimpse of the president.

I went out with a reporter named John, to cover a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the 33rd anniversary of Jomo Kenyatta’s death (the first PM-then-president of Kenya). Aside from Kenyatta’s family, the mayor of Nairobi, and many other VIPs, the current president himself was slated to lay a wreath. So all the journalists stood out in the sun waiting for him to arrive. (And so did all the people in the picture to the right.) Of course, it was one of the first hot days we’ve had, but in a burst of professionalism I chose to wear a blazer and pants. Making a good impression on your fellow journalists isn’t so easy when you can feel the sweat trickling down your spine.

When Mwai Kibaki showed up, everything went nutty — Stephen Harper sure doesn’t get photographers into that kind of a tizzy just by showing up to a ceremonial event. The president (accompanied by what I’m sure were the who’s who of Kenyan political society) went into the mausoleum, laid his wreath (presumably, we weren’t allowed in, being mere print reporters), then they played the national anthem and we were off to church for a service in the late Kenyatta’s honour.

Photographers and camera-operators jockey for position.

President Kibaki and his entourage (mostly security). The fabulous woman in blue is Kenyatta's widow.

The Holy Family Minor Basilica in downtown Nairobi.

We headed on foot to the Holy Family Minor Basilica, where a 90-minute service treated us to hymns in Swahili and English — plus a little dancing in the aisles. The structure is impressive. High vaulted ceilings, stained glass stretching to the heavens. During the service the journalists on either side of me alternately crossed themselves and checked their smartphones, then John and I weaved our way back to the Nation building. “There’s no story here,” said John as we dodged pedestrians and traffic, which is exactly what I had been thinking but was too shy to voice. The president hadn’t spoken, and the tributes to Kenyatta were heartwarming but generally predictable niceties. The president is apparently not one for speaking at public events; Prime Minister Raila Odinga, on the other hand, can be counted on for a speech on most occasions.

Inside the basilica. Not pictured: TV screens projecting the lyrics to the hymns.

Aside from seeing the president it wasn’t the most compelling first day, but things are picking up. Tuesday I went out with another reporter, Beryl. She’s an intern from Eldoret, working at the Nation for 10 weeks (and hoping to get a job when she’s done — the job market is tough). We were assigned a story on the Kenya Red Cross, which meant a drive out to their office in a part of town called South “C”. It was a basic story about a corporate donation for famine relief, so when we got back to the office I figured I might as well take a crack at it to see if my print reporting skills were just rusty, or seized up entirely. Apparently I shook off the dust — and I got my first byline (shared with Beryl, happily). I also successfully pitched a feature story to the editor of DN2, the current affairs pull-out in the Daily Nation. Not bad for Day Two, although now I actually have to navigate writing a 2,000-word feature in a country where I’ve only lived for eight days.

We’re finally settled into our two-bedroom apartment, so the city is actually becoming home. For the first time today, I had a pang of oh-my-time-is-ticking-by! and I had to remind myself that March 31, 2012 is still very, very far away… which is a change from the predictable homesickness that kicks in at unexpected moments. In a departure from toast and instant noodles, I also cooked a real meal for the first time in our new place — spaghetti bolognese with carrots and kale. The kitchen is pretty well-stocked in terms of utensils, and you can find most ingredients you want at the super market… but what I would give for a block of parmesan and a grater.

Officially no chance I'm coming home thinner than I left.

In the meantime — check out what I chowed down on for lunch today at Kenchick Inn, on the street behind the Nation Media building. Yup, that’s friiiiied chicken and chips! The chicken is already cooked, but when you order it they pop it in the deep-fryer for about a minute, just to make sure it’s good’n’saturated’n’crispified with oil. Pop it on top of a bed of fries and boom.

Then go home and eat a carrot for dinner. (Or leftover bolognese, shhhh.)