Black Lives Matter reflections: Kenya

Police brutality is not just an American problem. In Kenya it is built on colonial systems

The World Today Published 1 September 2020 Updated 24 March 2021 3 minute READ

Agnes Kigotho

YALI fellow and an SDG consultant, AKAD Education Group Africa

Nafula Wafula

Vice Chair for Policy and Advocacy, Commonwealth Youth Council

In the first of our new series of interviews, Agnes Kigotho in Nairobi talks to activist Nafula Wafula (pictured) about how BLM has resonated in Kenya. She says the American movement for racial justice has opened up an important dialogue about inequality and police brutality, both seen as legacies of colonialism. ‘If you want to create an impact, you need to find allies in every space,’ she tells us.

Agnes: In terms of police brutality in Kenya, has there been significant progress or change since the eruption of the Black Lives Matter protests?

Nafula: I think there are two points to make here. First, if you look at the Black Lives Matter protest in the United States and then later spreading across the world, including to Kenya, then I do not think that this has impacted our policing in Kenya. Police brutality in Kenya happens in very different contexts and with very different approaches or mechanisms that are applied to address the issue.

That said, I think what the Black Lives Matter protests have done is all of a sudden created this viewpoint where people can see these issues do not exist in a silo. It is the same effect that the #MeToo movement had on issues of sexual and gender-based violence and sexual harassment in Kenya. It made it clear that what is happening here in Kenya, is happening everywhere else too. It has uncapped the conversation into a larger dialogue about structural inequalities across the world.

One of the principles of Black Lives Matter is restorative justice and a commitment to collectively, lovingly and courageously working for freedom and equality for Black people. What steps are needed in Kenya to work towards this?

It is important when you are looking at the structural issues affecting black people collectively in the US and those that would affect me as a Kenyan, that you realize that the issues are not so different. Therefore, as black people in Kenya, we have every right to support black people globally and collectively push for change.

You then have to take the issue of police brutality and localize solutions to the Kenyan context. If you do this, I think there are two crucial steps that are needed. The first is recognize the power of grassroots organizing. When a young person is shot in a slum in Nairobi, the first person to respond is a young activist from social justice centre in that area. So we need to strengthen grassroots organizations to make a difference in communities.

Second, we need to start thinking about moving beyond protests. The Black Lives Matter protests, like any protest, happen when systems are not working for you and protest is the only language that you can speak. We now need community dialogue that addresses the fact that policing in Kenya is built on colonial systems that see the police as an authority, instead of part of communities. Colonialism destroyed the essence of what we understand as leadership and authority, and sitting at the table to address this with the police will be the only way you achieve holistic change.

From your perspective, are there any concerns of Kenyan and African youth that are not prominent enough in the Black Lives Matter movement?

When you look at the substance of Black Lives Matter, it is clear that it was created with a particular context in mind. The spirit of the movement, however, can fit into any context to responds to structural inequalities. This is what sticks out to me and makes the movement so important for activists across the world. In Kenya, for example, race is not the approach I would use. In the US it is not only black people who die but it is mostly black people, similarly in Kenya the system is pitted against people living in informal urban settlements. We have basically criminalized poverty, and this is the lens through which I think we need to understand police brutality in Kenya.

As a Kenyan and a young African I would also mould Black Lives Matter more around decolonization to highlight the structural inequalities that were ingrained or solidified by colonialism. It has sparked conversations around inequalities, injustices and legacies of colonialism which we need to continue no matter how uncomfortable they make us.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as an activist and woman of colour?

This is an interesting question as I only really recognize that I am a woman of colour when I am working outside the continent or my country. As a woman who focuses my activism on human rights and gender, a lot of times there is this silent implication that I should be talking solely about gender and feminism. As if my voice is more valid when I am talking about issues that affect me as a woman, rather than issues that affect us as a collective. While people in the human rights space might like to view themselves as progressive, it is a good example of how discrimination also exists there.

I personally also have not faced any police brutality, beyond being teargassed as part of a group of protestors. I have faced bullying, including receiving lots of threats and insults in my Facebook inbox because I spoke out against police brutality.

How can collective action help solve the problem of police brutality in Kenya?

The power of collective action is immense. Often activists work in silos, but I think this has been our biggest undoing. We need to bring all the different voices on board. If you want to create an impact, you need to find allies in every space.

This should also remain part of how we confront police brutality. In Kenya there is an independent police oversight authority to address police brutality and police abuse of power. We have seen a little bit of progress, but they require better resourcing and more authority. However, this is still solving the issue when it is too late. We should really be focusing on prevention and this is where collective action comes back into it. Prevention requires many different players to work together, including the police, the ministry of interior, civil society and the media. We are just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to the different organizations and authorities working together. That said, the fact that this is even a conversation right now, without fear, should not be underestimated. This is a big change from a number of years ago.

Nafula Wafula is also the programme director at Brydges Centre, an organization that provides child rescue and protection services, education and economic empowerment for at-risk youth and out-of-school girls. As an advocate for gender equality, human rights, Pan-Africanism and youth empowerment, she has been a leading figure in the Black Lives Matter movement in Kenya.

Watch the complete interview