Nairobi is not for the faint of heart. When I first landed here six weeks ago, I soon realized this summer wasn’t going to be filled with gorgeous sunsets, views of the mountains, and dining at fabulous cafes and restaurants as was my last bit of international travel to the south of France. Nairobi is gritty; the city is busy and crowded, and the streets are dangerous. My host family asked me to be home before dark every night as a matter of safety, and I quickly agreed.
Over the past six weeks, I have indeed found those sunsets (while on safari at Amboseli National Park), views of the mountains (while visiting my host’s family in their small village on the slopes of Mount Kenya), and fine dining (with the help of new friends who have introduced me to hidden restaurants serving fabulous Indian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan cuisine). I have also learned that my summer here in Nairobi will not be defined by the food or the scenery, but rather by the people; the people I am living and working with are kind, funny, brilliant, and brave advocates for sex workers’ rights in Kenya. Experiencing daily life as one of them has already intensified my drive to work in international human rights, as well as deepened my understanding of what it means to be an advocate for truly marginalized populations, such as sex workers.
I spend my days working for the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance, and am generously being hosted by the organization’s co-chair, John Mathenge. The first several weeks of my internship were spent drafting a training manual called “Sex Workers Rights’ Are Human Rights,” focusing on the rights found in international treaties and the Kenyan Constitution which most affect sex workers. This work was familiar to me; after two years in law school, researching laws as applied to a specific population is the norm. The challenging (and most exciting) part began when I started administering the trainings to sex workers in the Nairobi area. I have never met a more motivated, willing-to-learn, and engaged group of people, some with little education, others with paralegal training, all with an ardent desire to learn their rights and apply them to the abuses they face daily from police, clients, soldiers, and healthcare providers.
The trainings have been an emotional and eye-opening experience, as I am realizing that even if a human right is not respected by those in authority, simply owning that right and coming together to fight for protection of that right, has deep meaning for those who are told that they are not deserving of the most basic respect and human decency. The sex worker population in Nairobi is composed of hard-working, intelligent, caring, and respectable people, whose government consistently denies their human rights by allowing abuse and stigma to exist. The work of KESWA has made great headway for the cause: KESWA participates in human rights conferences and events around the world, as well as promotes HIV prevention and positive living for those with HIV/AIDS.
If my experience at KESWA had not been “real” enough so far, an event that took place recently solidified for me the importance of human rights for sex workers, as well as the ongoing struggle that activists in Nairobi must face. In the middle of the night, John received a call and rushed out of the house. We found out the next day that two of the sex workers and major activists at KESWA, Phelister and Grace, had been spending time at a bar in town, one that is lively and popular with sex workers and clients, when the police raided the bar. Everyone found on the premises was arrested, despite the fact that no illegal activity had taken place: all the patrons, the management, even the wait staff and cooks at work in the kitchen were detained. Sixty-five people in total, including our two friends and colleagues, were carted off to jail for the night. Bail was set at 2,000 Kenyan shillings each (approximately $25).
At that point John arrived with the bail for Phelister and Grace. But rather than go home, while others who could not afford the bail remained, our two friends stayed until everyone was released. They spent the night protesting, leading chants of “Haki Yetu!” (“These are our rights!”), and keeping high the spirits of the sex workers and other bar patrons until around 11am the next morning when all were released with no charges. When I saw Phelister the next day, I was worried and scared about what had happened, but she wasn’t concerned. It had turned into a moment of impromptu activism, she said: “We wanted to show the community that sex workers support each other and we will fight for our rights. We can do good for our community.”