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One woman’s journey from Kenya to Canada and back again all in the name of change

26 February 2011 No Comments

"Finally, Kenya is calling me. My crystal ball tells me the time is right. My son did not die for me not to try to change Kenya one more time!" -- Flora Terah

By Flora Terah

I was born on the slopes of Mount Kenya in the East Province of Kenya right after our independence from colonial rule. I am the seventh of nine children from a very conservative middle class family. Throughout my life, I have been witness to so much gender disparity, from my own family and from the educational institutions that I attended.

Now in my adopted country of Canada, as I learn about the great history of our past, especially of The Famous Five and their historic struggle in 1929 trying to find the definition of the word “persons” (in section 24 of the British North America Act of 1867), I look with amazement as Kenyans are still asking that very same question.

Asking that question, once asked by these heroes, cost me the life of my beloved son.

My journey of activism began after giving birth to my son at a local hospital where up to four women shared a single bed in the maternity ward. Women who arrived at the hospital without their own supply of anaesthesia were stitched up without any medication. Hundreds of new mothers unable to pay fees were detained in health care facilities. I was among those women. From then on I swore to address women’s oppression.

I witnessed politicians pilfering money earmarked for hospitals, and unpaid staffers extorting patients and stealing supplies for use at private health facilities. By the time President Kibaki was elected in 2002, on a platform of reform, most public hospitals were little more than shells sheltering demoralized and bitter employees.

Soon after a progressive woman politician, Charity Ngilu, was appointed as the minister for health, the first order of business was to push a bill through to waive maternity fees for women unable to pay. Yet more than 20 million Kenyan women share a total of two mammograms and most deliver their babies on the floor.

The country’s health facilities are in shambles and political will to reform the health sector is faltering. Many backward policies that target women are still the norm in many parts of the country. For example, until a referendum changed the laws last year, female genital mutilation, polygamy, child marriage, wife sharing, widow cleansing and women forbidden from inheriting and/or owning land was legal.

The new charter at least got women out of hell and heading to Canaan. We have to continue to break the walls of discrimination and penetrate all spheres of leadership if we are to see continued change. With our sheer numbers alone, no mountain is too high to climb if we join hands.

In spite of living through these horrible conditions, I managed to emerge as a spokesperson and community worker, educating on HIV/AIDS, talking to both men and women about sex and sexuality and the use of condoms. But it wasn’t until I got into active political participation that I truly knew that I had to speak out on laws that governed my country.

In 2005, I became an emerging voice on gender and governance issues when I was recruited to train for a United Nations funded program for women. The government that had been elected on a platform of reforms and zero tolerance of corruption had disappointed many Kenyans. And as women, my friends and I felt like we needed to take matters into our own hands.

As women, we had strength in numbers. But we needed to be strategic if we were to win elections both at local and national levels. After a year, I was asked to run in the 2007 election against a powerful incumbent who got caught up in a corruption scandal and was forced to step down. The whistleblower fled for his life. That year, 200 women ran for office and I became a leading candidate for a seat in Parliament in a constituency that had never had a woman as a representative. A feeling of excitement and change was everywhere. As polls about our growing power started to emerge, I was abducted and tortured, my hair ripped from my head and mixed with human waste before it was forced down my throat; my leg was broken, my neck dislodged; I was left for dead. In the hospital for weeks, I was no longer able to campaign. I lost the race.

Six months later, my only child was murdered. And justice seemed far away. To recover, I took comfort in words and wrote a book They Never Killed My Spirit But They Murdered My Only Child was written at a time when the world had shut its doors to happiness, love, peace, joy and laughter. I was going through the most difficult moment ever in life.

After I left Kenya, new elections gave way to more women parliamentarians. A new constitution now includes for all gender representation in the socio-economic and political arena; women are finally on a more level playing field. Just a few months ago parliament vetted eight incredible, intelligent and non- corrupt young Kenyans to head the judicial commission under a new constitution. Soon Kenya will have a new chief justice and a new attorney general and all judges will be vetted for competence and probity.

For the first time, before my eyes, even from afar, from the comfort of my Toronto apartment, the role of women is beginning to be recognized and the rule of progressive law respected. That is why in a few months, I will pack my suitcases and go back to Kenya. As a candidate, I was beaten; as a citizen, my son was killed. What they have not taken is my willingness to see what I have learned, observed and loved while in Canada, now reflected in a new Kenya that I want to be a part of.

Finally, Kenya is calling me. I have to go and serve my people. My crystal ball tells me the time is right for me. My son did not die for me not to try to change Kenya one more time!

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