In 2010, after two decades of civil society campaigning, Kenya adopted one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, including a commitment to wide-ranging economic and social rights. Yet systematic change in the conditions of marginalisation and rights abuse that affect many of Kenya’s citizens has been slow to follow.
Kenya’s well-financed middle-class civil society is largely delinked from representing the concerns and realities of people in Kenya’s marginalised classes – the unemployed and underemployed, and those with low incomes; the petty traders, squatters and residents of slums.
Bunge la Mwananchi (the People’s Parliament) was born during the social and political struggles of the 1990s, when people from these marginalised classes began to come together in public spaces to discuss the political issues of the day and organise themselves to demand equality. It grew from open debate in the face of prohibitions on free speech. It was described by member Julius Okoth in 2012 as a “platform which gives visibility and voice to disadvantaged, dispossessed and deprived citizens … it enables them to protest their exclusion, stake claims and defend their rights to gain access to basic needs.”
As Kenya has changed since the 1990s, so Bunge has changed too. The progressive government that came to power in 2003 absorbed many of its first generation of active members. Members and movement faced immense financial pressures, but taking consultancies from better-resourced CSOs led to cries of co-optation.
Making All Voices Count began its engagement with Bunge in 2015, when IDS Fellow Patta Scott-Villiers began working with members to create space for discussion of fault lines and solidarities within the movement, but also to reflect on the role of technology in tackling some of the challenges it faced (read their IDS Bulletin article on the research here).
A series of three linked activities evolved from these first conversations, each supported by Making All Voices Count granting and mentoring. Each activity triggered changes, and contributed a new layer of understanding to our programme’s research on citizen engagement in a time of technology.
Action research, fellowship programme, participatory video
First, an action research project was launched to create spaces and cycles of reflection and action within Bunge La Mwananchi. A team comprising, two long-time Bunge organisers and several experienced action researchers joined Bunge members in several different sites in Nairobi and Nukuru from May to July 2015. The individual and group discussions that followed led to wider debate across Bunges in different spaces.
One of the challenges identified through the action research was a need for mentoring amongst younger Bunge members. This led to the second activity, the Social Justice and Movement Building Fellowship Programme, which ran from September to November 2016 in the Mathare and Kangemi slums of Nairobi. Fellows – Bunge members who live in these communities – learned about social justice and human rights, documentation and reporting of rights violations, social mobilisation and communication, and enforcement of social justice and human rights. For every day of theoretical learning, they were involved in five days of practical implementation of social justice work.
Third, alongside the Fellowship Programme, eight young Bunge members also participated in participatory video training, supported by IDS Fellow Jackie Shaw. They learned to use video to share the story of the research and communicate it in the community, and to reflect on the potentials and challenges of using video to connect across communication divides.
All three of these threads are woven together in 'Amplifying Social Struggles' a short film (06:51), made by the participatory video team, which summarises the key findings of the research, and what it meant to Bunge la Mwananchi.
What changed as a result of these three processes?
Change 1: Citizen voice - building solidarity across divisions
Through the action research, the members of Bunge La Mwananchi reflected on the challenges they face in uniting across the movement; by 2015, they were struggling to keep representing the needs of poorer citizens. They identified the key challenges to be the divides across gender, class and geography.
The research helped the Bunge members to see how technology platforms could be used to bridge some of these divides. “When Bunge started there were none of these new technologies – people had no smartphones,” reflects Gacheke Gachihi, one of the Bunge leaders involved in the action research. “But the research helped us to see the gaps in communication between different Bunges and to create platforms to network. It’s important because we can organise activities across cities and share experiences.”
Change 2: Tech for sharing the skills needed to claim accountability from authority
The participatory video training has changed the way that Bunge engages with this technology, too. In particular, members are now using participatory video to initiate discussions at Bunge spaces, to share skills, and to connect across communication divides – as well as in documenting evidence for human rights campaigning.
One way that Bunge members have used video as a tool for sharing skills is in building capacity amongst members for writing and presenting petitions about human rights violations that are based on an understanding of constitutional rights.
Change 3: Courage to challenge the normalisation of rights abuses
Gacheke Gachihi says that one of the biggest obstacles to citizen engagement is normalisation of human right abuses – no-one expects the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings, for example, to be held to account. “In informal settlements,” he says “it’s really hard to approach a police station with a bad reputation for human rights abuses.”
Gradually, however, bunge members – having learned more about their constitutional rights and how to petition authority - have gained confidence, and begun to petition. “More citizens are recognising that human rights violations do not have to be ‘normal’”, says Gacheke, “and it has emboldened and encouraged them to take action.”
Change 4: New spaces to surface rights abuses and demand responses
The shifts triggered by the action research have contributed to formation of various spaces within the community that are used to enhance the work of Bunge la Mwananchi - including the Mathare Social Justice Center, a registered community-based organisation.
Co-creating a new civic space has helped Bunge act as a convenor for pursuing human rights violations. This has led to some cases of human rights violations being taken up by the Independent Police Oversight Authority and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, with several cases now being investigated.
“Our group, Mathare Social Justice - it has given us the courage to work together”
Bunge member, speaking in the video 'Amplifying Social Struggles' (Photo: Gacheke Gachihi)
Weaving changes together for grounded, ethical action
Changes like these are significant when they are interlinked, and become more than the sum of their parts. In discussing documentation of human rights abuses, Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre has written about the importance of the kind gradual and incremental shifts that we have seen coming from this work, which can ultimately have a far wider impact.
Community documentation of human rights abuses is important because it allows us to use all of our resources and show the utility of everyone in fighting for justice… As we do community research, a type of research which is better because it is informed by people’s experiences, we are able to have a more comprehensive picture of the kind of injustices that have become normalised. We want to document [abuses] to show how they have been going on with impunity within our communities … But also how this connects to broader structural violence… It gives us a way to move forward to action that’s more grounded, more ethical, and has greater impact for all community members.
A shorter version has been published on the IDS website.