- June 27, 2019
Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is the Executive Director of Siasa Place, an organisation that is dedicated to creating an environment that enables the youth of Kenya to directly engage with the political mainstream in a meaningful way. Siasa Place currently works in 10 counties with over 250 registered members. The 30-year old 2018 Obama Leaders Fellow attained her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Sociology from Jacksonville State University 2010 and her Masters in Public Administration in 2012. Nerima is also a columnist with ‘The East African’.
She speaks to Damaris Agweyu about her journey into the world of politics and why this subject matter should be of concern to all of us.
In this country, being as politically active as you are takes tremendous courage. What is your greatest fear?
I don’t think I have any fear. When my younger brother was diagnosed with kidney failure and I volunteered to donate my kidney, I imagined I would have fear because, I think for a lot of us, our greatest fear is death. But even as I was being wheeled into the theatre, there was no moment of fear for me. My brother’s fear was the surgery would go wrong and he would end up wasting my kidney or my life. I just looked at him, smiled and said, “It’s going to be okay, the only thing I want you to do is to accept my kidney, just tell your body that this kidney is yours and your body will not reject it”. At that moment, I also learned the true meaning of love where you can sacrifice your life for somebody else. Many people go through life and never get to experience that. I think fear is what keeps these boxes around us so we never really live life to the full.
Have you always been fearless or is it something you learned along the way?
I learned it along the way. It took surviving an emotionally abusive relationship and almost being rendered homeless to get here.
You were in an abusive relationship?
And I didn’t even know it. I was living in the US at the time, it was my first relationship and I’d met him when I was 19. By the time it got to the manipulation stage, I was 20. One day, I was with my friends and got this bad feeling. I called his phone and a police officer picked it up. He asked me who I was and I was like, “I’m his girlfriend.” He told me they had just arrested my boyfriend for stealing and selling drugs. I was in this little bubble but I could see that something was off. It was hard to go through, but it was also a turning point for me. I decided I was going to choose how I would live my life, I didn’t want somebody making that decision for me.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
It would be for people to have more empathy. Because I think if we had more empathy, we would make better decisions. I think we are where we are as a country because people are not empathetic enough. I work in town because I want to be able to understand what happens every day in this country. Sometimes I look outside my window and see people getting robbed. I get that the thief probably needs to make a living and that’s the best way they know how to survive. And I feel bad for the guy who’s chasing the thief because he may not be able to get another phone or whatever; this is probably something he worked hard for and someone just comes and snatches it.
I think we’ve lost that empathy and respect for one another because things have become so hard- people are in survival mode, which is animalistic. We don’t even stop to question, what am I doing? I watch those matatus at railways where they’re not allowed to stop so people jump on them when they’re still moving. One day I saw a pregnant woman doing that. What if she had tripped? Sometimes it’s in the most mundane things but we’ve become so numb.
Working from town gives me a reality check and re-affirms my mission. This is why we need to change things. And I try. I try so hard. I was asking my mum why I feel this heaviness for a better country? I was like, “why couldn’t I just be simple and just want a nice house for myself, start a family and just live?” I want to be ignorant sometimes. When I see kids selling sweets on the streets instead of being in school… Why do these things hurt me so much?” Mum just laughed and said, “God placed it in your heart and for a reason”.
You’re an empath?
I am. Very much so. It’s very hard for me. Every day. It’s very hard to carry the burden of the world on my shoulders.
What were you like as a child?
I don’t know, I was this weird kid who did things like getting homework done in the car on our way home from school. It’s not that I wanted to then go and play like my brother…he would be out till sunset and mum would be calling him to come in and do his homework. To be honest, I don’t even know what I was doing with my time. I don’t know if I was reading or watching the news, I was just this strange kid.
My mum still jokes about me being this over-the-top kid. My uncle who was a doctor used to call me Daktari. He was like, “when I get old, you’re going to be my doctor.” So, I always thought I was going to study medicine because people said I had the brains for it.
But you ended up in politics.
I was never meant to be a doctor. We did job shadowing in high school and I was taken to Aga Khan Hospital where I spent a whole week with this doctor. We bumped into a lady I knew from church who had just gone through surgery. I was torn apart because of what she had had to go through. Would I be able to treat someone that I know? I don’t know how doctors do it- maybe that’s why they can’t treat family. And then, I was taken to the morgue. I saw body parts that had been amputated. For some reason, this doctor thought that it would be cool but I was traumatised. I was only 15.
That is traumatising.
Yeah. I saw a foot in a bucket and the nails were still growing. I was being told, “do you know nails and hair still grow when you die?” And I was like, “Why is this not cool to me?” And then, we met this boy, he was 17 and had cancer. That was the day I knew I was not fit for medicine.
I went to the US for my undergrad and was still doing science in my first year and getting A’s. But the sciences were just not my thing. I tried out communications and loved it but didn’t quite tell my parents at that time. Midway through third-year, I made the decision to do journalism. And because I was such a high achiever, when I discovered I could double major, I added sociology which I also loved. I graduated with honours and got a full scholarship to do a Master’s degree. I chose to do Public Administration which was the closest course that aligned with my interests.
What you have is what you have, there's no one else who can have it or take it away from you- Nerima Wako-Ojiwa. Click To Tweet Nerima Wako
Where does the story of Siasa Place begin?
While in the States, I got an internship at an NGO in Washington DC that was working with about 30 countries in Africa; Kenya was not on the list though. My main area of focus was Burundi and Congo and I got to learn a lot about those countries. As my program was specialising in youth activities, I also learned a lot about young people and was curious to know what Kenyan youth were up to at the grassroots level. There was talk in my office about opening a Kenya office and I was very interested.
I ended up moving back home, jobless but hopeful that they would open the Kenya office soon. In that period, I met someone at a conference who approached me and asked if I’d thought about starting a place for young people to just be able to discuss politics, ideologically. I was like, “yeah, that’s a challenge, let’s do it.”
At around this time, I got a job offer from Search for Common Ground, the NGO that had now moved to Kenya. I took it. So, I was working there and also building Siasa Place. Sometimes I wonder how I got the energy because I would be in the office from 7:00 am to maybe 3:00 pm. And then, I could go downtown to work on Siasa Place from 3:00 pm to midnight.
At the NGO, we were working with civil society organisations to do capacity building within various communities. We would touch on issues like access to land for marginalised groups. But we never really touched on young people, which was my interest.
The more I did this work, the more I realised there were very few groups that worked with youth. I would find big organisations that said, “yes, we have a youth program”, but youth was never the core. And so, I felt that we needed to have that space where young people can say, “this is my space, these are my issues, these are my interests. And if I want to learn this is my institution”. So, that’s how I started to tweak what Siasa Place would become. I worked for the NGO for about two years before I quit to focus on Siasa place.
What are you trying to achieve with Siasa Place?
We want to educate the youth on the political processes, the Constitution and Government institutions. My goal is to be able to have youth who are informed. We talk a lot about the constitution but where’s the constitution taught? It’s not taught in school. So, how are we supposed to know about it?
Do you think it should be taught in school?
Yes. We do not know our rights. We do not understand them. And the more we get to understand and live by our constitution, the more we will realise just how much power we really have.
Our constitution is so progressive. Inasmuch as we tell young people to read it, there’s no one teaching them about the avenues or the spaces to participate or the importance of town halls or how they can mobilise around certain issues.
And so for me, what Siasa Place looks like going forward is a space where we’re teaching youth how to be better citizens in this country and how to be more involved in its affairs- because we live in this bubble where we see stuff happening and say, “oh my God, it’s terrible”, and then life goes on. We have to learn that if we want a better life for ourselves, we have to do something about it.
We have both offline and online activities. Online, we have ‘Siasa Wednesday’ where we talk about anything and everything on Twitter. We can talk about things like abortion; yes, it’s against the law, but how come we’re still practising it? And people are dying from it? Should we then make it legal? If we’re talking about universal healthcare, where the government is pushing the ‘big four’ agenda, and number four is access to health, do youth understand what that even means? Do they even have an NHIF card? Do you know why you need one? And so, we realise that all the issues that we discuss are politically linked. That’s why we’re called ‘Siasa’ (Politics).
As much as you hate politics, politics has everything to do with you- everything. So, you can either choose to be awake to it or continue to live passively- which then explains why we are going through what we are going through in this country.
Offline, we have a cohort of fellows who we are educating on policy legislation, understanding how county government works and so on.
There’s one interesting program, which we call ‘Women at Web’. It is specific to women and people have asked why I am being biased like that. I say it’s because when I am speaking vocally about governance in this country, I have realised that I receive a lot of pushback from trolls. And it’s because politics, to them, is a man’s conversation. So, when you come in as a woman, you are insulted and bullied.
Women at Web is about encouraging more women to be vocal online.
It’s actually now become a regional program where we’re working with women in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. We’re telling women they don’t have to belong to any box. As a woman, you can have intellectual conversations online and you can also (still) have fun. Men do it all the time.
When I look at social media I see there’s a woman being bullied every single day. You will find a lot of men on those timelines but there are also women and it’s worrying because sometimes we don’t realise how patriarchal our country is. And that’s a disease.
And I hate that phrase that women do not support each other.
Oh, my goodness, thank you.
I hate it to the core. We have to change that. So, I’m all about supporting other women. I’m in a group called ‘Women on Top’ where we mentor each other. So I support you and you go out and support two others. It seems very simple, but it’s something that we need to see happening to change the narrative that we are constantly fighting each other or we are insecure about one another.
When you have the Siasa Wednesdays online, how do you make sure that the issues discussed are translated into tangible actions offline?
We actually had that discussion with Chatham House where everybody’s trying to figure out what to do with information from online discussions. Because right now we can see we’re the oldest organisation online when it comes to discussing issues targeting young people. And because most of our population is young and most of them vent online, for us, that’s a concern.
We do use this information to collect data. And then, what do we do with that data? We had a conversation about how in Kenya, if you die, legally you cannot choose to donate your organs. It’s still a little bit iffy because people are so paranoid and it’s because of lack of awareness. But then, NTV picked it up that discussion and had a show about it.
And now, the government is working on a policy to have a law where people can choose to donate their organs. It’s not been passed yet but the fact that we’ve been able to create a conversation that will be a bill is progress.
We have also been able to mobilise youth from Zimbabwe and Eritrea to discuss their issues. This was amazing because we then had people saying, “Wow Kenyans interested in us”.
The internet has no borders and our conversations break down those barriers that a lot of countries have. I think that’s the future of conversation because we’re seeing people becoming more inclusive. I think we could actually ignite the conversation on Pan Africanism. We are in a territory that nobody understands, we don’t even understand it ourselves.
Do you think that social media has had a net positive or a net negative effect on society?
I think it’s mainly positive. But it’s a double-edged sword. It’s all about how you use it. At Siasa Place, we are using it for education. As much as we see a lot of youth using it negatively, there are some that are using it positively.
I’d say it’s negative because…the comments…man! This morning, I had maybe two comments from two guys- one of them was calling me a spoilt little brat, who comes from a very corrupt family that has no clue what she’s talking about and the other was saying I’m such an airhead. And then somebody tags Miguna Miguna. I mean what is Miguna going to do? Is it because you want his followers to attack me? Why tag him? I don’t get it. But he tags Miguna and another Twitter guy who’s very harsh online. I even know them. And this guy says, “this is what happens when you give a baby a microphone”. Yeah. So, if you’re online, don’t read the comments.
In the beginning, I used to wonder why some people are so harsh online. You know, when you see people cursing at others… they have become so hardened. In real life, I bet they are not like that. But because you’re constantly abused to a point where you just get tired you just lose it. This morning, I almost responded to those comments but then I was like, you know what? It’s like cockroaches, you smash one and you realise, “oh, my God, they’re a frickin’ family!”
So you just learn to manage them.
You just live with the roaches. And then you find photoshopped naked images of women especially online. And you know, for a woman, once that happens, she’s pretty much done. We’ve seen it happen to a candidate in Rwanda going for the presidency, her campaign run died.
I even have a friend who decided to just release her naked images online, she was like, this guy threatened he was going to do it so I might as well beat him to it. She said she felt it would make a difference because if she did it herself, she wouldn’t have that anxiety every day wondering when he would do it. He had too much control and she felt like she took back the control. I was just like, “wow.”
That’s how far she had to go?
Yeah. But she created a whole campaign around it, it was about accepting your body and not allowing somebody to use that against you or control you. Those are the evils of the internet.
And don’t even get me started on fake media. When I see some of the gutter press stories about me, I get shocked. It makes me wonder, what fake news about our country or our president is out there? It’s so much and it’s scary. What are people accepting as real? I don’t know.
If a lot of youth go online for information then we have to deliberately channel out more factual information to counter it.
Keep hitting that wall, you’ll eventually make a dent and pass it on to somebody else who will make another dent until it finally gives way.Nerima Wako-Ojiwa
What’s your favourite social media platform?
Twitter. It can be brutal but it helps me get the information I need quickly and in snippets. So in the morning when I wake up, I can immediately figure out what’s happening in the world.
I have Instagram too, but I struggle with that one a little. I struggle with putting up an image of myself because it feels a little like ‘look at me’. But I’ve been reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and I’m getting it. It talks about how women in leadership have a hard time accepting the things that they’ve done. And actually, when I sit down with my own thoughts I’m like, “wow, I’ve built this. I’m a CEO. I have staff and they’re actually in the field doing work.” A man would be okay telling the world that; men don’t have a problem talking about what they’ve built.
For women, it’s been drilled in our heads that we are supposed to humble. And quiet. And graceful. And so, it becomes very hard for us in some spaces. I opened my Instagram account on my 30th birthday because I said, “this is a fear for me and I’m going to open myself up more”. I’m not that active but I’m getting there.
What do you think this country needs more than anything else?
Leaders of integrity. We get out there as Kenyans and we conquer the world. Greatness comes naturally to us but then in our own country, what is going on?
If we had leaders with vision and integrity, we would be so far. If we have what we have with our kind of leaders, imagine what would happen if we had great, visionary leaders.
We’ve seen people with integrity go into politics and then change. Does politics change people?
Because it’s dirty?
It’s very dirty, I am not going to lie. I’ve been in situations where you can get offered a lot and it’s unbelievable. And you wake up and you think, “mm-hmm.” And then because of my faith I say, I cannot. I have to be answerable for this and to myself.
So, somebody has tried to buy you?
Oh, many people. You’d be surprised.
So that you can do what for them?
Work with them. They’re like, “oh, you have an influence and reach, what are you doing with it?” And that’s huge in Kenya because we’re political beasts. I’ve had people ask me, “what’s your game?”
It’s funny when we started off, people really tried to find out who’s behind me. They thought there must be a big-time politician funding this. To date, my phone gets tapped and I get followed. And I think what made them more concerned was that I have nobody. The government is more comfortable knowing who the puppeteer is. But when you have none and you are young and can influence others, they get scared of you. But then again, I am just a drop in the ocean.
There is a quote by Groucho Marx said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” Do you agree?
Yeah. That’s what’s happening in our country right now. We had a huge debate in the office about a policy that’s been put forward by three judges to reduce the consent age to 16; because apparently, men find out later that ‘she is not 18. She lied to me.’ There were a lot of the guys in the office who were saying, “oh, it’s happened before, you find a girl in a club, one thing leads to another and then you find out she was underage” Toward the end of the discussion and maybe because of my sociology background, I was like, “you’re not asking questions as to how did this young girl get into a club without an ID? You’re not asking the question of how was she able to buy alcohol without an ID? Your concern is not the legal framework that exists that will stop her or bar her from entering the space, you’re concerned about saving the individual who slept with her”.
I believe we also have to look at situations from a societal point of view. It’s not necessarily about her wanting to have sex with the older men. It’s probably about her survival and in the bar, she will find a man who has extra money to spend. She probably comes from a place where her father drinks 10 bob chang’aa (local brew). She’s trying to up her game. She’s trying to look for a better life and she’s only 16. Those are the questions. But you will find politicians in these spaces are not asking these questions.
Problems have so many facets. It’s not just a matter of, okay there is the law, we’ve solved it. When you talk about sexual harassment, it’s about power play. So, you have an intern, she agrees to your advances not because she likes you but because it’s the only way she can advance. This is about power.
And if you look at those dynamics, women are harassed every day, but then the man is like, “well, she agreed.” And in this country, men are allowed to say no and women aren’t. When a woman says no, it’s like she’s playing hard to get. Give it another try. But when a man says no, it’s like, oh, okay, that’s a no.
Do you have a favourite politician?
Well, in the world, It was Benazir Bhutto. Her life was cut short, but her story inspires me in so many ways. I admire what her politics stood for. And to be able to get to a Prime Minister level position in a country that doesn’t view women as leaders! She was an outlier. And she was before time, I don’t think people around her understood that. And even how she died…there was an assassination attempt and she knew that but still, she walked into the fire. For me, she left a statement that even through death, even through fear, she will walk.
In Kenya, I would say Martha Karua. Yeah. I have grown to love her, let’s just start with how she walked out on Moi.
Who could walk out on Moi?
Who could walk out on Moi? I’m just like, wow. She’s not even Iron Lady. She’s titanium and beyond. The things that she’s done and been through. She continues to be a force.
She’s the only politician that has constantly said, “I would like to work with you guys. Let me know how.” She’s super supportive of our work and super supportive of other women. There’s a time when I was invited for a function and I asked who nominated me because someone must have given my name. And someone told me it was Martha Karua. And here, you see a woman supporting another woman. There’s a program called ‘Binti Uongonzini’ that she also supports by mentoring younger women. She’s doesn’t say, “you know I’m helping a lot of girls.” She just does it behind the scenes.
So what can one, on an individual level do to get more actively involved in the politics of this country?
There’s so much you can do. A good place to start is to ask yourself, what’s of interest to you? Everybody has an interest and it’s fine for you to push for that selfish interest. In your case with you have a website so its important that access to the internet is always available. If you don’t have that, you won’t have a space to share your work. This goes back to access to information. It’s not a guarantee that it will always be there and there are people fighting for your space every day. Right now, Katiba Institute is fighting for access to information.
When we talk about health, if this is your space, find out what are the organisations working around that issue doing? How can you support them? It can be as easy as giving donations. It can be as easy as signing policy or bills, getting involved in public participation forums, writing and sending in recommendations. They might not take all of them. But even if they take one, you did something.
There was a bill passed last year in May, the second bill reading for Senate on public participation nationwide. One of our recommendations was other than gazetting, could they just also share information on a website and social media? It wouldn’t be so hard to put this information online. And then, to take it one step up, can they put public participation on an app or something? We submitted our recommendations. And they laughed. They were like, “you know you guys, not everything is online.”
Except it is.
That’s what we said. Sure enough, yesterday, someone shared with me a call that a Member of Parliament sent out a call for youth to come up with an app for public participation…so they actually listen. It was a year later, but it happened. So I’ve just sent the information to app developers and asked them to make their submissions. It may not happen this year, maybe it will take two years or three years but it’s the start of something.
Sometimes it might look like you’re hitting a wall, but you shouldn’t give up. Keep hitting that wall, you’ll eventually make a dent and pass it on to somebody else to make another dent until it finally gives way. It can be slow but it’s incremental and it matters.
Listening to you I’m convinced that its politicians who make us hate politics.
Politics can change everything. Politicians, maybe not. And I’ll say this because politics is about interests, the most basic understanding of it is about your interests. And politicians are supposed to represent people’s interests. But our politicians go to Parliament representing their individual interest. That’s where the disconnect happens.
If we had politicians who represented the people, politics would change this country drastically. When we watched debates of Brexit, and what Teresa May has done, it’s because of the interest of her people, she’s standing for her people, not herself.
What we need to understand is Siasa happens every day, all the time. Our countries are doing politics amongst each other. Right now, roses from Kenya are sold in the U.S. and the UK very expensively, and yet farmers don’t see that money, you know why? because of the politics that those countries have put on Kenya. Their politics is their bargaining power.
If we had good politics and good politicians to represent us in these meetings, we would have better trade. But we see tea called twinnings, this is Kenyan tea; it’s harvested here, taken out to England, packaged very nicely and sold back to us.
At a higher price.
Yes, and It’s your tea. I was recently at a store in Tokyo where I bought Kenyan Tea and tasted it. It was nothing like I have tasted here and it makes me angry because we get sold that crappy tea. It’s nothing compared to the grades they sell abroad.
If our politicians knew how to do politics and care for our interests, we would have much better standards of living. For them, it’s not about quality products for their citizens. They’re about making the most money on an individual level. And who cares? They don’t care.
If we had more people realising how politics affects us on a daily, we would be more involved. The other day we were worried about the mercury in our sugar. Quite frankly, we’re fed poison. From our meat to our wheat- we don’t even have real flour in our bread. I know people who buy bread from German bakeries in Sarit Centre because, well they can afford it at 800 shillings and they would rather buy that bread and know it’s real wheat and sleep in peace.
The scariest thing is when they joke with our health. I know a pharmaceutical company that was producing pills that were placebo. It had no drugs and people were taking them thinking it was healing them but it was nothing. Everyone should be very concerned about the people we elect to represent our interests.
But then, we elect them and are told results are predetermined. So many people are left asking, “what’s the point?”
But that’s at the highest level. I always wonder why people are so worried about the King. Who cares about who sits on that throne? It doesn’t matter. The King doesn’t even know what’s happening.
You should be more concerned about your ward, your ward administrator. In this country, it’s scary because some people get elected because they are popular boda-boda riders. Because poor people are the ones who vote and they are uneducated. So then we have them in meetings and we’re trying to push for policy but they don’t even understand how to read. They can’t write. And this is the person who is representing your interests. But we are all concerned about the President. He’s not the one who’s going to push a policy in your county that’s going to pass for you.
That’s why Trump can be a terrible president in the U.S. and Americans don’t have to worry about it falling apart- they have chosen their representatives wisely. There are laws. We should be worrying about our laws and worrying about holding people accountable to those laws.
I always wonder why people worry so much about the king. It doesn’t matter who sits on that throneNerima Wako-Ojiwa
Do you think that people should be vetted before they vote or do you think everybody should be free to vote?
Oh, my Goodness, that’s so philosophical. It’s a good question. I don’t know…
I think people should be free to vote. But I have seen circumstances where people don’t know who they’re voting for. And so, the philosophical argument, that Socrates put forward was that the problem with giving people the freedom to choose who to vote for is that populations get dumber by generation. And then they don’t know who they’re voting for anymore. His argument was the beginning of democracy where people would be educated on ideology so people would vote on ideas. And he said that there should be an elite educated class of people that decided leadership for the masses- because, he said, the masses are not as well educated as the elite. Leaders would come with all sorts of goodies or incentives and the less educated masses would vote for those leaders.
This is what’s happening in Africa. But also, I think that our politics at the highest level is already controlled by a small group of people and we’ve never really had that choice.
Would you ever run for office?
Wow. I get asked this a lot. I used to say no because I always felt that from outside, I could be more objective but the more I talk to people, the more they tell me, you can’t be as effective from the outside, you have to go inside. So, I would say I’m open to it.
What do you do for fun?
I like watching movies. I really like Nigerian movies…I know and this is the thing, people always get shocked. I like them because they are very real, they show life. I watch one and see that happening to somebody I know. I like to see what people go through, what choices they make; that’s the sociologist in me.
I’m also obsessed with ‘Game of Thrones’ because the writer always just gives me a surprise. It’s brilliant. So I’d say I love stories- movies, books, documentaries, animation…everything. I am blown away by what people can create and bring to life. I also love music. I listen to anything and everything. Music makes me very reflective.
In another life, might you have been in the entertainment industry?
Yeah, maybe. I think so. If I was an entertainer I’d have been like Erykah Badu.
Yes. I agree. Absolutely. That’s the one. Erykah Badu.
I admire her. Her outlook, and her demeanour.