Sue Tibballs: Lessons from east Africa

The chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation reports from her trip to another continent

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

I am writing this from a warm and fragrant Nairobi garden. The Sheila McKechnie Foundation is here in Kenya delivering advocacy training to children's rights organisations from all over east Africa. The difference in their local contexts is, of course, profoundly different from the context here in the UK. The people we are training are working to prevent high incidences of child marriage and female genital mutilation, and to stop children being recruited into the militia, left to live on the streets or forced into domestic labour.

They are also much more politically constrained too. We can't talk about "campaigning". Our course is delicately called "strategic engagement and communications". Our Ethiopian guests are working in a complete social media blackout. And before now I haven't worked with campaigners who have tribal elders at the top of their power map. All this is fascinating, challenging and, at times, deeply sobering.

These things aside, it is also really interesting to see how similar are the challenges they face as campaigners. How to build meaningful relationships and dialogue with decision-makers, for example, and weighing up insider vs outsider tactics. Power structures in these countries are more stratified and power is concentrated in even fewer hands. It's not much of an upside, but this does make things easier to read. You know where the power resides; you just need to get through to it. We heard about incredible campaigners such as Rebecca Gyumi in Tanzania, who last year brought a legal challenge to child marriage and won.

Community engagement and movement-building is another central theme. Many issues are so culturally ingrained that finding a way to work with leaders and public opinion is extremely sensitive. We have heard about a meeting that one group managed to secure with a local imam. After extensive formalities, an honest conversation eventually took place in which the imam revealed that he personally did not support FGM but his community expected him to do so. How could he work with the NGO to help move attitudes without losing the support of his community?

As in the UK, there is an active conversation about how to involve beneficiaries or service-users in campaigning – and, indeed, to put them out front. We heard the story of Shujaaz, a multi-media platform for young Kenyans almost wholly created by the end user. There was another story of a young African woman who was flown to the US to represent an organisation that had helped her. With no experience of public speaking, her simple act of removing her shoes when she took to the stage – because she had rarely worn shoes in her lifetime – was an act of such powerful authenticity she had the audience in her hands and reduced senior officials to tears.

Listening to our guests and speakers, I feel  there is even greater openness to ideas and a readiness to try new things here than there is in the UK. And some approaches being tried here are virtually unheard of at home. Generation Girl, for example, led by Dr Faith Mwangi-Powell, has persuaded her donors to let her give money to activists who just want to try something. Not huge amounts, but with absolutely no strings attached. One young woman wanted money to hire a car so she could follow her president and try to secure an audience. After four days, she did and he made a significant announcement on FGM the very next day.

I have come to east Africa thinking we are here to teach, but I will come away feeling that we actually have a lot to learn.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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