Meetings with Remarkable Women
I’m in Kenya for a week, (posts to follow), and as always on such trips, find myself chatting to a range of Oxfam staff with mind-blowing stories – here’s a selection.
Shukri Gesod is an elegant and supremely confident young Somali (from Puntland) who moved to Oxfam from DFID a year ago. She originally wanted to be a barrister in the UK (where she partly grew up after moving from Somali to Tanzania as a baby), but got into development while studying at East Anglia (law) and SOAS (a globalization, governance and development Masters). Now she’s our governance adviser in Somaliland. She’s an arch networker, highly connected with the youth wing of the Somali Diaspora and for several years has focussed on getting their voice into the room in the endless international discussions on the fate of her country. She describes her identity is ‘fluid – when I’m in the UK I say I’m Somali; in Nairobi, I am Tanzanian; everywhere else I am British’. When the drought hit, she started working her Diaspora connections, setting up Global Somali Response and raising $400,000, as well as organizing aspiring Somali filmmakers to get the story out. Newly started at Oxfam, she took a week’s leave, managed to transfer the money she had raised, and organized truckloads of food and distribution networks to feed 85,000 people for 3 months (what did you do on your last week off?…..)
Xin (pronounced Shin – she asked me not to use her second (ex-husband’s) name) is an infectiously good-humoured Chinese woman who laughingly describes herself as ‘Oxfam’s Red Guard’. As a minister under Mao Tse-Tung, her father oversaw the development of China’s nuclear industry, including its bomb, and met Mao regularly. Xin was in the UK studying management when the Tiananmen Square massacre took place in 1989, after which all Chinese students were granted leave to remain. She got a job at Oxfam, where her financial skills are still in big demand. As an accountant and finance manager, she has worked in Eastern Europe, Latin America, the UK and Rwanda. She’s currently in drought-hit Wajir in Kenya for six months, but right now she’s been evacuated to Nairobi after attacks on aid workers around the Dadaab refugee camp. She bubbles with excitement about the recovery in Wajir, ‘the grass is growing green, animals are stronger – new life is returning after the recent rains, the best for years. People are coming home.’ Now she is planning to go back to China and do volunteer work on the environment. After a couple of marriages, she is free to go (although she admits she’ll miss her granddaughter): ‘Now my life is so free, burden free, I can do what I want, go where I want. The freedom is like enlightenment in Buddhism.’
Patricia Parsitau runs Oxfam’s urban work in Nairobi and is a dynamic former teacher. Now her dream is to stop ‘grumbling’ about the state of Kenyan politics and start doing – she’s standing for MP in the December elections in her home constituency of Narok (population 2/3 Maasai, as is she). She is working her connections, and hopes to capitalise on the new constitution’s requirement that a third of all elected positions should be women. But she’s up against some tough and well-connected female competition – the daughter of the current MP (who runs her father’s constituency fund and the local arts and sports committee) and a councillor who leads a prestigious NGO. Still, she gives herself a 50% chance of victory, reckoning that in personality-obsessed Kenya, people will warm to her ‘policies not personalities’ approach. But it’s hard being an MP in a patronage- based system – she keeps her phone off during work hours because every day brings dozens of calls from ‘my people’ – ‘how are you, why haven’t you called, can you help us with this fund raising drive or visit us for such an event, my daughter is sick can you help with the hospital fees?’ She reckons the notorious 1 million shillings (roughly £10,000 a month) paid to Kenya’s MPs won’t go far in the face of this onslaught. Of her work in the NGO sector, she says ‘the best thing is when you go back to a community five years later and they don’t say ‘you built this school’ but ‘you empowered us. People ask us to speak now, and they listen because we know our rights.’