In Kenya, Phyllis Omido is guilty of inciting justice

Last week, Phyllis Omido, a community organizer in Mombasa, Kenya, received the Africa 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work inciting justice. Phyllis Omido has been combating toxicity in all its forms: chemical, environmental, cultural, political, economic. She has struggled and organized to transform sites of toxic elements into spaces of collective health and well-being.

In 2009, an iron-smelting factory opened in the densely populated Owino Uhuru slum of Mombasa. Solar energy is big in Kenya, and growing quickly. To meet the increased demand for lead coming from the solar industry, smelting factories have popped up, recycling car batteries in smelters. It’s big business.

The smelting factory in Mombasa hired Phyllis Omido as a community liaison officer. Her job included conducting an environmental impact study. Somehow, despite all sorts of regulations, they had opened without any such study. Meanwhile, Omido’s two-and-a-half year old child began suffering a series of ailments: nausea, sleeplessness, high fever, and more. Tests finally showed that Omido’s son, King David, was suffering from lead poisoning, which he’d contracted from his mother’s breast milk.

Omido took her environmental impact study to her bosses, who immediately shut it down. She took it to the State, who immediately accused her of being a member of the opposition. They argued that she was clearly out to destroy the economy and crush the hopes of poor working people and communities. Omido had a long history of conducting professional environmental impact studies for other factories, and yet her hard data made less than no difference.

At first, Phyllis Omido campaigned for the factory to pay for her son’s medical care, which they did, once she agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements. But Phyllis Omido looked around and knew she couldn’t keep quiet. Too many lives were at stake.

And so Phyllis Omido organized. She organized a campaign to shut down the factory. After five years, that happened last year … sort of. When Phyllis Omido protested peacefully, she was charged with inciting violence. She was acquitted. When Phyllis Omido was physically and otherwise attacked, her response was to turn swords into ploughshares. She intensified and broadened the campaign. She founded The Center for Justice Governance & Environmental Action. She started taking on salt miners who are damaging Kenya’s coastal fisheries. She is testing the soil and air in a variety of nearby slum neighborhoods, and demanding action. She is suing the Kenyan government and its environmental agency, demanding that they pay compensation, clean up the local environment, and abide by the Constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for all.

Phyllis Omido has fused anecdotal, experiential evidence with hard, scientific data and created a powerful tool for the people, and especially the women, of the slums of Mombasa and beyond. She pursued what she could see. For example, on entering the plant, foreign managers donned protective gear and masks, but “the workers just worked. Sometimes they’d take a piece of rag and tie it around their noses but they didn’t have any protective gear. At that point when I was still there, they didn’t know that this [air] was poisonous. They were just protecting themselves from the smoke, the acid, the stench.” She pursued what she could not see: the paths of toxic elements, the lead contaminating the air, water, soil; the greed contaminating the State.

In January 2015, the State finally started testing the children of the slums of Mombasa. Thanks to Phyllis Omido and countless women slum dwellers like her, the quest for justice continues.

 

(Photo Credit: The Goldman Environmental Prize)

What happened to Natasha McKenna? The routine torture of cell extraction

In early February, Natasha McKenna was killed by six officers in the Fairfax County Jail, in northern Virginia near Washington, DC. McKenna was 37 years old. She was the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She was living with schizophrenia. She was a diminutive woman, 5 feet 3 inches, 130 pounds. And she was Black.

She was killed during a so-called cell extraction, when six deputies tackled her and took care of business: “She was handcuffed behind her back, shackled around the legs, a hobble strap connected to both restraints, and a spit mask placed over her face.” Natasha McKenna continued to `resist’. An officer shot Natasha McKenna at least four times with a Taser, at point blank range: “Ms. McKenna … stopped breathing shortly thereafter, and her heart ceased beating. Although her heart was restarted, she died a few days later without regaining consciousness.”

Natasha McKenna was arrested by Fairfax County police on a warrant from Alexandria, for an incident that begged for help rather than punishment. Both Alexandria and Fairfax County police knew of Natasha McKenna’s mental illness history. Because Natasha McKenna was officially Alexandria’s prisoner, Fairfax couldn’t petition to have her placed in mental health care. Fairfax says it called Alexandria police three times, trying to have them pick up McKenna, but no one came. Now, Alexandria is “doing [its] own investigation on [its] practices on picking up inmates in other jurisdictions.” Alexandria, Fairfax County, and the local media are investigating, and Natasha McKenna is dead.

Hers was a violent death, as indicated by two black eyes, a badly bruised arm, and a finger that had to be amputated. But more than a violent death, Natasha McKenna’s death is just another typical day in the empire of cell extractions. Last year, San Diego faced street demonstrations and court proceedings for the routine violence meted out to juveniles during cell extractions. Earlier this month, a judge re-opened the case of Charles Jason Toll, who was killed in a cell extraction last year in Riverbend Maximum Security, in Tennessee. Last week, a judge dropped all charges against prisoner Louis Flack in the Knox County Jail, in Tennessee, in large part because of the beating he’d received during a so-called cell extraction.

Natasha McKenna joins Aura Rosser, Kyera Singleton, Shae Ward, Shirley Beckley, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, and a slew of other Black women killed by the State’s peacekeepers. Black women whose lives and violent deaths are covered in public and even more national silence.

These are the layers of silence: “Officials in Fairfax … have stonewalled and balked in Ms. McKenna’s case… The six sheriff’s deputies at the jail have been neither identified nor removed from regular duty… Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, who runs the county jail, has issued no new directives to her deputies regarding use of force, deployment of Tasers or procedures for cell extractions. She says a policy review is under way; there is no evidence of it… In Fairfax, where the state medical examiner has still not issued a cause of death for Ms. McKenna, the police investigation is frozen.”

It is time. It is way past time for the Justice Department to step. It is time to break the silence surrounding the violence of cell extractions. How many more must die before we realize our part in the deaths? How many more must suffer excruciating pain before we realize our role in the commission of torture? How many more Black women must endure the assault on their bodies and persons by the State before we realize that we are that State?

What happened to Natasha McKenna? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Just another day in the killing fields.

 

(Photo Credit: Legal Momentum)

TOMORROW WE WILL MARCH!

As families of the 7 dead are still reeling in disbelief, preparing to bury their loved ones. As the more than 8000 displaced do what they can, mastering stamina to survive by the minute. Thousands of us are preparing to march tomorrow. We are painting placards and banners. Printing t-shirts. We will come armed with our props of protest. The symbolic significance of this action cannot be underestimated. We are in dire need of a public platform to express. Express the shock. Rage. Despair. Impotence. Good intentions. The million questions. These actions are taking place everywhere. The Silent protests. Loud Protests. Angry protests. The Prayers. Night vigils. Theatre and dramatisations. Pamphleteering. Pop-up songs. Petitions. Hashtag campaigns. Donations. Exhortations. Recitals of Mbeki’s “I am an African”. Invocations of Sankara, Nyerere, Lumumba, Cabral…This is the time of the frenzied response.

This week another tragedy befell Africans fleeing hardship and seeking a better life in Europe, or anywhere but Africa. More than 700 African migrants perished in a boat that capsized in the Mediterranean sea. These perils befall many, all the time, reports say. The realities driving many of us from our countries are deep, layered, painful, complex. In an ideal universe, we should be able to live, subsist, fit in anywhere, at least in this our constructed cosmos we call Africa. Indeed, the constructed borders must come down.

But the borders exist, are real and written in myopic, nationalistic bureaucracy. How tragic it is that Kwame and his fellows did not in their time win the war of an Africa without borders. It could have been the ultimate liberation for Africa’s people. That instead, more borders are drawn within countries, within communities, everyday. Maybe our children will win. Maybe nature will. Living in our countries of birth must be a choice we can make freely because life is possible there. Living anywhere in Africa must be a choice we can make freely because we claim that Africa is our home. Our leaders have created a union they claim is for us. What’s the point of a union if it doesn’t unify?

Tomorrow we will march. For the ones in camps from Tierkidi to Khayelitsha. The ones always running. Running from. Running to. For us who may not be running now, but will run too someday. When will the running stop?

Tomorrow we will march. Big men and women will speak. In their big voices. We will declare ourselves afrophobia-free for the world must see we are different and human. Not like those barbarians! When the feet are blistered and the voices hoarse and the spirits spent, what will it all have been for? What transformations will have happened, to give meaning to “never again”?

Tomorrow we will march for the girls of Chibok and the girls of Ngqamakwe. For Emmanuel Sithole, the 7 dead. The 147 dead of Garissa. The 400 and the 700 and the many many hundreds, swallowed by the waves. The women of the Congo. The women of South Sudan…the women of Nkandla. Maybe even the boys and brothers we lost to Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram and the Industry of war. Tomorrow we will march. For the Africa we lost. Africa we must find. Tomorrow we will march. Justice in Africa. Justice for Africa!

 

(Photo Credit: South African History Online / Jürgen Schadeberg)

For Nigeria and the World, an Anniversary and Much, Much More

A year ago 276 high school girl students were kidnapped from Chibok boarding secondary school located in the state of Borno in the north east of Nigeria. One year later, clearly the national response and global response has been ineffective and disappointing since 219 girls are still missing.

The response from the former President Goodluck Jonathan was slow. Emmanuel Ogebe, a human rights lawyer, showed that the authorities’ apathy was obvious. He interviewed the population and the girls who escaped three months after the kidnapping, and reported that no police or other forms of inquiry had taken place.

Meanwhile, the insecurity is real and affects everyday life in Borno, straining means of subsistence and the region’s social balance. There is massive displacement of the population with 1.5 million forced out of their homes among whom 70% are women and children.

Since the beginning of 2014, over 2000 women and girls were killed in Nigeria.

Although the #BringBackOurGirls campaign got international attention with celebrities involved, a code of silence still sticks to the regular violence against women and youngsters in this part of the world.

While the killings in Paris were shocking and created the movements we know, the killing of 2000 people in Baga, Nigeria did not receive that same attention. BringBackOurGirls along with many activists have not given up. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize Winner who defends school education for girls, has declared, “In my opinion, Nigerian leaders and the international community have not done enough to help us.”

When women are taken hostages and utilized in a military way, whose patriarchal interest does it serve?

Should we question the lack of clear engagement of some leaders in the region of Lake Chad where important reserves of oil have been found? This oil reserve is shared by Niger, Nigeria and Chad.

Chad’s president, Idriss Deby Itno, has played a very obscure role, sometimes supporting efforts to control Boko Haram and sometimes retreating from the coalition. He also trapped the Nigerian president into a deal to get back the girls, last September, and then nothing happened. Boko Haram’s chief has been seen in armored vehicles made in Israel and used by the Chadian army. The French government has supported Deby, and French companies have also had important interests in the region. Nigerian leaders claim Chad is exploiting Nigerian oil using new drilling methods, while Nigeria is destabilized by Boko Haram’s assaults. The Chadian opposition organization, Mouvement du trois fevrier M3F, sees Deby as a pyromaniac fireman, spreading fire to better control oil exploitation in this area, thus expanding his political and economic control in the region, having already extended his stranglehold on the Central African Republic. Corporations from abroad enjoy a piece of the pie. Boko Haram’s thuggery is aided and abetted by this collusion by governments and corporate interests. And the victims are the school girls, who are still unaccounted for, and the terrorized population.

The questions surrounding the girls’ kidnapping and disappearance are a reminder that women’s lives are subjugated to the interest of a market system that knows no limits in using manipulation and spreading violence.

The exploitation of Nigeria’s oil reserves has a long history. Three decades ago, activists and writers tried to defend the precious Ogoni lands from being exploited by Shell Oil Company. The Nigerian government colluded with Shell Oil, which in turn was strongly supported by both the U.K. and the U.S. Nigeria tamped down the protests by executing the activists, despite international protests. Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose death, he himself predicts in his writing, clearly articulated and challenged the neoliberal corporate and political interests at the expense of the Ogonis. Today his words ring truer than ever as we see the brutal murder of women that mask the transnational neoliberal corporate and political greed to increase the oil fortunes of the one percent.

In this context, Boko Haram’s members maybe viewed as modern mercenaries. Their main targets are women, and to complete their grip on the populations they also target schools, with 900 schools burned in northern Nigeria and some 176 teachers killed. They seek to normalize violence and vulnerability. But resistance continues to be organized and women’s rights organizations have engaged in making these crimes visible. Resistance movements are not giving in. On March 14, one year after the abduction of the girls, a Global School March was organized worldwide. Women are demanding the newly elected Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari who will start his mandate on May 29th to fulfill his promise and to step up the process to save these young women. The movement goes further and demands global protection of women and girls to teach and attend school and to enforce protection of rights. This is a global threat against women and against humanity, which is not poverty driven but driven by vested interests that impoverish and manipulate populations.

We cannot stop marching.

In Pramila Venkateswaran’s “When they Hang a Poet,” poet – activist Ken Saro-Wiwa protests neoliberal exploitation of the Ogonis, and is killed by the Nigerian government. But his words live on, and the protests continue. Try as they might, government and corporations will fail to snuff out the voices raised to preserve democracy free of violence 

When they Hang A Poet…
For Ken Saro-Wiwa

You spoke of a green earth—your dream
a filament of the earth’s desire.
You wrote of Africa pillaging
herself, a prostitute “choosing”
her destiny. I see your blood
in my quiet hands, in the hands
of my country, in the hands
of every human being caught
in the clamor of living,
in the hands of corporate souls
on whom desire sticks like sin;
in the hands of your land, your sentence
is as extraordinary as a poet’s nightmare.

They hanged Saro-wiwa: syllables shock the air
as leaves weep on the cold, cold dirt.
But your words spread like a rain-storm filling
decrepit croplands of the Ogoni.

(published in The Kerf, 1997)

 

 

(Photo Credit: bellanaija.com) (Illustration credits: KR Magazine)

Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle

Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle. A mine worker who brought us endless stories of this and that workmate from Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe…somewhere in our region. We knew the names of these places from him before we learnt them at school. His stories about how things are in Russia, in Cuba, Bangladesh, Taiwan. He said, in Russia or Cuba, you could go into any shop and get sweets and no one would say you are stealing. There is no one shop owner; everyone owns everything. You see a bicycle in the street and you ride it where you want and leave it there, no one will arrest you. How I wished this version of socialism had been true when I grew older.

A few times he brought one or so of these Bhutis who spoke fanigalo with a tinge of Portuguese or Chichewa or such home. I could listen to them the whole time, we were little and found the smallest things interesting then. When I grew older I got to understand how much of the South African mining sector had been built on the shoulders of the black man, the social reproductive labour of black women in many parts of South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, etc. These black bodies who dug up the shiny stuff for, at the time white monopoly extractive capital to ship off to Europe, Israel for polishing or some such, making people who’ll never know their names or care about them, who just get richer, while they take away their old age, battered bodies, suspended dreams, often disease or some sort or the other and the strange tone in their accent from speaking too much fanigalore.

And the black African woman from some village in Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, sometimes Tanzania, etc, got nothing for her productive labour which subsidised big extractive capital.

Then when we grew up, how we learnt about Samora Machel, Joshua Nkomo, Julius Nyerere, next to our Mandelas and Bikos and Cyril Ramaphosas (that one Cyril who had my favourite face, plumpy cheeks and lots of life in his eyes then, and that killer Afro! Well, don’t ask me what I see in those eyes now, I try not to look at them). Fast forward to mid high school, where we learn about the destruction the Apartheid regime wrought on the people of Mozambique, Angola, other parts of our region, how those Africans hopping on one leg or missing some limb in Angola or Mozambique paid for shielding South African Liberation fighters, among other things. I cannot imagine life was like Hollywood then, so I cannot dispute it with facts when Lindiwe Zulu says it wasn’t as romantic as we whom she claims overplay this Africa housed us, fed us, shielded us, gave us an identity to claim for ourselves when South Africanness was denied us by the repressive regime line.

All I can say is that our liberation fighters were on our soil. The Limbless people of Angola, Mozambique, and others who carry different kinds of the scars of the backlash the apartheid regime meted out count for much more than we today give them credit. Forward to some time in the early 2000s, when I start to travel for work in our continent and I see all these South African shops in Botswana and as far as Ghana. I start to read more about South Africa’s economic footprint in our continent. In Lesotho a few years ago I hear how one major retail shop single-handedly destroyed Lesotho’s poultry farming sector by insisting on certain procurement arrangements with a government in a weak and desperate position for “investment”. There are many stories.

Fast forward to late 2000’s. At Human Rights Watch, there is this very smart, knowledgeable researcher who knows lots of what she knows about the Congo. She does this thing with a bunch of us newbies being trained on advocacy in some room in some New York skyscraper. She makes us lift up our phones, then she goes on to explain how all of us are carrying a piece of the Congo in our hands. How the Congo is in our bathrooms. Coltan powers so much of today’s electronics, technological gadgets and utensils. That is just one piece of the Congo, do not get me started.

We grew up on the rich, Africanist literature of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Ba, Ousmane Sembene, Wole Soyinka, who gave us permission and the gift of the decolonising process of telling, consuming our own stories as Africans. With the African Feminist movement, well, you towering witches and wizards, where do I begin? Suffice to say you gave me a language to live by, a higher universe to inhabit, and that is everything. The point I wanted to remind myself of is just how much this continent and its peoples have made us, fed us, gifted us, shielded us, how it defines so much of who we are, how indisputable it is that as South Africa, we stand firmly, always have, on the shoulders of the giant that is this continent and its peoples. That’s all for now. Thank you Africa!

 

(Photo Credit: Ainhoa Goma / Oxfam)

The World Bank is (still) bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures

The World Bank is still bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures. While not surprising news, it is the result of a mammoth research project carried on by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their partners. Journalists pored through more than 6000 World Bank documents and interviewed past and current World Bank employees and government officials involved in World Bank funded projects. They found that, in the past decade, an investment of over 60 billion dollars directly fueled the loss of land and livelihood for 3.4 million slum dwellers, farmers, and villagers. That’s a pretty impressive rate of non-return, all in the name of modernization, villagization, electrification, and, of course, empowerment. Along with sowing displacement and devastation, the World Bank has also invested heavily in fossil-based fuels. All of this is in violation of its own rules.

Women are at the core of this narrative, and at every stage. There’s Gladys Chepkemoi and Paulina Sanyaga, indigenous Sengwer who lost their homes and houses, livestock and livelihoods, and almost lost their lives to a World Bank-financed forest conservation program in western Kenya’s Cherangani Hills. In 2013, Bimbo Omowole Osobe, a resident of Badia East, a slum in Lagos, lost nearly everything to a World Bank funded urban renewal zone. Osobe was one of thousands who suffered “involuntary resettlement” when Badia East was razed in no time flat. Today, she’s an organizes with Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, a group of slum dwellers fighting mass evictions. Aduma Omot lost everything in the villagization program in Ethiopia, a World Bank funded campaign that has displaced and demeaned untold Anuak women in the state of Gambella. In the highlands of Peru, Elvira Flores watched as her entire herd of sheep suddenly died, thanks to the cyanide that pours out of the World Bank funded Yanachocha Gold mine, the same mine that Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family have battled.

The people at ICIJ promise further reports from India, Honduras, and Kosovo. While the vast majority of the 3.4 million people physically or economically displaced by World Bank-backed projects live in Africa or Asia, no continent goes untouched. Here’s the tally of the evicted, in a mere decade: Asia: 2,897,872 people; Africa: 417,363 people; South America: 26,262 people; Europe: 5,524 people; Oceania: 2,483 people; North America: 855 people; and Island States: 90 people. The national leaders of the pack are, in descending order: Vietnam, China, India, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. It’s one giant global round of hunger games, brought to you by the World Bank.

None of this is new. In 2011, Gender Action and Friends of the Earth reported on the gendered broken promises of the World Bank financed Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline and West African Gas Pipelines: “The pipelines increased women’s poverty and dependence on men; caused ecological degradation that destroyed women’s livelihoods; discriminated against women in employment and compensation; excluded women in consultation processes; and led to increased prostitution … Women in developing countries have paid too high a price.” The bill is too damn high.

In 2006, Gender Action and the CEE Bankwatch Network found that women suffered directly from World Bank funded oil pipeline projects in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Sakhalin: “Increased poverty, hindered access to subsistence resources, increased occurrence of still births, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and other diseases in local communities.”

There’s the impact on women of ignoring, or refusing to consider, unpaid care work in Malawi, Mali, Niger, and Rwanda, and the catastrophic impacts on women of World Bank funded austerity programs in Greece. And the list goes on.

So, what is to be done? Past experience suggests that the World Bank is too big to jail. How about beginning by challenging and changing the development paradigms and projects on the ground? No development that begins from outside. Absolutely no development that isn’t run by local women and other vulnerable sectors. While the World Bank refuses to forgive debts, globally women are forced to forgive the World Bank’s extraordinary debt each and every second of each and every day. This must end. Stop all mass evictions. Start listening to the women, all over the world, who say, “We need our voices heard.”

 

(Photo credit: El Pais / SERAC)

When Ethiopia `villagizes’, women suffer

The Oakland Institute released a major report today, We Say the Land is Not Yours: Breaking the Silence against Forced Displacement in Ethiopia. The report is comprised of oral testimony of individuals who have been violently displaced by the Ethiopian government’s ongoing villagization program. The Ethiopian government says it hopes to `resettle’ as many as 1.5 million people, all in the name of development … and direct foreign investment. Three years ago, Human Rights Watch released a major report, “Waiting Here for Death”: Forced Displacement and “Villagization” in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region.

Villagization is “the clustering of agropastoral and/or shifting cultivator populations into more permanent, sedentary settlements.” Families and communities that have lived on the land for centuries are “resettled” into “permanent” settlements. Settlements, bantustans, locations, encampments, prison colonies … you choose. What is clear in the miasma of scare quotes is that the years’ long campaign in “resettlement” benefits only foreign investors and their State clients.

In Gambella, in the westernmost part of Ethiopia, whole swaths of semi-nomadic, indigenous Nuer and Anuak people and communities have been targeted for “resettlement”, to “free” their land up. The Nuer and the Anuak have been moved, often at gunpoint and worse, to `new’ and `modern’ villages, where there’s little to no food, farmland, healthcare, or educational facilities. Ultimately, the plans are for 70,000 to be removed, out of a population of some 300,000. When Human Rights Watch reported on these forced removals, it was removed from the country. Likewise, the Ethiopian government has charged that the Oakland Institute is campaigning to perpetuate people’s poverty.

Where are the women in Gambella, and in villagization more generally? Everywhere and nowhere. In general, the news media ignores the gender implications of villagization and mass forced resettlement. The Oakland Institute has long argued that women and children have a particularly dire space in this program. Both Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute found that the new relocation sites, the “villages”, lacked schools, clinics, and running water, and so their infrastructure, in its lacks, targeted and condemned women to further hardships. Meanwhile, concentrating the land in the hands of a very few large-scale producers has meant the end of women dominated small hold farming, which means greater food insecurity, deeper and wider hunger, and impossibly greater amounts of unpaid and uncounted labor for women, as cash crops displace local food crops.

Today’s report does more than break the silence. It creates a space for voices, including women’s voices and stories. An eighty-year old refugee in Kenya tells a story: “A family I know was told that they had reached the final stage and were told to go back home. The wife refused. Her husband said that they should go to Uganda and try again for refugee status from another country. The wife was tired of moving and stayed. She has nothing. She sold her gold earrings to go back to the refugee camp. She tried to register with a new name, but the biometric gadget reflected her earlier record. They said she was trying to commit fraud and arrested her. She is now with us and has threatened to commit suicide if not granted the refugee status. The UNHCR decision [to not award refugee status] broke up the family. We try to watch over her.”

A woman refugee in Kenya tells her own story: “During the relocation, I was given a piece of land. I moved because I was forced. We had to build the tukul, our new home, ourselves. This does not mean we are content with it. According to our Anuak customs, we share everything. Our home country treats us as if we have no use, even though we were born and raised here. Our great-great-grandparents were there. We have suffered so much at the hands of the Ethiopian regime. After the villagization program, I was … sent for training. The main purpose of our training was to show us what the investors are doing and how they are cultivating our lands. We have seen only help for the investors. We were taken early morning and were brought back in the afternoon. Thirty minutes were given to eat lunch and we were not even provided water. We saw our lands worked by the others.

There are so many like me and whenever we speak, people don’t listen. The Ethiopian government uses us and our land. I’m not the only one. My brother and husband were killed by Ethiopian forces. When you move deep down in Gambella, life is hard. So we fled to Kenya for safety. I was in the camp 2 to 3 weeks ago, when 50 families seeking refuge were rejected. I don’t know what awaits us. We need help. We need our voices heard.”

At every step, the story of villagization is particularly a women’s story: “We need our voices heard.” The women are speaking. Who is listening?

 

(Photo Credit: Andreea Campeanu/ICIJ)

In Paris, a victory for migrant workers and for labor rights!

In Paris, this week 18 women and men, 14 of them undocumented immigrants, won an eight months battle for labor rights and human dignity. They are known as the workers of the “57” named after the address of the Afro Salon “New York fashion” 57 boulevard Sebastopol in the heart of Paris.

They escaped their countries for various reasons. They are from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Guinea or China. Fatou left Ivory Coast because her life was threatened, she says that she wants to work and to pay her taxes to be part of the society. Alphonse from Burkina Faso had a visa to Turkey and then went to Greece where there was no work, and then came to Paris. He says that he had a lot of illusions, and then he saw how the bosses were merciless. His dream is to be finally happy. They each have a story rooted in intolerance and exploitation. They landed in Paris. Not all of them speak French. They all needed to work.

Many hair salons directed at migrant clients have settled in this district of Paris. Over time, a traffic involving the owners and managers targeted vulnerable and isolated migrants who needed work and dreamed about a safer more stable life. The managers recruited the workers of the 57 in the streets, enticing them with conditions of work and wages, which they never delivered. Instead, the workers had to work six days a week from 9AM to 11PM without interruption. The conditions were awful and harmful. The products they were asked to use contain carcinogenic agents, and they were used in rooms without ventilation increasing their toxicity. Their wages were extremely low from 300 to 400 Euros and irregularly paid.

Initially they had no work contracts. They first went on strike when they had not been paid in two months. Their bosses threatened to denounce them to the police, but they stood up for themselves. They reach out to the Union “CGT” for support after the managers and owners conveniently declared bankruptcy and disappeared, but not before shouting at them real threats against their lives. Their disappearance meant no possibility to regularize their immigration status.

As the general secretary of CGT Paris declared, this is modern slavery. They may not be physically shackled but the chains are now administrative and used by employers who exploit them. These chains are still heavy and violent. Still the techniques of slavery remained. The workers were separated according to language so they would not be able to communicate between each other.

But the workers responded with an extreme sense of solidarity. They endured threats. They disrupted the status quo with the authorities that allowed this worker trafficking to exist. Their courage and determination attracted attention. A group of film-makers made a little film to alert public opinion. Then, council members of the district and the deputy mayor of Paris multiplied the injunctions to the Minister of the Interior to obtain state protection, as required by law, for the workers. The union CGT pressed charges for human trafficking. Under French law, if an undocumented immigrant files an official complaint, the latter should receive a temporary residence permit. Regardless, the authorities were slow to move. While the workers were not going to be deported, their rights to work and to dignity were not restored. Artists mobilized and show their solidarity. Paris counselors of the leftist majority and the Mayor of Paris voted a text of support for the workers declaring that the non-protection of these employees will implicitly show support for these practices that imply exploitation of workers.

Finally, this week the Minister of the Interior regularized the 18 workers, providing then adequate documentation and the support of the state after eight months of hard struggle. Moreover, this victory is a good sign for many, especially those workers in this area who experience harsh conditions of life and work with abusive employers.

We should note that labor rights and laws to support them are being constantly questioned as human rights are again being defined according to origins and class. Their defense is crucial. At a time of merciless neoliberal control with climate and social destabilization, migration takes another dimension as asylum seekers are incarcerated or kept in unsafe situations threatening their lives. Cities like Paris should be involved in the protection of the most vulnerable residents and workers. Nothing is possible without strong solidarity between national, documented and undocumented humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.collectifdescineastespourlessanspapiers.com)

They have no names: Europe’s unmournable women

There is the work of mourning, and then there is the labor of the unmournable. Two weeks ago, the Institute of Race Relations published Unwanted, Unnoticed: an audit of 160 asylum and immigration-related deaths in Europe. Of 160 deaths from January 2010 to December 2014, 123 resulted from the immigration and asylum system. While the numbers are chilling, this is pure ice: “Because migrants who suffer inside Europe are denied access to welfare, entombed within detention centres or forced into a sub-subsistence life at the very margins of society, their deaths are unmournable, or, to use a phrase that one would have hoped would be obsolete, ‘Life unworthy of life’ (Lebensunwertes Leben).”

The numbers and data come from largely from local media reports and from local migrant and anti-racist support groups. Many governments don’t keep records of migrant deaths, and the ones that do are filled with black holes. The 160 is both a snapshot and the tip of a growing iceberg, and here’s a picture of the world of the unmournable: “In too many cases, those who die are unidentified. Sometimes only a nationality and an age are recorded, sometimes not even that. None of the twenty-three who died in Norway’s reception centres are identified, and we know the names of only four of the eighteen who died, mostly in direct provision hostels, in Ireland in the past five years. Eight of those who died in Greece are unidentified, seven of the dead in France, eleven of those who died in Germany. In such cases, the dead are in a very literal sense ‘unmournable’.”

The dead are in a very literal sense unmournable, and among those dead, the women are even more so. Of the 123 who died as a consequence of the immigration-and-asylum system, 13 were women. Some of them, like Samba Martine and Christine Case, are well known. Others, like Alta Ming, Tatiana Serykh, and Yeni P. should be. And the remaining 8, more than half of the group, are “unidentified.” These women are the unmournable unmournables. Their families may not know, their friends and even those who hunted them down don’t know, and the nation-States where they died refuse to know.

Of the 123 people who died as a result of the immigration-and-asylum system, 60 committed suicide. Of the 13 women who died in this nightmare, only three committed suicide. Three others died of “illnesses”, which means they were left to die. Christine Case was left to die in Yarl’s Wood. Samba Martine was left to die in the Aluche immigration detention center in Madrid. Alta Ming was left to die by both France and the Netherlands. One woman, an unidentified Nepalese undocumented migrant in Cyprus, heard police enter her building. Thinking it was a raid and fearing deportation, she jumped from a fifth-floor balcony to her death. There was no raid, and there has been no subsequent investigation. That was 2012. Three years later, she remains “unidentified.” Undocumented even in death.

And then there’s the Irish Five: five unidentified women asylum seekers who died of “unknown causes”. Two died in 2010, two in 2012, and one in 2013. Unidentified, unknown, unmournable.

This is the house of unmourning, and within its walls women are. They have no names.

 

(Photo Credit: David Sleator / The Irish Times)

Garissa: There must be more than grief

Garissa. There must be more than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now.

There must be other than agony and tales of hiding and emergence, of atrocity. There must be more than parades of corpses and mournful gatherings at funerals and memorials. The work of mourning must build a better road, because the road to Garissa is one of violence, and not only by those who attacked the university this week.

As in the aftermath of the assault on the Westgate Mall, the world performs mourning, and world leaders and their messengers claim `We all stand with,’ and now will say, “Je suis Kenya.” It’s not true. We do not mourn, and we are not Kenya. We watch a spectacle of grief at a distance, as a distance, and, with the Kenyan government, deny that Garissa is a station on a highway built by all of us. We do not study our own responsibility in the bloodshed.

From the beginning of the “Somali adventure”, Kenyan artists in particular warned that all Kenyans would pay. The Kenyan poet Shailja Patel has provided a road map to Garissa. It begins in 1962, when Somali-Northeast votes to join Somalia. It passes through one massacre after another, and through one invasion of Somalia after another, and through one unheeded warning after another.

The road to Garissa does not end at Garissa. It merely pauses, here, in Shailja Patel’s poem, in the morning after a massacre

Garissa

the morning after a massacre
a country wakes nauseous

no food stays down
no chai comforts

on the roads
they drag crosses

blood is given
blood invoked
blood sanctified
blood is our national language

on TV the men
talk blood and markets

tears
stay out of the newsrooms

there will be more killing
there will always be
more killing

a state will punish survivors
with pogroms

an army will terrorize
the terrorized, traumatize
the traumatized

the merchants of war
have already moved on
to the next transaction

the death-profiteers spent the night
reviewing cost-benefit reports

a country stares at its amputation stumps
the morning after a massacre

There must be more to life than grief, more killing, and the worldwide collective acceptance of reports of smoke and carnage and loss in the distance.

 

(Image Credit: The New Inquiry)