Lecture by Kenyan human rights defender Naythan
Police brutality, gender violence and land grabbing are just some of the human rights violations that Kenyan activist Naythan photographs and documents on a daily basis in the Rift Valley area, the place he calls home. Two months ago he set foot in Europe for the very first time when he arrived in Maastricht, where he is being hosted by the University College as part of the Shelter City programme.
Over sixteen years ago Naythan’s neighbour, the leader of a university student union, was assassinated by corrupt government forces. Naythan recalls his neighbour’s fight for freedom of expression through his powerful writing and relentless activism, both of which would later inspire his own work. One of his sayings remains lodged in Naythan’s memory: “When you kill one human rights defender, a thousand more are born.” And so his journey began.
Ever since, Naythan has mainly worked as the head of a community-based organisation called Kuresoi People's Watch, which focuses on indigenous and land rights of the Kuresoi community. He also independently documents and photographs a wider range of human rights abuses and violations that occur in and around his home. In addition, Naythan serves as a liaison between a variety of regional and national NGOs, governmental authorities and victims of violence. “People know me and like coming to me for help”, he says. By documenting these problems, he aims to bring them to the attention of the authorities and to aid the victims in any way he can. Gender violence and police brutality are among the most common abuses, though there is growing concern about children’s rights. “Because of poverty, wealthy people in Kenya are able to employ and exploit underage children” to meet the demand for cheap labour in the construction and housing sectors, Naythan explains.
Violence and abuse tend to be more common during pre- and post-election periods, Naythan says; often up to six months and even a year before and after elections. “Things normally go bad around elections because we have bad leadership. They do not respect the laws and because they have money, they can do anything they want.” Ethnically charged hate speech became more prevalent in the run-up to the elections in late summer 2017. In 2007, ethnic tensions saw more than 1,000 people killed in the weeks surrounding the election period.
It was these political tensions that first prompted Naythan to seek temporary asylum outside of Kenya. One night in early February, a group of thugs tried to burn his house down while he and his wife and children were sleeping. Around that time, Naythan had been documenting a series of land-grabbing cases where local politicians had taken advantage of land owned by Internally Displaced People – people who are forced to flee their homes but who remain within their country's borders.
Following the attacks, government officials urged him to leave. His family remain in protection to this date. Later, some contacts from a Kenyan NGO informed him about the Shelter City programme in the Netherlands (see box). The prospect of coming to Europe seemed alien to him at first: “I didn’t know if I was ready, but in the end it was the right decision.”
Since arriving in Maastricht Naythan has travelled around Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, participating in meetings, talks and presentations with international NGOs and local organisations. He describes his time in Europe thus far as productive and insightful. “People here respect human rights – that makes me happy”, he smiles. “Everyone I met has been interested in me and has taken the time to listen to my stories.” What has strikes him as particularly positive and fascinating is the international atmosphere around him. “People from different places, with different ideas, come together and share – this gives me hope for a peaceful future.”
When he leaves Maastricht around mid-December, Naythan will go forth with fresh insights and a new set of valuable tools that will help him both professionally and personally. “I have learned so many things that will make my work more efficient and safe.” In spite of any hardships he may face in the future, his motivation and willingness to make a difference persist. “Without truth, there is no justice”, he says unequivocally. He sees his role as a human rights defender, and as a citizen, to correct injustices in order to create, together with his fellow Kenyans, a fair and peaceful society for all.
Naythan’s last name has been omitted for his safety.
The Shelter City programme
The Shelter City programme is a nationwide initiative organised by Justice and Peace Netherlands together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various Dutch cities. Its purpose is to protect human rights defenders who seek temporary asylum, offering them a three-month stay in a partner city where they are able to rest and continue their work in a safe environment.
Studium Generale has organised for Naythan to talk about his work and experiences in an interactive presentation in the Aula of the Law Faculty, Tongersestraat 53, at 16.00 on Thursday 24 November.