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A Discussion with Joy Mboya, Executive Director of the Godown Arts Centre

With: Joy Mboya

February 15, 2017

Background: Joy Mboya is a member of Kenya’s active Baha’i community, as well as a leader in the field of the arts. She spoke by Skype with Katherine Marshall on February 15, 2017, to explore the work of Kenya’s Baha’i community related to development and peacebuilding. The discussion focused on the community’s history and current focus, returning always to the core principles and values that guide the Baha’i tradition. Areas of particular focus in Kenya include peacebuilding (which has included inputs to mediate in conflicts: for example, participation in discussions led by the National Cohesion Committee following the post election violence of 2008), environmental protection (for example, tree planting by youth), education (both spiritual formation and support to basic public education), action to advance gender equality, and interreligious action.
Are you indeed the Joy Mboya who is involved so many arts activities in Kenya?

Yes. I work here at the the Godown Arts Centre. I have been here since it started, as a co-founder. I originally trained and practiced as an architect, but have moved into the broader field of the arts.

And what is your role in the Baha'i community?

I have had, especially recently, the opportunity to serve the Baha'i community in different positions. That includes my current coordination of the External Affairs Office of the Kenya Bahai’ community. This office is a quite new, formalized about two years ago. One of our activities is to consolidate information about community activities and to share it. We are also beginning to actively and intentionally participate in activities of mutual interest with other civil society organizations. Areas where we are particularly involved are peace, the environment, women, and interfaith platforms. These areas of focus have become clearer over the last decade, and still more intentional in the last two years.

How did you become a member of the Baha'i community?

My father was one of the first Baha'is in Kenya. Members of the Baha'i community, teachers, first came to Kenya at the beginning of the 1950s, and my father was among the first who joined. Thus the family was introduced to the faith.

Can you give me an idea of the size of the community in Kenya? I found one figure of 450,000, which seems rather high.

One of our current efforts is to keep up with and to clean up Kenya Baha'i community statistics. During the early 1960s and 1970s, the numbers might indeed have been that high—there were many who come into the faith, but sustaining and coordinating that growth was clearly a challenge. At present our data shows the community numbers to be between 25,000 and 30,000 people. Those are mostly adults, as children are not yet fully captured in the statistics. A total for the community, including children, may be around 40,000, which is similar to the numbers of the Hindu community in Kenya.

Historically the first Baha'i missionaries—properly referred to as teachers—came to Nairobi, where some of them first settled. That is the community my father was part of. Then some teachers went west, to Kitale, Kakamega, Bungoma, and the largest communities today live in those areas. But Baha'is are spread across the country, and today they are present almost everywhere, including the coast, the Rift Valley, central and eastern regions, and with a small representation in the northeastern counties.

Are most Kenyan-born?

Yes. There are not many Baha'is among diaspora communities in Kenya. I would guess that close 99 percent of members are native-born Kenyans.

What are the main development programs that are led by the Baha'i community?

It is at the grassroots that most activities within the community happen. They include various social action activities, related to the environment, agricultural practices, education, community schools, health, etc. They arise from community needs. An example is an initiative on latrines that is related to cleanliness and the reduction of communicable diseases that was undertaken in the communities in Lugari and Namawanga in the western part of the country. The issues are raised within the entire community, not only among the Baha'is. There are various kinds of such activity where the numbers of Baha'is in a community are significant.

What does the Baha'i community do in the field of education?

Over last decade the approach of the Baha'i community globally has become more systematic about how to approach the teaching about the tenets of the faith. Education, across the globe, involves educating children, junior youth (who are 12 to 15 years old), and adults. This education is a spiritual foundation and is adapted to each age group. At the level of children, for example, it centers on virtues and spiritual principles, alongside aspects of reading and encouraging the capacity to articulate.

Education activities within some communities have moved farther along. In Kenya, two communities in Matunda Soy and Tiriki West have started community schools, initiated through the Baha'i community, but open to all of the community. Perhaps distinctive about these initiatives is their intention that the community gains ownership for the education of the children in the community as one means for the whole to prosper.

Members of the community, including those who are not Baha'is, arise to volunteer as teachers. They receive training, and the teacher stipends come from the general community. At present, the level of education that has begun is at kindergarten stage. It is anticipated that the other years of learning will also eventually be incorporated, and interface with the government systems will be considered along the way. There are a few other schools—primary and secondary schools—that are government-run but "sponsored" by the Baha'i community. What this means practically is that Baha'i pastoral guidance is offered. In some instances, material support to the school (such as chairs) has been provided as well.

What is the focus of the community’s work on peace? Some describe Kenya today as a powder keg. How is the community responding to some of Kenya's specific tensions?

Most of the community’s peacebuilding work comes directly from the experience of members of the Baha'i community; in other words, communities respond to the issues in their context. One activity involves messages to leaders on the theme of peace. At a more practical level, religious communities (not only the Baha'i) inevitably become involved when specific conflicts arise. The Baha'i community works with other communities on conflict resolution and interfaith dialogue. For example, in 2008 the Baha'i faith participated in the consultations of the Kenya National Cohesion following election violence. We work to develop understandings that can translate beyond the faith community.

For a long time now, the Baha'i community has engaged in interfaith spaces. Last year specifically, the External Affairs office had lengthy engagement with a local interreligious dialogue network that included Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. We visit each other’s spaces of worship and gatherings and talk about our responsibilities as a community of faith. Out of that engagement, a manual was developed, a kind of handbook on how to mediate conflict in situations where there is diversity and sharp divergence of views.

What about issues of violence?

The community engages with other like-minded civil society organizations. After the 2007-20088 post-election violence, that was an issue that consumed the country, and the Baha'i joined their voice with other communities. At a more local level the community also provided safe spaces, for dialogue but also sometimes a physical safe space. We engaged in dialogue with the different institutions responsible for addressing the issues.

But at a more fundamental level, the community’s approach comes from our deep commitment to equality.

The Baha'i tradition is well-known for its commitment to women’s equality. How is that manifested in Kenya? What do you see as the main issues?

Absolutely, there are plenty of issues! The Baha'i community tries first and foremost to set an example. We try to model equality of genders in the roles that each gender plays in the life of the community and the family. When people see the example of the roles that women play in community leadership and in the Baha'i local assemblies that has an impact. Women participate in many types of spaces: as teachers, in classroom, and as a voice within the family, a voice that is listened to. We have long been strong advocates of education of girls: the community works actively to promote this.

And how does the community approach the issues of environment?

That is an area of activity that the Baha'i community has been engaged in for a long time. It is a topic that especially engages youth, who tend to take up the issue within their communities. Youth groups, for example, work together on tree planting or on an action of reforestation. Baha'i youth join other civil society groups in such efforts. Tree planting is often a component of Baha'i summer school programs, as well as part of the service activities of junior youth groups.

We have recently become more and more systematic and intentional at the village and grassroots level. Young people are coming to understand that the issues are not just for their village or community but for the nation, and that specific issues like water or tree cover are linked to agriculture and the wider environment. This understanding is especially marked in more advanced and larger Baha'i communities, say with 3,000 or more people.

What about the issue of corruption, that some describe as a “make or break” issue for Kenya. Is the Baha'i community directly involved in the fight against corruption?

Not directly, at least to date. With the formation of the External Affairs office, however, we are working to identify themes and issues prevalent in the context here and consider how to bring a Baha'i perspective into these discourses. We are discussing which ones we might take on and how we might approach them. Corruption is obviously a huge issue. It is one where we are likely to enter it through the interfaith space. In a similar way we want to work to strengthen women’s rights and roles in the society.

What about involvement in elections? There is discussion about how religious bodies will engage in the 2017 elections that are approaching.

The Baha'i community is conscious of its commitment to be completely apolitical, and not to be or appear to be partisan; still, each individual is aware of their responsibilities as a citizen. That is something where we are very careful. We focus on the specific qualities of candidates who are seeking office but not on their party affiliations. And we are also prepared now (as we were in 2013) for what might happen, and to participate in the role of a mediator. One way that members of the Baha'i community did this following post-election violence in 2008 was to visit the camps for displaced people and to offer assistance with clothes and foodstuffs irrespective of the ethnic identities of the displaced. It is a fundamental principle not to discriminate, and communities will be thinking about that.

You are very involved in the arts. Do you see connections between your day work in the arts and the activities of the Baha'i community for which you have responsibility?

Indeed, there are many connections. At one level, art is one way of communication, and Baha'is are encouraged to use these methods. That includes song, dance, plays, and so on. The arts can advance the themes of peace and equality.

A central feature of the Baha'i approach is that it is very participatory and very community oriented. We celebrate diversity. I certainly try to apply inclusive processes in my own practice and work activities. And there are few better ways to do that than through the arts, especially when there is community participation.

On national social and economic development strategies, does the Baha'i community express views in any formal way? At the UN level, the community is especially active and informed. What about in Kenya?

While there is no formal mechanism at the grassroots level, at present, in a number of communities there is an organic and natural engagement in social issues and discourses of the society. A more formalized approach is apparent at the level of institutions. For example, the External Affairs office of the National Spiritual Assembly of Kenya takes more strategic actions. The External Affairs personnel will enter selected spaces to express and share Baha'i views.

We are very much involved from different angles, and we make an input whenever we can. It is part of the deeper story of how the community approaches its role. There are counsellors of faith, who are responsible for supporting and guiding work at a very grassroots level. The local and national assemblies of the community take up the issues and they support the propagation of community-based activities. These efforts move across all the Baha'i communities, helping to keep a finger on the pulse of community. That allows us to pick up the ball when needed and to have firsthand knowledge.

While Kenya is a very religious country, there is not much explicit recognition in formal development policy documents.

That is a bit strange. In many ways the formal documents do not reflect well the realities of Kenyan society. But, when the society and nation face important issues, the religious voices do come out strongly.

What about at the local level, with the 2010 devolution?

Community members are sometimes part of committees at the county government level, especially in the western parts of Kenya. There is an effort to offer a rational voice and worldview. At the national level, 2007-2008, some members were represented on the National Cohesion Committee.

What about refugee issues? Is the community involved either in the management of camps or in advocacy?

Not really. There are some Baha'is in the refugee camps, and we work to assist them, but the numbers are very small. We take strategic positions when required.

To end, your path is fascinating. How did you come to the work you are doing now?

I was born and grew up in Nairobi and attended Kilimani Primary and Alliance Girls’ High School. I had many dreams, often changing, including being a doctor, president, and engineer, but a constant was my love for sciences and music. I was the fourth born in a family of seven, and, because there was no pressure to be or act in a certain way, it was easier to define myself. After high school, I went to Princeton University to pursue a degree in architecture between 1980 and 1985. I returned to Kenya and worked for an architectural firm but tried many other things, including photography. I joined a music group, Musikly Speaking. So I was an architect during the day and a musician and thespian in the evenings, a band member songwriter, and I enjoyed every moment. We used music as a tool for social change, getting involved in advocacy for different social issues affecting the community. We were able to show that the arts were a bankable career choice that Kenyan women could engage in.

In 1993 I went to Australia to study music at the post-graduate level. I had a chance there to teach actors, which I enjoyed very much. I then returned home, hoping to make a change for Kenya’s many talented people. In 2000, together with a group of other artists, we began a journey to create a multi-disciplinary space, and in 2003, the Performing & Visual Arts Centre Ltd, of the GoDown Arts Centre, was born. It is a non-profit facility that provides subsidized space for Kenyan artistes and public programs for local audiences. We’ve hosted regional East African Arts Summits (every two years) where we discuss topical issues and network. Recurrent challenges include limited resources, including lack of financial support for programs, and attracting professional managers, administrators, and marketers. We have recently turned our focus to improving the skills of artists, especially the business aspect, under the concept of cultural industries and the creative economy. We are also getting more involved in infrastructural issues and interventions, and collaborated with the Kenya Polytechnic College (now the Technical University of Kenya) and the British Council to develop a curriculum for the creative entrepreneur and other associated career options, such as arts management and marketing.

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