A Discussion with Wasye Munanie Musyoni, Norwegian Church Aid Kenya

With: Wasye Munanie Musyoni Berkley Center Profile

November 18, 2014

Background: Wasye Munanie Musyoni is concerned with a wide range of issues affecting Kenya’s women. The program manager for Norwegian Church Aid’s (NCA) Kenya office, she spoke to Elisabeth Stoddard on November 18, 2014 in Nairobi. The focus was NCA’s gender and climate justice programming and her perspectives on the state of women’s rights and gender perceptions in Kenya today. NCA works deliberately through local partners and focuses on working from within communities as a crucial element for success, whether on girl’s education or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Change must come naturally. More broadly, faith actors can play crucial roles, she argues, in motivating Kenyan communities towards sustainable development. Wasye reflects on attitudes towards women’s roles within church communities, which have changed over time, albeit slowly. More broadly, the challenges of countering harmful cultural practices like FGM/C and early marriage still loom large and issues around gender roles are central to any process of change or development.

Tell me a little about yourself. How did you come to work here at Norwegian Church Aid?

Where do I start? I’ve been in the development field now for close to 20 years. I hold a degree in sociology and history from the University of Nairobi and a master’s degree in development studies from the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague. I started working with the government of Kenya as a children’s officer, then moved on to work with the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) for 11 years. In between my NCCK years and my Norwegian Church Aid years, I worked for the Swedish equivalent of the Norwegian Church Aid; Diakonia Sweden for about four years.And I’ve been here for the last six or seven years, always based here in Kenya.

Norwegian Church Aid’s (NCA) Kenya office is going to be 30 years old next year. Through the years we’ve done different things, emphasizing different nuances of development in our work. Currently, we are at the tail end of our strategic plan which spanned 2011 to 2015. The current plan focuses on the two main thematic areas of gender justice and climate justice with the later focusing on climate change issues from mitigation and adaptation perspectives and with an emphasis on strengthening livelihoods and household economies as adaptation measures. Our mitigation work is geared towards assisting communities mitigate the effects of climate change. Additionally we have been working with communities and assisting them respond to their energy poverty by exploring the possibilities to establish alternative energy sources such as growing their own fuel.

Growing their own fuel. What does that mean?

In the Lamu area on the coast of Kenya, we’ve been involved in increasing the production of a plant called jatropha. The community there has been assisted to establish a facility in which they press the oil from the jatropha. The oil can then be used as biodiesel for the running of power generators.


We are also exploring possibilities with Kenya Power, the national provider of electricity, in a trial run to use the farmers’ jatropha oil in a modified generator. If the program becomes permanent, the farmers will have sustainable and continuous income generation, electricity production will increase, and Kenya will move towards a cleaner energy footprint.

The effects of climate change are noticeable in every region of Kenya. The area around Mount Kenya has been hit due to rising temperatures. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the snow on Mount Kenya melting. It used to be known as a white mountain, but now it is acquiring the name ‘black mountain.’ Our work in the region is in a part of the Embu County where we have partnered with a local community finding ways to reclaim the water resources and protect the forest and water sources. With time our program has evolved to include a broader community engagement and alternative livelihood generation.

How have you helped the Mount Kenya communities to adapt to the changing climate and its effects on their traditional livelihoods?


The Mount Kenya area where we work customarily relies on the growing and selling of tea for income generation. However, the tea industry is heavily dependent on steady water sources and the use of large quantities of firewood for the drying process. With the changing climate exclusive tea growing will not be sustainable in the long run. We, therefore, have supported the community to diversify their crops to include more low water plants including various types of fruits, and in enhancing their dairy production. In Mandera, where climate change is marked by prolonged droughts with intermittent flooding, our support to partners working there has been disaster risk reduction with emphasis on water harvesting, destocking during droughts and restocking when the rains come.

Have you used faith at all to motivate people to become more environmentally sustainable?

Right around the time of the 2011 climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, we helped run a large cross-country campaign under the banner “We Have Faith.” We emphasized the moral and theological reasons that support protection; our environment is God given and, therefore, we have a moral and religious obligation to address issue of climate change. We tried to show environmental conservation from a faith perspective. The campaign which took the form of a caravan involving over a hundred young people drawn from various countries in Africa and some from Norway went through six countries, starting from Kenya to South Africa. At each stop, the youth organized rallies and collected petitions from the local communities. Religious leaders participated in these rallies and facilitated conversations about how communities should relate to the environment. The campaign culminated in the collected petitions being handed over to the COP leaders by the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Has the campaign’s messages continued to have an effect in Kenya?


Yes and no. I don’t think the religious actors have effectively picked up the whole discourse on climate as they should, but things are happening. By and by, faith actors are working more on adaptation and mitigation, but that discourse, that dimension where faith meets the climate change challenges takes the center stage, is not well articulated. This is only my opinion and I stand to be corrected.

Does Norwegian Church Aid try to engage communities in climate discourse with a religious lens?


To a certain extent, yes. When we went into the Mount Kenya region, we actually wanted to work with a large Christian umbrella organization. But it became difficult. This was partly because, at that time, climate was not a priority for some of the region’s faith organizations. Most organizations were mainly focused on HIV/AIDS. Climate change was still, for them, far-fetched. That area still had good rainfall, good food, so what climate change are you talking about? Therefore, we decided to utilize a community engagement approach which still included religious people, but not under the umbrella of any faith organization.

But now climate change is becoming more of a priority. As you look at Mount Kenya and see the snow melting, you have a glaring reminder of the power and danger of climate change. When I started working here six years ago, I would sit in my office and see the tip of Mt. Kenya. The snow made it very visible. But, I can’t see it anymore.

What does your gender programming look like?


We are working on two subthemes—women in governance and gender-based violence. In regards to governance, we are looking to support women’s participation both within our faith partners and in the national and regional political spheres. For example, at the national level, we in conjunction with other organizations supported our partner Women’s Empowerment Link to develop the National Women’s Charter. The charter examines the gender issues in the constitution of Kenya, with a view of holding the government accountable for provisions already in the legislation and pushing the administration to provide more support to women’s aspirations at all levels and their inclusion and involvement in all processes.

Within the faith-based group, we started a process in which our faith based partner conducted an internal audit to identify barriers to women’s effective participation in their church or organization. Born out of the audit results, new gender policies emerged that promote the participation of women at all levels of the decision making. Finally, the partner has come up with a plan of action in which they bring the gender policy to life in the activities of their organization and church community.

Under our gender based violence (GBV) programming, we look specifically at harmful (cultural) practices—female genital mutilation, early marriage, and school dropout. The programs are focused on the regions of Mandera and Kajiado. The two areas are inhabited mainly by pastoralist communities (Somali and Masaai respectively) and where strong culture and traditions are prominent. Consequently, we work to address the issues of marginalization and gender in these communities. Literacy levels in the areas are also quite low compared to other regions in the country. Issues of harmful practices like FGM and early marriages are common in both communities with prevalent rates ranging around 90 or so percent amongst the Somali and in around 70-plus percent amongst the Masaai.

How do you approach the sensitive topic of FGM in your programs?


The entry point which took us to Mandera and Kajiado was to try and work with the communities towards the abandonment of FGM and other harmful traditional practices. But, when we got there we realized that we could not openly address FGM. Communities come with a package of concerns, for example education, health, water, etc. So what we did was employ a community conversation methodology. We attempt to get the community to converse around issues that affect them and brainstorm solutions and alternatives. We encourage them to make links to these concerns to the issue of FGM and also encouraged them to network with other organizations.

For instance, if they say the issue is water and we are not involved in water programming; then find who else is working on water and connect them to that organization. We trained community conversation facilitators, equipping them with skills to go knock on other doors for any other community issue that we are not handling.

We say that community conversation is key for us, this may be cliché, but we really do believe that development is a conversation. People have to talk; they have to want to develop. People have to want to change, to transform, and it’s only through that conversation that then they start identifying and prioritizing what they want to do about their communities. You have to think about it as a process. Yes, we do need to report on some of the outcomes we set, but we also find it realistic to say that communities don’t change because you had a one-year project there, or a three-year project there, or even a five-year project there. If you are dealing with harmful traditional practices, these are practices that the communities have held onto for years, even for millennia, so you can’t go there with a three-year project and assume you’re going to change everything. I think it would be naïve of organizations to do that.

How do you engage them in these tough conversations about FGM/C and GBV?


The beginning is to identify people from the community and train them as community conversation facilitators. What right do I have as an outsider and from a community that does not practice FGM/C to tell them, ‘You need to change’? Working from within the community is crucial. The community can see the facilitators as creating a safe environment because the facilitator is familiar; they are a peer. They have probably gone through the same practices themselves. They’ve had their children go through these traditions, but now they realize, ‘Yes, there is an alternative and we can change.’

Another important fact is that we implement activities by supporting local organizations, so NCA is not at the forefront. The local partner engages the communities directly. The local partners are part and parcel of these communities. They can challenge themselves and their neighbors to explore possibilities and alternatives from within.

Our critics have argued, ‘Well, what if after conversing with the communities they still want to practice FGM/C? What do you do?’ I believe that if they went through a good reflection process that asks: what are the gains, what did you get out of this practice? Chances are communities will realize that, with time, circumstances have changed and the practice is no longer necessary. So, I don’t doubt that a good process will lead to a good outcome. But, if an organization swoops in and tells them, ‘You have to stop because of A, B, C, and D,’ I think you will only be talking to yourself.

Sometimes religion is used as a justification for FGM/C. Do you engage religious leaders in these discussions so they can talk to their communities?


In Mandera, which is a predominately a Somali and Muslim community, some practices such as FGM/C, for example, have been said to have a religious basis. Our partner has engaged some clergy, some sheikhs, to try and show the community that this is culture and tradition, not religion. Our FGM program collaborates with the larger joint national program which has worked hard to prove that FGM/C does not have a religious foundation.

The National joint program even went as far as to send Kenyan Muslim religious leaders to Saudi Arabia, which they see as the birthplace of their religion, to show that even in the ‘holiest’ of Muslim countries, FGM/C is not practiced. So, there is nothing religious about it. Of course, when you deal with communities that revere their faith leaders, it cuts both ways. If a faith leader says FGM/C is right, then the community will follow that way. If he says, this is not the right way, then they will change. I think working through religious institutions and involving religious leaders in the fight against harmful cultural practices is quite important.

Part of your gender programming also involves encouraging girl’s education in rural communities. How do you convince the fathers and elders that their girls should be educated?


I can give only an example of what we’ve done in Kajiado with the Maasai community. Among the Maasai communities it doesn’t matter if you are Maasai, or not a Maasai, there is a deep respect of the traditional hierarchies that has to be obeyed. No progress can be made without adhering to these cultural rules and norms. In order to work within these structures, we hired a Maasai professor of anthropology who has done a lot of work among his community of Maasai, and who is respected by the larger Maasai community and we made him our key facilitator.

In his own small community, he challenged the practice of FGM/C and encouraged girl’s education. Now his community is flourishing with new businesses and projects. We brought elders from communities that we work to his village to talk with him and see how the community changed for the better. He also trained all the other community facilitators. Because he was an elder himself, he was uniquely able to challenge, engage, and motivate the other elders and the larger community.

So for me, I think if you want to change a community, let it change from within. Sometimes you’re lucky that you can get such a person like the professor. Not every community has somebody who is willing to risk their reputation as a dignified elder to start talking about FGM/C to other elders. We were just lucky in this instance. But I’ve seen it over the years; where you have great changes is when you use the people with local knowledge. It is a luxury maybe many development organizations cannot afford, but it’s a luxury they need to invest in. If you manage to find one person, they can become the snowball to reach many other people.

This process of community conversation and working with identified community structures takes a long time. It took us a whole year to complete the training of our community facilitators so they could effectively implement the program in their communities. Sometimes I ask myself, ok fine, how can you replicate this in tens of thousands of communities? Maybe it is not possible. But, if it is successful in this particular community, you’ve changed a community. Do you want to have massive programs or do you want sustained transformation?

It’s a critique we’ve had internally. We’ve been working in nine sites. So the question is, these nine sites are only small portions of a district, are you going to spur change at a larger scale? But we believe, if those sites become islands of success, their influence will grow. We have already seen this happen! Members of neighboring communities have sought us out to become community facilitators.

What challenges have you faced in implementing NCA’s gender programming?


Gender is at the core of a community’s identity. Often a community defines itself, its culture, and its traditions by how women and men relate and the place of the women in the community. One thing that arises in discussions is preserving women’s ‘purity.’ When it seems like the women are changing and they no longer fit into their customary roles, then of course, challenges exist. But, I can say we’ve come a long way.

I remember when I worked with NCCK, I worked initially in what was called the ‘women’s desk’ and then the ‘genders desk.’ And at that point, you could actually see how the church protected their women from influences that would unseat their traditional gender perceptions. I remember initially we would have meetings and invite church women. A male religious leader would accompany them and say, “I’m bringing my women.”


He basically wanted to sit in on the meeting. I must say that we had to be somewhat militant at that point and say, “You don’t have any women. These are church women. You do not need to bring them to a meeting. They are grownups who can articulate their own concerns.” When I look back, I’m a little bit sad that the issue of gender has taken a back seat in the churches. Both women and men feel that we have come a long way; we don’t need this gender stuff.
Take the Anglican Church, for instance. They have a provisions secretary who is a woman and happens to be the chairperson of NCCK. Some say, “See! Women are participating.” But for me, that is just an exception and not the practice. There are only a handful women in leadership hierarchies in the mainstream churches. It says a lot.

Does the Anglican Church allow for a woman to be a bishop?

It’s not forbidden. It just has not happened!

Have you found that the African Instituted Churches and the Evangelical churches tend to be more open to women’s participation? Are they more or less ahead of the mainstream churches when it comes to gender?


I think it’s a mix. Let’s take the African Instituted Churches (AICs) for instance. Within the AIC, women had space, they got be prophets/prophetess. The structure of the church was not established so people with different skills and abilities or callings could easily find expression. The mainstream churches, however, have defined neat structures. In these structures the heads have always been a man.

So you could say, yes. In the evangelicals, anybody can go ahead and establish their own mission, a woman or a man. But, the deeper question is to ask how much influence do those women have in their church community. I can plead guilty. I once went to a church where the male church leaders sat on a bench in the front, and the women and children sat on the floor.We challenged this practice by working with the women and the women now sit on the benches, but do they really have any more influence?

The evangelicals are more conservative. They may have women pastors, but what message are the women leaders preaching? The AICs are spiritual, so the woman prophetess is the conveyor of the spirit. But, she is not going to challenge the role of women in the church. Her power is limited to her prescribed spiritual role.


What is the state of gender justice in Kenya?


I remember two years ago, I was asked by this big national organization to go and facilitate a gender training for their board. They are not an insignificant organization; their board draws from very prominent people. The argument in the room was why do we need this, look at this, the chairperson of the board is a woman, so we don’t need this training. I told them that women are shackled by many things in Kenya. They said, ‘Nothing stops women from working for this organization. Nothing stops women from being members of this board. The chair as you can see is a woman.’

But one woman does not solve the gender issue. She is a tough lady to be on that board, but one woman is not enough. A critical mass is needed to tip the scale. There are strong perceptions of how women should engage in the community and society.

Just look at the news! A woman was recently attacked and stripped in the street by a group of men because she was wearing a miniskirt. What does that say about being a woman? That even your dress code is dictated by others and not by yourself? This tells you a lot about how the society thinks about women. I am happy to say that the women did not take this lightly and they organized a massive demonstration under the rallying call ‘my dress, my choice.’

This shows the agency of the Kenyan women in defining a place for themselves. So for me, you must work on at two levels, national legislation and cultural perceptions. At the same time you must work to educate women and equip them with the skills to effectively occupy the positions being opened for them by the legislation.

Have you found that working through church groups, religious leaders, or faith-inspired organizations is a successful development strategy in Kenya?


As the professor John Mbiti, once said, Africans are notoriously religious. So yes. For different reasons, the faiths continue to draw a lot of respect and clout in the communities and society. Working through them allows an incomparable reach for programs. There is no organization that has a larger network than the church. Not a single denomination, but the Church as a whole.

So if you want to reach people who are very religious, then you use the same religion. I think there is a growing realization and awakening that faith does play a role in development. I don’t know where we lost this knowledge, because when the missionaries first came to Africa they had a package. There was evangelization, education, health, and the religious centers became the hubs for everything developmental.

But somewhere along the line, the link between religion and development became weak. I think the danger of religious organizations is they have become too professional and lose the faith component. Or, become too focused on religion and lose the development agenda. The question is how can a faith-inspired organization maintain a healthy balance between faith and development?

NCA’s current development strategy is coming to an end next year. What new focus areas are being considered for the next strategy?


One of the new priority areas for our Kenya programming will be peacebuilding. We are keenly aware that religion can be a linchpin for peace or conflict. Therefore, as part of our approach, we are studying the basis for peace in Protestantism, Catholicism, African Instituted Churches, Islam, Hinduism, and others. How can these faith communities draw from their own tradition or resources for peace; if it is the Bible, the Qur’an, whatever, and then apply it peacebuilding. For me it is a question of practical religion. If you say you’re a faith-based organization then development is a practical application of your faith.

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