Francis – Sharing experiences as an HRD in Kenya during COVID-19 Pandemic

In this COVID-19 update, former Shelter City guest, Francis, shares with us his struggles during the pandemic. Francis is a grassroots human rights defender from Kenya, who works to defend civil rights by calling for justice and accountability, and documenting and reporting cases of police brutality and extrajudicial killings. In an interview we had with Francis this May, he explained that he has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken by the Kenyan government to combat the pandemic.

Throughout May and June different parts of Kenya were under lockdown. Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi where Francis lives was placed under lockdown that involved a strict curfew. The curfew meant he could not move and carry out his activism. To make matters worse, the Kenyan government has used COVID-19 measures as an opportunity to exercise oppression.

“We have 3 enemies – COVID-19, hunger and the government. The only way to be safe is to resist”. – Francis, former Shelter City guest

Personal struggle

For Francis, the measures taken to combat COVID-19 have had a negative impact on his personal security and stability at home, but have also hindered his activism where his platform is often on the streets, mobilising local people to take action.

“Personally, in terms of well-being and welfare it has really been challenging. I have not paid my rent for the past 4 months. I am trying to explain to my landlord how COVID-19 has forced me not to pay the rent. If I get an opportunity I have to relocate for some time and reorganise for myself. That for me is a personal challenge, an economic struggle. I’m hit very hard. But we are many within the society who are in this category, so that gives me strength.

People like us, are people operating in the social movement, we don’t work from home. We’re always on the move – building grassroots movement, city to city. We are working not on social media, but through direct action – that is demonstrations, petitions, etc. Currently it is a challenge because we cannot exercise our way of doing activism – through direct action and small assemblies. The state have now narrowed this way of activism. We are very careful because now if you are in danger, you have no chance to go The Hague; you cannot move from the lockdown area. The state can now monitor us 100% because there is no movement.

So personally, I’m in a Catch 22 – I cannot do strong activism because I have no exit strategy; and I cannot be sustainable, feed my family and pay my rent.

There is also a clear discrimination of the state towards grassroots human rights defenders (HRDs). The sole organisation that is providing aid to the citizens is the government, but the government does not classify us, ‘HRDs’, as vulnerable people. Since the government started giving aid, many HRDs including me never got aid. They have declared us as enemies. They say we oppose the government, so I should go to the non-governmental organisations to feed me. But I am not part of their [NGO’s] programmes, and they are assisting people in their programmes. So for me it’s a struggle within a struggle.

“For me it’s a struggle within a struggle”.

Direct action and civil resistance

“People like us organising movements, we depend on others to come with us in solidarity. Our resources have always been in the numbers. That has been our strength for years. So now that they have locked us in sections, in cities, in areas, an activist from Mathare cannot go to Kibera, an activist for Kibera cannot go to  other areas. So in terms of organising we are forced to do online solidarity. That for me has been a challenge in terms of how I organise HRDs. Before COVID-19, I was educating HRDs and training people in civil resistance and direct action. I believe direct action can change these robbed regimes in the African continent. Moving forward, we have to develop other ways of organising.

Currently what we are doing are two initiatives. With 10 human rights defenders from Kenya we are running a platform called COVID-19 Support Human Rights Group on Facebook. Our main focus is to identify where there is need, and where there is aid. So it is a linking platform between HRDs and organisations that can help. Also, we have a grassroots media team, which maps individuals or HRDs who are working to assist the government in healthcare, cleanliness, etc. So if you clean your area, you give us a receipt and publish your action in our WhatsApp group. What we want to do is to compile this data and do a campaign where we take the petition to the local municipality for us to be paid for working on behalf of the government. It’s a controversial campaign. But people like us who are in the social movements for years, we have never agreed to be programmed in terms of how we do our work. Thanks to COVID-19 we developed other ways of campaigning.

Still, the main role of civil society is not to give charity. It’s to check the government and push the government to give charity. Because immediately we lose our focus and we start giving food and soap to the community, we lose our core mandate as HRDs and the government gets an opportunity to amend laws, develop bad bills, engage in corruption. Because of this, COVID-19 has given an opportunity to the government to pass bad laws and change the laws.”

“HRDs have lost their focus of checking on the government and they are doing charity work instead”.

Getting through

“For me laughter and soccer are my best therapy. I like going to live matches, and dance to local songs. Every weekend I used to attend soccer matches, I’m a very big fan. That has been my biggest therapy all my life. Since the start of COVID-19 everything has stopped; I’ve been in a deep problem. But social media, and trying to watch sports games on TV has been good therapy. Also, the solidarity aspect. Having a common problem, where we have defenders who are sharing such problems, has been helpful. We are not alone, we are many. We talk to each other, we make jokes; we do campaigns. The campaigns assist us, they make us lively; once we are alone it becomes a problem. This solidarity and talking to people, it keeps me moving. COVID-19 will come and will go, so we need to make a strong solidarity team that focuses on protecting HRDs, as we address and deal with the three enemies – COVID-19, hunger and the government.”

How have you dealt with the COVID-19 crisis as a human rights defender? Share your experiences with us by contacting info[at]