Solidarity Organizational Health Cultures of Respect 46July 04, 2024

46. Kenya: The birth and resilience of a social movement

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

People power has been on display in Kenya as tens of thousands of citizens faced down tear gas and live bullets forcing the government to withdraw legislation that would have mandated higher taxes.  Notwithstanding enthusiastic praise for leaderless movements, Gen Z and the power of digital tools, it should not be forgotten that Kenya has a deep tradition of grassroots organizing dating back to the bitter struggle against British colonial rule. It has regularly re-emerged in subsequent decades to challenge authoritarian rule, election theft and corruption. One emergent grouping currently organizing countrywide is the Social Justice Centres movement and its coordinating body, the Social Justice Centres Working Group. National Convenor Happy Olal talks about how the movement took root in the capital Nairobi a decade ago, and has kept on growing. 

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The Interview

‘We cannot be talking about equality and not practice it’

Happy Olal sees the task of building a social movement as an organic process: “We had an election last year, and we were very clear that every [Social Justice] Centre must send a man and a woman because we had discovered that there was 78% male representation to 22% female. We needed more women.  It was very deliberate – a center can send two women but can never have two men. So right now, in Nairobi, we have more women than men representing their Centres…This has been a process where people build, ideas come, new issues emerge… And through that, we have a new constitution that was built by all of us.”  

The Coda

‘How storytelling revealed women’s role in Burma’s resistance history’

Back in the ‘nineties although women had become deeply involved in Burma’s fight against military rule, their contributions were often invisible. Activist and advocate Debbie Stothard recalls that when she started paying attention, she discovered that “the auntie making our tea in the kitchen was a former resistance fighter.” She began getting women to write their stories, with remarkable results 


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity, I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 46 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to defend human rights. And this time –  


  • The birth and stubborn resilience of a Kenyan social movement 
  • And in the coda, how telling your story can change your world 

If you’ve been following the news from Kenya, particularly the massive anti-Finance Bill protests in late June, you’ll already have a sense that ordinary citizens there are very mobilised. And given the context, it’s not hard to understand why. Kenya has a rapidly growing population of young people who can’t find work while struggling under a rising cost of living and they are angry. Meanwhile the Government is trying to deal with a serious economic problem; it owes some $80bn in debt and the interest payments are eating up its revenues. The short -term answer is debt relief, but before global financial enforcers like the IMF will assist, they want to see higher taxes and deep cuts in public expenditure. For those struggling Kenyans – young and old – that’s a bridge too far. They complain that they have seen no results from the massive borrowing that’s taken place, and they blame unchecked corruption by legislators and civil servants for the hole that the country is in. They are outraged that they are being asked to pay the price for the graft. Kenya has a strong tradition of grassroots organizing dating back to the anti-colonial movement and periodically surging variously to challenge repressive government or election manipulation. So today’s young organisers are drawing on some deep traditions. In February this year, I had the good fortune to meet Wilfred Olal, also known as Happy, a leader in the Social Justice Centres movement, a network of activists that has grown rapidly over the past decade. Happy was born and raised in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, experiencing its poverty and police brutality at first hand. He told me about his movement and how he became an activist.   

Akwe Amosu: Welcome Happy. 

Happy Olal: Thank you. 

AA: So, I want to learn about the Social Justice Centres and the Social Justice Centres Working Group. What is it? 

HO:  A social justice centre is a community based, uh, community led and community owned centre that, was started in, uh, mostly slums and informal settlements. Most violations, human rights violations in Kenya, and Nairobi in particular, happens in slums and informal settlements. But most, uh, human rights organizations that are supposed to respond or to assist are based in the upper, the higher, 

AA:  Richer parts of town, 

HO: Richer parts of town. So, there was a big gap, which led to so many cases not getting attention. So, I was born and brought up in a slum setup, and I grew up in a lot of, uh, violence, police violence. I have a lot of friends and, uh neighbors who have been killed by police, those who I went to school with, those who I grew up with. The community also faced a lot of gender-based violence, gang rapes and defilement. So, there was of, of course, this urge that something needed to be done, but you still don’t know how to, to go about it. 

AA:  So how did you get started on this idea? How did the idea of a, a social justice centre come up? 

HO: Uh, the idea came about in a people’s parliament commonly referred to Bunge la wananchi in Swahili. These are people who meet in spaces like, uh, in Nairobi they meet in a park called Jeevanjee Gardens in the heart of the city, and they discuss about anything, politics, human rights, social justice.  

AA: So, it’s sort of informal. 

HO: Yes, very informal.  

AA: Kind of like a speaker’s corner, like in London. 

HO: Yes, yes, exactly. So, I, I used to, work in town and, most of the free time, I, I could frequent the park. Then there was this corner where people were discussing, mostly men. So, one day I decided to go and find out what do these people do? And, I was very interested in the discussions, and I became a regular, and out of that discussion, most of it ended up with a protest. So, it was very powerful that people could meet and say, “food prices, we need to do something.” And they could do a protest. And the urge for activism started there.  

AA: I’m, I’m really curious, who were those people? Like, were they like you, people who’d grown up in a rough neighborhood and just looking for ways to deal with it? Or were they students? What, who were they? 

HO: Yeah, it’s a good mix of students, people who are looking for jobs. You know, once it reaches nine o’clock and you have not gotten a job, that means the day is almost gone. So, these are good mix of students, jobless people. Nairobi, most of the people lives in slums, like 70%. So, it was a good mix. And a few people coming from uptown. They were just common people and it was a good place where they could come and speak without fear. They were not infringing on anyone’s rights. So, it was just a safe space in that park. 

AA:  And so you joined them? 

HO: I joined them. Then as we continued, gained more interest, I found myself elected, as a coordinator of that park. So, it was also a very democratic space that every two years, they used to conduct elections. So I was elected, uh, coordinator. And when I was elected, I discovered that there was a very big connection between that park and human rights organizations where there were meetings. So as a leader, I used to be invited in human rights meetings, and, uh, I gained a lot of interest in human rights. Now, the idea of social justice came about because while we were doing very well in people’s parliament. When you went back home in Dandora, to Mathare, Kangemi, those are slums within Kibera, Nairobi. When you went back home in the evening after… people’s parliament, you get stories that another person has been shot by police. So, we had a discussion with a few friends in the park, and we say, “why don’t we go back and organize in the communities…” You know, by this time, we already understood the human rights language. We knew extra judicial killings were wrong. We knew gender- based violence were wrong, because of the culture of human rights that, we interacted with. So, we decided to start, and we started the small research in Dandora, Mathare and Kangemi slums in Nairobi. We saw that there were so many human rights violations, people did not know even where to go apart from going to the police station or the chief’s camp and most of the times they are their violators. So we decided to start small offices, social justice offices. In Mathare was the first one. Then we went to Dandora where I stay, and Kangemi and, uh, Kayole. And, there is a lot of interest from the community, and there was a lot of resistance from the police, because when you’re talking about extra judicial killings, the perpetrator is the police and they don’t want someone to interfere with, whatever they’re doing in the name of security. So we started just documenting cases. We had no money, we had no offices. We just started documenting cases, calling press statement and saying, “this is not right, we have lost two more people.” So that’s how it started, slowly. And, in 2018, we discovered that there were more killings across the city, and across the country. 

AA:  So, at that point, you were still only organized in Nairobi? 

HO: Yes, only in Nairobi, in, in three areas, Kayole, Dandora, and Mathare. And we decided to organize a protest during Saba Saba. Saba Saba is 7th of July, seven seven. So, the reason we chose Saba Saba; in the 1990s during the fight for democracy in Kenya, this was a very important day where people came out to protest against the president then President Moi, and so many people were killed, but the day remained as a day for resistance. So, we decided on that day, to show that the struggle that was started in 1990, 1991 is still on. People are still being killed. So, we decided to plan a protest on that day. 

AA:  And who’s we at that point? You, you, you, obviously, you’ve got some people working with you. Are they local people in Dandora and Mathare and so on? Or are they people that you met in the park? 

HO: The “we” I’m talking about, uh, first the activists, then the community, the young people, families of people who’ve been killed. It was a community discussion. So, we came together and decided, “why don’t we do a protest?” Now, not most protests in Nairobi are done in the city, in the central business district, like the centre of town. But we said, “for this one, can we start it in our homes to the city?” And to Kamukunji, where in 1990 people were arrested and people were shot. We decided that that could be our converging point it’s just next to the city. So, we started in Kayole. The power of this is that the Kayole Justice centre is, is women led. So, it’s the women who started in Kayole, then we joined in Dandora. As we went along, so many people could join us because it was like the first time someone could hold a placard, written “stop police killing.” This was unheard of because people had normalized police killings. By the time we got to Kamukunji grounds, we had been joined by so many people, including politicians. The women representative of Nairobi had joined, uh, scholars, professor Yash Pal Ghai who wrote the Constitution of Kenya, had joined. Former Chief Justice Willie Mutunga had joined. So, uh, various activists were joining.  

AA: So, this is 2018. 

HO: 2018, yeah. 

AA: So that was the first big sort of outing for this new movement. 

HO: Yes. And we reached Kamukunji. We thought very fast, now that we had these famous people around, why don’t we launch? So we launched the Justice Centres Working Group, because now this was bringing us together. So, we have, uh, we have very good photos of the former Chief justice, the women representative, uh, the scholars… 

AA:  What’s the women representative? What’s that? Is it a parliamentary position? 

HO: A parliamentary position. In our constitution, because of the few women who are elected.. Every county gets to elect a woman representative in Parliament to join the parliamentarians. Yeah. So, she was amongst the people who came and amongst the people who launch now the Justice Centre’s working group. 

AA: And did you know what you were going to do with that structure? I mean, you said you took advantage of the moment. So was it, let’s launch something and then figure it out later? Or had you been planning to launch something? 

HO: We were planning to launch something in our communities. We never anticipated that one, most communities will be interested, and two, this will be a, a big national movement. But, now, after that protest, we got a lot of requests from across Nairobi that people wanted to be part and parcel of this. So we had an open door policy where everyone who wanted just do a text or call or do an email, we’ll visit your community. And, uh, for a start we used to meet every two weeks in our community, we started with our three communities. But we used now to go to other communities, talk to them about the importance of coming out when you’re violated. So that’s how we’re able to build within one year, we had nine in Nairobi. In 2019 now other regions outside Nairobi started expressing interest, from Mombasa, from Kisumu, the western parts of the country, now expressed interest. And now we had to start thinking, now how do we start, uh, this thing is becoming big. So, we started holding retreats and uh, meetings, trying to look at what was working, what structure. Women started saying, “hey, we also here, this cannot be a male dominated space. We need our space.” So this movement grew organically. 

AA: I mean, when you think back, I mean, I’m just putting myself in your shoes and thinking, “oh, but I don’t know any of these people. They’re just coming from wherever they’re coming from. They want to set up something with my organization’s name on it.” How, how were you going to respond to that? Obviously, you would have no direct control, but you needed some kind of structure, presumably for it to be meaningful that they would be part of your network. Uh, what did you, how did you imagine it? 

HO: Uh, at first we had an open door. Uh, the working group meeting was, if you believe in this idea, we meet every two weeks. You come. Then it reached a time where the movement was growing. We could not have a working group of 50, 70 people. So we needed, we needed some thinking. So we went to a retreat, uh, in 2019 and agreed that now that we have more communities joining, why don’t we come up with, uh, how to join our working group, how to start a justice centre? And now that is where we agreed that every centre should send two representatives to the meeting. So that now we avoid the crowd ’cause with the crowd, we’ll spend a whole day, could not agree on most of the things, every community coming with their issues and all that. But now we, we came up with a structure. So the structure was the working group where every centre has two representatives. And then as we grew, we saw that even with that working group, with the growing number of centres, we needed now a leaner structure. Then, we agreed now first on the leadership where we agreed to have a steering committee that now will implement the decisions of the working group. And secondly, on the crosscutting issues, like there was a crosscutting issue in Nairobi on extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances. So, we decided that can be a campaign for Nairobi, for all of us. There was a crosscutting issue on gender-based violence across Nairobi. So, we, we listed all the issues, then we looked at this crosscutting issues. We agreed that our wellness was important. So, we had a wellness. We women came up and say they needed a safe space, so we highlighted women. So this is how we are able to come up with our campaigns. And from there, uh, it has been very easy now because every centre sends two…and the campaigns belongs to everyone. You don’t need to be a leader. You can be in any campaign. So, the campaign also elected their leaders to the working group. So, the working group is composed of centres and the campaigns.  

AA: So, okay, elections, that’s how you are organizing for people to become representatives. Each centre would elect the two people who are coming… Each crosscutting campaign would elect their representative to come to the working group. 

HO:  Yeah so, you know when you are dealing with people, they need confidence. We saw it it’s important that people are elected. At first you could find that a centre has two male, but we had an election last year and we were very clear that every centre must send a man and a woman because we discovered that there were like 78% male representation to 22% female and we felt like we needed, uh, more women. And it was very deliberate that a centre can have two women, but can never have two men. So right now, like in Nairobi, we have more women than men representing their centres. This was a deliberate campaign because we cannot be talking about equality, yet we don’t practice it in the movement. So, this has been a process where people build, ideas come, new issues emerge, think about the issues, what do we need to include? And through that, now we have a new constitution that was built by all of us. People say, “remove this, add this.” So everything has been very organic… And, uh, that is how we have been able to build a movement. 

AA: And how big is it now? 

HO: Ah, from 2018, around three centres, we are now talking about 66 centres across the country and four centres in Uganda. So, we’ve crossed the border, there’s a time activists from Uganda came to Nairobi. They liked the idea, we discussed, and they went and implemented. We followed them and had more discussions. We, now, we have four centres in Uganda. 

AA: So I’m just curious…how…you know, it’s impressive that this has been an organic process, one that you’ve been able to respond to as it grows and to ensure that what is grown is democratic in nature. But I think it’s so normal that once organisations and networks start to grow, you get divergences at the base. A, a, branch that has a point of view that the centre doesn’t like or a branch that doesn’t elect the right number of women. And, and refuses to change their result. And I’m just curious how you at the centre in the working group managed those kinds of tensions and disagreements. 

HO: Yeah, so I think this is one of the reasons why we decided to come up with a constitution. Because Kenya and Africa has very patriarchal culture and that’s how we were brought up. So, like the issue of women in the last election, we still had centres that brought us two men and we could say “this is against the constitution that we passed.” So we could in turn go and elect women. One of the challenges we’ve faced in our movement are those differences. For me as a leader of the movement, I see the differences as opportunities but there are some people who don’t them that way.  

AA: So, are there problems that you haven’t been able to solve with the constitution? 

HO: Our constitution is a living document and uh, I think it has really helped us to solve most of our problems including some decisions which were very hard like… telling some centres “we think we can no longer work with you..” 

AA: Oooh, what made that happen? Give me an example. 

HO: Uh, the first centres like Mathare, Kayole… It reached a time it became very difficult whenever we had to make decisions like how the monies were going to be spent, the spirit of the movement was that at least every centre must enjoy when we fundraise. If we are going to do activities, every centre must feel as if they jave had a benefit. And most of the time we disagreed… it reached a time we were disagreeing on almost every decision and they were not willing to back down and it became very difficult and it reached a time they could not allow us to receive money from donors. Whenever they applied for money, they could write protest letters “don’t fund that movement, it has leadership challenges,” you know, they could say “men are fighting women,” and all those issues. While we could ask them to come to the table and we negotiate and find the best solutions. But whenever money comes to the movement, they still want to be part of the beneficiaries. So last year the movement had alot of challenges…In 2023 that is. And uh, we had to make a decision that we’ve been trying to solve these problems, but it seems like you are not willing to find a way out. They wrote to all our donors asking them not to fund us and this really crippled the communities that we were working with…gender based violence issues and human rights issues. So, the movement said “now, if the way we organise this movement maybe is not the right way…we allow you to step aside.” So the three centres were placed aside to see if maybe they will re…rethink or reimagine. We don’t stop them from organising, but… 

AA: But you’ve essentially expelled them… 

HO: We did expel them and from that time… That process has really make the movement at least agree that in case we have a challenge, we can sit internally and solve our issues. Not every issue needs to get to the donor. Because as a movement we also have our ways of organising. We might have money for a commuinty dialogue but we know the community might have a hall. So the money for hall can help the justice centre buy a chair… I don’t know if you understand. Like, we have a, a  way where we say “because I have a big, a big room, I’ll give you the hall but I will donate the money back.” So that’s how we’ve been able because it’s not easy to get a money that will support the 66 centres, that to buy furniture and all this. So we have our ways and uh… for us it has…It is something that is agreed uh.. by all of us and it has really helped us to grow, to buy a few items here and there.  

AA: Ok so you’ve now, you’ve grown, you’ve got a constitution that’s working. You’re able to maintain some kind of coherence, maybe even discipline in your network. Um, I guess we all know that something at this scale, you can’t do much without money. Within a few minutes of meeting somebody’s going to want to carry out an activity for which you need funds. Maybe transport money or uh, rental of a hall or refreshments or…maybe even a lawyer or whatever. So, how did you think about that problem? 

HO: Uh, we anticipated that at some point we will need money. And, uh, the challenge with Africa, it’s most communities, the way NGO has cultured our people is that they, they don’t give, they receive. So human rights organizations has been giving people money even to attend meetings. So with that in mind- 

AA: You know, people who don’t know the space you’re talking about might be a little bit shocked about how literal you are being there. You’re not just saying, you know, “we’ll give you a grant if you’ll take part in our meeting.” You’re saying literally they would be giving envelopes with cash in to the person who’s coming to the meeting? 

HO:  Yes. So, uh, you organize a meeting to discuss, like, in Dandora, there’s an issue of the dump site. The Nairobi garbage is thrown in Dandora. So, uh, a human rights organization comes to discuss that issue. But at the end of the meeting, they will ask people to sign for like 500 shillings or 1000 as transport. So, this culture grew, so as people who did not have that money became a problem organizing. So coming with that background and organizing a community centre – we had to look for money from donors and partners. But before that, we had a meeting. I remember vividly very well that meeting where after people saying, we need to look for donors to help us do this campaign more effectively. There was that question that I asked, money can build or destroy a movement, but it depends on how the people in the movement will think about it and how they will decide on how the money will be used. If we don’t think about that before, it will be very difficult. The money will destroy the movement. And we had a very long discussion and people agreed, “let’s accept money, but let’s be conscious that this money can build or destroy.”  

AA: So what was your theory about how you could prevent the destruction? 

HO: Uh, one was first having that discussion and learning from other movements that have been destroyed by money. We’ve had other examples of people who started movement with their blood, sweat, and then money came in and infightings and they could no longer hold. So we had that discussion, but we thought that now with that in mind, people will be very cautious when money comes because it comes, it’s also, it’s demands. And you understand all this. So, the challenge is that, that first team understood this, but the movement kept growing with new people coming in. So when we got, uh, started getting small funding, at first it was nice, we could agree, but as the culture grew, some more people, more centres, some people became more aggressive like a coordinator of such a network, you could not do other things. You could not do something else. So you needed at least some stipend from that to be able to keep you, to keep you, uh, going 

AA:  So until that point, you hadn’t been receiving any compensation for this work?  

HO:  No. It was… we were just trying to to to balance this system 

AA:  And were you raising the money that any centre might use any, any of the, the centres might use? Or did they raise their own money? 

HO: The money we were raising, it was going directly to the centres to build the community, to have a dialogue, the money that was coming, like for stipend was very little. Most monies were going to, to the centres. And at that time it was very easy because we are not many centres. So you could distribute, say like 50,000 to all the centres. Then we see how this money will be accounted for. But as a movement grew, now you cannot send monies to the centress because the centres are so many, the money will not have an impact. Now you have to make a decision, like, “do we fundraise now for gender-based violence campaign where instead of having the small campaigns, we come up with a work plan of few activities, but with more impact.” So as the movement grew, we have to change our fundraising strategy.. Now, this is where the disagreements started emerging. 

AA:   So the centres were dependent on getting their money from you? 

HO: Yes.  

AA: And they disagreed with the decisions you and the working group were making about where to get the money and who to give it to. 

HO:  Yes. not where to get, because that was not a problem. It was now the how, how the money to be used. I remember in 2020, during COVID, we had a funding that was meant for community dialogues in all the centres. But during covid you could not have physical meetings. And there’s no way you can do an online community dialogue in Nairobi, in our slums, it was impossible. So we had to stop that funding. Uh, and some people could say, no, give us money. This is the time that we need money more. So trying to explain to people that a donor requirement is that this money is meant for a community dialogue. It cannot be used to buy food or to buy masks. We have to raise other monies for, for masks, which we did. But you see such differences, they even wrote to the donor, “you give us money, but we cannot access that money because…” 

AA: Because Happy won’t let us take it, 

HO: Because Happy won’t let us take the money. But you understand how the donors operate. If the money is meant for a physical meeting, you cannot use it for an online meeting or to buy masks because there’s covid unless you get permission from the donor. So people saw the leadership as an obstacle for them getting the money. So such differences… And we tried to explain. Others, use those such opportunities to start propaganda information. You get like a million shillings, someone will tell the people, we’ve received 5 million and you now have to show them the bank statements – “this is the money that came in.” So it became difficult handling, because some people we never knew their intention. 

AA: But… And you at that time, essentially you, you were the person at the top of the tree. There was no accountability mechanism around you that could say, “no, we’re watching him.” There’s no board guaranteeing to the community that the money is being wisely spent. I’m just curious to understand what, what you had in place that could have reassured people. 

HO: We had…the working group was now the, the main decision making. And then we had a steering committee that now was the implementing, uh, body. So when you say we are going to have a meeting on such a day in such a place, the steering committee that organizes that meeting. You see, so… the working group was holding us to account because we have, we have to take our accountability to the working group both on money, on meeting reports and all that. So… 

AA: And is that where the arguments began to emerge, that  

HO: Yes, 

AA: They didn’t believe that the amount that you’ve got is the amount you said 

HO: So the people in the working group, first they started misleading the membership. So whenever we call, we usually call something called a general assembly, a Kamukunji, we call it a Kamukunji, where a day, every quarter you invite all your members, like in Nairobi, and we tell… we talk about the growth of the movement the last quarter, what you’ve been able to do, what you’re planning to do, and you get their views. So when we called these meetings is where we discovered that there was a lot of misinformation. Someone could say, you received 7 million, what have you done with it? Yet we received 1 million shillings. So you, we started discovering that some people in the working group were not, uh, providing a correct information. And two, we discovered that now that the leadership has started earning some stipends, this was meant for people now, we want to get to the top also to earn. So the money politics came, became so glaring that uh… When you’re running a movement and some people are earning and others are not, these who are not earning must be able to understand why these others are earning. Because like for me, the whole of my life is – now I can’t do anything else. I wake up, there’s the community you need to serve, there’s the working group you need to serve.  

AA: It’s a job.  

HO: It’s a job. So, getting the community to understand that now you are being paid because you have some responsibility – it was a bit difficult with the people who wants also to get to the leadership. They feel like “I also need to earn from there.” So that is how we are able now to come up with a constitution. We come up with a job description as a national coordinator, or a convener, this is your responsibility. Once when you have funding, you’ll get paid. When you don’t have, you’ll continue working. But some, some people, it got, it got so difficult with some people who continuously ended up in our donors every time with petitions and all that. That’s how we did cut them off.  

AA:  Right, so they were going to the donor saying, “Happy is stealing money or Happy is…” 

HO: You could not even buy a shirt! Haaa. You say “you see? new shirt?” <laugh> Yeah. 

AA:  So I mean, that must have been very dispiriting for you. I mean, you had built this thing and started it as a passion project, but you’d seen it grow. And now the appearance of money, as they say, it’s the root of all evil. 

HO:  Yeah, at that moment, it was, the working groups. were very aggressive. But since we took that decision and we learned our lessons, we, 

AA:  The decision to expel, 

HO: To expel some of those centres. And one of the leaders was expelled from the steering committee because he was also very key in those disagreements. From there, it’s since March last year, we’ve not had any issue. The only challenge that our major donors now stopped our funding because of those disagreements.  

AA: So what was the donor’s take on what had happened? 

HO:  Uh, we… I don’t know if it’s ok to name the donor, I will not… 

AA: No, don’t don’t name them 

HO: Most of them, big, international donors, they got very interested. But when the disagreements started and they started receiving petition, some of them did not even give us a hearing. They just stopped the funding. Uh, like our two major donors stopped completely, completely stopped the funding and they couldn’t not want anything, to do with us again. And for me, that was, very disheartening in that, I thought they understood that a movement is not like an NGO, you know, in an NGO you get the best, you get a good accountant, you get a program officer. But in a movement, these are people, community members. First, most of them, have no background on human rights. It is you who are introducing them. Some of them are victims of police violence. So, you have all these people on board, now trying to…you could not put them in the same scale like a human rights organization. So, when these disagreements came, they did not even give us listening, they just say “no we cannot handle this.” They started calling us high risk, uh, high risk organization. But there are some, partners who are very uh, understanding because it is in that discussion that we discussed, that a donor decided, “now can we help you get a sexual harassment policy? ‘Cause if women are complaining, there’s need to be a safeguard measure.” There’s a donor says “we need a finance policy, we need a finance committee.” So there are two types. The others who, who stopped completely, and they never answered our email from that time on. And the others who said, “can we build, can we work together so that we build the, the capacity…” 

AA: To strengthen your organization,  

HO: “The strength of your organization, because the work that you’re doing is still very important. The work of documenting these cases, helping communities to access justice and all that.” So from that, I was able to understand that even at the donor table, there<s alot of power” where as a community organization, you are judged very harshly and you have no power. Once a donor says, we are no longer funding you,” it is the end of the discussion. You cannot say, “hey, by the way, I can explain.” You have nowhere to explain. So those power disparities… and I think they need, they need to have a conversation on how social movements should be funded. In some, some partners are very good. Like when we are having a meeting where we are inviting our members to go like a three-day meeting, we’ve had discussions with our partners and we tell them, “these people are volunteers, they don’t earn any salary. So when you take them to a meeting, like in Mombasa, don’t book the hotel for them. Because why should you book a hotel for 8,000 and uh, after three days, you give this person 2000, which is barely enough, even for transport. Why don’t we have a discussion, this 8,000, give it to this person with an, an agreement that this is where the meeting is. Make sure you’re here by eight and you will concentrate until five, wherever you’ll sleep. It is up to you.” So most of the comrades will look for a cheaper place. Some will share, two or three people will get a venue, and now they will save and they will get some money in their pocket. So if you say you have raised a million shillings, at least 300,000 or 400,000 is in, in the pockets of comrades. Because us, even if we organize a community meeting, we have women who cook for us. We…you don’t need to get someone from Serena Hotels or these big hotels to come and serve. This woman, how do we empower this woman? Because she also sees the violations and reports to us. How do we empower her to come up with a good receipt and we use her, her facility? We use her food. We eat her food. So this kind of thinking, some donors have really embraced it and they’re working with us. Some say, “do they have, can they accept LPOs?” No, so…LPOs is local purchase orders where you provide services, then you will be paid later. You know, with this, with these women, they go to markets every day. So you have to pay her in advance. She provide the service and you pay immediately so she can go to the market the following day. So the discussions on funding social movements, we should have these discussions because there’s still a lot of challenges. 

AA: And, and if you are thinking about that problem, have you got any innovative ideas about how to fund that don’t depend on these donors? Have you thought about ways or even perhaps tried ways that your network can access resources without reliance on these donors? 

HO: Yeah, we’ve tried innovation. In the social justice centre… I remember in Dandora where we started,we… when we were doing the documentation, one international organization came and say, “you are doing good job.” But we did not have an office. So they wanted to pay our office for two years. But we told them that now after two years we still have a problem because we don’t have money. Why don’t you put this money together and buy us a container? This containers… 

AA:  The metal one, like a shipping, a shipping container… 

HO: Yes, A shipping container, the metal, the shipping containers. You buy us one so that in case, after two years, you leave us with, an office. And they… it took them like six months to make that decision. But finally they came one day and say, “can you get us someone to supply that container?” And from that discussion alone, right now we have eight containers, within the social justice donated by, by donors. Instead of paying rent now they’re buying containers. And, uh, another – now we’ve really been struggling with sustainability. We have a justice centre that has a hotel, uh, and the, the money goes to support uh, the centre. But the challenge is now even managing that hotel, because you’re a human rights organization, we are a human rights defender, you are not a business person. And this is a business. So…at, we are very innovative… 

AA: So what happens with… I’ve heard about this with earned revenue projects of that kind. Does it…Is the problem that the, the loyalties of the people running the hotel become divided. So they’re more interested in the business than they are in the, in the human rights work. 

HO: Very true. That is one of the problems apart from the management, where maybe some poor people have come and you’re a human rights defender. That’s a hotel. It’s a human rights hotel. Sometimes you say you just give them food, we’ll figure it out. <laugh>. You know, it doesn’t, 

AA:  You can’t run a hotel that way! 

HO: So… Apart from that there’s sometimes where people feel like, you know, that movement versus uh, where we are earning…That’s what you are saying. So, their loyalty now shifts to, to the earning part. 

AA: Yeah, it’s just more, it’s just more interesting to invest in the hotel and make more money than it is to make money for the human rights movement. 

HO: Yeah. And another challenge is sometimes we build capacities where someone becomes a, a good trainer on issues like gender. So we expect this person, apart from getting money when you go and train, you get money to support yourself. Yes. So support the movement. But once we get someone good, he’s poached by <laugh>…NGOs have poached most of our good people – say, “now come and earn proper salary. This is your desk, become a program officer.” So we are facing with all this, but sustainability remains a big challenge. However, there’s a lot of creativity. There’s a lot of creativity. That’s how we’ve been able to sustain the movement even when we did not, when all the funding was, uh, stopped, the movement was still there. We still did our protests. And the resilience is our biggest strength. The movement has been very resilient, but we still are facing issues with sustainability and wellness. Wellness is also a big challenge because, uh, some of these cases are very, very damaging. You go, you find someone thrown into a river, he or she has been there for a week. So the the sight of that, sometimes we carry this.  

AA: So there’s trauma in your network, 

HO: There’s secondary trauma and all this. And we still don’t have very good mechanisms for psychosocial support. Sometimes we are threatened, but we can’t relocate someone because we need to depend on other human rights organization. So sometimes we go to that organization, they don’t see the threat. We’ve had to relocate people with our money because the organizations could not see the threat, say, “but that does not look threatening.” You, you know how threatening that is in that community. So we are still facing a lot of challenges with our wellness, with our relocations, with threats. Uh, we hope that in future we’ll also have our own safe house where we could go and take some people, we process with organisations, uh, on what they’re supposed to…or how we’ll go about it. This – we’ve lost comrades. We’ve lost comrades because of this. So it’s, it’s been up and down. We are celebrating our successes, but also there’s a lot of challenges which we have experienced along the way, but we’re still using those challenges to build, to be opportunities to build better, 

AA: Well, more power to you. Thank you. Happy. 

HO: Thanks a lot for, for having me here. 

AA: Happy Olal is the national convenor of the Social Justice Centres Working Group in Nairobi, Kenya. You can find a transcript of our conversation and some background reading suggestions on our website, 


AA: Our coda this time comes from a Malaysian based in Thailand working on human rights in Myanmar. Debbie Stothard founded her organization ALTSEAN Burma nearly 30 years ago and has been working to support young Burmese women, among many other things. She wanted to tell us about the power of storytelling. 

Debbie Stothard: One of the things that happened when I started getting involved in the Burma movement in 1988 was realizing that while women weren’t visible, they were some of the key activists, they had key roles in the movement. At that time, we would ask the guys, “hey, where are the women?” And then they’d say, “we have Aung San Suu Kyi.” I said, “dudes, she’s only one woman. And where are the others?” And we started to understand gradually by just paying attention and asking around that the auntie in the kitchen who was making our tea was a former resistance fighter! This other auntie who was, you know, being lauded for her cooking skills was actually a former political prisoner or ran a support group for political business. So we have all these hidden stories. 

DS: Then we started asking around. And then we asked them for their stories. And it was quite an interesting process. Sometimes we had to interview people and craft the story. Some people wanted to write their own story in Burmese and then translate it into English. These were amazing stories. So we started publishing them in 1998. Very often by first time writers.  

DS: I think what we need to understand is that there’s a Burmese literary tradition, and writing was really the domain of an educated middle class. They use literary language. And many of the women we were working with were working class women, women from marginalized communities. And they felt really afraid that they would break the canon, that they would actually not be able to write according to tradition. And so we said, “no, just write what you want, don’t worry about it.” And there was a little bit of pushback from other people who are more educated saying, “this is not what a story looks like in Burmese.” And we said, “well, this is revolution.” And so in many respects, that kind of broke the boundaries of some of the writing traditions. And, um, what also happened was, the women from different ethnic groups, started reading each other’s stories. And so even women who didn’t have a chance to meet each other or spend time with each other were reading each other’s stories.  And that was really amazing to see that feeling that, “hey, we have similar, this is the same as us,” or “wow.” And being able to connect on that emotional level was so amazing and so inspiring. It’s not just the narrative, it’s the existence and the sharing of the story and that public acknowledgement, which is very powerful. 

DS: One of the amazing things that also happened was that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Democracy movement and Nobel Peace laureate for 1991, who was under house arrest at that time heard about what we were doing and wanted to get involved. So she sent out a message to the women in the political prisons, please write something for this book- and the women in the prison were really motivated. They didn’t have paper. In fact, you’re not allowed to have paper when you’re in a prison. So they saved up the plastic bags in which they receive their supplies and use sticks to scratch out poems on the plastic. And then rolled them up into tiny little pills and handed them secretly to visitors. And then that ended up going to Aung San Suu Kyi and she would have her colleagues unfold and flatten out the plastic and try and decipher what was written and transcribe it and sent it to us.  

DS: There’s a whole collection of poems that was smuggled out of prison that way. And so, this is something that’s pretty amazing that, it wasn’t just the women reading each other’s hearts and sharing each, each other’s histories and hearts, it was also people outside of the movement and people outside of the communities reading. And then we realized that folks are more inclined to read a short story than a human rights report. So, it’s been really marvelous because there’s that connection with women from the community, that empowerment and that light coming out of women because they can see their voices being heard and feeling empowered to share their stories. I’d like to think that we are not just having our part to play in the revolution, that we are also trying to contribute to the revolutionary culture. 

DS: When I started doing advocacy work, people said, okay, teach us how you do this. In the past 20 years, I’ve done about 150 advocacy trainings, a lot to do with grassroots communities and displaced communities. And, um, I often say that in order to get action, you have to talk to both the head and the heart before the hand will act. And most of us get involved in human rights work through our head, you know, the theory, the language, the mechanisms. But in the end, what keeps us going forward is our heart. And we need to keep nurturing our heart and maybe our soul to be able to keep on acting. And I think it’s the sharing of stories that help feed the heart so that, you know, we get our head straight on <laugh>, put on straight, and we have that confidence and energy, that mental and emotional and spiritual energy to keep on going. So for me, that’s something that’s quite important.  

DS: I mean, um, on one side, people know ALTSEAN and me as doing advocacy and sometimes very harsh or very hardline advocacy in very difficult circumstances. But actually what fuels us is our connection with activists and grassroots people. And our connection is through training and sharing of stories. And we learn so much from that, and we get so much energy from that. So when we talk about the ecosystem of human rights, we also need to think about the ecosystem of the activists. What recharges our souls? And for me, storytelling is part of that process. 

AA: Debbie Stothard is an activist and policy advocate focused on support for human rights in Myanmar and the ASEAN region. 

AA: And that’s Episode 46 … and it’s also the end of Season 5. We’re going to take a break to do some research and meet some more people doing extraordinary things to advance and defend rights and justice. As last year, we’ll be replaying some of our favourite episodes from the season while we’re gone. Do feel free to drop us a line if there’s something you’d particularly like to hear again. You can always reach us at For now, it just remains to thank you for riding with us – we look forward to having you with us again in the fall. From producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu, take good care.