SHE Leads at the heart of Kisumu’s resurgence

A Seamless Frames Production for Pamoja CBO and Plan International

Scribe: Otiato Guguyu. Photography Billy Matimbayi. Audio storyteller: Leonida Owaga

Have you ever sat on the shores of Lake Victoria at dusk? It’s a moment when nature herself seems to blush, casting the heavens in shades of crimson as the sun dips below the horizon. As the day’s warmth gently recedes, the lake undergoes a breathtaking transformation. It becomes a shimmering silver mirror, reflecting the sky’s fiery palette.

In this tranquil twilight hour, it’s as if God Himself gazes upon His creation. His eyes wander across the lake’s surface, where life thrives in a myriad of forms, from fish whose names we’ve yet to learn. He marvels at the diverse range of existence beneath the waves.

Yet, in His divine reflection, He glimpses an intrusion—a cluster of men perched upon makeshift seats, obstructing His view. In response, with a breath of His celestial breath, He gently nudges them back to the land where they belong, granting them a reminder of their earthly existence.

Kisumu: The city that cradles the lake

Kisumu City, nestled on the western shores of Lake Victoria, seems as if it were designed to embrace the vast expanse of this majestic water body. It sprawls across the landscape, extending nearly 2086 kilometers into the lush countryside. Once upon a time, it thrived as a bustling fishing and railway port, with the lake providing abundant sustenance.

However, the passage of years has left its mark. Pollution, the relentless invasion of water hyacinths, and the fading memories of abundant fishing have taken their toll. Now, small boats lie ensnared amidst the thickets of this succulent weed, gently rocking on the water’s surface.

What’s more, the mismanagement and eventual collapse of the cotton then sugar industry have cast a long shadow over Kisumu County. The Kano Plains, which dominate the region, are covered in sticky, black cotton soil—poorly drained and inherently unstable for little else . In the aftermath of the sugar industry’s demise, the local economy has found itself sinking into despair, clinging to remnants of prosperity.

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For years, the people of Kisumu looked toward the horizon with hope—hope for a Raila Odinga presidency or for the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) to come and rescue their city from economic decline. They yearned for a renaissance, a resurgence of their beloved Kisumu.

My childhood was shaped in Kisumu’s USAID estate, a vibrant corner of the urban centre with aspirations of becoming Kenya’s third-largest city. In those days, the air was thick with the heady scent of Kenya Breweries, and Kicomi wasn’t just a matatu stage—it stood as one of the region’s prominent cotton processors.

But with these hopes fading, Kisumu—the town of my childhood—is turning back to the lake. It’s as if the waters, once a source of life and livelihood, are beckoning to heal the wounds of neglect and breathe new life into the heart of the city.

As I return to Kisumu today, the city I once knew seems shrouded in a haze of transformation. State-funded infrastructure projects have sculpted a new Kisumu, etching elevated bypasses and pristine tarmac roads through the once-familiar landscape. Obunga, the informal heart of the city, has undergone a metamorphosis, shedding its mud houses and shanties for a more organized and expansive urban albeit poor fabric.

Kisumu shines

Kisumu’s makeover extends beyond its physical infrastructure. An international airport now connects the city to the world, while an oil jetty welcomes formidable vessels onto the once-slumbering waters of Lake Victoria.

Yet, it is in the realm of tourism that Kisumu’s resurgence shines most brilliantly. Along the lake’s edge, restaurants with whimsical charm beckon residents clad in light saris and shorts. Families gather excitedly, immersing themselves in the vibrant culinary scene, where restaurants compete to tantalize taste buds with grilled pork chops, fried fish, and traditional vegetables.

Kisumu is on the upswing, one cold pint of beer at a time, on the very equator’s hottest spot. The resort and tourism industry has breathed new life into the city, with popular lakeside destinations emerging, awaiting the fabled ring road that may or may not materialize. It feels as if Kisumu is basking in the glow of a city shedding stereotypical narratives, reinventing itself in a fresh and aspirational image.

In an effort to combat an alarming crisis, Kisumu County, in collaboration with partners is actively engaging with girls to inspire those who have prematurely abandoned their education to return to school and forge ahead with their lives.

Empowering women: Kisumu’s unlikely movement

Beneath the surface of this transformation, a tidal wave of change is sweeping through Kisumu, reshaping the county’s power dynamics. It’s telling that Kisumu County Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o has entrusted a pivotal role, one that could define the city’s future, to Beatrice Odongo—a dynamic and youthful former Member of the County Assembly, who currently serves as the County Minister for Sports.

“I am the current County Minister for Sports, Culture Arts, Gender, and Youth Affairs, and very soon, I will be taking over tourism. So, I have an additional sector in my department,” shares Ms Odongo.

Her responsibilities encompass policymaking, advising the Governor on her sectors, updating the assembly on departmental activities, and diligently advocating for budgets and partnerships to realize their goals.

While Ms Odongo embodies the growing belief in women’s leadership, a more significant wave of women leaders is emerging from an unexpected source: former teenage mothers and young girls. Their journey symbolizes Kisumu’s transformative spirit, where progress meets empowerment, and the city evolves into a haven for both dreams and reality.

Ms Beatrice Odongo—a dynamic and youthful former Member of the County Assembly, who currently serves as the County Minister for Sports

She Leads Kisumu structure

My introduction to the She Leads movement was quite a happenstance, a search for my next gig. The job at hand was a documentary project, aimed at unraveling the profound impact of a two-year global intervention, one that aspired to reshape the destinies of girls and young women across Africa.

This transformative initiative was backed by a powerful alliance consisting of Plan International Netherlands, Defence for Children – ECPAT Netherlands (DCI-ECPAT), the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), Terre des Hommes Netherlands (TdH-NL), and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Their vision was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The mission was twofold: to galvanize girls and young women within civil society into harmonious, gender-conscious collective action and to amplify their influence by fostering positive social gender norms. This process involved identifying potential leaders, who could ascend to positions of power within the political arena, ultimately placing them where pivotal decisions are made.

The project tackled a wide range of issues, including teenage pregnancy, sexual and gender-based violence. It was driven by an unwavering commitment to take girls and young women into leadership roles while steering entire communities away from the clutches of negative social norms perpetuated by the harsh poverty that enveloped the villages surrounding Kisumu.

Politics, poverty, and the plight of girls

Kisumu County, over the years, has occupied an unfortunate place on the fringes of Kenya’s political and economic landscape. The consequences of this marginalization have taken a heavy toll on Kenya’s third-largest city and its surrounding towns, plunging them into the abyss of poverty and the hardships it breeds. And it’s the women who have borne the heaviest burdens.

As impoverished households grapple with the arduous task of making ends meet and funding their children’s education, the county has been plagued by a distressing trend of high dropout rates. This cruel cycle perpetuates economic stagnation, entrapping destitute families in an unending struggle.

Kisumu’s integrated development plan paints a somber picture. While the number of nursery school children is projected to surge by 5 percent to nearly 90,000, the count of primary school students is anticipated to dwindle from 253,018 in 2019 to 235,667 in 2027—an ominous sign of rising dropout rates.

Secondary school populations are also poised for a dismal decline, plummeting from 199,662 in 2019 to a disheartening 112,869 in 2027. This stark data reflects the distressing trend of diminishing completion rates and a surge in dropout rates.

In a community that remains anchored in rural villages, where cultural biases unjustly favor men’s education, girls are handed the short end of the educational stick.

HIV weekly infections

The scourge of poverty compounds the challenges faced by these girls, leaving them exposed to predatory men who exploit their vulnerability, trading sexual favours for money to purchase sanitary towels or simply to eke out a livelihood. This grim reality fuels a vicious cycle of early or unplanned pregnancies, further exacerbating the plight of being born a woman in these struggling communities.

While the County has recorded improved health indicators across board as witnessed by the latest Kenya Demographic Health Survey 2022, it is still among the four counties in the Lake region economic bloc LREB that account for 52 percent of the HIV burden in Kenya – Homabay, Migori, Siaya and Kisumu 98 adolescents infected with HIV weekly.

Pamoja CBO and She Leads coordinator Meso Mary Goretty leads a group session taking stock of project progress in Seme

Read also: Zen by the lake at Hippo Point, Kisumu

The struggle to keep girls in school

The International Monetary Fund’s unsettling revelation casts a stark light on the educational landscape: girls dropping out of school is predominantly attributed to pregnancy, closely followed by the prohibitive cost of education. In contrast, boys tend to exit the educational sphere due to the sheer financial burden it imposes and often, a lack of interest.

This unsettling trend has given rise to a disconcerting scenario in which women over the age of 20 in Kenya are more likely to find themselves in impoverished households compared to men, especially if they were previously married.

Surprisingly, this lopsided predicament persists despite Kenya’s broadly balanced population, boasting an average male-to-female ratio of 1.03 during the period spanning 2015 to 2020 (as reported in the Human Development Report 2020).

Ms Beatrice Odongo, reflecting on the harsh realities faced by these girls, remarked, “Most of these things come because of poverty; they are there, and she does not have a sanitary pad. Somebody takes advantage. We have many teenage pregnancies within the sub-counties, and I really appreciate the efforts of partners like Pamoja and Plan that have come on board. I am very sure that if these partners were not there, if we were to have a hundred teenage pregnancies, without their intervention, we would be grappling with a thousand or more.”

Fostering social change with a difference

In a concerted effort to combat this alarming crisis, the county, in collaboration with its partners, is actively engaging with girls to inspire those who have prematurely abandoned their educational pursuits to return to school and forge ahead with their lives.

This multifaceted campaign empowers girls with the knowledge and tools to prevent early pregnancies, equipping them with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education. This, in turn, empowers them to make informed family planning decisions and embrace a path of positive health choices.

The partners in this endeavor also harbor the ambition of fostering social confidence and nurturing economic skills among these girls. The ultimate goal is to enable them to take charge of their households and nurture aspirations of realizing their dream businesses.

As I embarked on this journey, I couldn’t help but reflect on my passion for visual storytelling—how, in another life, I might have wielded a camera or paintbrush to capture the vivid narratives that unfolded before me. My last encounter with a camera was in Kisumu while filming a documentary at Maseno University, shedding light on the environmental impact of lake pollution.

My last encounter with a camera was in Kisumu while filming a documentary at Maseno University, shedding light on the environmental impact of lake pollution

As I ventured into this assignment, my focus veered from the lens of a writer to that of a photographer, keen on capturing the play of light, the essence of cutaway shots, the resonance of backgrounds, and the intimacy of close-ups. Nevertheless, stories pursued me relentlessly.

Over time, I’ve harbored a suspicion that a significant chunk of civil society work often masquerades as therapy—a means of compensating for a negligent government allowed to operate with impunity while someone else shoulders the burden. This job, I suspected, might tread similar territory.

However, as my eyes remained steadfastly affixed to the camera’s lens, zooming and panning to encapsulate the unfolding scenes, an undeniable sense of something extraordinary pervaded the atmosphere.

It was more than just the telling of the woishe stories; it was about the unyielding strength of these individuals’ confidence, their bold articulation, and the innovative approaches they employed to disseminate their message. This was more than just a narrative; it was a transformation in the making.

Rising like a phoenix

Omullupi Stella’s journey began in primary school, where she faced the unexpected challenge of an early pregnancy. Yet, it was this very experience that ignited her passion for driving the She Leads agenda. Her determination stems from a deep desire to ensure that other young girls do not have to endure the hardships she faced.

“I come from Tesoland, where girls are not allowed to stand on a podium or address people. If you have a problem, there’s no one to share it with or guide you on the right path. You simply keep everything hidden, even if you become pregnant. No one cares about you or asks about the father; you’re simply seen as a bad omen in your family,” she explained.

Ms Stella’s journey with She Leads began through a serendipitous discovery on social media, thanks to a friend who shared a potential vacancy. Motivated by this opportunity, she applied, aced her interview, and was selected.

Once she completed her training, she embarked on a mission to empower girls from her hometown. She created safe spaces where she could share the knowledge and skills she had gained. At first, her community eagerly attended these gatherings, curious and engaged. But, as time passed and it became apparent that their focus was primarily on lobbying and advocacy without immediate, tangible benefits, attendance began to dwindle.

Adapted and improvised

Despite this initial setback, Ms Stella didn’t falter or give in to disappointment. Instead, she adapted and improvised, demonstrating her resilience and true leadership spirit.

“The idea of introducing football to these girls sparked in my mind. I decided that since these youths, especially those aged 15 and above, who are already sexually active, desire to display themselves at the local markets by dressing up and getting attention from boda boda riders due to their energy and sexual activity, why not channel this energy into a football match? When we initiated the football matches, those who had initially left returned, and now we have a substantial and regular group,” she explained.

Ms Omullupi Stella recounts her ordeal as a teenage mother.

Transformative safe spaces

As the girls began meeting more often, it became increasingly evident that deep-seated traumas had been concealed and neglected beneath the layers of cultural norms and extreme poverty that needed attention.

Omullupi Stella observed a remarkable transformation in her teammates. Once they kicked off on the football field, they became entirely absorbed in the game, and for that precious hour and a half, it was as though their daily burdens vanished, offering them a moment of therapeutic solace.

“The SheLeads safe space also aids us in terms of mental health. Some of the girls have already given birth, while others are survivors of defilement or rape, which leaves them psychologically troubled. However, when we bring them together to play football, their minds are completely absorbed by the sporting activity. They forget about the traumatic incidents they’ve endured,” she explained.

She said today they work through WhatsApp groups and have created a community of girls supporting each other through sharing ideas and opportunities and mobilizing quickly to support each other.

“We have our own WhatsApp group that we use to communicate so when we have something impromptu we just put on the wall,” she said.

Omullupi’s commitment is testament to the fact that this project seems to have struck a chord with its beneficiaries who see the bigger picture having themselves benefitted from a transformation from victims to empowered change actors. 

Read also: Forgotten Covid-19 pregnant teens

Male Champion, She Leads incorporates young men in the programme to change attitudes of the men and boys responsible for impregnating young girls.

Women without opportunity to speak

As the Pamoja CBO and She Leads coordinator in Seme, Meso Mary Goretty said she has had the privilege of bearing witness to a remarkable transformation within her community. From village elders to church leaders, she added, village administrators to chiefs and their assistants, I’ve observed a significant shift where girls and women are now actively included in the decision-making processes.

“In the past, when you attended chief barazas, girls and women were relegated to sitting in the back, without the opportunity to speak alongside the community’s elders. This exclusion extended to matters concerning land and security, where their perspectives were rarely considered. However, since She Leads commenced, we’ve worked on sensitizing the community through dialogues and discussions. Consequently, we’ve observed a notable shift in attitude, with greater acceptance of the involvement of girls and young women,” Ms Meso explained.

Ms Meso reflects on the girl she was three years ago, and it feels like an eternity has passed as if she were an entirely different person. Today, she radiates confidence as she takes the lead, guiding a group of young mothers through a brainstorming session on their experiences in implementing the program.

She approaches her role with patience, carefully explaining to the girls how to interpret the program’s objectives within their group activities and effectively monitor the progress of the girls in the safe spaces. Like a skilled choir conductor, she harmonizes their contributions, seamlessly weaving in her expertise and insights from the program coordinators.

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