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“A human rights defender should have no limits”

By Vincent Kenvin Odhiambo Kenya,

Vincent, 27, grew up in Kibera, Kenya. Many of his friends dropped out of school, but he was determined to take a different path…

School was an hour’s walk away. It had its good and bad sides. Some students came from rich families. It was frustrating as I didn’t understand why we were poor. But I came to realise that’s life and I wanted to make the best of the situation.

In Kibera, poverty is a huge problem. People live here because they do not have the opportunity or means to live elsewhere. Young people start taking drugs at an early age, gender-based violence is rife and children, especially girls, are raped. 

Growing up, my friends got into drugs and left school. With little else to do, they got involved incriminal activities. I wanted to take a different path. I was head boy and, while I was at school, I developed a passion for the arts. I loved performing.

I knew I wanted to do more with my skills, so when I graduated, I joined Pillars of Kibera, an organisation focused on performance art in the community.

I could see people juggling many issues. Young people, unaware of their rights, were arrested for committing no crime what so ever and police were taking advantage.

I wanted to be a champion for human rights and I was encouraged to take up this cause by Charles Nyukuri, from Amnesty International Kenya. He mentored me and taught me how to stand up and speak out for people’s human rights. We have been working in partnership ever since. It’s because of him I can stand up and say this is who I am without any fear.

Inspired, I decided to nurture talent and educate people so they knew how to deal with issues such as poverty, drug abuse and gender-based violence, so I set up my own organisation, Wasanii Sanaa.   

Even though I didn’t have any money, I printed posters and held auditions. I asked a local community organisation if I could use one of their rooms to practice. I recruited four members and we started rehearsing poems, traditional dances and short skits in a bid to educate our community about issues in Kibera.

Along the way, others joined and now there’s 25 in the group. Through a combination of civic education and theatre, we hold community theatre performances across Kibera, and we advocate for change.

For example, we recently staged a theatre performance on police reform. Afterwards, two young people told me what happened to them. I documented the case and referred it to an organisation that could take it further – I told them it was an opportunity to have the police investigated.

This organisation is hugely important in Kibera. Aside from being Vincent in Wasanii Sanaa, I am also a paralegal. Every day, I receive different reports on gender-based violence and police brutality. Young people who fear their life is in danger see me as a human rights defender and they know I can help them access justice.

I champion for any issue. A human rights defender should not have any limits. Whenever I help a survivor achieve justice, I feel extremely happy. The community recognises the work I am doing and they trust in it. That’s why I keep going. I’ve faced a lot of challenges as a human rights activist, but people understand what I am trying to do and I am determined to carry on. I want to make a change and empower my community. Living under a rusty roof cannot make your mind rusty.