‘Tis the season of love! What better way to celebrate Valentine’s on EQUALS than with a couple that met in the fight against equality and are still going strong over 23 years later?!
Njoki Njehu and Soren Ambrose, a couple deep in the fight against inequality, met through activism. Since then, they have been campaigning across the world together. As Njoki narrates, “We met in a meeting of the 50-years-is-enough-campaign [the campaign to abolish the World Bank and the IMF] and Soren told me he had just moved to Washington DC and the day before was his birthday. So I insisted that we all go for a drink. I gave him my number because I knew how it felt to be in a new city and you don’t know anybody…I want to say having a spouse with all that support and understanding… that is what I really appreciate about being married now 23 years’…. Soren adds, “We complement each other well…I am a bit of an introvert and as you may have already noticed Njoki is a bit more outgoing…Njoki does the speaking does the community relations; and I figure out what’s going on policy-wise.”
Following the recent death of Kenya’s second President, President Moi, Njoki reflects on Moi’s rule and the experiences she, her family and many Kenyans had during his rule, including with Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prize winning environmentalist who worked closely with Njoki’s mother and suffered repeated harassment and arrest under President Moi…“There’s a lot of whitewashing of his legacy…The truth is he did more than just say things that hurt people…if he wants to be forgiven, the people who are supporting him must embrace his whole legacy. People in this country lived in terror. Millennials today cannot understand what it would be like. You would get into a matatu* and no one would talk, because [they] believed whatever they said would get to Moi in like in the next five minutes… That was the Kenya in those days. It was terrible, absolutely terrible. It was like being on call 24hrs. Raids would happen. Wangari could be arrested. You had to make sure that before someone gets grabbed and disappeared you raised the alarm. I had all these numbers of people to call. I had Al Gore’s number, who was a senator at that time. I remember one time when they were trying to arrest Wangari and there were two hundred officers trying to arrest her and she was barricaded in her house, and we got Al Gore to raise a question on the floor of the senate to draw attention to the fact that this was going on. It was the one way to ensure she was not disappeared and never hear from again’.
Soren and Njoki tell us about the campaign to abolish the IMF and the World Bank which they were both a key part of, called 50 years is enough, and in particular the huge protests that went on outside the World Bank at that time. Njoki remembers ‘Of course there were protest going on against the World Bank and the IMF all over the world and in April 2000, we had about 30000 people show up at the World Bank to demonstrate.” They give us some idea of the huge work going on behind the scenes at this time to build such a broad movement. According to Njoki, “One of the strongest arms of the 50-years-is-enough-campaign was the Catholic Social Justice organizations and the church ”. Soren adds, “the whole idea of social justice was kept alive also by the central America solidarity organisations, trade unions, environmental movements and the anarchists. We laboured to create agreements on how to work with them. The Anarchists were very invaluable allies. ”
Soren reflects on the first World Social Forum (WSF) held in Puerto Alegre in 2001 which they were closely involved in organising. “The WSF was an incredibly exciting idea. It was going to be all the progressive and radical groups coming together. We were deliberately challenging Davos. It was held at the same time as The World Economic Forum (WEF) as it was for many years after that. The spirit was amazing.”
Have they mellowed over the years? Soren not so much. “I think maybe temperamentally I have. But in fact I don’ think the IMF and World Bank have changed much. The IMF now say things we would never have imagined they would say. But they don’t do things differently.’ Njoki, in agreement says, “they aren’t held accountable and that continues to really bother me”. Soren and Njoki reflect on their first campaign together in Kenya. Soren says, “on my first trip to Kenya after we got married….we really laboured, (taking about debt cancellation) to explain that it was not the President himself who was going to pay that debt… but the emotional feel of people about this was that the accountability of their own Government was being eroded when we talked of the IMF and World Bank as the bad guys”.
Njoki adds, “(its hard) to get people to understand that there is a lot more going on, that when you go to Kenyatta National Hospital and there are no medicines and people are sleeping two to bed that yes there is corruption, but that also the IMF and the World Bank was limiting what countries could spend on health’. She goes on to talk about the victory in getting the IMF and World Bank to back down on the issue of charging user fees in health, and how the HIV/AIDS emergency helped, ‘The US congress had hearings….Uganda got money from the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS and the IMF told them they could not take the money.. I testified from the civil society side… and the US ordered the Executive Directors at IMF and World Bank were instructed to oppose any policies or projects that would include user fees for health and education”.
So, where do they find hope? According to Njoki, “there is hope in abundance. Whether you are looking at the climate strikes, whether you are looking at the Fight Inequality Alliance, or how here in Kenya young people are organising against extra judicial killings or against gender-based violence. I find such hope in that.” She offers advice to young people to “find something you believe in and fight for it; really listen, learn and read to see what other people have done and build the movement because alone you cannot do it”. Soren is not as optimistic but says, “seeing people mobilize in the US in the political system today in a way I hadn’t seen – I find hope in that.’
That was an amazing interview with lots to learn, especially for the millennials! Head on and catch inspiring stories of Love in the Fight Against Inequality with Njoki and Soren As ever, do subscribe to the podcast, and do share with your friends and your family! Email us your ideas, suggestions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: *a matatu is a van, often 14-seater, used for public transport in Kenya