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For lawyer Atsango Chesoni, the struggle continues

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Originally Published: August 14, 2011

Some time in the 1970s, a little girl held captive by the magic world of words stumbled upon a rather difficult phrase.

And, as was the case with all the other difficult words she had come across, she set out to the nearest adult and asked the meaning of the phrase that had so rudely interrupted her Sunday afternoon reading.

The young one looked around the room, zeroed in on an uncle and dragged the newspaper across to him.

“What does carnal knowledge mean?” she asked.

There was an awkward silence. A staring contest ensued to see who would blink first and avoid what could potentially turn out to be an awkward situation, but there could be only one winner.

Using the simplest of words, the uncle told her what the phrase meant and why it was a bad thing.

He didn’t trivialise or eroticise his description. He put it to her as best he could. And, at such a tender age, the little girl got to understand one of the world’s greatest injustices.

With improved vocabulary, the little girl read on. The man accused of having carnal knowledge of a minor was jailed for four years.

“Good for him,” the little girl told herself.

Neighbour’s cow

But her triumph was only temporary. In the same newspaper, there was yet another crime story. This time of a man accused of stealing a neighbour’s cow. He was jailed for seven years.

“I could not understand why the cow was more important than the girl yet, from the definitions around me, defilement was clearly a worse crime,” recollects Ms Atsango Chesoni about the moment that ignited the flame of human rights advocacy in her little heart.

As fate would have it, Ms Chesoni, a lawyer, is the new executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the organisation credited with the many successes of the civil society movement in the country.

She took office last month after the KHRC board appointed her to replace Ms Muthoni Wanyeki who had served in the same position for four years.

Ms Wanyeki proceeds for studies in France.

Ms Chesoni, a self-described pan-Africanist, has no illusions about the amount of work that lies ahead of her.

Heart of the struggle

“It is an honour to be in this position because KHRC is the primary institution in which the movement was born. It has been at the heart of the struggle. It housed many of the institutions that went on and fought the fight like the Kenya Land Alliance, Centre for Multiparty Democracy, and PeaceNet. The people who have been trained through this institution have gone on to champion the rights of not only Kenyans but those of the oppressed all over the continent,” she says.

And she has no intention of deviating from this cause.

“However, these are more exciting times in civil society. We are all excited about the prospects that the Constitution holds for us. For me, the challenge will be to ensure that the State, and we as a people, uphold it. That will be our main cause,” says Ms Chesoni, who was among the team of experts that drafted the Constitution.

Ms Chesoni says it will not be an easy road to travel, but it’s a journey that must be embarked on nevertheless.

As she speaks of the Constitution, and the various influences she has had in her life, two things stand out — the KHRC boss values her African roots as well as her personal freedoms.

A compromise

Does she think there has to be a compromise between the two?

A compromise between her African-ness and her awareness about being a woman in what is perceived as a sexist society?

“As Africans, we do ourselves a great disservice when we credit other people with these human rights values yet we have had them for as long as civilisation has existed. By doing so, we give our oppressors the perfect platform to oppress and undermine us,” she says.

Africans, Ms Chesoni says, need to question and understand some of the traditions handed down to them.

“It is upon us as a people to continuously question these doctrines, discover ourselves and chart our own identities, which would never encourage the oppression of another human being regardless of tribe or gender,” says Ms Chesoni who was born in a family of two brothers and five sisters.

She cites her experience living among the Taveta people to support her argument.

The Taveta have their own concept of jail. Its usage was only limited to those convicted of wife battery.

“The interpretation is simple. Wife beating is prohibited. Yet from time to time you will hear arguments that it is African for an African man to raise his hand against his wife,” she says.

For a long time, Ms Chesoni says, the virility of men was measured by the number of concubines he had and this was accepted as the normal African practice.

In the same community — the Taveta — if a young man impregnated three young women before marriage, he was presumed to be guilty of rape.

“Since it was assumed that no young woman in her right mind would allow herself to get pregnant by this man who was then considered a repeat offender, his punishment was death,” she tells Lifestyle.

The KHRC executive director says it is time Africans stopped hiding behind cultures to justify the oppression of others.

“It is a fallacy to think that we can realise Vision 2030 without half our population on the basis of their being sidelined on cultural nuances. We are cheating ourselves if we think we can move forward as a nation without half of our brightest brains on board. This is what we aim to correct; giving everyone an equal opportunity to do what that person can for Kenya,” she argues.

Harmless bark

In as much as Ms Chesoni has her sights set on greatness, she cannot run away from the fact that she is taking over at the KHRC at a time when the fight is thought to have left civil society.

Is there still need for agitation? Is there a uniting cause? Have there been comrades who have compromised and gone to bed with the enemy?

“Yes, I can say with absolute sincerity that now, more than ever before, there is need for agitation. There is need for making sure the government and the citizens play their role in ensuring our journey towards a human rights State is successful,” she says.

For her, the uniting cause is championing the Constitution and, until its benefits are felt by every Kenyan, it will remain a uniting front.

No compromises, she says, have been made and no deals have been struck by the true human rights campaigners.

“People play different roles at different times and from different spaces. Many are doing exactly what they were doing in 1997. But we can never run away from the fact that some were never committed to human rights. They just appropriated human rights rhetoric for their opportunistic reasons,” she says.

The pretenders

And herein, Ms Chesoni says, lies the greatest challenge in advancing the human rights agenda.

“It becomes problematic when you have these pretenders to the cause, who have a working knowledge of the human rights movement, but who are working within the State to undermine the fight,” she says.

Ms Chesoni is not all work and no play. Under the steely gaze and stone face that she carries almost by default in front of TV cameras lies a softer, dimpled person who does have her fair share of fun. Next to writing her own poetry, her second greatest pleasure is dancing.

And is there time for love in the busy life of Ms Chesoni?

“Yes. That’s all I’m willing to say about him,” she says.

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