Likening herself to an elephant because of its excellent memory and ability to create strong bonds with fellow elephants, Nyambura Gathumbi is a Feminist activist and alumna of the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI), with extensive knowledge in women’s right advocacy, with specific focus on issues of marginalized groups. She is one of the founders of Women in Participatory Education theater (WE-PET) a pioneer all women theater group that seeks to empower young women and girls to understand gender issues and participate in development processes using theater. Nyambura has also served on the board of the Young Women Leadership institute, a mentor with Akili Dada, and a member of FEMNET, AWID and Raising voices; major networks/organizations undertaking advocacy work on the rights of Women, children, SRHR and good governance. We had a conversation with her about her leadership journey, lessons from the AWLI and her vision for African women and girls. Meet Nyambura!
I applied to the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) in 2006 at a time I was seeking to deepen my feminist politics. Despite having worked with the women’s rights movement as a volunteer since college, I was not a grounded feminist. After interacting with a few young feminists, I was curious to know what feminism was really about. At the time, I was working with Sisters Beyond Boundaries, a women’s rights organization which supported young women and girls and enhanced their knowledge on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) and I aspired to be effective in my women’s right advocacy. The training themed ‘Going Back to the Basics’ definitely lived up to my expectations. It was all about going back to the basics of feminism, human rights, women’s rights and understanding what feminism is about and why it is important.
“It is because of the training that I chose to defend the rights of all women. We were taught that human rights are universal and cannot be divided.”
The facilitators broke down feminism in a very interesting yet simple way for one to place themselves in the movement and aspire to passionately advance women’s freedom. I was able to make a lot of connections with the issues I was struggling with, the societal norms I could not understand and deepen my understanding of the concepts I had been loosely interacting with. I was greatly impacted by the faculty and have continued collaborating with some of them to date. I remember Sarah Mukasa was the AMwA director then and we have worked together since. I was deeply impacted by Sylvia Tamale’s lessons on sexuality and human rights. I went ahead to search online for her publications after the training. Even today, in my work, we use her research in some of our programs.
It is because of the training that I chose to defend the rights of all women. We were taught that human rights are universal and cannot be divided. We were taught that assertiveness is vital if women are to achieve their liberation. Not simply being assertive at the workplace and in communities, but a skill employed every single day in negotiating relationships, finances, health choices and other aspects of life. I have continued to use these skills daily in my different spaces. For me, the AWLI was the most liberating experience I ever had. I connected with a number of sisters from Kenya and Rwanda at the training – people I now shared values and principles with. Sisters with whom we have partnered under various initiatives and supported one another. One such initiative is the Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI) in Kenya that was started to develop the leadership capacities of young women and advance the feminist agenda. It is from the AWLI that I was able to attend the first ever African Feminist Forum convening in Ghana.
Thirteen years after the AWLI, one of the challenges I face is the misconception about what feminism is and what it is that feminists are trying to do. There is a lot of labeling, through identification or association with feminists which calls for greater efforts in dealing with all these prejudices. To replenish my energies, I make sure I am able to relax every day, setting aside one hour for my exercise which is usually jogging or Zumba. Once in a while, I go for that massage or out with friends. When I am not doing this, I read. My favorite authors are Patricia McFadden and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When I need to understand a concept from a feminist perspective, I read Patricia. Chimamanda on the other hand is contemporary and her writing resonates with me.
My vision for African women is that they are totally liberated beginning with personal leadership. There is a gap that needs to be filled as far as mentorship of young women and girls is concerned. I aspire to start a mentorship program for young women – a place where young women meet and appreciate who they are and achieve their potential, where they are capacitated to fight patriarchy and sustain themselves. Right now, my advice to young women out there is to pursue the AWLI. If it means skipping one week of school, do so, because what you learn at the AWLI, you never learn at any school yet you need it every day. The level of emancipation is amazing. It is what you need to navigate life successfully. I encourage any woman who gets an opportunity to attend the AWLI.