I always had a deep interest in citizen empowerment and democracy, working alongside several civil society organisations on voter education and international observation with an American organisation specialising in democracy promotion in Nigeria for the run-up and during 2011 elections.

Having heard about PBI’s work in Latin America I jumped at the opportunity to apply when I saw a position available in Kenya. The process for me to join PBI Kenya’s team happened in relatively quick succession.

After an interview, I was invited to a week of training/further interview in picturesque Catalonia in October 2015 where suitability for the position was assessed. Once accepted, I began my position in late February 2016.

Stepping into the unknown: life as a PBI volunteer in Kenya

But what is life at PBI Kenya really like? For me and many other upcoming volunteers, this was a burning question that could not be fully answered until I was actually on the ground.

Prior to joining the PBI Kenya team in February 2016, there was still a lot that was unknown to me. We can all read up and become very knowledgeable on the human rights situation in Kenya, and there is literature available on protective accompaniment and general PBI life spanning the past three decades.

PBI is an independent grassroots organisation that was founded in 1981 to promote non-violence and recruits international volunteers to accompany human rights defenders (HRDs) and communities whose lives and work are threatened by political violence. They have had a long-standing presence in Latin America, but their presence in Kenya is far newer.

The PBI Kenya project was launched in late 2013 in order to react to the numerous risks and challenges faced by Kenyan HRDs when attempting to go about their daily work, which can involve topics such as violations by the police, land rights and corruption. Woman HRDs in Kenya can face additional risks such as stigmatisation, sexual assault and rape because of the work they carry out.

Accompanying HRDs on the ground

The role of PBI in Kenya takes three different forms. The first is physical accompaniment, an approach which provides HRDs with protection, support and recognition and involves two members of our team accompanying them to deter violence towards them or being denied proper justice.

This is accomplished by raising the profile of the HRD and/or increasing the consequences for the perpetrator. We never become involved directly with the work of HRDs, instead our focus was on creating the space that they need to operate by themselves.

Advocating for change

The second form comes through advocacy work, involving meetings with HRDs, state authorities, civil society organisations and international actors (political and non-governmental), all of which might serve multiple purposes.

For state authorities, this could involve making them aware of PBI’s work but also, should they not be abiding by Kenyan law or inhibit an HRD whom we are accompanying, mentioning our connections with higher-ranking authorities, often causing them to correct their behaviour.

Meetings with civil society organisations can be used both as a platform to introduce ourselves and learn from others so that we can maintain a working knowledge in a particular area of human rights.

A meeting with an embassy could involve a team member of the same nationality participating, meaning that as well as making the embassy aware of the work we do, we can also offer to send them emails about higher risk upcoming accompaniments that could involve one of their fellow nationals.

The third role which we play is capacity building, which could include workshops and training but also assisting HRDs with the necessary information and tools they need to help achieve their human rights goals, such as by using a risk assessment to identify actors who could help or hinder their work and what approach they should take.

A day in the life of a PBI volunteer

There is not one day working for PBI Kenya in Nairobi that is the same. But a working day that I have experienced in the past is as follows:

9am: I am at the office for a quick update with the rest of the team before one other member of the team and myself head to the bus stop in order to take a matatu towards Mathare.

10.20am: We meet up with various members of a local partner organisation in Mathare at their office who have received various grievances from members of their community that they want to be heard by the relevant local authorities.

As a result, our partner organisation requested that we accompany them to the Chief’s Camp (a local office for the Administration Police) in Huruma. After a short wait, we are all shown into the Chief’s office where we introduce ourselves and PBI, then our partnering HRDs proceed to individually raise their respective cases with the chief and his colleagues.

12.15pm: The meeting has ended and we arrive back to the PBI office in time for a quick bite to eat before two of us head out to the Netherlands Embassy in Nairobi, who is the rotational chair of the Human Rights Defenders Working Group for that year. 

1pm: Human Rights Defenders Working Group. We arrive a few minutes early, giving us time to mingle and chat with other participants of the working group, which includes representatives from all of the main embassies in Nairobi who have expressed desires to work in the human rights field, as well as representatives from local organisations such as the Kenya National Human Rights Commission.

An agenda was set and the meeting commenced and covered topics such as the registration status of NGOs, the plight of certain HRDs across the country and other topics. By 3.30pm the meeting has ended and we head back to the office.

4pm: Weekly team meeting. As a consensus-based organisation, regular meetings with members of the team are a very important factor of life in Nairobi. Outstanding topics from the past week are discussed in detail, as are meetings and tasks that need to be completed during the following week.

6pm: The meeting is wrapped up and another day in the PBI Kenya office comes to an end.

This description is just a snapshot of what a single day working for PBI in Kenya might look like. Some days consist of working in the office for the whole day catching up on work, whereas others might be full of meetings and other activities outside of the office.

Protective accompaniments might take place in a police station amongst the informal settlements of Nairobi, or in a courthouse in Chuka overlooked by the impressive stature of Mount Kenya. But it is exactly this varied, challenging and very much fulfilling type of day which makes working for PBI Kenya such a rewarding experience.

By Toby Penrhys Evans