I joined PBI’s Kenya Project in March 2014, leaving behind my job as a lawyer with an international law firm in London. Along with Honduras, the Kenya Project is the baby of the PBI family, and the first in Africa.

The first team arrived in 2013 to provide a short-term presence during the national elections held in March of that year. Moving from this initial venture to a full PBI project has meant that much of our work has been to lay the foundation that will ensure that our long-term protective presence is as effective as possible, making this a somewhat different experience from that of volunteers joining one of PBI’s well-established projects in Latin America.

I arrived in Kenya at a time of great political and social uncertainty – with an increase in alleged terror attacks and intense political wrangling at all levels. This has created an interesting, if sometimes perplexing, environment in which to build support for our work.

Street scenes in Mathare informal settlement, Kenya. Photo by Meena Khadri

Towards a human rights based approach

To guarantee the safety and security of those we accompany, it is crucial that civil and military authorities understand our work and the international support network that lies behind us. The progressive new Constitution of 2010 and the Government’s publicly stated commitment to realising a human rights-based approach in its governance go some way to creating an atmosphere conducive to PBI’s work. However, nothing beats putting time and energy into meeting key stakeholders face to face and initiating and building our political network at a personal level.

While PBI field volunteers embody an expression of international concern about human rights violations in Kenya, we know that Kenyan civil society is best placed to find its own solutions. PBI focuses, therefore, on protecting the spaces in which human rights defenders work. As a field volunteer in Kenya, I have been privileged to stand side by side with Kenyan human rights defenders who work relentlessly in their struggle for justice – despite death threats, surveillance, attacks, and even, in extreme cases, the assassination of their colleagues.

Daily life in Mathare informal settlement. Photo by Meena Khadir

Dignity through social justice

HRDs across Kenya work on a huge range of issues from women’s rights in the rural north to post-electoral violence witness protection in the west and forced evictions at the coast. As a small team, we are currently focused on supporting HRDs in Nairobi’s informal settlement of Mathare. Organising around principles of social justice to achieve dignity, equality and opportunity for all, these are people who stand up to challenge corruption and police brutality and promote systems of local sustainability and good governance for the benefit of their community.

PBI stands alongside these human rights defenders as they carry out their important work. Our presence is a visible reminder that the international community is watching and will not permit the rights of HRDs to be violated. These are inspirational people who work under extremely challenging conditions. Their achievements prove that the struggle for justice should not be confined only to the courtroom.

People in Mathare demand justice, says PBI's Tom Short. Photo by Meena Khadir

They demand justice on all fronts: from the tin-roofed huts of Nairobi’s informal settlements to the glass-fronted tower blocks of Kenya’s central government; from protests on the streets in Mombasa to the people’s parliament in Nairobi’s famous Jevanjee Gardens; from the local courtrooms of Malindi to the African Court on Human and People’s Rights across the border in Tanzania.

The bravery, commitment and dedication of the human rights defenders we accompany in Kenya are a constant source of inspiration. They express gratitude for our presence but, when compared with the challenges they face every day, it is obvious that our job is the easy part.

My time with PBI has been a far cry from the desk-bound work of a London lawyer and it has been a privilege to show solidarity with fellow professionals and grassroots activists struggling to make their voices heard.

By Tom Short. (This article first appeared in the PBI Annual report, 2013).