Community Organizers in Kenya Struggling with their Roles

ACORN ACORN International Community Organizing
the whole gang at COPA Kenya
the whole gang at COPA Kenya

Nairobi    A highlight whenever I’m in Nairobi is the opportunity to meet and dialogue with community organizers who are part of COPA Kenya, the Community Organization Practitioners Association of Kenya, and a unique professional association of organizers. We had what they call a “sharing” in which ACORN Kenya’s organizers, David Musungu and Sammy Ndirangu joined with the elected chair of ACORN Kenya and laid out the six year history of ACORN’s work in the Korogocho slum in Nairobi, and I briefly described the work of ACORN around the world, followed by questions from the dozen organizers who attended.

ACORN organizers, Sammy and David, prepare for COPA Kenya meeting with chair of ACORN Kenya
ACORN organizers, Sammy and David, prepare for COPA Kenya meeting with chair of ACORN Kenya,  Daniel Kairo

COPA Kenya’s roots go back more than 20 years to an equally novel training program funded by Misereor, the German Catholic Bishops fund, where Dennis Murphy and other organizers from the Philippines were brought to Kenya to train community organizers and in some cases the best of the lot were brought for further training in the Philippines. Some of the senior organizers at our meeting spoke of being in the second or fourth groups that were part of the initial trainings and through COT, the Center for Organizer Training in Kenya, generations of community organizers have continued to go through the six month initial training or the advanced training. The legacy of that experiment continues through COPA Kenya and the creation of a unique culture of organizing and the special sense in Kenya of community organizing as a profession.

Florence Juma, one of the senior community organizers
Florence Juma, one of the senior community organizers

The presentations and questions quickly underscored the uniqueness of ACORN Kenya’s work especially the fact that it was membership-based and dues driven. Several of the community organizers in attendance identified themselves as “consultants” now, working for various NGOs or the government to interact with the community. Others were engaged in programs around education or health in particular areas of the city. One said she was on the “job corner” looking for work. Another was both a consultant and working for a rural women’s empowerment group. Several were in agency work.

In the Q&A I shared the donor trends in the USA that were defunding organizational formation, leadership development, capacity building, and infrastructure and instead privileging specific tasks for campaigns and envisioning community organizations more as outreach tools than empowerment projects in their own right. I was briskly informed that in Kenya donor-driven work had led to the devolution of community organizers to little more than outreach workers and liaisons to the community for years to most organizers dissatisfaction.

In became clear in the question and answer session, as several offered examples of their work, that for some the roles of an organizer had become very confused. Several seemed to frame their work and experience as more of a mediator between government, business and the community. In a language confusion that turned out to be heated and perhaps profound, several organizers saw their roles in “prepping the target,” as including discussions with the target before an action or meeting with the community, taking the mediator role past a comfortable line for many organizers.

Everyone agreed the conversations were clarifying and helpful and parted in good spirits, but there was a lingering cloud for me. There was some confusion about the role of our elected chair and whether or not he was seen, which he expressly denied, as a community organizer successfully emerging from the community, as opposed more appropriately as a leader. The notion of developing leaders seems to have declined in importance for many now by necessity who were trapped in agency and NGO work for livelihoods. An organizer detached from an organization where accountability to members is a condition of employment and leaders are democratically elected and supported and determine an organizer’s tasks has become rarer in Kenya, and organizers are struggling with their roles and unhappy about it, which was disconcerting to me.

An organizer without an organization is a fish out of water, drowning on the shore.

debating the issues during the Q&A with the organizers -- pick best
debating the issues during the Q&A with the organizers