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A conversation with award-winning Kenyan journalist Diana Kendi

Diana Kendi is the winner of the inaugural Efua Dorkenoo Pan African Award for Journalists reporting on FGM across the African continent. The award is intended to increase media awareness and engagement on FGM within community, national and regional media outlets. Diana shares her views on the suesses and challenges of ending FGM in Kenya.

Last year the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and The Guardian newspaper launched the Efua Dorkenoo Pan African Award for Journalists reporting on FGM across the African continent. The award - in the words of the UNFPA – “is intended to increase media awareness and engagement on FGM within community, national and regional media outlets and recognize and encourage outstanding efforts of journalists throughout Africa.”

The first edition of the Award went this year to Kenyan journalist Diana Kendi for her reportage, made with colleague Jane Gatwiri, The Bondage of Culture, which is about five young women who sought to flee FGM in West Pokot, Kenya.

The third of six children, Diana Kendi, from the Luhya community in Western Kenya, says how she is privileged coming from a community that doesn’t practice FGM. Overwhelmed by the award, which she received last week in Abuja, Nigeria, Diana underlines the importance of this recognition not only for her but also for all the women in Kenya who live and fight within and outside FGM practicing communities: “This award has really encouraged me to work an extra mile together with the other anti-FGM campaigners. It was important to ensure that the agenda has been set especially in the communities that still practice Female Genital Mutilation, so that our girls can be free from the bondage of culture.”

Diana started dreaming to become a journalist at 11. Though facing many challenges in her life, she managed with courage, humbleness and strength to pursue her dream. In this conversation Diana reflects on the role of media covering news on FGM, urging every country to have more engaged media and more willing FGM practicing communities to share their stories so that the information is widely spread, understood and shared.

VALENTINA MMAKA: You’re a young journalist and you have achieved so far this important recognition for standing alongside those who wants to eradicate FGM. Did you always want to be a journalist? How did you start your career?

DIANA KENDI: My dream to become a journalist started way back in 1997 when I was 11. I used to admire how journalists had a privilege to report on what’s happening, how it’s happening, to whom and with who, to a large number of people through media. But my dream was somehow cut short in 2002. I couldn’t continue with my secondary education in Form Three, due to unavoidable circumstances. I stayed out of school for seven years. I am a talented hairdresser, I plait women’s hair, so during that time I used to do plaiting work but not in a specific location. I used to walk from one house to another whenever they called me. In August 2008, I heard in a local radio station that one could be able to register for Kenya Certificate for Secondary Education Examination as a private candidate. At that time I was so desperate, I needed to achieve my dream but couldn’t do so because I didn’t have the KCSE certificate to enable me join any college. I shared the information with my father, who advised me that August was very late since the exams were to start in October. We then agreed to register for the exams in 2009 so that I could have enough time to prepare and at least get a good grade. But to attain that, I needed some coaching, so I identified an Adult Education Centre, registered as a student and later on registered for the KCSE. In that center, we used to study for four hours a day, Monday to Friday. It was such a challenge since I had only one year to read and understand Form Three and Form Four work which I had not done in high school. I thank God because I attained a grade that would enable me to study journalism though at a very low level at the time. In 2010, I enrolled for Film and Video Programmes Production a one-year program and later graduated in December 2011, with a Certificate in Film and Video Programs. I later joined Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, KBC, for my industrial attachment as a Studio Technical Operator, from October 2011 – December 2011. In March 2012, I secured a job at QTV of Nation Media Group as a Production Assistant, and then started doing reporting work in July 2012 to date. Journalism has always been my dream, and Iam happy that by God’s grace I was able to achieve that despite the challenges.

VALENTINA MMAKA: Internationally, media never portray FGM in a non-judgmental inclusive way; there’s no public dialogue about it. There’s no space for interaction and dialogue. It comes under the spotlight just when something bad happens. How do you think global media should engage and commit to make FGM a speakable issue?

DIANA KENDI: All that is needed by the global media is highlighting the stories of girls who have been affected by FGM again and again, using experts to speak about the negative effects brought about by FGM. The more they highlight such stories, the more the information is passed across and the more likely that the practice will be abandoned..

VALENTINA MMAKA: How are Kenyan media engaged on this issue? And, on a larger scale, African media if you are aware? Is FGM covered enough? What should be improved according to you?

DIANA KENDI: Just as you mentioned earlier, both local and international media have been highlighting the FGM issue when something bad has happened. Some people feel that it has been over-reported with no new angle to the story on FGM. But I feel that the local media especially vernacular radio stations should be vocal about FGM and its dangers, especially in the communities where the practice is still rampant, by having talk shows on such issues, inviting the survivors and the anti-FGM campaigners, etc. Media has power to set the agenda in those communities and even make things happen, but again the locals, especially the survivors must be willing to share the information with the media. Were it not for the three girls who survived the cut, and the other two who were mutilated, together with the reformed circumciser and some of the locals sharing their story in West Pokot, we wouldn’t have highlighted the story. But they gave us their story, what they went through and what they are doing to shun the practice, that’s how we came up with ‘The Bondage of Culture in West Pokot’.

VALENTINA MMAKA: What were the main obstacles you and Jane Gatwiri encountered while shooting Bondage of Culture?

DIANA KENDI: While filming the ‘The Bondage of Culture in West Pokot’, the biggest challenge we encountered was men in Pokot community not wanting to speak about FGM. They are very violent and wouldn’t welcome anyone who wants to interfere with their culture, something that has made them wealthy over the years. We didn’t get a chance of interviewing the fathers of the girls who had been cut, and the others who had escaped the cut, just because they wouldn’t let us interview them. Another challenge was the distance from one home to another. At some point we were forced to postpone our journey till the next day yet we only had two days to do that work. I had faced other challenges in other three counties where I had covered stories of FGM, Tharaka Nithi, Samburu and Kuria where I was refused to interview elders of the community because I’m an uncut woman. In Samburu, some Morans (warriors) almost attacked my cameraperson when we were covering FGM stories, telling us that we were trying to detach them from their culture. Generally, communities practicing FGM are struggling to stop this because they believe it’s their culture.

VALENTINA MMAKA: Though Kenya has a law which bans FGM, it’s still practiced and some recent news says it is increasing. Do you think that law is the answer to eradicate FGM or perhaps a cultural change is needed, empowering youth, men and women?

DIANA KENDI: I acknowledge the fact that the anti-FGM law was passed in 2011 here in Kenya, yet only two cases have been taken to court. One circumciser was charged in Kuria District and is serving a seven-year jail term. The other case is still going on in the same district. Having a law is one thing and enforcing that law is another thing. I think that as stakeholders we should come up with new ways to eliminate FGM in Kenya. The law alone isn’t enough. If we deal with the target group, which is the boys and girls especially in schools, we can achieve much. Boys in those communities are advised not to marry girls who aren’t mutilated, prompting the girls to undergo the cut so that they can get married. We’ve focused on parents in our campaigns so much, yet all they do is to come and get incentives during the forums, and the next day they cut their girls. Kenya ends up spending more but changing a very small percentage in terms of eliminating FGM. However, I have to say, some of them have come out to campaign openly against FGM, others not letting their girls undergo the cut. To the circumcisers, they believe it’s the only source of income that can take care of their upkeep.

VALENTINA MMAKA: What are the main challenges grassroots anti-FGM activists in Kenya face ?

DIANA KENDI: Activists in Kenya have been very vocal campaigning against FGM, but again they too face challenges. Locals think that they have a lot of money from donors. They tend to think that the activists are just doing that for the money from donors but they aren’t really into it. So whenever they go for anti-FGM campaigns, the locals want cash from them so that they can share their story; that’s a very big challenge since people are just money-minded. The activists too face hostility from those communities. But with the training forums by different organizations to the activists, I believe they will be equipped on how to handle such matters.

VALENTINA MMAKA: We all know well that there’s not just one solution to end FGM. There are shifting factors which require special attention, however there are some secured factors we can globally share. What is needed to end FGM?

DIANA KENDI: Everyone being an ambassador of campaigning against FGM in their localities. It starts with you and me; we don’t need the whole world to make a change: everyone can do it from wherever they are. Another vital issue is talking and engaging the target groups; that’s the teenage girls and boys plus the youths. Through them, FGM can become something of the past.

VALENTINA MMAKA – What projects are ahead of you after this achievement? What will you do for the anti-FGM cause?

DIANA KENDI: I am planning to visit different counties where communities still practice FGM and start anti-FGM clubs in both primary and secondary schools, as well as engaging the local vernacular radio stations, to air the anti-FGM club debates in order to continue creating awareness among the people in those communities.

VALENTINA MMAKA: This award is also not just a professional recognition but also a personal one. Your story might be inspirational to the many girls whose voices you’re giving a platform to be heard and shared. What would you tell young girls and boys who want to break the silence on FGM and pursue the desire to speak publicly to end the practice?

DIANA KENDI: They should speak out. This will help them overcome the challenges they are going through, for example forced circumcision, forced early marriage, lack of education and the rest. Speaking out will make people know what you are going through, but keeping quiet will not help the situation; instead it will make it worse.

* Valentina Mmaka is an author and activist advocating to end FGM.



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