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If you are Able to “Shiriki” in Kenya – do it! (shi-ri’-ki – Swahili; verb – to participate)

Published: Feb 28, 2024

Country: Kenya

Kelley Hartlieb’s Outbound Fellowship Experience

Kelley Hartlieb is a US Outbound Fellow in the FY2021 Professional Fellows Program (PFP) on Inclusive Civic Engagement. This program is sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is administered by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston in partnership with Humanity and Inclusion (HI). The following blog post was contributed by guest author Kelley Hartlieb.

My name is Kelley Hartlieb. I am the Disability Justice Initiatives Project Coordinator at the University of Alaska Center for Human Development (CHD) in Anchorage, Alaska. CHD is a University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) focused on improving the quality of lives for people with disabilities across the lifespan through interdisciplinary training, technical assistance, program development, and applied research.

In May 2023, I was pleased to participate in the Professional Fellows Program (PFP) on Inclusive Civic Engagement as the host and mentor of Erick Sande Oduor, a PFP Fellow from Kenya. Erick works as a project coordinator with United Disabled Persons of Kenya (UDPK), a national umbrella body supporting Organizations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) across Kenya. During his four-week Fellowship in Alaska, Erick was immersed in American life, Alaska-style, and was introduced to our disability systems and services. Throughout his stay, I gained insights into Kenya, Erick’s disability inclusion work, and his follow-on proposal titled the “Shiriki Project.”

Erick and I successfully applied for the PFP outbound component, which funds a two-week technical assistance trip for PFP hosts to their Fellow’s country in East Africa. Fortunately, we received an outbound award, and last December, I was delighted to travel to Kenya, reconnect with Erick, and support him in the implementation of his project. During my two-week stay in Kenya, I was fortunate to meet his colleagues and family in person, experience Kenyan culture first-hand, and help see the Shiriki Project come to fruition.

Initial Partner Meetings and Orientation to Kenya

In the first week of my visit, Erick organized several meet-and-greet opportunities with different OPDs (see Figure 1). This helped me understand the work being done within various disability spaces, and the resource disparities. It reinforced the collective vision of disability advocates across cultures. We also met with the cultural attaché at the US Embassy. These visits gave us a chance to broadly promote the PFP exchange, highlight the Shiriki Project, support inclusive civic engagement efforts, and build solidarity with activists on the ground.

A white American woman stands outdoors amidst a group of Kenyan women and men, including one man using a wheelchair. They are gathered in a partially grassy and paved area. In the background is a sign with the words “United Disabled Persons of Kenya (UDPK)” along with the organization's address and slogan, which is “the voice of persons with disabilities.”
Figure 1: Kelley (fourth from left) and Erick (second from left) meeting with Erick’s colleagues from United Disabled Persons of Kenya (UDPK) at their office in Nairobi.

Early in my outbound trip, we connected with Dennis, a Uria Trust budget trainer and disability rights activist. Conversations with Dennis and Erick gave me insights into Kenyan history, culture, politics, disability movement, and other aspects of society. We compared similarities and differences, and pros and cons of our respective systems. It was a helpful introduction for my outbound experience, giving me context that informed my training presentation later.

I discovered that Kenya has a progressive constitution (2010) that includes language specifically ensuring the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities. Many committed organizations are working toward this goal, but there are socio-political dynamics that impede meaningful participation in electoral and budgetary processes for citizens with disabilities.

Moreover, I gained a deeper understanding of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its importance in guiding the Kenyan disability rights movement. Unlike in the US, the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3) is recognized across Kenya and actively celebrated with many concurrent festivities.

Disability Budget Champion Training

The Disability Budget Champion Training is a key component of the Shiriki Project. On December 13, 2023, 16 OPD leaders, many of whom are persons with disabilities, were convened from across Homa Bay County for a one-day training. The objective was to help them understand their country’s budget-making process and how to effectively participate in that process. The goal was to create 16 “Disability Budget Champions” — leaders equipped to advocate for meaningful disability funding at key points within the Kenyan state budget cycle.

A Uria Trust budget trainer, Ken, presented detailed information on the national budget-making process and cycle. I led a session on “Disability Inclusion, Self-Advocacy, and Information Packaging,” offering tips for engaging policymakers from the perspective of the US disability rights movement. The participants were actively engaged throughout the training and motivated for a follow-up session to continue unpacking essential budget information.

It was helpful to have my presentation take place at the latter part of the training. It gave me an opportunity to observe training styles and cultural aspects, such as opening and closing with a prayer and incorporating call-and-response interactions between trainers and participants. It also gave us flexibility to focus more on critical budget information before transitioning to other topics.

Cultural Activities and Experiences

Fortunately, the outbound trip wasn’t all work. Together with Erick, we visited the Nairobi National Park and Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, including the elephant and rhino orphanage (see Figure 2). This was an experience of a lifetime and now my favorite birthday memory. We were fortunate and thrilled to see nearly every species of animal up-close. An incredible day!

The picture on the left depicts a Kenyan man next to a white American woman in a jeep outdoors. On the right, there is a picture of a giraffe.
Figure 2: Pictured on the right are Erick (left) and Kelley (right) in a jeep visiting Nairobi National Park and Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. In the left picture is a giraffe in its natural environment in the right picture.

After leaving Nairobi, we traveled to Erick’s home and stayed overnight with his family. It was wonderful to meet his parents, siblings, and extended family. I was treated with gracious hospitality and special home-cooked meals. I enjoyed getting to know Erick on a more personal level, visiting his home turf and meeting with people in his life. I valued the opportunity to have authentic experiences with local people versus merely being a tourist.

Earlier in the trip, Erick and I had been invited to Signs TV Kenya for a television interview about our PFP exchange experiences (see Figure 3) with Alan Herbert Onyango, a Fall 2022 PFP alumnus. Alan is a TV host and producer but also the founder and CEO of Black Albinism. During our visit, I learned a great deal about challenges faced by people with albinism in East Africa and the efforts of the Black Albinism group. The last day of my visit, we were invited to a holiday party for the Black Albinism community. This was a joyous event with women preparing food, uplifting speeches, DJ’d music, and dancing. It was fun to be welcomed into this community, to meet their staff and members, and to dance together!

A white American woman stands between two Kenyan men in front of a building with a sign that reads "Signs TV" behind them.
Figure 3: Kelley (center) and Erick (right) pose with PFP Alumnus Alan Herbert Onyango (left) in front of the Signs TV Kenya building.

Final Outbound Reflections and Future Plans

Erick had a clear vision of the Shiriki Project before his visit to the US. Part of his challenge was to help me understand what it was about, why it was important, and what it would entail since I was unfamiliar with so many cultural aspects. The project seemed ambitious to me, but I saw great value in the goal. I was able to offer input regarding generic training details to consider (who, what, where, when, and how). Things ultimately changed from our original plan, but the objectives were still achieved. It was important to maintain flexibility, to accept what cannot be helped (such as delays for rain, traffic, etc.), and to smile and adjust.

In our discussions, Erick let me know that Kenyans expect to be compensated to attend trainings. Being there, I gained a deeper understanding of the cultural norms and the practicalities. The cost, time, and challenges associated with public transportation in rural Kenya are real barriers to participation and need to be supported. Also, cultural traditions around food and hospitality differ; in Kenya, full, hot meals are customary at lunchtime as well as substantial snacks at teatime. These realities made more sense to me in person than they had in theory. Funding the “Disability Budget Champions” training would have been a big challenge and potential barrier if not for Erick’s position at UDPK.

Erick said for him, the Outbound experience gave him a voice. “Seeing myself there with my mentor, it was legitimizing my work with the disability community in my area,” he said. “I would say that was a huge impact on my work.”

As for me, the Outbound was so impactful and enriching. Finding people who are passionate about the same work that we're doing in the US, and doing so with the resources that they have, had me thinking about opportunities for partnering and how we can continue supporting each other.