It was on Feb. 28, 1992 when Njeri Kabeberi got her first taste of grassroots activism. Kenya was in a state of brutal political repression and terror under then-president Daniel arap Moi, whose government ruthlessly interrogated, detained and tortured opponents.
She was working for an insurance agency at the time, but was asked by Kenya’s most famous female political and environmental activist, Wangari Maathai, to help out with a hunger strike for the elderly mothers of political prisoners. She was asked to file a petition to Kenya's attorney general, and to escort the elderly ladies to and from the protest.
At the time, Kabeberi had a young son and aimed to be home later that evening. She ended up staying an entire year, through beatings, tear gas and heated negotiations, until the last political prisoner was released on Jan. 19, 1993.
“I was a changed human being”
“I could never go back to my work after that; I was a changed human being,” Kabeberi said in a National Observer interview. “It made me understand the power of women… So for me, a woman can never fail.”
The power is out at her hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa and the connection from her cell phone is poor, but the warmth in Kabeberi's voice is audible as she speaks about the activism that has since taken her all over the world.
Despite the early victory, and dozens of similar demonstrations of female leadership across the continent (including her mentor at the hunger strike, Wangari Maathai, who was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize) African women still face significant gender-related barriers to basic human rights, education, and economic success.
As executive director of Greenpeace Africa, Kabeberi feels extra pressure to succeed as the leader of a continental organization because she is a woman.
“If I don’t do this job right, the blame might be on my gender — not that I was incompetent as a human being, but as a woman,” she tells National Observer. “That is always lingering in the back of my head, and therefore, I cannot afford to let the women down.”
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