This piece is written by Tracy Kadesa, Development Network Africa, and Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. With Development Network Africa, she works on research, policy and advocacy projects in gender, ICTs, and intellectual property, among other disciplines.
“Why are you staying in Canada for too long, ma’am?” asked a stern immigration officer in a demeaning tone when I got to the Montreal airport.
“Your conference is 5 days! Why are you staying longer than your conference?” he questioned.
I blinked hard and rubbed my eyes as I tried to figure out how to calmly respond, becauseI certainly wasn’t staying for “too long.” I explained that I would visit my friends in other towns after the conference. He scowled and asked,
“how did they become your friends?”
Amused, I gave him the history of “our friendship” and offered to give their names and addresses in case he wanted to counter check my story, to which he declined. I further furnished him with the dates of my previous visits to Canada. Finally, he waved his hand signaling me to go ahead, after what seemed to be an eternity. I assured him that I had no intentions of disappearing into Canada, I don’t like cold weather.
As I proceeded to catch my connecting flight to Ottawa, I wondered whether I was just unlucky to get a mean officer or whether my internal fatigue and disillusionment about the state of my country, Kenya, was so loud that I could have come across as someone looking to escape. You see, the first quarter of my 2019 was buried in a dark period of disenchantment. When my Open Heroines grant came through, I was in my last month of being 27. From time to time, I would subconsciously compare the dreams I had for my country (especially for women) 10 years ago at age 17 when I had just finished high school, to where we are today.
At 17, I imagined that by now, we’d be past maternal deaths, lack of sanitary towels, and domestic violence — and that women would instead spend their lives realising their full potential. But well, here we are; it has become common for young women to be murdered by men over the flimsiest reasons, and public sexual harassment is an accepted inconvenience and just part of being a woman.
Attending OGP gave me the chance to dream again.
I specifically enjoyed the Feminist Open Government (FOGO) Day, where women from all over the world shared their own challenges and milestones. The different sessions held by Open Heroines gave us an opportunity to re-strategise (e.g the skillshare session) and network, as well as build our confidence levels. The world needs to understand that women are a rich resource, and we are not to be overlooked.
For instance, Mary Robinson, former first woman president of Ireland who graced us with her presence at OGP 2019, has an impressive record of advocating for justice.
I am excited about the #BreakTheRoles campaign launch, and hope many will commit to it to help end gender-based stereotypes. In the future, I wish to see declarations on inclusion turned into action — for example, why would my friend Ifeoma, another grantee who was not able to attend, be denied a visa to attend OGP? Isn’t this so ironic? I want to see conversations on mental health being discussed openly, and “women issues” being given the same respect as other human rights issues.
Although not directly a part of OGP, the Viola Desmond exhibition that took place at the Bank of Canada Museum not too far from the Shaw centre (the OGP Summit venue) was one of my best highlights from the trip. Viola Desmond was a Canadian civil rights activist and businesswoman, of Black Nova Scotian descent. In 1946, she challenged racial segregation at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia by refusing to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre. Viola Desmond was selected by the Minister of Finance to be featured on Canada’s next regularly circulating $10 bank note, the first Canadian woman to appear on a regular bank note.
I had an amazing time with my fellow OH grantees — Maria Alejandra from Panama, Brenda and Sofia from Mexico, Thayane from Brazil, and Maria Fabiola from Argentina, among others. I am further very grateful to Mor, Sarah, and Carmen for being wonderful patrons during our stay in Ottawa and to Emily Fung for coordinating our travel.
I can happily say, I am recharged and refreshed after OGP19.
I look forward to continuing to help other women push the boundaries of what we can accomplish together. And all the while, we will learn from other inspiring women like Viola Desmond, Mary Robinson, and all the members of the OH community.