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USA: In Dallas, Female Kenyan Activists Fear For Homeland

Lucy Mashua is tormented by a dilemma.

Lucy Mashua, an immigrant activist from Kenya, has been calling home daily to check on her children since the political violence in her homeland erupted.

With violence over a disputed election racking her native Kenya, she fears for the safety of her young children.

But as an activist in a political war against the tradition of female circumcision, or genital mutilation, she knows that to return could mean her own death.

"I cannot stay one day without talking to them," said the 29-year-old Dallas activist who has called home daily since the conflict began. "My children keep asking when I'm coming. It's hard when children ask those questions."

The children ages 2, 5 and 8 have been in her mother's care since Ms. Mashua left Kenya in 2006 to seek political asylum in the United States. The ethnic violence erupted across Kenya after the disputed Dec. 27 re-election of President Mwai Kibaki, a member of the dominant Kikuyu tribe, over challenger Raila Odinga of the Luo tribe. The bloodshed shattered what had been considered the model democracy in East Africa.

The crisis, Kenya's most severe since it achieved independence in 1963, has claimed about 500 lives and displaced 250,000 people. The capital city of Nairobi and western Kenya have seen some of the worst violence.

Some Kenyan officials said U.S. diplomatic involvement about a week ago raised hopes for peace.

"The situation now in the city has been kind of stabilized," Nairobi Mayor Dick Wathika said by phone.

But most Kenyans still fear that the volatile situation could reignite at any time. Last week, the opposition postponed a massive rally banned by the government.

"People are still scared. It's still tense," said Ms. Mashua.

Even before the conflict, Ms. Mashua's family was constantly on the run for fear of reprisals over her activism.

At age 9, she underwent genital mutilation, which is widely practiced in Africa for claimed health and social reasons, including eliminating girls' sexual pleasure and preserving their virginity until marriage. She was forced to marry a middle-aged man at age 12 and twice required to undergo late-term abortions.

Kenya's 2001 Children's Act outlaws female circumcision and early marriage, but the practices remain widespread.

"The tribal and cultural issues surrounding that have prevented the government from being effective in eliminating it," said Sharmin DeMoss of the Center for Survivors of Torture in Dallas.

Of those who seek help at the center, about half are sub-Saharan Africans and more than 60 percent are women and children. Most recent Kenyan clients are activists against female circumcision, Ms. DeMoss said.

Mary Muthoni, 30, an asylum seeker who came here last year, has heard that her family fled to Tanzania when the conflict erupted. Since then, she has heard nothing about her 7-year-old daughter.

"Right now, I can't do anything," Ms. Muthoni said. "If my child could join me here, that would be my greatest joy."

Because Ms. Muthoni provided refuge to Ms. Mashua in Kenya, some government and tribal groups are also persecuting her, the two women said.

Both said they have avoided contact with the local Kenyan community an estimated 70,000 Kenyans live in North Texas for fear of the unknown. Last year, Jane Kuria, who also opposed female circumcision and had fled Kenya, was found slain along with her two teenage daughters in Atlanta.

Today, Ms. Mashua's crusade against female circumcision is more personal than ever. On Wednesday, her eldest daughter will reach the age at which Ms. Mashua suffered the excruciatingly painful and medically dangerous procedure two decades ago.

"She's going to be 9," Ms. Mashua said. "That's what worries me."

Ms. Mashua hopes to raise enough money to bring all of her children to the United States this year.

She said she started Mashua Voice for the Voiceless to help women in Africa as well as African refugees in Dallas. Since last year, she has also organized a refugee choir for peace.

Ms. Mashua's work is beginning to attract political support here.

"It is women like Lucy that will make an effect by pursuing and giving voice to the needs of the unheard," said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who sponsors a Refugee Day Workshop and Peace Initiative Conference in Dallas.

"The process of change will not be an easy transition," Ms. Johnson said.

And that process cannot be advanced until there is a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Kenya.

Last week, African Union Chairman John Kufuor tried but failed to broker a peace deal between Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga.

Mr. Odinga has now called for government-outlawed street protests starting Wednesday, raising fears of more violence.

"I'm very disappointed in the leaders," Ms. Mashua said. "It's not they but the voiceless, hopeless and innocent Kenyans who will suffer."

Ms. Mashua and others hope new mediation by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan can forestall more violence and begin the healing of her troubled homeland.

"I just wish Kenya to be peaceful and human rights to be respected," she said.

SOURCE: The Dallas Morning News

AUTHOR: Glen Sovian

URL: Click here

DATE: 17/01/2008

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