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KENYA: Women's Rights Campaigner Swaps Kenya For Shieldinch

She grew up in a Kenyan village where she had to walk 10 miles a day to fetch water and dreamed of escaping to become a teacher.

Now, 15 years after moving to Scotland and becoming a prominent campaigner for African women's rights, Khadija Coll has found an entirely new platform: television soap River City.

Somalian-born Ms Coll, a former finalist for the Scotswoman of the Year award, run by The Herald's sister paper the Evening Times for her campaigning work against female circumcision, is delighted by the enthusiastic response she has had to her first ever acting role, as Congolese asylum seeker Makemba in the BBC Scotland soap. She hopes it will signal the start of more appearances in TV drama for similar characters.

Makemba, who featured in the episode that aired on Tuesday night, is an asylum seeker from war-torn Congo who is taken in for a couple of nights by Shirley (Barbara Rafferty). Makemba's heart-rending story, of how she has not seen her son since she was separated from him in an African refugee camp, deeply moves Shirley's flatmate Viv (Louise Jameson) - and appears to have had the same effect on viewers.

Ms Coll, 32, said yesterday: "People are contacting me saying, is Makemba going to stay in the country? Is she going to find her son? Makemba is my nickname now."

A tireless campaigner against the barbaric practice of female circumcision (she herself had to go through the agonising experience aged five), she has also been outspoken about the racism experienced by asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland.

It’s good River City did Makemba’s story the way it did, because those issues are facing real people here

She believes that dramas like River City are a good way to promote understanding between communities.

"Racism happens because of ignorance. The more people know about asylum seekers, the better.

"River City is about everyday life and everyday life in Scotland is becoming multicultural, so there should be people from different backgrounds in the show.

"It's good River City did Makemba's story the way it did, because those issues are facing real people here."

Although Ms Coll has modelled before, her appearance in River City is the first time she has ever acted. She got the role by attending an ordinary audition and was surprised to be offered the part.

Following the success of her River City appearance, which she thoroughly enjoyed, she intends to pursue more acting jobs.

A BBC Scotland spokeswoman said Makemba's story did not indicate a conscious decision by the show's producers to portray the experience of an asylum seeker, and was instead driven by the Shirley character.

But the programme-makers felt it had been a strong episode and, although there are no current plans to bring Makemba back, it is a possibility for the future, should an appropriate storyline arise.

Ms Coll's own story is as compelling as that she portrays on screen. She was born in Somalia and grew up in a Kenyan village where she has described life for women and girls as domestic drudgery, early marriage, and childbirth, and oppression by men.

Although she was promised in marriage to a cousin as a child, she showed aptitude for her studies, which she pursued at night after the many chores of the day had been done, and went to the Kenyan capital Nairobi aged 17 to attend college.

There she met her husband, a 35-year-old Scottish VSO worker, whom she married. The couple moved to Scotland and settled in East Kilbride, where they had two children, Yasmin, now 13, and Vincent, 11.

Although she is no longer married, Coll still lives in the Lanarkshire town, but goes back to Kenya regularly to see her family.

Four years ago, Ms Coll, a development officer for the African & Caribbean network, gave a bleak assessment of life for new arrivals from Africa. She said: "There isn't a day goes by I don't hear about an incident of racism.

"African refugees have come over for a better life. But I know people who would return if they had the money for the plane fare."

But her view now is far brighter. She said things had "definitely" improved and there is now much greater understanding of asylum seekers among Scots.

"It was wrong to drop people in Scotland without educating the local communities, but community work and education has improved things a lot. Now it's getting better and better."

SOURCE: The Herald

AUTHOR: Rebecca McQuillan

URL: Click here

DATE: 31/03/2009

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