Kenya: I Am Unfazed - Lamu Activist Who Fought for Lappset Victims

"Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. My decision to become an activist after years of practicing as a nutritionist, has caused me more pain than gain, but I will soldier on."

These are the words of Raya Famau Ahmed, an anti-coal crusader and environmental activist.

The 41-year-old says her career in activism has cost her lifetime opportunities, but she does not regret. She adds that activism is in her blood and has pushed her to forge in life with ease.

Ms Famau says one of the drivers of her activism is the fact that she comes from the Swahili of Bajuni origin where women have not been given a voice to air their grievances or been empowered.

The first born in a family of seven, says she quit her community nutrition job at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) in Nairobi to go back to Lamu and engage in social and environmental activism.

According to Ms Famau, the cultural and religious aspects of the Bajuni in Lamu had, in the past, made male chauvinism real, something that gave her sleepless nights.

After quitting her job in 2005, she joined other women in the region to form Sauti ya Wanawake (Voice of women), an organisation that advocates for women and girls' rights and empowerment.

In 2009, Sauti ya Wanake joined Save Lamu, an umbrella organisation whose objective is to ensure locals participate in decision-making, achievement of sustainable and responsible development, preservation of the environment, and social and cultural integrity of the Lamu community.

Lapsset Corridor

Ms Famau and other Save Lamu members have been at the forefront in campaigning both to raise awareness on environmental and health risks of the various components of projects including the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor at Kililana and the Sh200 billion coal-fired power plant at Kwasasi, all in Lamu West.

Through their activism, Ms Famau says the government was able to compensate all the people whose land was affected by the Lapsset project.

"We also petitioned the government to look into the welfare of fishermen affected by the Lapsset and other issues we felt were violated. I am happy that through our efforts, the Malindi High Court in May 2018, awarded a compensation package of Sh1.76 billion to the fishermen displaced by the Lamu Port," says Ms Famau.

She notes that through their anti-coal campaigns and demonstrations in Lamu, the National Environmental Tribunal (Net) cancelled the license for the intended Lamu Coal Power Plant.

Net faulted the project investor for omitting engineering plans and details of the plant from public participation, in addition to finding that it was not consistent with the Climate Change Act.

"Having the coal plant cancelled was a major win for us. It made us receive love and hate in in equal measure," says the mother of two teenage boys.

Ms Famau, however, says her activism journey has not been smooth sailing.

Threatening phone calls

On many occasions, she has received threatening phone calls from State officials and non-governmental organisations.

In 2015 for instance, she says more than ten armed police officers raided her house at Bombay area within Lamu Island at night and ransacked it.

"They claimed to have had information that illegal firearms were hidden in my house. After the search, nothing was found but I knew it was nothing but harassment and intimidation to make me leave activism. I am unfazed," said Ms Famau.

Her life's lowest point is that despite having the qualifications needed for jobs frequently advertised by the national and county governments, her efforts to apply for the vacancies have been unsuccessful.

"I have submitted over 100 applications to the county and national governments but none is willing to employ or even shortlist me simply because I am an activist. I have suffered job discrimination even from private entities. Employers feel I will be a disturbance to them once they absorb me because of my firm stand as an activist," says Ms Famau.

Born in Mombasa in 1980, the first born in a family of seven attended Mlaleo Primary School, between 1984 and 1992.

She then came to Lamu in 1993 and joined Lamu Girls High School before she was transferred to Faza where she completed her secondary education in 1996.

In 1998, Ms Famau was enrolled at the Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) in Nairobi where undertook a certificate course in Community Nutrition and completed in 2000.

Activism career

She worked at the Lamu King Fahad and Malindi District hospitals between 2000 and 2003 as a nutritionist before being transferred to Nairobi's KNH nutrition department. She left the job to join activism in 2005.

Ms Famau later joined the Technical University of Mombasa where she did a Diploma in Community Development and Counselling, completing in 2013.

She then enrolled for a Bachelor of Science Degree in Development Studies at the same university and completed in November, 2016.

Her activism career has earned her a number of recognitions.

During the 2019 Mashujaa Day that took place in Mombasa, President Uhuru Kenyatta awarded her a certificate of recognition as 'Shujaa' (heroine) of Lamu County due to her active role in community and environmental activism.

In 2019, she earned a trophy from Coast Women Magazine for being a female activist of the year (Coast Heroine Award).

The same year, Ms Famau won the Pwani Human Rights Award from the Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri) organisation for her effortless campaigns in defence of human rights and environmental preservation.

"I am proud. As an activist, I have attended various conferences at the Bomas of Kenya, South Africa, Germany, Côte de Voire, Accra, Ghana and Harare in Zimbabwe," says Ms Famau.

She advises women and girls, especially in Lamu, not to fear but speak up and help others as well.

"You shouldn't suffer because of fear. Anyone who fears suffering is already suffering from what he or she fears," she concludes.

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