Why I will never tire of fighting for children’s playgrounds

Renee Ngamau is a Kenyan advocate of the High Court and a Human Rights Activist who fights against the grabbing of children's playgrounds. Photo | Pool


What you need to know:

Renee Ngamau is a human rights activist who advocates for every child’s right to play, by fighting against grabbing and encroachment of public playgrounds. Renee is an advocate of the high court 

“My entry into activism started with an observation. I was raised by a single mother. My father died when I was barely three, and my mother chose not to remarry or have a significant male in her life.

I watched, as we grew up as property was taken away from her, and she was ostracized from her in-laws. She could also not go back to her parental home because she was considered to have already been married and therefore to already have moved away. I saw the unfairness and the difficulties that she faced from all manner of people. These experiences piqued my social consciousness.

When I was about 17, I remember my mother tagging me to a meeting where environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai was present. Prior to this day, whilst watching TV or reading the newspapers, I had asked why women like Wangari were putting themselves on the front line.  “Why would they do this to their children?” My mother said that it was for the love of her country and children, including those she didn’t know by name.

When I finally met Wangari Maathai, what struck me was how committed she was to her activism, and she was clear that she was not going to allow the building of a tower at Uhuru Park, which was public land. She was also supporting mothers who were asking for the release of political prisoners at whatever cost. Prof. Maathai, the Green Belt Movement founder, and 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace was willing to pay the price.


People who lived through the horrors of colonisation and concentration camps, know how brutal the system could be. They were living through a particularly repressive era, and yet they had chosen to take on a particularly difficult situation and to see it to the end. And that for me was so inspiring.

Seven years later, I was knocking at my neighbours doors on one particular day suggesting that we form a resident’s association. Then, I was a law student, a career born out of the need to fight for the rights of those being treated unfairly.

We had plenty of playing grounds at Jamhuri Estate, Nairobi where I was brought up. However, towards the early 90s, they started to diminish as public land was issued through allotment. These meant few spaces to play in and occasioned safety fears because some children were playing in the parking lots.

Play is important for children’s development and the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognises it as a right of every child. Play is critical for community well-being and mental health because it leads to increased self-esteem, improved collaboration skills, enhanced critical thinking skills, and a strengthened immune system. 

Yet, despite these critical benefits many children are growing up without playgrounds or even access to the sun because there are no recreational parks, as all public land goes to private developers. 


I didn’t think hard about getting into activism. I actually don’t think that one wakes up one morning and decides to be an activist. It is a gradual push and once you get to the wall, you do something about it. I tell people to start with the issues that are closest to them. A neighbour playing loud music at night? That’s a good start.

Interestingly, in my 30 years of activism, I have never been employed in human rights defending organisations. For me, I do it voluntarily and consider it a time tithe. This is my offertory to God for giving me life and so I stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

As a lawyer, my work mostly involves the legal framework, research, and raising awareness through media. And I can tell you that activism is not fun. This is because you are dealing with fraudsters who have made the process unfair and unjust so there are many blockades. Some of the challenges we face are sustaining the work and the burden of having to remind people that we need to keep going no matter the setbacks. The other issue is the inertia of government agencies, who are not willing to find documents, and sometimes files disappear from institutions. The is also the lack of enough funding or its alternatives.

According to a January 2016 survey released by Kenya Dialogues Project, some 24, 405 public schools may lose their land to grabbers or encroachers because they lack title deeds or lease certificates. In   total,      105 acres have    been      grabbedacross       the  15   

schools said the report. The same report noted that schools and their communities that have reported cases of land grabbing or encroachment face social, psychological, economic, and institutional impact. 



One incident that has stayed in mind is the grabbing of Langata road primary school’s playground which happened over the 2014’s December holiday.  Come January 2015, learners returned to find a perimeter wall thus denying them access to their play area. 



Then, I was volunteering with an organisation that promotes social justice and fosters democratic participation in the development process. I was part of a team that was involved in trying to reclaim the land back to the school. I still recall the sound of the chanting as the children pushed down the wall. Thereafter, with a team of other activists, we decided to run “Shule Yangu Initiative” which is an alliance for the protection of public schools. We were able to reclaim playgrounds in different parts of the country.

In yet another incident, a private developer had dug a ditch across a school’s playground to keep off children. We reported the matter, asked questions, wrote complaint letters and restoration followed.


As an activist, you have to tell it as it is, involve the community and in the case where the land grabber is known to you, call them out. Most importantly, you must be empathetic.  What I like most about the art of activism is that I get to be part of a team that is righting a wrong, supporting communities, and giving back to children spaces to play.

Also, I get to see the results of these responses. For instance, the residents’ association I formed back then is still strong and I have helped other people in different estates to form theirs.”


About World Play Day


The World Play Day, is held annually on the 28th of May. The theme for this year is "Rediscover Play, Recover through Play". The day is more of an attitude of connecting generations through play than a day of scheduled or planned events. It is marked to emphasise the importance of play in all our lives and particularly in children’s lives.


Quote:

“Children learn to talk, make friends, exercise, and acquire the basic skills for formal education such as concentration, imagination, self-expression, and retention of useful facts through play. Let a child play today and ensure his happy, useful and healthy future.” 

Prof Freda Kim, World Play Day Founder


Feedback to the editor: [email protected]

“My entry into activism started with an observation. I was raised by a single mother. My father died when I was barely three, and my mother chose not to remarry or have a significant male in her life.

I watched, as we grew up as property was taken away from her, and she was ostracized from her in-laws. She could also not go back to her parental home because she was considered to have already been married and therefore to already have moved away. I saw the unfairness and the difficulties that she faced from all manner of people. These experiences piqued my social consciousness.

When I was about 17, I remember my mother tagging me to a meeting where environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai was present. Prior to this day, whilst watching TV or reading the newspapers, I had asked why women like Wangari were putting themselves on the front line.  “Why would they do this to their children?” My mother said that it was for the love of her country and children, including those she didn’t know by name.

When I finally met Wangari Maathai, what struck me was how committed she was to her activism, and she was clear that she was not going to allow the building of a tower at Uhuru Park, which was public land. She was also supporting mothers who were asking for the release of political prisoners at whatever cost. Prof. Maathai, the Green Belt Movement founder, and 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace was willing to pay the price.


People who lived through the horrors of colonisation and concentration camps, know how brutal the system could be. They were living through a particularly repressive era, and yet they had chosen to take on a particularly difficult situation and to see it to the end. And that for me was so inspiring.

Seven years later, I was knocking at my neighbours doors on one particular day suggesting that we form a resident’s association. Then, I was a law student, a career born out of the need to fight for the rights of those being treated unfairly.

We had plenty of playing grounds at Jamhuri Estate, Nairobi where I was brought up. However, towards the early 90s, they started to diminish as public land was issued through allotment. These meant few spaces to play in and occasioned safety fears because some children were playing in the parking lots.

Play is important for children’s development and the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognises it as a right of every child. Play is critical for community well-being and mental health because it leads to increased self-esteem, improved collaboration skills, enhanced critical thinking skills, and a strengthened immune system. 

Yet, despite these critical benefits many children are growing up without playgrounds or even access to the sun because there are no recreational parks, as all public land goes to private developers. 


I didn’t think hard about getting into activism. I actually don’t think that one wakes up one morning and decides to be an activist. It is a gradual push and once you get to the wall, you do something about it. I tell people to start with the issues that are closest to them. A neighbour playing loud music at night? That’s a good start.

Interestingly, in my 30 years of activism, I have never been employed in human rights defending organisations. For me, I do it voluntarily and consider it a time tithe. This is my offertory to God for giving me life and so I stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

As a lawyer, my work mostly involves the legal framework, research, and raising awareness through media. And I can tell you that activism is not fun. This is because you are dealing with fraudsters who have made the process unfair and unjust so there are many blockades. Some of the challenges we face are sustaining the work and the burden of having to remind people that we need to keep going no matter the setbacks. The other issue is the inertia of government agencies, who are not willing to find documents, and sometimes files disappear from institutions. The is also the lack of enough funding or its alternatives.

According to a January 2016 survey released by Kenya Dialogues Project, some 24, 405 public schools may lose their land to grabbers or encroachers because they lack title deeds or lease certificates. In   total,      105 acres have    been      grabbedacross       the  15   

schools said the report. The same report noted that schools and their communities that have reported cases of land grabbing or encroachment face social, psychological, economic, and institutional impact. 



One incident that has stayed in mind is the grabbing of Langata road primary school’s playground which happened over the 2014’s December holiday.  Come January 2015, learners returned to find a perimeter wall thus denying them access to their play area. 



Then, I was volunteering with an organisation that promotes social justice and fosters democratic participation in the development process. I was part of a team that was involved in trying to reclaim the land back to the school. I still recall the sound of the chanting as the children pushed down the wall. Thereafter, with a team of other activists, we decided to run “Shule Yangu Initiative” which is an alliance for the protection of public schools. We were able to reclaim playgrounds in different parts of the country.

In yet another incident, a private developer had dug a ditch across a school’s playground to keep off children. We reported the matter, asked questions, wrote complaint letters and restoration followed.


As an activist, you have to tell it as it is, involve the community and in the case where the land grabber is known to you, call them out. Most importantly, you must be empathetic.  What I like most about the art of activism is that I get to be part of a team that is righting a wrong, supporting communities, and giving back to children spaces to play.

Also, I get to see the results of these responses. For instance, the residents’ association I formed back then is still strong and I have helped other people in different estates to form theirs.”


About World Play Day


The World Play Day, is held annually on the 28th of May. The theme for this year is "Rediscover Play, Recover through Play". The day is more of an attitude of connecting generations through play than a day of scheduled or planned events. It is marked to emphasise the importance of play in all our lives and particularly in children’s lives.


Quote:

“Children learn to talk, make friends, exercise, and acquire the basic skills for formal education such as concentration, imagination, self-expression, and retention of useful facts through play. Let a child play today and ensure his happy, useful and healthy future.” 

Prof Freda Kim, World Play Day Founder


Feedback to the editor: [email protected]


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