Joel Bolnick

Joel Bolnick

SDI secretariat, South Africa

Interview date & place: 20 September 2016, Nairobi

Interviewed by: Eva Muchiri, Jack Makau & Kate Lines

Original language: English

My name is Joel Bolnick, and I'm the managing director of the SDI secretariat.

How did you first get involved with Muungano and its civil society support network?

I first came to Kenya in 1995. In order to tell you a bit about my first visit in 95, I have to go back a little bit, and the first date that I would focus on is 1991, where we held a conference for slum dwellers in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was just after the unbanning of the political parties and the freeing of the political prisoners – it was when Mandela reappeared after years in prison – and there had been a cultural boycott for decades in South Africa. We took advantage of the end of the cultural boycott and we invited a number of people from all over the world to attend this conference, and it included people who came from the Philippines, a guy by the name of Dennis Murphy, who is a famous community organizer in Manila in the Philippines. And on his way back from this conference he stopped in Nairobi, and he offered a number of young Kenyans, through an organization called APACAN, the opportunity of being trained in community organizing, which was methodology borrowed from, of all places, the United States. And, over a number of years, Dennis Murphy and some of his colleagues provided this training to a few Kenyans, and they included people like Joseph Kimani, and Salma Sherba, and Laurence Apiyo – there were maybe one or two others that I don't recall – who later on became the programme officers for Pamoja Trust.

Then, the next date would be 1995, before I got here. We held a conference on urban land challenges in South Africa, and we held it in a slum in one of South Africa's major cities. And again we invited a number of international people, and we'd heard about this amazing lawyer in Nairobi who had regularly gone to court to stop land grabbing, who had never won a single court case, but who had prevented lots of land grabbing. And her name was Jane Weru. And we invited Jane, who then worked for an NGO called Kituo Cha Sheria, to come for this conference. And she attended this conference. Jane, as always, didn't give anything away, and by the time she left we had no idea whether she thought that the engagement with us was worthwhile or a total waste of time. And then she disappeared from our lives.

But a funder who funded our programme had been at that conference, and he had been speaking to Jane and he offered to support her around some of the work around community organizing. And so, through Kituo Cha Shera, she received funding to continue the work, and it was in that light that I was invited here in 1995. So who did I meet? I met Jane Weru, I met Laurence Apiyo, I met Salma, I met Kim, and a few other community organizers at that time, Gitau – those are the ones that I recall. As a country I had had long dreams and aspirations to visit here. It was kind of the reverse of the situation I mentioned at the beginning: just like non-South Africans never travelled to my country, South Africans were not allowed to travel to African countries until the unbanning of the organizations. So it was a dream come true. I spent a fair amount of time in Nairobi, and it might have been different in the sense that the climate was a bit different, and some of the cultural elements were a bit different, but I could just as easily have been visiting any other southern African country, because what I did there is what I do in most southern African countries: stay in relatively easily-accessible hotels, spend time with professionals, go to government departments, visit slums – and all those instruments are pretty much the same wherever you go.

How have things changed over time?

What strikes me about the Kenyan federation is that it fits into a fairly small category of federations in the SDI network, and that is that its internal roots, its contextual influences, are constantly as important as the external influences that it gets from being part of the network. We have a number of federations who just replicate the SDI rituals, and they came pretty quickly to lose their flexibility and their capacity to have an impact, and they de-link from the base. The Kenyans have often had, I wouldn't say more of a focus on their local contextual priorities; but they blend issues that are Kenya-specific in terms of community organizing, in terms of organizational culture, with the instruments that they borrow from the SDI process. So they are one of a group of a few who behave in that particular way, and that gives them, I think, a lot more adaptability, versatility, and hopefully potential to survive.

The fact that [Muungano’s] been around for so long is indicative of the fact that it has real potential to survive. But it will fluctuate: it will go up, it will go down, it will have periods of strength, it will have periods of weaknesses. A lot of that will depend on external factors; also on internal factors. So I think the way I categorize the Kenyan federation is that they are very resilient.

Institutionally, they've shifted: the NGO has metamorphosed many times, from initially being supported through Kituo Cha Sheria, to setting up Pamoja Trust, to a complete evisceration of the process when Jane and her team left Pamoja Trust, to the setting up of Muungano Support Trust, to the collapse of Muungano Support Trust. In that sense, the interesting thing about the Kenyan federation – not the Kenyan process – is that when the federations have their roots in the communities, they deal with all this stuff and they continue. They survive. They have periods of being very weak, and they have periods of again being strong; and I think they are on a bit of an upward curve at the moment, but they've been pretty down. But then they're no different from any other federation.

What’s Muungano’s contribution within the SDI network?

I think the most important contribution it makes is that it demonstrates that there is really not a need for orthodoxy – that if you focus on local initiatives, if you keep rooted in the community context, then the SDI tools are a value-added contribution. And I think that's very important, because quite often federations tend to feel that if you're part of the SDI process, you have to be very orthodox about the way in which you use the SDI rituals. And it's very important that the Kenyans provide a pointer in a different direction. That's one thing I'd say about the Kenyan federation in terms of the contribution that they make.

The other thing that they do is, I think, they keep reminding us about what the reasons for this initiative were in the first place, because they haven't lost sight of the fact that, effectively, SDI is about land struggles, about finding alternatives to evictions, about creating inclusive cities – not about simply savings, or gathering information, or mobilising women. It uses those tools, but its key objective remains addressing problems of exclusion and lack of access to urban land. So I think that's a crucial contribution that the Kenyans make.

How do we involve youth in Muungano?

I think they're engaged, but the issue about how youth networks are structured in the SDI framework is still an unresolved question. I'm one of those who's not so sure about the value of organizing youth as a youth movement, because one of the strengths of the SDI process is that it argues that the best way to support community organizing is to follow the contours of everyday life, and in everyday life you don't segregate between youth and women and men – you work as a holistic community. And so I'm a bit uncomfortable about the notion that the SDI family has set up these youth federations, because it implies that youth are different from the rest of the community. I suppose the flip side of it is that the youth are the overwhelming majority of communities, and if you don't create an institutional space for them themselves, then the majority has to compete with the minority, which are the older people who use gender, seniority, to prioritise issues that the youth may not be that interested in. But I do think there is something – and as I said the jury is still out – that is a bit problematic about organizing the youth as a separate federation.

A story about discontent

One of the things that struck me about the Kenyan experience – but I'm loathe to say it because it singles out an individual, and again that's Jane Weru ­– I remember Jane Weru making a speech at UN-Habitat that just turned everybody upside down, because it was so simple and so to the point, and so profoundly different from all the talking heads stuff that UN-Habitat loves to specialize in. And I think Jane does that on a number of occasions, but this was really a very heartfelt story that really captured the essence of SDI, and I think really the essence of Kenya: she said that SDI is the movement of the discontented, and that the professionals who are in SDI are not just discontented with the way in which our cities and our countries operation and how they exclude the poor, but they are discontented with the development assistance world.

 What are your hopes for Muungano’s next 20 years?

I think Muungano is pioneering something that they haven't got right yet, that all of SDI has to get right, and that is developing a new relationship between professionals and communities. But at least they're exploring alternatives. The way SDI organizes the relationship between professionals and communities was really path-breaking 20 years ago when I first started coming here, but as we move forward a new alignment needs to develop ­– and Kenya struggles with it, but they try to tackle it – getting the balance right between the role of professionals in a community movement and the level of vertical accountability that professionals bring, versus the danger of creating vertical power relations that de-link the leaders from their communities. So I think they have a real challenge, and as I said I don't think they're anywhere near getting it to be on an even keel, but they're making an effort more than any other federation to tackle that issue.