One of the most humbling moments of my career as a human rights scholar-practitioner took place in Kibera, the largest shantytown in Nairobi, and one of the largest in the world. I was there along with a group of nearly fifty activists who were participating in a global conference about economic and social rights. During the visit, the religious and social leaders who had invited us explained the hard reality that was evident before our eyes: children suffered from chronic malnutrition; there was no drinking water; there were no public roads; and the inhabitants of Kibera eked out a living in the precarious cardboard and zinc huts that reminded me of those of the Afro-Latin-American communities with whom I have worked on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The moment that I have never forgotten happened when community leaders brought us together in the church, which also served as a classroom. They encouraged us, then, to say a few words to the dozens of local folks who had followed us there, curious to know who were those peculiar visitors. Suddenly, an American activist stood up and spoke to the audience:
"We are here to tell you that you have a right to housing. You have a right to healthy nutrition," she said, with a clear voice and an air of certainty. "Children have a right to a primary and secondary education. Your government, the State of Kenya, is not fulfilling its obligations under international treaties that it has signed, regarding social, economic, and cultural rights. You have a right to report the State and to demand that it fulfill its obligations."
I, along with several members of the international delegation, was as perplexed as the locals, who listened without really understanding a word of what was said. The local community members may not have understood because of the language barrier, as they spoke Swahili more fluently than English, but also, and perhaps mainly, because of the wall that the technical juridical language created (treaties, rights claims, State, treaty obligations). We, the members of the delegation, who use the same language as our fellow activist, were baffled for a different reason. We could not understand how our colleague could be so unaware of the chasm between her words and her audience, between her worldview and the reality in Kibera, between our situation (be it class, race, national origin, etc.) and the situation of those in the audience. The use of "rights talk"--well-intentioned but insensitive--increased the distance between them and us, until the room filled with an uncomfortable silence that left me with the kind of sadness that one feels when faced with a moral vacuum, the sadness one feels when faced with evidence of the profound disconnect between human beings whose destinies follow, unfairly, very different paths.
I have witnessed too many times...