This Public Park in Kenya Isn’t for Relaxing—It’s for Sparking Social Change

The People’s Parliament, a grassroots organization, meets daily to debate issues and voice opinions.
(Photo: Bunge la Mwananchi/Facebook)
Oct 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Through more than two decades of political and social turmoil in Kenya, a park in Nairobi has served as a platform for activists, thinkers, and ordinary Kenyans to voice their opinions, debate issues, and push for social change. Formed in the early 1990s during the oppressive one-party rule of President Daniel Moi, the Bunge La Mwananchi, or the People’s Parliament, gathers in the Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi’s central business district.

“You just come and listen and share ideas,” the group’s coordinator, Wilfred Olal, told the Los Angeles Times. “From there, you get human rights defenders, you have politicians, we have lawyers, we have students from the University of Nairobi, and jobless people.”

Through the evolution of constitutional and political reforms that began with the election of a new president in 2002 and the adoption of a new constitution in 2010, the People’s Parliament has been relentlessly pushing for social change. Though it’s unregistered as a political group in Kenya, the informal group has developed rules and procedures, holds elections for its leaders, and has had a growing influence. In addition to pushing for constitutional and political reforms, the group organizes protests and demonstrations against issues such as police brutality, violence against women, and price gouging.

“We are always fighting someone, trying to make things better for the future of this country,” Olal said.

Many members of the growing and influential group, including Olal, have been arrested over the years; Olal told the Times he has been arrested 10 times.

“When the government discovered this was going on, they just started arresting people,” he said. “President Moi didn’t like these meetings. But the more they were arrested, the more they came.”

There have also been many attempts to close down the park or build something else in its place. But Jeevanjee Gardens is unique in that it was built in 1904 by a private landowner and donated to the people of Nairobi, making it difficult for developers, and even the government, to shut it down. An attempt by authorities in 2007 to build a multistory car park over the gardens was quickly squashed by the original landowner’s daughter.

As Gacheke Gachihi, a writer and organizer with the People’s Parliament, points out in a 2014 article, the movement is in many ways an evolution of the resistance movements that opposed British colonial rule; a statue of Queen Victoria in the gardens where they meet is a reminder.

“The Bunge La Mwananchi social movement draws from a rich history of resistance lessons that have shaped Kenya from the time the British imperialists entered and settled in East Africa,” he writes. “These resistances were organized by peasants and workers whose land was being taken by force for colonial settlement.”

After Moi seized power in 1978, brutally suppressing dissent for two decades, similar resistance movements began forming. But it was not easy.

“Progressive intellectuals, students, peasants and workers who tried to organize against [Moi’s] dictatorship were repressed and detained,” writes Gachihi. “In the name of ‘peace love and unity’ and stability under the one-party system, many of those opposed to Moi’s regime would die in torture chambers.”

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These early sacrifices, along with growing international pressure, pushed Moi’s regime to change. As Gachihi points out, in 2013 two members of the People’s Parliament were elected to public office.

“It is because of this democratic space that social movements like Bunge La Mwananchi are able to organize, leading to the development of the constitutional reform movement and opposition political parties,” he wrote.

“My dream is just to make this country change where, whether you are the son of a poor man or the son of a rich man, you go to school up to university and when you are sick you can go to hospital without friction,” Olal told the Times.

In early September, the People’s Parliament, along with other political and social change organizations, will mark the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the 2010 constitution by hosting events and demonstrations to pressure leaders to act on the “full and proper implementation” of the constitution.