Ikal Angei – Unbowed environmental and social justice activist

Ikal Angelei made history by staging a spirited opposition against the construction of the Gibe III Dam to protect the livelihoods of people living in northern Kenya. Researching the potential impact of the Gibe III Dam, Ikal Angelei was shocked to discover that, although the project appeared to be bringing progress, it would potentially cut off the water supply to half a million farmers, herders and fishermen.

This prompted the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize winner to begin her campaign to block the building of the Dam on the Omo River to protect Lake Turkana, a World Heritage site and the world’s largest permanent desert lake. Turkana is the source of livelihood for the people living in its environs. Armed with a Master’s in Public Policy and Political Science from the US, she founded the grassroots organisation Friends of Lake Turkana (FOLT). Thanks to the campaign mounted by the organisation, the World Bank; the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank all withdrew their funding for the dam. One of Angelei’s earliest childhood duties was later to have a strong bearing on her life’s course as an environmentalist. “As a child I used to work in the farm harvesting beans. I believe I am a professional bean harvester,” she recalls. “At 6am when it was still cool I would pick the dewy
shells and work on getting the beans to burst then remove them from the shell.”

She dispels the myth that environmentalists have green fingers or love farming. Rather, they possess a strong intuitive appreciation of our environment and the delicate balance of our habitats. They understand that when these are destabilised, entire civilisations can crumble. This is what sparked her interest in defending her community from the mammoth project that was in the offing. After university and working in the Nairobi corporate world, Angelei returned to her country town after a long absence. “I had not visited since my dad died in 1994. For 15 years, I had refused to go back. Now that I got employment in Nairobi, that was to change.” Angelei had envisioned financial independence once she got her first job — getting an apartment, buying a car, buying nice things with her pay cheque. However, there were constant demands from back home, with requests for assistance with school fees, health care, fare for transport… “People at home are always asking for something. It is never enough. I decided it was
time to find out what was wrong.”

She moved back home, and initially it was hard to re-assimilate after spending so many years in Nairobi and the US. “I kept thinking to myself that my father gave his life for the community and when he died, life just went on.” Her strong sense of identity and belonging, cultivated at an early age, helped her integrate back into her traditional home. This sense of community made the process easier. Angelei knew she wanted to help, but felt frustrated by the NGO process. At first, her focus was on empowering the girl child, and helping women. She did most of this as a volunteer, supported by sporadic short-term consulting jobs. She was living from day to day, completely engrossed in her quest to help the people. I see the genuine appreciation in people who have so little to offer materially, but their words and thanks are my biggest inspiration. But this particular approach left her feeling empty. “Writing proposals for girl empowerment was so detached. You raise money for people and then leave.” She wanted to do something more meaningful and lasting, something that involved direct contact with the people.

In 2008, Angelei went to work for the Turkana Basin Institute, chaired by Dr Richard Leakey. Her role entailed community outreach, with a focus on supporting the existing government facilities for education, water and access to health care. While she was working at the Institute, Dr Leakey mentioned the proposed Gibe III Dam project to Angelei. She did some research was shocked by what she learnt. She looked into the impact the dam would have on local communities, its sustainability and how it would affect the local economy.

She began to discern the connection between the environment and conflict. “People look at reports of conflict and say the fights are tribal.” Being on the ground, she could see the definite links, and they were not related to ethnicity. “Resources and threatened livelihoods were behind the seemingly inter-tribal battles,” she says. With the construction of the dam, this strain would be pushed to impossible levels. Angelei then began her quest to stop the construction, at least until the local communities in Ethiopia and Kenya were informed about the project’s impact on their lives. “My biggest fear was the levels of conflict that the dam would bring.” She was also concerned because historically such big projects brought benefits to bigger cities, but very little tended to trickle down to the local communities.

Her research confirmed that Kenya’s biggest problem is not the production of energy, but its distribution. Angelei courageously lobbied at the highest levels locally and internationally, to make decision makers have those conversations. Regarding the recent discovery of oil in Turkana, her voice is even louder advocating for the rights of the local citizens in that region. Her belief echoes conviction and wisdom: “If you are not on the table, you are on the menu,” she says. She strongly believes that grassroots societies must be represented at both community and government policy-making levels. Angelei’s goal is to put systems in place so that in the next two decades, generations will benefit from the oil and will not suffer from a degraded environment.

What is it like as a woman to face such great odds and pit oneself against entire regimes? Angelei smiles knowingly. “Being a woman is actually my ticket,” she grins. “You will always be underrated.”

She explains that when she typically walks in as a young pint-sized woman wearing jeans and boots, her fellow players completely underestimate her capabilities. “At that point your performance speaks for you so they have no choice but to bring you on board.” At the male- dominated community level, where age, seniority and gender are highly esteemed, she has performed at an equal level as her member of parliament. This has earned her the respect and support she needs to carry out her advocacy work. Angelei never envisioned that she would become an activist. She sees herself as an individual who encountered a problem, which someone had to step up and solve. Her pragmatic approach to life enables her to take on massive projects, one step at a time.

To date, the outcome regarding the Gibe III Dam remains unresolved. However, she is undaunted, because she lives by her father’s adage, “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” Her strong support system keeps her going. She is deeply grateful for her close-knit network of family and friends. Her fellow constituents in Turkana also give her much encouragement, even when the situation appears bleak. “I see the genuine appreciation in people who have so little to offer materially, but their words and thanks are my biggest inspiration.” Her father’s political career and her mother’s business acumen have contributed to shaping her career as an activist and astute negotiator. In fact, at one point was sure she would become a lawyer. However, she is satisfied by her advocacy work, and feels compelled to continue the fight, so as to leave a legacy of having done what she ought to have done.

Angelei considers her greatest strength as the ability of getting opponents to see eye to eye. “Whether Ethiopian government officials, banking institutions, Kenyan officials or international stakeholders, it is important to get these individuals to see the point, even if they do not agree.” “Human nature means that most of us are myopic in our viewpoint,” she says. So Angelei is thankful to reach the point where she also accepts that her opponents may have a valid point. It is with that in mind, that she sees the positive aspect of oil discovery in Turkana. “The reality is
that there is a huge thirst for crude oil in our continent.” Her response is to do extensive research on the subject and potential outcomes, while lobbying to be involved as a representative of her people when the stakes are in discussion.

Words of Wisdom

  •  “Always believe in yourself. Even if I see everyone going in one direction and I am the only one standing, I look for the good in standing out.”
  •  “Do good to others without intention or expectation for them to do good to you. If you do that, it will eventually come back to you.”
  •  “Everything happens for a reason. I allow myself to feel. To feel pain, loneliness, anger, and fear. Once you have internalised the emotion, only then can you see the alternatives and progress from there. If you resist the emotion, then you are stuck.”
  •  “The first victims are always women. Women are the ones who make homes. They are the strongest; given the space and the frameworks to engage. It is my biggest belief that women have that intuition that connects them and until we can appreciate that and leverage it, we are missing a lot.”

So what happens if the fight to stop the dam does not succeed? Angelei is resilient and refuses to give up hope. When you think it is the end, something else comes up so you have to go on. “Some roads come to an end, but it is the end of a chapter and when you finish one book you move to the next.” Her drive to keep fighting for her community lies in her belief that we are global citizens all linked to each other. When one person does something, it affects someone in another part of the world. If I throw a plastic container on to the soil, it spoils the soil for the farmer, pollutes the air, and has an impact on the entire globe.

Her work has not gone unnoticed. She has been compared to great Kenyan environmentalists by the media. Although she finds the comparisons flattering, she prefers to shine a spotlight on unsung heroes. “It is humbling in a sense to be compared to greats like Wangari Maathai, but I believe that, especially among the older generation, there were many more environmentalists than we know of.” Angelei is currently collecting data about traditional environmentalism in the African context. She points out that many ingrained traditional practices in farming, construction, recycling and waste disposal had a positive effect on conservation. Fallowing land, using mulch and manure in farming and even building houses from cow dung are some of the important practices she cites.

“These were a way of life — only now that the earth is in catastrophic danger are people beginning to sit up and take notice,” she says. “Environmentalism is not something that started the other day. We need to start telling the story from where it began.” Angelei was born into a large to family. Her early years, revolved around pastoral life in northern Kenya and working on their family farm in Kitale. Looking back, she reflects on this upbringing, “We were born into a comparatively privileged background, but we were firmly grounded by virtue of always having to work.”
In Lodwar, where she spent school holidays, she received her primary foundation in practical finance. By the age of 10, she was singlehandedly running her mother’s provisions shop. She would wake up early, open the shop, sell to customers, reconcile accounts and close the shop at the end of the day.

This instilled in Angelei a love for numbers, which she pursued while studying finance for her first degree at the University of Nairobi. “Finance is related to everyday lives of everybody. From a buyer, to a seller and trader; every level of production has a component of finance to it.”

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