Life in exile My Memories are my Home

Hand holding a copy of 'The Constitution of Kenya',
Photo (detail): ©mauritius images / Tom Gilks / Alamy / Alamy Stock Photos

Being forced to live in a foreign country can be perilous and full of challenges. The spatial displacement into unfamiliar surroundings thrusts one into a new culture that may lead to loneliness, lack of self-esteem and even depression. However, are there instances where a life in exile can present new opportunities? Omwa Ombara a political asylee and self-declared feminist, shares her experiences in this interview.

Who is Omwa Ombara?

Omwa Ombara is an investigative and features journalist living in Exile in the USA for the last 9 years following her coverage of Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8.

While working as a Regional Bureau Chief and Provincial News Editor for The Standard Newspapers in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, Omwa was identified by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a potential witness against William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta who later became deputy president and president respectively in the elections of that year. The two politicians were facing trial for the alleged murder of 1500 individuals as well as physical harm and forceful evacuation of up to 650,000 people from their homes.

After being invited by the ICC to record a statement regarding the two politicians, Omwa had to flee and seek witness protection for a year after her phones and internet were hacked and strangers started trailing her in Nairobi City.
How did you end up in exile?

I ended up in exile after a year under Witness Protection, assisted by the Media Witness Protection Programme in New York, the Kenya Human Rights Protection and the Kenya Witness Protection Agency in Nairobi.

I was put under the surveillance of state security agents and my life was threatened. Dozens of witnesses and potential witnesses were disappearing under mysterious circumstances and I had to flee for my life. I ended up in Washington DC through the help of friends whom I cannot name for their own security.

I landed in the US in February 2013 and I am still here. The ICC indictees were later acquitted due to lack of sufficient evidence against them as most witnesses had either decided not to testify out of fear or disappeared altogether.
How has your experience in exile been?
Exile has been both kind and unkind to me. The loss of one’s country is like a second death. It is the loss of one’s soul, family, community, friends and everything you ever owned.

Coming into a new country and fitting into the workplace, social, physical, spiritual, economic culture is more traumatising than one can imagine. No one really believes your story and you must keep proving it with evidence. The other challenge is starting from scratch. Rarely can one just come in and continue with their profession. One may be forced to go back to school and train anew.

It is a different environment with different perspectives and views of life. Journalism here is different from the one back home and what may make news at home does not necessarily interest the audience here. So I found myself doing odd jobs I had never imagined I would do; working in a supermarket, labeling onions, and tomatoes to pay my bills. I also worked as a waitress at events such as weddings and funerals.

Later I trained as a community health worker and accompanied patients to hospital. Before getting back into society, I stayed in a shelter for homeless people for one and a half years. 

Initially I was sociophobic and wary of making new friends. The loneliness leaves an empty ache in your heart and the nostalgia can be debilitating.

Exile has toughened yet ironically softened me. I have learnt the art of survival and made new friends that guided me back into media networks. I am more empathetic and non-judgmental, having learnt from experience that misfortune can befall anyone. At the same time, living in exile has denied me the chance to return home and bury my immediate family members including my mother. The guilt can be overwhelming, but it is what it is.  
Has your writing been affected by living in exile?

Exile has sharpened my writing skills and changed my perspective on certain issues. I was able to publish my memoir and give an account of what transpires in the media in Kenya and the tricky and slippery path that journalists face while covering presidential elections.

I have not been home for nine years so I now cover local stories within the US, mostly about immigrants. Writers here have clubs and hubs and the opportunities to improve one’s writing and collaborate with peers is immensely beneficial. There are funds for writers and residency programmes as well. I have capitalised on these opportunities so that my writing does not turn rusty.

As a political asylee, I am restricted by what I can do or cover politically. It is not possible to criticise or write about the same government that is hosting me. It is one of the rules that has been difficult for me to live with. It's a helpless and shameful feeling. My soul weeps in disappointment and frustration and in such moments, I feel I have failed as a journalist. I cannot continue fighting the war I fought at home in the host country.

On a positive note, I have grown more confident in telling my story as well as the African story from my own perspective. 
In what other ways has your life been affected?

I have learnt to choose my friends and discern my enemies wisely. Watching all that I had built my entire life crumble into ashes broke my heart. I have scars in my heart that remind me of my past and often weigh me down.

However, my strength comes from my resilience. I am learning to embrace the new me and wear my new shoes as comfortable as I can. I have also learnt not to take my family for granted. I cannot touch them or see them face to face. I have created a home in my heart where I live. Home is no longer a physical place for me but memories of my past.

Do you see yourself as a feminist, and how has your kind of feminism influenced your life and work? 

Yes, I am a feminist advocating for the rights of women journalists, especially equal pay for both male and female journalists. Currently, female journalists tend to be paid less than their male counterparts and this must change. I have also been openly fighting against discrimination of female journalists in terms of promotion and career opportunities. I look forward to the day patriarchy will end in the media sector and male and female writers will be treated equally.

The interview was conducted by Tom Odhiambo, a lecturer in literature, media and cultural studies at the University of Nairobi.