In the arid, steamy Turkana region of northern Kenya, where a desert lake has supported indigenous communities for millenia, it’s Ikal Angelei versus a $60 billion dam that would harm the lake. In what would seem like an extremely unequal war, 31-year-old Angelei is winning battle after battle with help from friends like the American Jewish World Service and the Goldman Environmental Prize, which she received on April 16 on San Francisco.
Later in the month, she spent some time in New York with staffers and supporters of AJWS, a $50 million international development organization. By July, AJWS will have given Angelei’s organization $75,000 since 2010. Her group, Friends of Lake Turkana, has a budget of about $100,000 and four full-time staff.
Angelei, whose father represented Turkana in Kenya’s parliament and opposed the construction of a different dam in the 1980s, has a master’s degree in public policy from Stony Brook University on Long Island.
This latest dam, the Gibe 3, had the backing of several global development banks and the Kenyan government. It would create Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant by damming the Ethiopian Omo River, one of Lake Turkana’s essential sources.
Angelei says dams benefit the native elite and international investors while hurting local communities. As a result of her efforts organizing local opposition to the Gibe 3, the European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank and the World Bank have withdrawn their support, but the project is not yet officially dead.
Q:Why fight something that will bring more electric power to Kenya?
A: The bankers are thinking about the usual indicators. They say we’re going to decrease unemployment and increase gross domestic product. I say increasing GDP has never correlated with decreasing poverty in developing countries. It doesn’t always follow that access to energy will create more jobs: it could just create more robots, with machines doing everything.
How did you feel when you learned the World Bank would not be supporting the dam?
I kept quiet. I’m least trusting of the banks. It means you have to put your guard higher. I was excited, but I knew I had to be a little more watchful.
Do you see a connection between Judaism and your work?
Watching movies about the Holocaust and all the injustices that the Jews went through, it was easy to believe that AJWS would support social justice … what impressed me most was that they support [causes] beyond the Jewish faith. Genocides around the world don’t know anything about race.
How has AWJS helped you, besides the obvious financial support?
They’re one of those grant-makers that aren’t just grant-makers. They link us to other partners … they ask if there are security issues. They have written letters to help people get amnesty.
Have you ever felt scared because of the work you’re doing?
I have no problem with security. People think I do, but I never really think about it. I’ve grown up seeing guns all my life. I’ve seen conflict for a long time. But I have seen partners in Ethiopia who have been victimized by speaking out. Some of them have had to seek asylum. Some of them have lost their lives.
Your brother is running for your father’s seat in parliament. Have you considered running for office?
It’s been discussed. I can play the role I’m playing as a community leader. We need people who can make policy decisions. We need social activists, social entrepreneurs, everybody. If I can play this role and have people playing their role as politicians, that’s fine. If I see it’s not working, I might be forced to reconsider. I’m more interested in speaking when everybody is waiting for the politicians to be speaking.
How does your work compare to that of your father, who served in parliament from 1969 to 1992?
It was frustrating for him because he could see opportunities but didn’t know how to push things through. I have more tools in terms of the legal and policy issues, but he had some things I don’t have. He had traditional skills … I go to meetings and I say all those big words about laws, but [you have to] bring the conversation down to the mother and child and their struggle to get water.
Is it difficult to do this work as a woman?
In the community, people usually ask me, when are you getting married? But it’s also the greatest opening: you’re seen as a victim and you’re stronger than the person who thinks you’re a victim … we are in a very patriarchal community. So I didn’t go home saying, “I’m an educated girl, you should listen to me.” I said, “I’m a daughter of the soil, and I’ve come back.”
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