By Ariel Ransom
Oliver Mashaka recounted his life in Kenya with admiration to a standing room only audience of more than 100, but Mashaka was resolute as he discussed the political persecution that dominates his home continent of Africa at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, March 26 in room 115 of the Islip Arts building.
Mashaka, a Stony Brook University graduate student and intern at the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding on the Ammerman Campus, arrived in the United States in 2008. Yet, the speaker clarifies that his arrival in the United States was due to his involvement as a political activist struggling for change in the country of Kenya.
“I had to leave Kenya. I didn’t come out of my own free will,” Mashaka said. “ I had to leave my mother, father, and my siblings there because I was involved in a political movement that was started by the youth in Nairobi, which is the capital city of Kenya.”
The political activist accounted the happenings of the general election that took place in Kenya in 1997 which was disputed due to accusations of the election being rigged by the candidate, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. The election eventually resulted in social controversy among the Kenyan people.
“President Moi had been in power for a very long time. He didn’t want to give it [power as president] up. We had an election, that was rigged largely by President Moi. He [Daniel Moi] pretty much controlled everything that was going on in the country,” Mashaka said. “Every shop you went into, there had to be a face of President Moi. His face was literally everywhere.”
Mashaka went on to note the crucial moments in his life that lead to his political asylum in the United States, which was his attendance at his first political activist gathering and his involvement with a youth activist group.
“The opposition called for a rally. They said no one should go to work or school. They [the political activist group] wanted everyone to talk about getting rid of President Moi,” Mashaka said. “My mother insisted I stay home, but I remember I escaped from the house. I didn’t get to the rally. The government unleashed general service units, and my friend, Vincent, and I were caught up in a gang of people that were going to the rally.”
“In front of us, there was a big crowd of general service police, and on both sides of the road were Muslim Cemeteries, and behind us was another group of general service police,” Mashaka said. “I was so scared. We could either get caught by the General Service or go with the Cemeteries. We [Vincent and Mashaka] jumped onto the Cemeteries instead. I never explained to my mom and dad where I was.”
In later years, Mashaka organized a political youth group in his hometown to draw attention to the upcoming general election that was to occur that same year, and to discuss the issues the citizens needed to recognize. However, Mashaka’s expressive eyes shook with fear as he discussed his run in with the Mungiki, a Kenyan government mafia charged with maintaining “political balance”.
“In 2007, I was with my family, ushering in the New Year, when this gang of people came outside my house with torches and machetes, scraping the walls, threatening that if I don’t come out of the house, they would burn it down,” Mashaka said. “The most horrific moment I ever had to go through. Thankfully, they didn’t break into the house because there was a police helicopter hovering above, and I would like to think that is why they ran away. I didn’t go to sleep all night until the sun came up.”
Mashaka’s riveting tale of political persecution in Kenya was stunning, and caught the hearts of students who gasped throughout the presentation. Several of Mashaka’s peers greeted him after the talk to discuss his life as a youth political activist further.
“I couldn’t believe what he went through. It’s unbelievable he endured all of that just to change his government; for more freedom,” Nicole Cameron, a human services major, said. “Not to mention the whole gang thing. I would have broken down, given up, and stopped trying to change the politics.”
The Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding is where Oliver Mashaka works, and it is located in the Huntington Library on the second floor. Mashaka speaks to students wanting to know more about political persecution in Africa, and to educate about his home in Kenya.
“My impression of Oliver is that he’s a rare kind of person,” Donna Ossenfort, intern at the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity, and Human Understanding, said. “He’s intelligent, genuine, kind, inspirational, and articulate. I tell him all the time that if he just spent a few minutes with everyone in the world, every person would be inspired by him.”