OneWorld had the opportunity to interview power woman Akinyi Walender, who shared her remarkable story with us. Now, Akinyi is Senior Relations Manager at Cordaid, one of the largest development aid organizations in the Netherlands, though the passion she has for her work stems for a big part from a very fearful experience in her past.
The day Akinyi was kidnapped she was about to do a routine household food and security assessment in the Upper Nile state in South-Sudan, together with two male colleagues. Soon after their small Antonov plane had landed on the airstrip they were surrounded by South-Sudanese militia. Akinyi and her colleagues knew that the South-Sudanese warlord Peter Gadet, who is widely known for his brutality, had been operating in the area. His militia was rumoured to have pillaged villages, burned down houses and captured cattle, women and children.
The militia led Akinyi and her colleagues out of the plane and took them to a nearby makeshift militia camp. She was separated from her colleagues and taken into a dark tent without knowing who was in there with her. Then a male voice started to ask her questions in Nuer, a local language. The voice was very authoritative and seemed to command obedience and fear from the people in the tent. The interrogation went on for what seemed like hours and at a certain moment Akinyi realized she had to do something if she wanted to get out of the situation unharmed.
How were you able to get yourself out of the situation you were in?
“At some point during the interrogation it suddenly dawned on me that I had really been captured and, although I was not certain who had actually taken me at the time, I suspected it might be Peter Gadet. I felt a cold sweat run down my back. I was scared and did not know what was going to happen to me. I had heard of Gadet and his brutalities, but I never thought I would one day come into contact with him. The fact that I was a woman alone in a camp full of men made me realize that I could either be killed or gang raped. I knew I was in trouble! In that moment, so many thoughts ran through my mind. Nobody knew we had been taken and by the time they realized that we were missing I could be dead. I knew my life was in my own hands and I had to do everything possible to get out of the situation. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and, in spite of my fear, I started to ask questions back.”
“I respectfully asked them: ‘You have been asking me questions all this time but who are you?’ When the interrogator said he was Peter Gadet, I gasped loudly. He could notice that I was shocked and asked me why I reacted that way. I explained that I heard a lot of stories about him killing people, abducting women and burning down villages. After which he said: ‘You should not believe everything people say.’ In his voice I heard an element of pride and ego, and I decided to exploit it. I got more courageous and tried to engage him further in conversation. When I mentioned what I had heard about him in front of his soldiers he felt the need to defend himself and somewhat show his human side.”
“So I challenged him and asked: ‘Why then am I here? You have taken me, kept me in this tent and spent hours interrogating me.’ He was clearly not used to being questioned himself and especially not by a woman who was his prisoner. It made him become more curious about me and he wanted to know who I was. When I explained that I was a Kenyan national and told him about my ethnic background, he could immediately tell that I came from a Nilotic community, the Luo who have their roots in South Sudan. Him being Nuer, we seemed to have similar cultural attributes and I decided to appeal to that link.”
“So I said to him: you know among the Nuer, traditionally if a man is interested in a woman he first makes contact with her people and offers a token of appreciation. I dared him in front of his soldiers to speak to my parents, which he had not expected of course. After he had given it some thought he said: ‘I am going to give you a gift that you can take to your parents. If you manage to take it with you I will let you go, if not then your colleagues can go, but you are coming with me.’ I didn’t know what the gift was at the time so I waited in anticipation.”
“Gadet led me out of the tent and presented me a white cow. I thought: ‘how am I supposed to carry a living cow into our small plane?’ But one of my male colleagues told me: ‘Akinyi, we take it.’ We had no idea how heavy the cow was and if the plane was able to carry the weight, but we were going to take it, even if it would mean we would crash. We tied the cow with ropes and got into the plane. We had to hit the cow on the head so she would pass out and stop moving during take-off. Thats how we managed to stabilize the plane, take off and get away from the militia. When the plane was finally airborne I just burst into a floor of tears of relief.”
How did you find the courage to start asking questions yourself?
“I do not know. It was just there, somewhere deep inside of me. I believe fear galvanised me to act. I thought: ‘I just have to get myself out of this situation.’ I knew that by the time my organization would realize that I had been captured it might be too late.”
Why do you think you have been able to get out of that situation while so many other women have not?
“I was a well-educated foreign woman working for an international NGO. Sooner or later someone would have noticed that I was missing and would have come looking for me. But who goes looking for a Sudanese woman who has been kidnapped apart from her family? Nobody does. They are faceless, nobody knows about them. I think this was at the core of why Gadet decided to let me go. I was going to be too much trouble. I had the ability to discern the situation and exploit the dilemma I caused for the warlord. By negotiating with him I just gave him an easy escape out of it, while he could maintain his ego and pride at the same time.”
What happened with Peter Gadet after that?
“After the independence of South Sudan, Gadet had joined the government and was in charge of the air force. Despite his atrocities, he made it into the government. I had come back to South Sudan and came face to face with him again during an official government event. When I walked into the room, I was terrified. I thought he might remember me, but he looked straight through me and did not even seem to recognize me. I realized that he had abused communities and women for so long that they had become nothing but objects to him. Being in the same room with him made me feel angry and powerless. He was not going to be held accountable for all the atrocities he had committed to men, women and children. In 2013, Gadet and his militias even went back to fight again after he defected from the government. He still continues his brutalities against the people of South Sudan.”
Is the kidnapping of women still an ongoing issue in South Sudan?
“During the current war you still have situations in the Upper Nile state where soldiers come into a village and round up women. There is a lot of abuse and rape going on in South Sudan as we speak. Women in South Sudan have undergone such brutality over the years. Having a similar experience of pure fear myself, and listening to the South Sudanese women’s stories, you wonder how do you continue to be so strong. All you need to look at is their eyes, they will tell what the mouth cannot say.”
How can we prevent boys from becoming abusive to women generally and especially in times of conflict?
“I believe it begins with the socialization of young men and also young women. In the Nilotic cultures when boys turn 13 or 14 they go through a socialization process to become a man. But besides being taught to be a man, the pride and egos are also being elevated. For example, it is quite common in South Sudan that a young man pays a big number of cattle as dowry to marry a girl. In order for him to get such a large amount of cattle raiding takes place to source the cows. In the process of raiding neighbouring communities for cattle women will most likely be killed and abducted. When the young men return with the loot, the women welcome them with songs, dances and food to celebrate their return, which makes the men feel emulated and proud. This celebratory practice by women inadvertently encourages the perpetuation of a cultural practice that violates women.”
How has this experience inspired you in your current position?
“This experience shaped my worldview about women’s perspectives of security. I know what it means to experience conflict and the fear it instills. I have been in a situation where I was put into so much danger and was lucky enough to have gotten out of it unharmed. Most development practitioners will never have to experience that, but for many women in conflict areas traumatizing events are their daily reality and they will never get to tell their story.”
“My personal experience gave me a passion to fight for vulnerable women and speak up against social structures that perpetuate poverty. I put this passion into my work with Cordaid. Strengthening the position of women politically, socially as well as economically is close to my heart. My job gives me a platform to shape and influence opinions, to share experiences of women in developing countries and most importantly to provide information.”
And finally, of course we want to know what happened to the cow?
“The first thing my colleagues did when we landed was slaughtering the cow and eat it. They had a party and celebrated the fact that we had escaped from Gadet. I did not eat it though, I could not bring myself to eat it. Goodness, that cow saved my life!”
Akinyi Walender is Senior Relations Manager: Strategy Innovations & Funding Unit at Cordaid. She has spent over 17 years working with communities in fragile, conflict afflicted countries.