Getting to Know Our New Executive Director: Kene Esom

We spent some time getting to know Kene Esom, who has recently been appointed Executive Director of AMSHeR, and what he has in mind for AMSHeR in 2015.

QCongratulations! You have just been appointed Executive Director of AMSHeR, how does that feel?

Kene: “It is truly a humbling experience. I am humbled and honoured by the faith of the AMSHeR Board and the membership demonstrated by this appointment. My pledge is to serve with the integrity, compassion and diligence – three cardinal values that govern my professional and personal life. I am lucky to have the support of a membership which is resolute in their commitment to AMSHeR, a highly skilled and efficient board, an amazing team and the goodwill of our partners and stakeholders.

Q: If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for you in this role, what would you have wanted to achieve?

Kene: “Having come through a very turbulent year, the most important achievement for me in the next year is to re-establish AMSHeR as a credible, authoritative community voice and thought leader on issues of human rights, HIV, sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa. Ultimately my desire is for AMSHeR to be recognised as a strong, sustainable and fully compliant organisation that is accountable to its members and stakeholders, with an effective governance, efficient systems, transparent processes and a secretariat that is highly motivated.

Q: If there was one thing you would like to say to AMSHeR’s supporters?

Kene: Thank You! I would like to thank all those who kept their faith in the organisation over the turbulent period of the previous year. My colleagues at the Secretariat have been simply amazing and I would like to specially thank them for sticking together and keeping the promises we made to each other to see that tough time through. My team is made up of skilled experts who could easily be employed anywhere in the world, but they stayed. I appreciate them for choosing AMSHeR. My team rocks!!!

For those who are still on the fence, I would like to assure them, that AMSHeR is here to stay and we are growing stronger, better and more relevant than before . Now is the time to get on this ship, as it is moving full steam ahead.

Q: Tell us a bit more about Kene, the person. When have you been most satisfied in your life?

Kene: “One of my most satisfying experiences occurred in 2003.I had just completed my law degree the previous year and decided to take a year volunteering with a non-profit based in Lagos – Nigeria.  This non-profit worked in a few countries in situations of armed conflict. Since I was required to spend at least one month in a field office, I chose to go to Cote D’Ivoire, working with G.B.H.- a group of Ivorian doctors providing free medical support to people who had been displaced by the war going on in Cote D’Ivoire at the time.  I mobilised a few friends of mine and together we donated about 130 kilograms of essential medicine and 200kgs of clothing items which I took with me to support the work by G.B.H. I stayed with the medical personnel in the camps for the duration of my stay. I could hardly speak French but I just did whatever I could to support the very important work they were doing. That was the single, most fulfilling experience of my life up till that point.  It was also then that I made the decision to use my law degree to advance human rights and social justice.

Another experience that comes to mind is from my time working in Uganda with an organisation that provided free legal aid  to asylum seekers and refugees from the conflicts of the Great Lakes region of Africa.  During this time, my partner and I supported 11 refugee children through school, these were mostly unaccompanied children who had lost their parents fleeing the conflicts in DRC and Rwanda. They have all subsequently be taken up into a third-country resettlement programme and have found homes in the US, Canada and Australia. I am still in touch with most of them and one of these children [now an adult] is currently preparing to compete in the upcoming Olympics.

*Sigh* there are definitely more to come!”

Q: Who is your role model, and why?

Kene: ‘I have a number of role models, but Martin Luther King Jnr stands out for me. I read stories about his life growing up. I found the principle of non-violence quite intriguing and his commitment to advancing civil rights and achieving social change through dialogue. He was not a perfect man, but he recognised that he was standing at the precipice of change, and he was willing to make the sacrifice necessary to achieve that change – this would eventually cost him his life.

I find him particularly inspiring in the context of my work today. Working to address discrimination and human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity and advancing access to quality health services for MSM, LGBT persons and other marginalised communities can be quite daunting. But I recognise that right now in Africa, we stand on the precipice of change and I am confident that the sacrifices we are making today will yield results in an exponential manner very soon. So whenever I feel disillusioned, I remind myself that hearts and minds can be won and changed through dialogue, non-violence and diligence.

Two of my favourite quotes of Dr. King are, ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly’.

These quotes help me stay grounded and focused on the things that really count.

Q: What things do you not like to do?

Kene: “I don’t like to keep quiet, especially when injustice has been done. I speak my mind and I think that people need to say things when they need too. Sure you need to be tactful, but never remain silent when you have something to say.

I also don’t like shopping or wandering around the shops aimlessly. Ironing also comes on top of that list, I do it begrudgingly.”

Q: Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.

Kene: “I have worked on various significant issues during my career including on children’s rights, asylum and forced migration, SGBV, however, one of the most recent, significant accomplishments has been working on and seeing the adoption in April 2014 of the Resolution on Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (resolution: 275). It is the first African Union document specifically speaking to sexual orientation and gender identity and was the result of about 8 years of progressive work by a number of advocates at the African commission. See the Resolution :http://www.achpr.org/sessions/55th/resolutions/275/

QWhat’s your superpower or spirit animal?

Kene: “I do not think I have a spirit animal but if I were to identify with an animal, it would probably be a lion. My zodiac sign is Leo.”

Q:  Coffee or tea?

Kene: “Tea but even better, hot chocolate – never coffee”.

Q: Samsung or IPhone?

Kene: “Samsung – open source first”.

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