When Kenyan asylum seeker Nyokabi Salome Munyaka was encouraged to audition for Miss Africa Washington last year, she didn’t think she fit the pageant girl type.
Munyaka, 23, said she thought those girls had “the tall, skinny physique that goes with it.”
The Federal Way resident said when she met with the founder of the Miss Africa Washington State pageant at a Global Village event at Highline College, where she attends, she changed her mind.
“She said, you know this is a pageant about where we come from, bringing our culture to the U.S. and for people to understand how different we are. As much as we are in one continent, we are very different,’ ” Munyaka said. “And, so, she told me, ‘This is your chance to tell a story.’ “
Munyaka would later be crowned First Princess in September 2016, but not before finding the courage to tell that story.
Growing up in the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya, Munyaka, her now-26-year-old sister and her mother lived with their father, a governor in the country. Although Munyaka’s mother struggled to finish high school and her grandmother was unable to attend, Munyaka graduated, fluent in five languages – various tribal languages, Swahili and English.
Munyaka’s world changed when she was 14. Her mother made the difficult choice to leave her daughters in order to escape her abusive husband.
“My dad had been abusing my mom for years, and then when she left, he started the abuse on us, and those are the issues that, culturally, nobody speaks about,” she said. “It’s against culture to go to a police station and report your dad and say, ‘My dad has violated me.’ ”
Munyaka’s mother was able to seek asylum, but it wasn’t until December 2015 before Munyaka could break free and join her.
Munyaka doesn’t know how many times her mother went to the police before leaving, but she went about three times. Each time, a police report was filed, but nothing was ever done.
“The police are likely to tell you that you’re embarrassing your family,” she said. ” ‘Don’t come here. Don’t tell us these kinds of things. That’s against our culture. Those are family issues. Go back to your dad and say you’re sorry.’ So that’s the kind of culture we’re coming from, and it was so difficult to raise awareness because nobody would help you.”
Eventually, those police reports paid off, as the U.S. Embassy would later use them to grant her the asylee beneficiary status.
Munyaka said the combination of being safe in the United States and using the pageant as a platform gave her the courage to speak out against domestic violence in her home country. She began reaching out to newspapers and “media houses” in Kenya about her father’s abuse and, because he was a governor, reporters held him accountable.
Her father stepped down, as a result.
“The government couldn’t protect him,” she said. “The story’s out there — newspaper article after newspaper article.”
While her story was a chance to expose her father, it did more for the women in her community, who were also abused.
Because Munyaka found her voice, others started a dialogue and came together.
“They’re speaking against violence, and they’re contacting me and letting me know how much confidence that built in them,” she said. “The fact that dialogue is going on, for me, was the most important thing because people were just staying quiet.”
After the pageant, Munyaka created the Waceke Foundation, which uses her mother’s middle name “because she endured 22 years of domestic abuse.”
“I look at her scars every now and then. She has scars on her back and arms,” she said. “I look at her, and I’m like, ‘You really tried, mamma.’ “
Munyaka explained her mother “stuck around” until she was 14 years old because she wanted to make sure her daughter could feed and clothe herself. At the time, her sister was 19, and she knew they’d take care of each other.
Having arrived in Washington on the cusp of winter in 2015, Munyaka said the first thing she noticed was the freezing temperatures. The second was the culture shock.
She said serious criminal offenses in America, such as drinking and driving, are not treated as major crimes in Kenya.
“It doesn’t go on your record. It’s not something that follows you the rest of your life,” she said. “In Africa, you drink and drive, you get a ticket. That’s the worst you can get.”
Munyaka said if someone doesn’t sit an immigrant down and tell him or her the “dos and don’ts,” like her mother did for her, it can lead, and has led, to an increase of immigrants with criminal records.
“That’s why we have high crime rates for immigrants — because they were just not educated,” she said, adding that the tracking system is more advanced in the United States, as well.
Navigating the education system and tapping into government resources is better in America, Munyaka pointed out, but her biggest and most negative culture shock was experiencing racism.
“I never experienced racism in my life until I came here,” she said. “In Africa, we don’t have that. Even tribalism, because we’re different tribes, it’s rare for someone to call you out by your tribe or to insult you because you’re from a different tribe.”
Here, people have called her ethnicity out in public.
As an asylee beneficiary, granted because her mother is in asylum in the United States, Munyaka is considered a legal immigrant. Although she is similar to a refugee, the difference is that asylees are people who request asylum while in the United States. A refugee is a person who requests protection while overseas and is then given permission to enter the country. Both must prove they need protection.
Given the recent political climate surrounding immigration – specifically the immigration travel ban that was implemented in January by President Donald Trump – Munyaka isn’t sure if her sister will be able to join her and their mother in the United States.
“Before that whole thing, my mom could petition for her so that she could come, but now we don’t know how that’s going to go because we don’t know how the president is planning to run the whole system,” she said. “We will try because we have to try.”
Munyaka said her father has no way of getting to her sister as of now, and she believes she is safe since moving out of town.
Yet, even with her sister’s future in America uncertain, Munyaka remains incredibly optimistic.
She believes the American community who did and did not vote for Trump, the immigration community and the president himself will go through a change for the better in the next four years by learning from each other.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for our president to learn more about immigrants, where they come from,” she said. “As much as he’s not interested, because he’s trying to drive us out — and we’re going to push back — he’s going to learn so much about us — who we are, where we come from and also our contributions to this country.”
Alternatively, she said the election taught her and others within her community that America still has healing to do from past segregation.
“We have a lot to do in terms of bringing the nation together,” she said, adding that immigrants with dual citizenship should take ownership of their American leader and vote.
Munyaka said she would become a U.S. citizen “if the law still allows immigrants to be citizens.”
“This is a great country,” she said. “It’s built on a lot of great people.”
The future is bright
On March 23, Munyaka will represent Highline College in Olympia as she receives an award from Gov. Jay Inslee. She was chosen to receive a $500 Washington Academic scholarship because of her high grades and involvement in Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
Munyaka will graduate from Highline in June with hopes of continuing her education at Seattle University or the University of Washington. She said she would love to become a professor and teach psychology one day, although she’s decided to major in business for the time being.
“For women who didn’t get the privilege to go to school, most of them end up being farmers back in Kenya,” she said. “So, I want to teach them, open up a center or something where they can learn how to run their own businesses.”
For more information about Munyaka, visit nyokabimunyaka.com.