Northern Ireland

Lilian Seenoi-Barr: From Kenya to mayor of Derry and Strabane

Lilian Seenoi Barr as an infant with her family.
Lilian Seenoi-Barr as an infant with her family

Derry and Strabane mayor-designate Lilian Seenoi-Barr credits her political success to her upbringing.

Speaking to The Irish News, Ms Seenoi-Barr, who described her parents as inspirational, said she was born in Narok - a small town in Kenya.

“I am from the Maasai people,” said Ms Seenoi-Barr with evident pride.

“My parents, my five sisters and eight brothers, and myself, come from a village called Ol Ombokishi.

“My first years were spent in Ol Ombokishi. I had a really, really good childhood. I played a lot with my siblings and my cousins. I went to a village primary school until primary four.

“When I left primary four, I went to Narok town to be with my mum. My first four years were spent with my auntie.

Maasai woman, Lilian Seenoi Barr.
Maasai woman, Lilian Seenoi-Barr

“My mother was a businesswoman. She ran a big supermarket in Narok, so she was quite busy, and my aunt brought us up in our early years.”

Following high school, she attended university in Kenya, where she studied women’s reproductive health.

“I really wanted to understand women’s issues. I wanted to understand the biology of a woman’s body.

“I also studied community development because I knew community development was key engaging with our community, to try and change the perspective on women’s issues.

“I was always focused on empowering the Maasai child, amplifying their voice and giving them the choice I was given by my parents, which enabled me to make good decisions.

“I was inspired by my parents’ ways of bringing up their children and I wanted to instil those values in the Maasai community and the Maasai people – that is why I focused on those women’s empowerment programmes I was running in Kenya.”

On reflection, she realised her parents had moved their family from Ol Ombokishi to Narok specifically to protect them from certain Maasai traditions.

She explained: “When you are young and you are in the village, as a result of peer pressure, you might be influenced into things like early marriage or female genital mutilation.

“My parents really wanted us to be independent minded. They wanted us to focus on our own education and to grow up in an environment where we were enabled to make our own decisions and to have that voice.”

Lilian Seenoi Barr in her traditional Maasai clothing
Lilian Seenoi-Barr in her traditional Maasai clothing

Ms Seenoi-Barr’s decision to leave Kenya was heavily influenced by the fact she was a mum of a young boy, Brian, who had autism.

She added: “It was a very dangerous job I was doing back home. The rescuing of girls was quite intimidating and quite dangerous.

“When I was doing it by myself, I didn’t care much about the implications but when I had my son, there were threats made towards both of us and, as a mum, I had to think twice about what was most important. Was it to continue the work or to protect my child, who really required my protection?

“At that time in Kenya, although things are changing now, any people with disabilities were regarded as a bad omen by the community.

“In terms of the work I was doing, there were people who did not welcome progress and they used my son’s autism as a weapon to try and excite people towards me. So, I had to leave. I came to Northern Ireland in 2010 as a refugee at the age of 28,” said Ms Seenoi-Barr, who subsequently met and married her husband Patrick.

When she first came to Derry, she said she had not been planning to stay.

“I was planning to have a small holiday but unfortunately things just turned really bad back home,” she said.

“Luckily I knew people in Derry before I came here. I had met a group of volunteers from Derry and Donegal who had travelled to Kenya. They were members of Seeds and the Changaro Trust. They built schools for the Maasai community.

“Changaro Trust invited me to Derry. Meanwhile the threats were ongoing, and I was getting a lot of hostile calls. Changaro decided to host me here.

“They were telling me I couldn’t go back and they helped me to bring my son here. We then looked for refugee status and I was successful, actually within a very short time because the threats I was facing were very clear.”

She highlighted that many of today’s refugees have had the same experiences.

She added: “They are going through a very hard time back in their countries but just because they cannot prove it as I did, they are staying in the system for a very long time.”

Once she got her refugee status, she described Derry as ‘becoming her home’.

“I made my home here and obviously I had a lot of challenges trying to settle with my son, but the people of Derry really stood up for me,” she said.

“I remember, the first woman I ever met was Brenda Stevenson. At that time, she was an SDLP councillor, and she was also a speech therapist. Brenda really helped me get a school for my son.

“I was so inspired by the way people in Derry stood up for others. One of the things I know about Derry people is they just can’t let anyone suffer. I was really supported.

“I then met another lady called Kathleen Bradley who helped me enormously. She worked for Dove House at that time. She helped me get a house and really supported me.”

Ms Seenoi-Barr, who will become Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council at June’s annual general meeting, said she was delighted South Belfast MP Claire Hanna had clarified the SDLP’s mayoral selection process.

She added: “I put my name forward when we were asked to express our intentions, because this year was the party’s year to have a mayor. I engaged with that open process, and I was selected after very robust interview.”

Following her announcement as mayor-designate, two fellow councillors who had been in contention described the process as “undemocratic”.

Derry Strabane Mayor-designate Cllr Lilian Seenoi Barr.
Derry Strabane mayor designate Lilian Seenoi-Barr in her traditional Maasai costume

“Since the announcement was made, I have been deeply humbled by the warmth and kindness of people in Derry,” she added.

“The racist abuse to which I have been subjected does not represent the people of Derry and I am not focusing on it.”