By Oscar Obonyo
Some time ago, two teenage girls met at an examination centre in Kiambu and quickly became the best of friends. The relationship would later see them register several firsts in the field of academia, politics and for one of them, the coveted global Nobel Peace Prize.
It is curious how the 14-year-olds, Mary Josephine Muta from Loreto Girls High School and Julia Okello of Alliance Girls High School, picked one another out at the crowded centre. They were part of hundreds of students from tens of schools who had converged for a three-week long National Cambridge School Certificate Examinations – the equivalent of Form Four Exams. The tale of the two later day academic giants, at a time when society heavily discriminated against education of female members, is phenomenal. And telling the story of Maathai, the global heroine, through the lens of her childhood friend Ojiambo, is even more captivating.
"We reported at the examination centre daily and after days of mingling, Josephine (later day, Prof Wangari Maathai) and I easily discovered each other. She came through as an exceptional fast thinker and therefore easy to get along with," recounts Prof Julia Ojiambo.
The notion of bringing together students from several schools at one examination centre was an exciting affair to the teenagers, some who were battling with active sexual emotions. But Josephine Muta and Julia Okello were drawn together partly because of being identified and tormented as the "boring" and "book-worm" type.
"She broke off from her colleagues from Loreto as I did with my Alliance Girls’ classmates and soon we started studying together very early in the morning ahead of each examination paper," says Ojiambo.The one big uniting factor in their studies was their apparent discomfort with the arts subjects. On the flipside, they had similar and burning interests in the sciences. Young Josephine’s other friends at the examination centre, and who remained close throughout her lifetime include a former Deputy Secretary in one of the ministries, Catherine Kuria and Elizabeth Nderitu. From a simple encounter at an examination centre, where they "showed dust" to the exams, as Ojiambo puts it, to the 1954 Cambridge School Certificate, Maathai and Ojiambo have stuck together for over a half century.
And with the same spirit they first met, they have engaged in fierce but healthy academic battles, conquering and registering several firsts along the way. Out of the many credits shared between them, more significantly Maathai became the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate degree from the University of Eastern Africa, (present day Makerere). Her friend Julia followed immediately as the first woman to acquire the same under University of Nairobi as an independent Kenyan academic institution.
Owing to her ballooned status later in life, especially after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Maathai may have acquired many more friends, and some very close. But probably nobody has been close to her long enough or possesses a bag of shared dear, delicate and even dark secrets as Ojiambo.
Prodded to open up on some of her childhood experiences, Ojiambo recalls her days with Maathai at the University of Nairobi in the early 1960s. She was warden of the women’s hall of residence while Maathai, who was pursuing a Masters degree, was her deputy.
"Then, my ‘sister’ was romantically involved with the boyfriend, who later became the husband, Dr Mathai. She would occasionally host the boyfriend at the hostels, but because I was in charge, she would make a prior plea for permission, which I granted," recalls Ojiambo.
Ojiambo witnessed the entire courtship of the Mathai’s and describes the pair as inseparable lovebirds.
But perhaps the biggest achievement of the pair for Kenya and indeed Africa is the campaign to have Nairobi as host of United Nations’ Habitat and Unep agencies. According to Ojiambo, the notion to bid for housing the UN top agencies was mooted by President Jomo Kenyatta.
Then serving as Housing and Social Services assistant minister, Ojiambo was tasked by Kenyatta to put together a technical team, which included Maathai, then an active civil society member, ahead of the First Habitat World Conference in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976.
Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, was head of delegation, while Ojiambo was his deputy. But owing to another engagement, Waiyaki flew back home leaving the arduous task at the hands of the two ladies.
"Maathai did the behind-the-scene groundwork as I presented Kenya’s case at the Conference and after 72 hours of serious lobbying and campaign, we won the bid against stiff competition from closest challengers, USA, Mexico, Japan and Congo," recalls an elated Ojiambo. ] Ojiambo also singles out contributions of the President’s daughter, Margaret Kenyatta, who was Mayor of Nairobi, and Andrew Ligale, then a Permanent Secretary in the Kenyatta administration.
The former Funyula MP and Kenya’s first woman Assistant Minister observes that the death of Maathai, whom she fondly refers to as "my sister" hit her hard.
"I kept hoping against hope that it was just that — a dream." "I am totally lost. Although I have a number of friends, few fall within my age bracket, neither are they contemporaries in the field of academia or politics as Wangari was. I cannot possibly pick a phone and call anyone and easily chat away or make demands as I would occasionally do with Maathai," she told The Standard On Sunday.