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How Kenyan teacher beat racism to win seat in UK

By | May 16th 2010

By Joseph Ngugi in London

From a ‘toddler choir’ leader, to primary school teacher, then head teacher, and now politician, Elizabeth Wanjiru Kang’ethe, the councillor of Parsloe Ward, Barking and Dagenham in London, has a tale to tell about her route to stardom.

Perhaps, the simplest description of her life is that of a born-leader. Kang’ethe announced her arrival in limelight at age nine when she ‘won’ a privilege to share soda with former President Jomo Kenyatta. She was leading a pupils’ mass choir that performed for the late President at his Gatundu home.

Elizabeth Wanjiru Kang’ethe, the councillor of Parsloe Ward, Barking and Dagenham in London. Picture: Courtesy

She was barely visible from the second row so she was perched on a stool to lead a song with her high-pitched voice. This amused Kenyatta and a host of dignitaries and in appreciation, the former President requested for a session with the brave all-smiling but shy girl. They shared soda together, attracting lots of admiration from fellow pupils and her teachers.

Councillor Kang’ethe says it is then she realised she was different from her peers. She set her goals to fame and never looked back, she adds.

Male dominated

She says her determination, focus and go-getter attitude saw her rise from a teacher to a headmistress of Githunguri Township Primary, and later a politician at the UK. She defied what she describes as intimidation from competitive male domineered world around her.

She cites her father Richard Kang’ethe as her source of inspiration. The father was the first black person in Kenya to feature in a film, which was aimed at encouraging Kenyans to join formal education in 1948. The film was titled Kang’ethe Thoma (Kang’ethe please go to school). Her father and other pioneer educationists are remembered for forming the Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA) and several mobile health clinics in their area.

Councillor Kang’ethe says her father and mother, who were primary school teachers and community leaders in Githunguri, are her role models.

She also believes her fear of God and willingness to integrate and share with the less privileged in the community, a virtue she learnt as a young girl guide in the scouting movement, has kept her at the limelight.

After her high school education at St Ann’s Lioki School in Kiambaa (1980s), she volunteered as a community worker in Turkana District for six months to learn the community’s culture, language and challenges.

"Having been brought up in a well-up family, I had a chance to learn what poverty is," she told this writer with a grin in her face.

She trained as a teacher at Machakos Teachers College in 1984 before going to Canada for a one-year exchange programme up to 1986. On return to Kenya she was made deputy head for the Githunguri Township Primary before becoming head after the demise of Violet Kinyanjui.

Besides being a leader, she also worked for the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya as returning officer during general elections and by-elections.

"Following my interaction with powerful politicians in the constituency and beyond, I got the taste of what it means to be a political leader. I even thought of resigning as a teacher to contest for the Githunguri parliamentary seat but my family and friends advised otherwise," recalls Councillor Kang’ethe.

Her popularity

However, she later resigned and flew to the UK for various advanced teacher-training courses. She worked as a part-time supply teacher in 40 schools in East London before she acquired the Qualified Teachers Status (QTS). She also held other volunteer positions in the UK, which popularised her in the community.

She says, when she got employed at Mawney Primary School, she was the only black teacher in the exclusive white borough of Havering. "Many people never thought I would stay in this particular school for a week but I stayed for eight years," she adds.

When she joined the school, it had less than 10 black pupils but now the population has risen tremendously.

She says the predominantly white community, especially the pupils, was friendly and receptive to her. She later became a popular teacher in the community, confirming her leadership qualities.

Kang’ethe the girl guide

Councillor Kang’ethe extended her engagements with the scout movement to the UK, which boosted her integration with the community. It is here she was introduced to the Labour Party Action team and began doing voluntary work for the party. She was assigned to shadow an elderly civic leader as a research assistant. Her job included preparing constituents’ cases to be forwarded to area MP Mrs Margaret Hodge.

The party caucus later appointed her the area deputy chair of Labour in her ward and was later nominated to replace incumbent civic leader who was dropped for alleged inactivity.

As a leader in an area where some people had a passion for racism, Councillor Kang’ethe’s reign as both teacher and a politician has not been easy. Many conservative whites thought she had come to take up their jobs.

The worst of opposition, however, came from the black community. Even a fellow Kenyan, a very popular community website, once told her: "Riganiiruo ni unene ucio ureyethithia. Kwanyu ni wahuranagira gutuika headman nigwo urehe kumenya gwaku guku (forget ever becoming a councillor here when you have never even been a village headman at your home (Kenya)"

Her only disadvantage, as the friends told her, was that she was black and a single mother but she never bowed to the discouragements.

World order leadership

"Now these are the same people calling me with congratulatory messages. I thank God I did not listen to them," she says.

She now says her vision is to offer the locals quality non-racial leadership, which they demanded when they rejected racist BNP candidates in the just concluded UK General Election. She says the new world order in leadership got a new meaning when Barack Obama was elected President of America, a move that reverberated hope and trust between races all over the world.

Asked whether she ever plans to return and join Kenyan politics, Kang’ethe says it all depends on her success in London on one hand and her Githunguri people’s wish. "For now, I am in Britain for further education in pragmatic and selfless politics. I might return to serve Kenya even in a senior position if my electorate in London will release me," she says during this interview.

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