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Justina Wamae on love and what drew her into politics

Roots Party presidential running mate Justina Wamae.  [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Justina Wamae, has a book that she cherishes – Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography. When she bought it in 2013, it cost a then princely sum of Sh3,500, which might as well have been her life savings because she was unemployed and had struggled to find a job at the time.

“It was money that my aunt had given me for a small job I had done for her. I think she gave me Sh5,000. That book! In fact, I don’t like Wambui (her three-year-old daughter) touching it so that she doesn’t tear it. I treasure it. I always go back to see what she used to say,” she says.

Powerful figures like Thatcher inspire her to no end, and she doesn’t just read up on historical political figures but is also glued on current local and global news. It showed during the presidential debates.

No one would have predicted that a presidential candidate in Kenya would run on a manifesto based on marijuana. Nothing was conventional about the Roots Party.

From the name to the main issue in their manifesto – marijuana – to their wildcard presidential candidate – Professor George Wajackoyah, to mentions of hyena’s testicles, Kenyans largely considered them as a source of comic relief and not serious contenders.

But people paid attention when Wamae took the stage at the debates. 

Wamae, who turned 35 in May this year, comes across the same way when I meet her in person – vivacious and whip-smart. She says that some people had advised her not to go to the debates, especially when it was announced that the debate would only be between her and one other running mate, and not all four contenders.

“But I realised that the difference between men and women when it comes to opportunities is that men grab the opportunity and run with it. As women we start questioning, ‘How about… what are the perks… so I said, let me think like a man, and I ran with it,” she says.

“I would have fought and said, ‘Let me be on the same platform with the other two’, but you have to accept that these people have invested in terms of time, they have been in politics for 35 years. Actually, for me, I’m being given a head start.”

The debates gave her a lot more visibility, which she experienced even on the campaign trail afterwards when people in places like Garissa and Oyugis demanded to see “yule mama wa debate”.

Who is she and how did she get here?

She grew up in Fort Jesus estate in Kibera, and has one younger brother. Her parents worked in the jua kali hardware business. They’re both born-again Christians: her father sings in the choir and her mother is in church leadership, so they weren’t at all amused by her decision to campaign with marijuana at the forefront and she fell out with them at first.

“When they would go to church and their friends would tell them that I’m not doing right, the burden would fall on me, over why I am following that course. And actually, that was part of the motivation for me to research more about it, because I wanted my mum and dad and their friends to understand what we were saying,” she says.

“Did they understand?” I ask.

“Yes! They were very happy because we told them we’re not focusing on consumption. For them, the problem was consumption of marijuana,” she says.

Wamae attended Limuru Girls’ School and was a class prefect. She jokes that that was where her political career began, managing class politics.

“I joined Daystar in 2006 but in 2007 there was the post-election violence. We had to move out, to Syokimau. It was a very difficult time for us. My parents’ hardware business was looted and they lost so much.

Justina Wamae during her graduation. [File, Standard]

“So even them paying for me that next semester in January 2008 was by God’s grace. And that is why I always pray that whatever we do as politicians does not impact on the peace of this country,” she says.

“I’m so happy that Kibera is now peaceful. I think Kenyans have grown up and realised politics is not about enmity.”

She eventually attained a Bachelor of Commerce in Management Information Systems (MIS), with a minor in Procurement and Logistics. She got a temporary job at the British Council as an invigilator and used the money for her masters at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology  and graduated in 2013.

After that, she hit the road and tarmacked for years to find a job, doing unpaid internships. She even tried to do a show on crime in Kenya. “It didn’t work out. In fact, I see it on my YouTube channel and laugh,” she says.

“So we can go to YouTube and watch it right now?” I ask, and she says yes, it’s on her eponymous channel, Justina Wamae.

“I also did a pilot for a show called Out There. It was a series. It never sold,” she says.

“That was when I sat back and asked myself, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s just that the opportunities are not presenting themselves.’ That is what I felt being unemployed. I used to have this vision that once I graduate, I’ll move out of home, I’ll buy a car, you know? Then after the first graduation at Daystar, it was now four years later and I had not gotten a job – that was so depressing. I can resonate with what graduates feel. That period really shaped my life to what I am today.”

Wamae remembers watching Cabinet secretaries and principal secretaries being interviewed in 2013 when she was in her unemployment phase and it sparked something in her.

“When someone was asked a question, I would say, ‘If it were me, I would say this.’ So I started gaining a lot of interest. But what eventually drove me to politics was when I realised that the policies that were being sponsored in Parliament were not responsive to the youth or even Kenyans. And I felt that if I went there I would research on policies and bills so that we could have impact through them,” she says.

In 2017, she ran for MP of Mavoko Constituency, which she says is when she learnt not to force anything in life.

“I was really pushing for the Jubilee ticket, and the more I pushed, the more it escaped me. I felt that because I had done Warembo na Uhuru, now running for Mavoko and I had paid the party fees, that Jubilee should at least have given it to me.

“And then the direct ticket was given to Kalembe Ndile. No nominations, nothing. So I learned when you want something, pray about it, but let God do his work,” she says.

She ended up running as an independent candidate. “The late Kalembe started a rumour that I had been paid Sh5 million by the Jubilee party to step down for him. So everyone was on my case saying that I was running away because I had Sh5 million,” she says.

“Yet I didn’t have any money, no compensation. So I ran as an independent so as to meet my supporters and tell them, ‘There is no money. I’m still on this. And I thank the 1,200 votes I got. Because those people believed in me without money, without a party backing.”

On the campaign trail in 2017, she met her now husband, Alex Kanyi. “When I was running for MP, he was running for MCA in the same ward. So we would meet during the Jubilee party meetings but I never knew he was interested. Now I tell him maybe he lost the seat because he was focusing on me!” she says with a hearty laugh.

Justina Wamae and her husband, Alex Kanyi. [File, Standard]

They both lost their respective Jubilee nominations, and he encouraged her to run as an independent candidate, just like he was doing. “He’s the one who made my symbol. I had lost so much focus, I was just crying.”

They got married the same year, and have a three-year-old daughter. “After the election, I moved in!” she says with a laugh.

“I even used to laugh and tell people that even if I lost the seat, at least I got a husband.”

When not politicking, she is in business with him. “I work for my husband. We are into excavation and supply of building materials,” she says. Kanyi, who she says has boundless self-belief and believes in always trying something even if one fails, has been her mentor in business and politics which he also loves.

He enthusiastically supported her bid for running mate with the Roots Party, which she says she wouldn’t have gone for if he disapproved as there is no need of fighting over such issues.

She met Wajackoyah after the Roots Party advertised that they were looking for a running mate, and the same reaction that Kenyans had on the marijuana issue was the same one she had at first. After reading up on it, she understood it and they firmed up the manifesto further together.

At one point, Wajackoyah seemingly supported their competition, the Azimio party. Currently, he and Wamae are currently at loggerheads.

“When my principal talked about Azimio, I was equally shocked. Many people are thinking I have abandoned my principal. The first time I was told I was successful, even during the interview, I remember I asked the panelists, and the principal was there, ‘What is the end game? And they told me it was till the end, all the way to the ballot box,” she says.

She says that the reception from Kenyans even on the ground at rallies changed a lot from then on, becoming negative towards them.

She however says that she has not abandoned Wajackoyah, but they have differences of opinion, since when she joined them, their focus was to run the Roots party ideology to the very end without supporting anyone.

“And I remember I asked him, ‘Sir, if the others are not mentioning us, why are we mentioning them?’ So that’s the unfortunate bit,” she says.

However, whichever government comes in, she plans to work with them and apply for a position as PS or CS to serve the public and help create a better Kenya. “Let’s see how it goes. I just do my bit and let it flow. I don’t push it,” she says.