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I viewed women as property, now I know better, says retired teacher

Kasigau Wildlife Conservancy chairman Jonathan Mwangeje fetches firewood with his daughters, Tabitha Kulola and Jerusha Mrunde. [David Gichuru, Standard]

As urban women fight for equality in the political and corporate arenas, at the wildlife conservancy level, the script is different.

Here, women are fighting harmful social norms and practices, gender-based violence, and lack of representation in the leadership of conservancies and community land ranches. 

In Taita Taveta, which hosts 17 conservancies, Jonathan Mwangeje has committed to amplifying women’s voices against injustices. But it has not always been the case for the chairperson of the Kasigau Wildlife Conservancy. 

For a man who went to school in the 60s, worked as an untrained teacher in the 70s, graduated as a P1 teacher from the prestigious Machakos Teachers Training College in 1974, and retired as an Inspector of Schools, one would expect to meet a progressive person who had accomplished much in life. 

However, a sweeping glance at Mwangeje’s home in Rukunga village tells a different story. His homestead looks like that of an ordinary villager, and not of a career teacher who worked for three decades. 

There is evidence of recent construction activity – the installation of a water tank, ongoing refurbishment of a semi-permanent house, and construction material piled in a corner of the spacious compound. 

Looking back, Mwangeje regrets the life he has led for the last seven decades. He was a stringent adherent of his community’s cultural norms that never recognised the woman as an equal partner in the running of family affairs. 

Kasigau Wildlife Conservancy chairman Jonathan Mwangeje. [David Gichuru, Standard]

As if reading my mind, Mwangeje offers: “It is the patriarchal culture I grew up in that determined where I placed women in society. I saw them not just as subordinates to men, but also as having no say in the community’s issues.” 

This meant that he never allowed his wife or daughters to take part in any discussion on family matters or even voice an opinion. His culture viewed women as property.

“It is the saddest state of affairs. When I see where I am now, I wish I could take all these years back and start afresh,” he says. 

Suddenly, a smile lights up his face completely camouflaging his earlier sadness.

He turns to his wife, Emily Zighe Mwangeje, who has been listening to our conversation. She looks at her husband with a twinkle in her eyes. 

Mwangeje confirms that he has changed thanks to the training he underwent that uses the Social, Analysis, and Action tool developed by CARE International. His style of leadership at the helm of Kasigau Wildlife Conservancy has also changed.  

“The tool takes a trainee through a step-by-step process that starts with self-reflection before one can go out to effect transformational action,” says Mwangeje. Through the self-reflection session, he says, he came to terms with “all those mistakes I had committed both at personal, family, and community level that promoted negative vices against women”. 

“I remember vividly coming home one day after the SAA training. When I arrived, I found my wife was not well. I proceeded to help her out with the household chores. That would never have happened before, and I remember even my children questioning my actions,” he reminisces. 

Mwangeje explains that the SAA training model was used in the Resilient, Inclusive & Sustainable Environments (RISE) project, a Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Association (KWCA) initiative aimed at mainstreaming gender in conservancy activities. 

“In order to achieve this objective, the project adopted the SAA tool to explore why women and young people have always participated minimally in conservancy activities, including leadership,” says Joyce Peshu, the Gender Officer, at KWCA. 

Jonathan Mwangeje with his wife Emily Zighe (right) and daughters, Tabitha Kulola and Jerusha Mrunde. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Peshu adds that to achieve the objective, the project had to train the KWCA staff, conservancy board, and management members, who led village dialogues which were used to “unfreeze” the sticky social and gender power norms that have excluded women from leadership and participation in conservancy-related activities. 

Mwangeje says the facilitators used adult participatory approaches, the 24-hour clock, fishbowl, and various SAA tools that elicited heated discussions. One year after the training, Mwangeje looks at and addresses women’s issues through a different lens. 

 Another milestone is in the employment of rangers and wardens. Before the RISE project, there was not a single woman warden.

Currently, more women are showing up to be recruited for these positions. 

Mwangeje says seven women and seven men were taken to Manyani for rangers training, adding the women’s performance was exemplary.  

Presently, of the 28 rangers at Kasigau conservancy, 16 are women.