She graces one of Kenya’s top offices and rubs shoulders with the nation’s lawmakers. She probably commands much more respect than Members of Parliament and attracts perks comparable to cabinet ministers.
Her story, she insists, is not fairytale. “I was determined to go past certain limitations. It is about working hard to achieve what you dream about,” she says.
The last time Lonah Mumelo felt despair (of being held back) was four decades back. As a young girl on a continent of excluded rural villages, she was destined to be married off once her body blossomed into womanhood.
She knew her fate too well. She had witnessed her peers – yanked from their innocence to warm up a man’s matrimonial bed. The men in return paid parent’s generosity with heads of cattle.
What lay ahead tormented her young mind – so much because she had fallen in love with books and hoped to discover why her elder brother (born to her father’s eldest wife), a pilot, could keep a helicopter aloft mid-air.
“My mother was illiterate. My father, a village chief, wasn’t so learned either. I could tell that despite taking me to school, they didn’t really believe that a girl could make it through education,” Lonah says.
“Nonetheless, I worked hard,” she says. She would prove them wrong; first at the turn of 1973 when she sat for her CPE exams and emerged at the top of her class. She beat her brothers too. Her father was impressed and decided to try her out for O-levels.
She was enrolled at Lugulu Girls. “It was like heaven,” she says, “a calm and nice environment where I could immerse my head into the books and worry less about everything else.”
Unknown to her parents, they had unlocked their daughter’s potential. Lonah would survive the hurdles and pass her exams. She was sponsored by the Government to study at University of Nairobi. The rest is now history.
Her success didn’t come cheap. She had to stay focused. Not many of her peers had enough resolve to shun unwarranted distractions; like teenage infatuations.
“I had no time for boys. They would make advances and I would act like I never heard them – or even saw them. For me, it was important that I complete my education,” she says.
The first time she fell in love, just before she accepted admission at the university, she made a pact with her would-be husband. She would have the liberty to attend university and achieve her dreams – undeterred.
The man, now her husband of 35 years, Wakinina Mumelo, loves his wife’s astute achievements.
“She has no taste for ‘freebies’. She goes against the grain when she feels it is the right thing to do. She had dreams and I let her pursue them to her fullest,” he says about his wife.
At no point in her glittering life does Lonah recall being assisted into employment or to rise the ranks. “I trusted and believed in myself. I don’t have to stoop so low in order that I move up in my career,” she says.
It could have been that she was raised a Christian. Or maybe she just learnt the beautiful ways of life. In her quest to be the best, she never forgot to set good precedence for the generation that would emerge afterwards through her lineage.
Mix of fate
In August 2013, when she responded to a newspaper advert seeking commissioners for the powerful Public Service Committee (PSC), she was the principal at Teacher’s Training College in Mombasa.
Five months later, in January 2014, she had moved on with life – believing that her application never made it through. “I received a call asking me to show up for an interview,” she says.
Not long after, she would be called by colleagues into a TV room to watch MPs and senators discuss her.
“I was shocked myself. I had never interacted with any of the MPs yet they spent time talking about me on live TV. Millie Odhiambo read my profile so well; I was elated,” she recalls.
Deep in the mix of fate the best was yet to surface. When it did, Lonah would smile all the way to her new office at County Hall... and then to the bank.
“Through my own experiences I know that no woman has to yield to unorthodox means to move ahead or get a job,” she says.
With all she has to her name, Lonah, a mother of four boys and a girl, has no greater appreciation for the “immense meaning that motherhood has bestowed me with: it is my most treasured role in life.”
She continues: “My children give me so much happiness. It is overwhelming when a mother moulds a morally upright adult from a baby.”
The Mumelos have cherished time together. The couple swear by the power of true love; the spark still exists more than three decades later. And whenever Lonah is home – when she is not held by tasks back in the office – she slips into her role as a wife.
“He (pointing at her husband) is the head of the home.
That holds all the time. My position as a commissioner ends at the door,” she says, smiling coyly. In return, Wakinina has ensured a steady stream of affection. He says: “I have never eaten my dinner alone without my wife except when she is out of the country. I wait for her until she comes back.”
The doting husband revels in making the environment conducive for his wife to reach great heights. And even though security detail availed for his wife’s safety proved to be ‘too much to handle’ in the first phases of the job, Wakinina and the children learnt to adapt quickly.
“It also took me a while to get used to having bodyguards around me all the time,” admits Lonah. “We are simple folk and couldn’t quite understand why I needed protection. With time though, we have settled into the regimen.”
She once trudged the earth barefoot. But in her determination she has roamed the world – visiting world cities and even entering the white house, “twice,” she says, blinking a smile.
Lonah is optimistic that young girls can rise from the obscurity of life to achieve much more than they endeavoured. In herself, she has enough proof.