Like the presidency and running mate seats in national politics are associated with men, so are chairman and secretary general seats in campus politics. Few women dare upset the status quo.
But one Muthoni Ouko dared change that script while at Moi University, earning herself the name Mama Rainbow. Muthoni, the CEO of Elimu Yetu Coalition, was the first woman to be elected in the secretary general position in the history of Moi Univerity politics. From that day she paved the way for women to vie for the male-dominated seats.
She recounts her journey: “My being elected was the beginning of a revolution in several ways.”
“I discovered my passion for championing for people’s rights while I was in campus. That time, there were very few seats in classes, not enough beds in hostels, toilets were flooding and a few lights and sockets were functioning. It was complete mismanagement of the university.”
She was in campus during an interesting political period: in 2002 when the Narc government took over power from Kanu. Charity Ngilu was the only woman in Narc’s top leadership and she was fondly referred to as ‘Mama Rainbow’, which made Muthoni acquire the name.
Concurrent to that euphoric moment for Kenya, was student politics that were taking the same shape as national politics. Moi University students formed its own kitchen cabinet — of which Muthoni was ‘Mama Rainbow’. Just like Ngilu, she was the only woman in the student kitchen cabinet.
In addition to that, of the five Moi University kitchen cabinet members, only Muthoni got elected into the student union.
Her friends had advised her against vying for the position. The student fraternity, however, thought otherwise and went ahead to collect and even surpass the 1,000 signatures needed for a student to be eligible to compete for a student leadership position. She got a landslide victory.
“Within the one month of being elected the secretary general, the basic amenities needed by the students to study were restored to normal. In three months, the university bought buses and chairs for the students. I also insisted on being part of every disciplinary committee, and no students were suspended or expelled from campus while I was there,” she adds.
It was not easy being anti-establishment, she confesses.
One day, while getting her hair done at the salon, she heard the salonists talking about the villagers plotting to kill ‘Mama Rainbow’. To the villagers, she was viewed as an antagonist causing unnecessary trouble to the university fraternity.
“One evening, I was in the hostel with my girlfriends cooking dinner and chatting the night away — girls stuff. Then I opened the door, only to find one of the campus security guards eavesdropping on our conversation. The abrupt move to open the door caught him by surprise and he literally fell in,” says Muthoni.
Muthoni recalled that she’d been warned by some administration staff who were anti-administration’s high handedness that the university management was looking for a situation to manipulate and finally send her away.
“One day, there was a standoff between the parallel (self-sponsored) and regular students. They fought amongst themselves, and before you know it, the university had been closed down.”
It was the opportunity the university had been waiting for. They lined up ‘witnesses’ and ‘evidence’ to support their decision on suspending several students considered ‘enemies’ of the administration. Muthoni was the worst punished. She was slapped with a five-year suspension.
“I was shocked. Rather than go home, I went to Nakuru town, rented a small house and started selling fruit salad. I used to make a profit of Sh100 a day,” recalls Muthoni.
“I’m very grateful for the support my family gave me, especially my elder brother and my then boyfriend who is now my husband. My brother bought me a Nokia 3310 phone, which was a big deal then. He even offered to pay for my completion at another university as a parallel student, but I declined. I was determined to walk this journey.”
She was in fourth year when she was suspended. In the course of the suspension, she married her long time campus boyfriend. Muthoni served three out of the five years, as her suspension was lifted by the disciplinary appeals committee. She returned to campus in 2007 to complete her degree in Business Management.
“Immediately after campus, I tried my hand in politics, and went for a councillor seat in my home town. During one of the political meetings, I received a delegation of elders who had been sent to me to ‘advise’ me that I’m the perfect candidate for councillor for Waseges Ward in Rongai Constituency, but my only undoing was that I was married to a Luo man. They even went ahead to tell me that if ‘you can change that’ we will let you vie.”
“I was perplexed beyond words. I gathered myself up and went back home. It was even difficult to break the news to my husband, but I did it in bits,” Muthoni explains.
Muthoni decided to channel her energy into advocacy issues. She started working with Africa Networking Campaign, which advocated for education for all by establishing networks in the whole of the East African region.
In 2012, she joined Elimu Yetu Coalition, a non-government organisation that champions education reforms in Kenya. She is currently the organisation’s chief executive officer.
“When I look back, I realise there was something different in me. Unfortunately, being different is often punished rather than being celebrated.”
Muthoni says if she knew earlier what she has learnt now through attending several leadership, advocacy and governance workshops, she would have used different approaches to advocate for people’s rights.
“That aside, what inspires me is when I make a difference in people’s lives in any way that I can. When I look back at my experiences, I am who I am today because of the few people who held my hand when I needed them most. I strive to be that somebody to someone every day,” says Muthoni.