As a journalist, SONIA BIRDI was often on the front line of one cause or another but as she tells GARDY CHACHA, being nominated to Parliament and being the first woman of Asian origin in the House gave her the platform she needed to take off
Arya Samaj, on the outskirts of Parklands in Nairobi, is packed with Asian women. They are all hoping to get insight on cervical cancer from a talk presented by Women for Cancer (W4C) and organised by the Hindu Council of Kenya – women wing. In their midst, restlessness is palpable. The July cold could be a culprit but “No,” I am told.
Today, there is a special guest. Heads continue turning and tongues wagging until Sunjeev Kaur Birdi, better known as Sonia Birdi arrives. The nominated MP is graceful in a red tailored dress accessorised with a flowered coat.
“Habari yako?” she mutters in seamless Swahili, clearly avoiding the uptight impression English has on conversation. For the last 16 months, it has been a paradox for Sonia to meet up with journalists. Having worked as a reporter for Radio Africa’s East FM between 1998 and 2005, she is careful of the curiosity that boils in every journalist.
“I am fine talking to you today. I know the media is always looking for a juicy side to every story – especially with us politicians. I haven’t been involved in scandals of any kind, so I believe we will have a good interview,” she says coyly and smiles.
Before March last year, Sonia was a reserved laid back person who believed in helping the helpless. When Sinai tragedy happened, Sonia, who worked at an office right across from where the inferno razed everything in its path, was queuing at a bank not far away.
It brought back ghoulish memories of her first days in media: 1998 bomb blast. Sonia was the first reporter at the chaotic scenes of that blast; images she maintains will forever be with her.
“After things had calmed down in Sinai, I went over to see how my help would be needed. I sat with Kenya Red Cross personnel at the site and drafted a list of what was required. I bought food and snacks for children and mothers. We brought in lessos to act as makeshift changing rooms for the women,” she says.
While busy offering monetary help and services at Sinai, Sonia’s next destiny was playing out in the background. “You should run to be a Member of Parliament,” she recalls being told by one victim she interacted with at Sinai.
It was a suggestion that baffled her since she had never envisioned a career in politics. As far as she recalls, all she ever wanted to do is work in the media. She downplayed the suggestion and was surprised when it was raised up again by her co-volunteers who she worked with to help Sinai fire victims.
She raised questions, which were promptly met with ready answers. Those who lobbied for her candidacy had a constituency, a party, a slogan and just about everything to roar through a perfect campaign. A meeting was also organised between her and William Ruto, the current Deputy President, whose party, URP, she had been advised to join.
“I remember sitting in the waiting room with my hands clenched together,” she says. “I was very unsettled meeting him for the first time.”
That would be the last moment Sonia would experience a bundle of nerves interacting with a ‘Mheshimiwa’; she joined the club soon after; becoming the first woman of Asian origin to be ‘in order’, inside Kenya’s Parliament.
Sonia didn’t race though even after meeting Ruto. From that meeting, it seems, her ideas must have impressed the political bigwig as she ended up being nominated by his party. What began with an out-of-control event took her to the floor of the August House.
“I got into politics and realised that if the change we wish for is to take place, we all have to be politicians. There is no other way out.”
Since becoming a legislator, Sonia has strongly involved herself with empowering women as well as voicing up their rights. Recently, she teamed up with Hon Rachel Ruto to empower women with the idea of table banking. When human rights groups around the world rolled out ‘Bring Back Our girls’ campaign against Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, she joined African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet) at Uhuru Park to add her voice too.
“The power of the woman is what makes the world go round,” says Sonia, adding, “a woman’s position, regardless of what space she occupies, is very important. Whether she is the CEO of a company or a housewife back at home, she needs to be commended, respected, cared for, protected and treated well.”
Even as she flexes to challenge the status quo on the position of a woman in our society, Sonia confides that she has a dream. In the next three and a half years, she says, she will have served to birth a project that will offer millions of youth a chance to steer their own lives.
“How busy can it get being an MP?” I ask her.
She pauses. Grins. And after seconds of soul searching says poignantly: “Very busy. Meetings start at 7am and end late past evening. I eat in my car when am driving. It all comes with the responsibility – which I have accepted. I have to serve Kenyans like they deserve to be served.”
“Do you even have time for a special someone?” I keep on her heels with the probe.
“There is no one,” she says smiling, “Chacha, I believe that people should control what they can as individuals. What you can’t, leave it... you don’t need to force it. If someday life brings along a man who is well balanced: somebody who can understand me, then I will have a family of my own. At the moment I am happy with my parents, brother and two sisters.”
Sonia derives inspiration from freedom fighters like Mandela and Gandhi. Oprah Winfrey, the famous talk-show host, is among female personalities whose lives she learns from.
Time is out. I have to let Sonia address the audience that has so eagerly waited to meet and hear her. Afterwards, she says, she will head to other meetings before retracting back to her peace and tranquillity.
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