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International Women's Day 2020: The women who made Kenya

The image of motherland is often fondly used to refer to our homes, and especially to our countries. Yet, quite often, they seem to be motherlands with anonymous mothers, or without mothers. Even in the very best of circumstances, our mothers have been confined to the shadows of the fathers that begat us – even as whole nations.

In Kenya, we love to speak of “the founding fathers” of our republic. These are the men who participated in the political making of our country. We especially think about them as the people who fathered our independence. They are variously the men who were involved with the Lancaster House Constitutional talks of 1960-62 and those who engaged in various forms of resistance against colonial rule. There are also those who were active political actors in the early years of independence.

We have rarely heard of such people as “the founding mothers.” As a continental population, the peoples of Africa also commonly employ the trope of “Mother Africa.” Yet few of the mothers are ever mentioned. Are we trapped in the oxymoron of motherhood without mothers? Who are the mothers in whose womb the Kenyan nation has been incubated and delivered?

Even at a purely literal level, who are the women who bore and reared such towering figures as Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Masinde Muliro? We don’t hear much of Tom Mboya’s mother, or the mother to former powerful leaders like JM Kariuki, Charles Njonjo, Nicholas Biwott, Hezekiah Oyugi, or Simeon Nyachae.

 Mama Ngina Kenyatta

Who were the women who shaped the characters of these people? If it is true that behind every successful man there is a woman, could this be the woman who nurtured the stripling into a great life? If there are such persons as “makers of Kenya’s history,” who are the women who have made Kenya?

As we trace them back into history, way before independence, some of their stories begin bordering on the mythical. This will, indeed, be the case for great tales that have not been properly recorded. Their character will keep shifting, now taking on some new aspect, then the other. This is a factor of some new aspect being added to the narrative in its oral rendition; or some other aspect being dropped – or otherwise forgotten.

In Gikuyu oral tradition as history, they speak of an epoch in which the women were the rulers, before men conspired to overthrow them. It is a narrative that will be found in varying incarnations elsewhere in Africa. And so, the story goes, that these female rulers were very powerful. But they were also oppressive. So oppressive were they in fact, that the men began plotting a coup against them.

The opportunity to execute the coup came when the women went to war. They left the men behind, to look after the homes, the children and the animals. After a long tough war bravely fought, the women came home hungry for love. The men took advantage of this lascivious thirst. They made the entire army pregnant, all at the same time! It was in this season of being physically burdened that the men executed their devious mission. They took over.

The mythical tradition begins giving way to true women of valour, who in their times ruled their spaces. “They were real men, renowned for their power, giving wise counsel by their understanding and declaring prophecies;” such as the writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastics (Chapter 44) has said of famous men. These women “were wise and eloquent in their instructions.”

 Wangari Maathai (Photo: Martin Rowe)

The only Gikuyu female chief

Wangu wa Makeri lived in Murang’a in the pre-colonial age. She is easily the only Gikuyu female chief whose story seems to be remembered. Those who have carried her story to us render it with a level of patriarch mischief. Makeri Wa Mbogo was her husband. Her story casts her in the salacious mould. She is supposed to have entered into a secret romantic relationship with Chief Karuri Wa Gakure. When the matter came in the open, the chief offered to compensate the injured husband by making him a community headman. He declined, however, and the position went to his wife Wangu, instead.

Men admired the beautiful Wangu for her bodily beauty. And, from time to time, she selected some of the more handsome and stronger warriors for herself. She would do the occasional dance with them, leaving them all breathless and wordless. Carried to the extreme, someday, she is supposed to have danced herself naked, in the male only Gikuyu dance called kibata. She was reported to have resigned, as a result of this indiscretion. Wangu lived between 1856 and 1915.

Regardless of the innuendo, the story of Wangu is that of a strong woman. Her memory contributes to the collective consciousness of the tradition of the woman as a critical player in the making of Kenya. Her story is full of apocryphal anecdotes that should sometimes be taken as stretchers. She is sometimes depicted as a rather severe agent of British “colonial authorities” in an age even before the colony itself was established. What is useful about her memory, however, are not the stretchers about her, but the narrative of the power of a woman.

 Muthoni Gachanja Likimani (Photo: Christine Koech/Standard)

A revered Akamba prophetess

If the famous men and valiant fathers that begat us in Ecclesiastics declared prophesies, there lived in the 1800s Syokimau, a revered Akamba prophetess. She was to the Akamba what the seer Mugo Wa Kabiro was to the Kikuyu. Both are reputed to have foretold the coming of Europeans and of the railway line and the train. Both Syokimau and Kabiro prepared their people for migration from the traditional age to changed times that presaged the age we live in today.

The changing times would bring them in contact with “white people, like meat, traveling in a metal snake. The snake would itself belch out smoke, while the people carried fire in their pockets.” But the times would also make the Akamba people the bridge between the peoples separated by two giant water bodies, traversed by the metal snake – inference to the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria.  Syokimau heralded the new Kenyan country in which the nation would be defined from the Coastal lowlands to the Lake Basin in the west. It would traverse the eastern plains and Nyika through the central highlands, all the way to the semi-arid north. It would be a nation with new roles for the women and men alike. So who would be the principal women in the making of this new nation?

 Graffiti of Mekatilili wa Menza (Photo: Kevin Karani/Standard)

The Giriama heroine

The earliest encounter with the new world often took the character of resistance. Africans from diverse cornered communities did not readily accept the incursions. The women were not left behind. The case of Mnyazi wa Menza, a Giriama heroine, stands out.

Like Wangu, Mnyazi encountered the British before the establishment of the colony in 1923. She resisted the foreigners in the period 1913 to 1914. At a time when the British were trying to set themselves up in business in East Africa through the chartered company called the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) Company, Mnyazi led a rebellion against them.

Mnyazi (whose name changed to Mekatilili when she bore a baby girl whom she named Katilili – mother of Katilili) was a thorn in the flesh of the incoming Whites. Her confrontation against them often became physical. It climaxed in her confinement in the then very far away Kisii country after leading the Giriama Uprising of 1914. She is reputed to have escaped and walked over 1,000 kilometres back to Kilifi.

Mnyazi continued with her activism until her death in 1925, aged about 65. She ranks alongside such other leaders as Waiyaki wa Hinga and Koitalel arap Samoei. These people planted the seed of resistance against oppression, by resisting the establishment of colonial order. Subsequent heroes and heroines would draw inspiration from these gallant resisters. Their unbootable spirit has inspired champions of liberty in Kenya, both during the struggle against colonialism and in the age of independence.

 Wambui Otieno (Photo: The Standard)

Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History

Unmaking of the colonial order is the flipside of the making of Kenya. The story of women in this struggle is rarely told. Virginia Edith Wambui Otieno was born a freedom fighter in the Mau Mau era (1947-1960). This granddaughter of Waiyaki wa Hinga was a Mau Mau scout, an urban guerrilla and an underground activist. Wambui has told her own story in the volume titled Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History. The role of the Waiyaki family in the struggle for independence often runs into controversy as does that of a number of other chiefly and ecclesiastical families of that period. This is perhaps on account of the delicate balance some of these families tried to strike in their circumstances with the colonial regime, on the one hand, and with their native people on the other hand.

Wambui’s father, Tirus Waiyaki Wantoni, for example, worked with the colonial police, as a Chief Inspector. He was perhaps the first African to hold such a position. Yet, later on, he was detained for his nationalist activities.

During this season, Wambui mobilised women and domestic workers in Nairobi to spy against their British employers. She was arrested and released several times before being detained in Lamu for six months (1960-61).

Wambui, a Kikuyu by birth and upbringing, bridged Kenya’s caustic ethnic divide long ago. She married the prominent Luo lawyer, Silvano Malea Otieno, in 1963. Her court petition to bury him in the 1980s remains an epic matter in case law. Muthoni Likimani, a daughter to an Anglican clergyman in Murang’a (Rev Levi Gachanja), has captured and dramatised the feminine touch in the freedom struggle, in a book titled Passbook Number F.47927. The dilemmas in the drama bring to bear the agonizing contribution of the Kenyan woman (especially in Central Kenya) to the Mau Mau struggle and the making of Kenya.

 Hon. Phoebe Asiyo (Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri/Standard)

Role of women

The coming of independence thrust the African man to the centre stage and in the limelight of the emerging national agendas. Women remained in the shadows. It mattered little that some of them had a good education. They were expected to play secondary – and mostly domestic – roles. This was easily a carryover from the colonial presence. In the colonial era, the White woman had mostly played the role of a housewife, while her husband dominated public life. It was expected that African women should continue to play this role.

The most dominant woman in Kenya has also been the most reclusive. Mama Ngina Kenyatta, wife of the founding father of the nation Jomo Kenyatta and mother of Kenya’s fourth President, has an imprint on the national history few will ever match.

Her touch transcends politics, business and culture. She is the quintessential matriarch of the country, but that’s a story for another day.

Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation was born in 1952 with the basic focus on the emerging African leadership. The primary objective was to address and facilitate women’s advancement in the new dispensation. Absurdly, however, this was not always free of bleary interpretation.

There were those who understood this to mean that the women should become more astute spouses to an emergent African male elite. The women who took the helms, however, pointed out a profound feminine direction. They would go on to become household names in leadership in the country.

 Justice Mumbi Ngugi (Photo: Fidelis Kabunyi/Standard)

Jemimah Gecaga and Phoebe Asiyo were the founders of Mandeleo ya Wanawake Organization in 1952. Both would go on to become MPs.

Gecaga was nominated to the Legislative Council (Legco) before Independence in 1958. She became the first woman MP. Later, in 1974, President Kenyatta nominated her again.

Asiyo, on the other hand, was elected to represent Karachuonyo Constituency in 1979. During the campaigns, the KANU national executive preferred Asiyo’s competitor, David Okiki Amayo. Asiyo, nonetheless, shook them off, to give Amayo a resounding beating. Her election was, however, nullified, following a successful petition. The grounds were, however, hugely suspect. Asiyo’s popularity was put beyond doubt when she widened the margin of victory in the subsequent by-election. Surprisingly, she was shortly afterwards appointed Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services, by the same executive that had preferred Amayo.

She had earlier distinguished herself as the highest ranking female prisons officer, when she served as Assistant Commissioner of Prisons, under the respected Andrew Saikwa. This tour of her duty was remarkable for leading in rehabilitation of delinquent youth through Bostol institutions. In Parliament, on the other hand, she stood out as a keen legislator.

She remarkably brought an alimony Bill to Parliament, as well as a motion against the unsafe Depo Provera family planning drug. The sometimes frivolous House was, however, not always supportive of such motions. Asiyo nonetheless enjoyed the support of many respected colleagues in Parliament and the admiration of the public.

 Hon. Martha Karua (Photo: John Muchucha/Standard)

Other outstanding leaders of the women’s movement were Ruth Habwe, Jane Kiano and Rose Otolo. Ruth was a trained teacher who was very passionate about the advancement of women. She chaired Maendeleo from 1968 to 1971.

She was among the very first women to run for Parliament in 1963. Her party, KANU, would not clear her – because she was a woman. She left the party and ran as an independent candidate, amidst sexist insolence by incensed men. The campaign mantra against her was that she should “go back to the kitchen.” She nonetheless shook off the rudeness and went on to remain an inspiration to many women.

Women in politics

Few women made it to Parliament in those heady days. Grace Onyango Baridi, formerly the Mayor of Kisumu, became the first woman to be elected MP in 1969. She represented Kisumu Town in Kenya’s Second Parliament. Earlier, she had, together with Margaret Kenyatta of Nairobi, towered as two respected women mayors in Kenya’s early years. She was remarkably assertive in a male dominated house of 158 MPs with another 12 nominated. The Third Parliament in 1974 saw Julia Ojiambo come in to represent Busia Central as the only elected woman. Jemimah Gecaga and Eddah Gachukia came in as nominated MPs. The gain for women was, however, short-lived. Gecaga was caused to resign, hardly a year later, to make way for the nomination of her brother Njoroge Mungai.

The coming of multiparty democracy – and especially that of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 – positively varied the fortune and contribution of women in politics in a major way. While the numbers have yet to meet the constitutional threshold, the significant statistical gain needs to be jealously protected. Attempts to reverse this gain are heard every so often in calls to scrap the woman county rep seats, as well as the Senate. Were this to happen, it would be a terrible negation for this demography and for the country.

Away from politics, resilient Kenyan women have over the past 56 years of independence made significant marks in influencing lives positively. Rosemary Okello was an outstanding banker before she founded the Makini Schools in Nairobi. This group of schools has been outstanding in producing star graduates, who now populate all sectors of the public service and private enterprise.

 Hon. Joyce Laboso (Photo: Beverlyne Musili/Standard)

Within the same docket of influence through education are Eddah Gachukia of the Riara Schools and university; and the late Nellie Njuguna, formerly of St Nicholas Schools in Nairobi. Put together, these three women have done inimitable work in the making of a nation through education. Dr Gachukia also taught Literature at the University of Nairobi, before founding her schools and serving as a nominated MP.

Easily the most outstanding women in Kenyan politics have been Martha Karua and Charity Ngilu. The crown of their careers has been the audacity of the hope that they could ascend to the highest office in the land. Accordingly, Karua ran for the office of President in 2013. Ngilu had a go at it earlier in 1997.

Both have been pacesetters of unprecedented proportions. Ngilu has gone on to be a pioneer woman governor, when she was elected to lead Kitui County in 2017. Also elected in the same year were Joyce Laboso of Bomet and Ann Waiguru of Kirinyaga. Laboso sadly passed on.

Karua is an inspiring lawyer who was also noted for political activism and mobilization ahead of the return of multiparty democracy. Her candour and courage have earned her the sobriquet of the Iron Lady.

 Hon Amina Mohammed (Photo: Stafford Ondego/www.sportpicha.com)

It is by no means possible to exhaust the list of Kenyan women who have shaped or continue to shape the history of their country. You see them in all walks of life, wrestling for space in a male dominated world. Sally Kosgey has been an ambassador and a diligent Head of the Public Service. In the Cabinet have been such outstanding women as Ambassador Amina Mohammed and Monica Juma. Raychelle Omamo was the first woman to occupy the Defence docket in the Cabinet.

Kenyan women have played key roles in the legal sphere. Lady Justices Joyce Aluoch and Effie Owour have been trail blazers. They led the way other outstanding women in this field as Philomena Mwilu, Njoki Ndung’u, Martha Koome, Nancy Barasa, Kalpana Rawal and Mumbi Ngugi. Mumbi Ngugi continues to be outstanding for epochal trendsetting judicial decisions.

Women in medicine

Dr Betty Gikonyo stands out as a medical professional who is transforming lives. Together with her husband and longtime friend, Dr Dan Gikonyo, they founded the Karen Hospital that is today a leading heart hospital in Eastern Africa. She is also the founder of the University of Nairobi Alumni Association. The association has pumped millions of shillings into a bursary fund that has helped hundreds of brilliant students from poor homes complete their studies. Prof Miriam Were, Eunice Muringo Kiereini and Margaret Omuronji Wanyonyi, before her, shaped and edified the nursing career. Miriam Were also distinguished herself as a creative writer.

 Dr Betty Gikonyo (Photo: Juliet Masiga/Standard)

Another nurse, Grace Ogot, was a towering literary figure and politician. Through her creative writings, she preserved and propagated a rich East African culture, while also positively influencing lives through the written word. She belongs to the same generation as other outstanding female writers like Rebecca Njau, Asenath Odaga and Pamela Kola. Esther Kamweru, Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni, Catherine Gicheru, Lucy Oriang, Jemimah Mwakisha and Dorothy Kweyu stand out in journalism. They have been critical to setting agenda for the country through judicious editorial work in the newsroom.

These women and many more whom we have not featured in this writing – in sports, music and drama, science and technology, and even in the women’s rights movement, have been a great inspiration to those who cherish the making of a great Kenyan nation.

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