Irene Kendi was visibly moved and barely able to deliver her acceptance speech as she received the Outstanding Female Mentor award from Narc Chairperson Martha Karua last month. It was the Women in the Red Leadership Awards ceremony and Irene was picked out of three nominees in her category to win the award.
When we met for this interview, I was curious about the emotion she displayed. It turns out that Irene gets emotional whenever she is publicly appreciated for the work she does.
"In August last year I was in Ghana for a conference. At the end of the event organised by the All Africa Students Union, I was recognised as the Most Enterprising Female Student Leader in Africa for my work in Kenya and my participation during the conference. I was not expecting it at all and could not hold back the tears," she says, as tears well up and one slowly rolls down her cheek at the memory!
Twenty-eight-year-old Irene says the awards are a confirmation that she is making an impact among Kenya's youth and she is very grateful for the recognition, hence the tears. "The awards meant a lot to me and have motivated me to keep doing what I do," she says.
Irene is a person who makes things happen. She is the immediate former deputy president of the Student Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU), the first female ever to be elected to that position since the university became an independent institution in 1970. It all began in 2011 when she was a first-year student at the university's College of Education campus in Kikuyu, although she believes she was born a fighter.
"I was a prefect in nursery school," she says. "And in Form One at Kangeta Girls School in Meru County, I was elected games captain, a position I held up to Form Four."
As a two-week-old 'fresher' in the parallel programme in university, it came to her attention that the student IDs for those in the parallel programme were not available. When she asked why, she got no satisfactory answers.
"I hate discrimination of any kind. I think it's because my mother was divorced for having only girls," she says. "I personally took up the matter of IDs, gathered my fellow students and went to see the dean."
Irene says she realised at that moment that God had endowed her with influence because the students listened to her and supported her proposal.
"I was nervous but determined. At first, the dean dismissed our argument that we too deserved to have our IDs brought to the campus (rather than go all the way to the main campus to pick them). We started making noise and gave her a 24-hour ultimatum – bring our IDs or we boycott classes. Within 24 hours, our IDs were on campus, ready for collection," says Irene.
It is not difficult to see how she managed this. When she walks into the restaurant where we are meeting for the interview, her bearing is upright and confident, and she is known by all the staff whom she greets by name. She leads me confidently upstairs where we can have an uninterrupted conversation, during which she talks in a clear and straightforward manner.
That was the start of Irene's journey to becoming a university student leader. Ironically, she almost didn't make it to university. "When I was in Form Four, I was sick for seven months with malaria and pneumonia." That illness left Irene with only one month to study for her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams.
"No one thought I would even sit for the exams let alone pass," she says. "When the results came out I called the principal and she said I had scored a mean grade of B. I remember asking her, 'Did you say B for boy or D for donkey?' That B was a cause for celebration because I expected a C at best," she says.
However, to get into university she needed a B plus of 79 points. Hers was a B of 64 points. Irene thought of repeating Form Four but two things stopped her. She knew her mother couldn't afford the school fees – she had been sent home many times over the four years for lack of fees. Secondly, the syllabus had changed, meaning she would have had to go back to Form Three.
"With the university option appearing closed, I joined my mother in the market where she sold cereals, vegetables and fruits. Mum started teaching me how to do business when I was 10 years old so after Form Four, I started selling potatoes. I had many good customers and was able to save some money."
Over time, Irene caught the attention of one of her customers who was curious to know why a well-spoken person with a Form Four certificate was selling vegetables in the market. "We got talking and he found me a position in the then Electoral Commission of Kenya as a voter registration clerk. I managed to earn a lot of money because I registered many new voters in Nyambene by going door to door," says Irene.
Because of her impressive results, she was offered a job following the 2007 elections sorting the voter registers. She left after six months with about Sh400,000 in savings and went back to business – she bought grains from the Cereals Board and sold them for a profit. Within a short time she had what she thought was enough to get her into university.
"But friends discouraged me, saying the process of getting in was lengthy and expensive," she says, admitting that she regrets listening to these 'friends' as she went back to the market, where a primary schoolmate whom she calls Mutwiri found her.
"Mutwiri was shocked to find me in the market. He knew me as a bright student –we were always neck and neck in school. Mutwiri challenged me with words I will never forget," Irene says. "He said if I stayed where I was, Kenya stood to lose a great leader. He said I was wasting myself because Wangari Maathai and Martha Karua needed successors."
Hope re-ignited, Irene downloaded application forms for the University of Nairobi the next day. Over the next few days, Mutwiri helped her to fill them out and even navigate the Higher Education Loans Board, which she had never heard of. She opted to do education, reasoning that she was guaranteed a job at the end of the four years.
And so it was that in September 2011, Irene, by then the mother of a two-year-old boy, became a university student. "If it were not for Mutwiri, I would not have done it. Words can have a powerful effect on us; even more powerful than positions or money. His words empowered me in a very real way," she says.
There was one issue after another to be dealt with in university. Soon after the issue of the students IDs, Irene noticed that some lecturers came to class but did not do their job. "I stood up to them and asked them to do what they were being paid to do, which was teach. Some would actually come to class and insult us!" she says.
Then she noticed a trend where third-year students would throw first-years out of classrooms whenever they were looking for a place to sit. This went on until the day Irene got the first-year class to send the seniors away. "I was becoming known as the one who stood up for the first years. They even gave me a name – Mama Yao (their mother)," she says.
Then there was the time Irene, who lived off campus with her son, became aware that there had been no water or electricity on campus for days. She wondered how the students were surviving.
"I led the first demonstration that was covered by the media," she says. "I gathered the students to boycott classes and disrupt traffic on the road, but I told them not to destroy anything – we just wanted to draw attention to the situation."
Irene says by 4pm of the same day, a water tanker had brought water and the power was back. "I was not a student leader then. I was not even aware that Sonu existed. But during the next elections I vied and got elected as mayor of the campus."
Irene says using her new official position, she initiated cleaning of the hostels twice a day by the cleaning staff. "Kikuyu campus remains the cleanest to this day," she says.
Irene then vied for an executive position in Sonu but lost. This, however, did not stop her activism. "You only need a mouth and courage!" she says. When the Sonu constitution came up for amendment and review in 2013-2014, she was a commissioner and fought for more positions for women.
"We started with catering and environment, a position reserved for women," she says. "Then we added treasurer, gender affairs and deputy president," says Irene. "We insisted that the positions of Sonu president and deputy president had to go to opposite genders."
And that is how Irene became the first ever female Sonu deputy president for the period 2014-2015. "We started pushing for the same thing to happen in the Kisumu and Mombasa campuses where women had never been represented. That is how we got women into executive positions."
Irene wanted these changes to extend to other universities and started forums to empower female students to take up leadership positions.
"I shared with them how I had to work hard to get my university fees. Many of them had parents who paid their fees so what was stopping them from making the most of this opportunity? I told them to stop spending time gossiping and sleeping around with boys or sugar daddies, and to quit being 'campus wives'," says Irene, adding that to make ends meet, she did photography and sold underwear.
Although she is through with her university education and is waiting to graduate, Irene is not done mentoring young women. "I want Kenyan women to believe in themselves and take up leadership positions. I want to see women standing united the way they do when they encounter a woman in labour on the roadside. And I want to see the succession gap in women leadership closed," she concludes.
• Irene is a single mother of a seven-year-old son named Gyan • She is the third born and the most outspoken person in her family • She runs a string of businesses in Nairobi and Meru • In June 2014 she started the Kenya Universities Female Student Leaders Association (KUFSLA), which brings together current and former female student leaders across the country in an effort to eliminate gender discrimination at both university and national level • She has started a peer mentoring campaign named Chanua Wenzetu for female students in high school, colleges and universities • She spends her free time catching up on sleep and weekends with her son • She has political aspirations for 2017