By Titus Too
When she was elected MP for Eldoret North at 24, the late Philomena Chelagat Mutai was a visionary woman.
She was enthusiastic to work for her people who sent her to Parliament. But little did she know her dreams will be dashed by a political system opposed to democracy and emancipation of the poor. Her illustrious, yet controversial political career inspired many, including her fellow Kalenjin women, who have since overcome gender inferiority to scale political ladders. She remains a trail-blazer even in death.
In 10th Parliament, Rift Valley, where Chelagat hailed, produced seven out of the 15 women MPs.
Endless controversies mired her life as Eldoret North MP and at one point, she was forced to flee to Tanzania, where she stayed for three years to escape political persecution.
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Chelagat’s commitment to her constituents landed her in jail in 1976, and her criticism of the Government forced her to flee to the neighbouring nation in 1981 to avoid being thrown to the gallows.
She was born in 1949 at Terige village in Lessos, Nandi County and was 64 when she passed on.
A stranger meeting Chelagat for the first time would not be convinced she was a headache to both Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi’s regimes. Her face did not betray anything fiery or controversial.
Her exit from active politics was somehow unceremonial, a stark contrast to her star life as a politician.
After returning from Tanzania, Chelagat briefly reconciled with the Kanu regime and was given a senior job at Kenya Commercial Bank.
She also worked briefly at the Kanu headquarters and for Standing Committee on Human Rights.
But things went awry again in June 1999, she was sacked from the human rights body through a radio bulletin.
The soft spoken but confident Chelagat quietly quit politics and settled at her father’s farm in Terige, Lessos township in present day Nandi County, where she was a farmer before her health started deteriorating. She chose to remain single and childless.
“It was never my intention to get married. After all, I would not have broken any record by getting married. Several other women have been married and bore children and the trend continues,” Chelagat told The Standard in an interview at the farm in 2009.
When we visited the farm then, the compound, which has two houses and a store, looked deserted, revealing a life of solitude that marked her sunset years.
Chelagat, who graduated from the University of Nairobi in April 1974, and was elected Eldoret North MP in October the same year, had to contend with criticism, harassment and cultural practices to clinch the seat.
At the university, she was highly critical of the Government of first President Kenyatta and used the institution’s student magazine, The Platform to air her misgivings against the State.
This did not go down well with the Government, which had then started cracking down on people it considered dissidents. Mutai was not spared and hers was an on and off period of study at the university.
However, Chelagat eventually graduated and fate would conspire to thrust her into national politics.
chances of winning
Eldoret North Constituency seat was vacant after then MP, the late William Saina, had been imprisoned. Though she had not thought of running for the seat, she ended up being the area MP.
“My intention was to contest for the Eldoret South seat, which was neighbouring our home but when I consulted the late Jean Marie Seroney, who was my mentor, he advised me to seek the Eldoret North seat,” she said.
Chelagat expressed her fears to Seroney, her political mentor, that she was not known in the area. Seroney promised to introduce her to the people. And he did.
Seroney took her to Eldoret North where he introduced her to the constituents and this bolstered her chances of winning. But more challenges lay ahead.
“I was still a young girl and my feminine voice was not loud enough for crowds that turned up for rallies. They suggested that I use a public address system that was not readily available at the time,” she narrated.
Chelagat said little money was required then to launch political campaigns. “I did not have to dish out handouts. Instead, people who turned up for my rallies donated money towards my campaigns,” added Chelagat.
Being a single Kalenjin lady, Chelagat did not have either land or her own house and during her campaigns, she was forced to spend nights in lodgings. And her opponents used this to discredit her.
“I was still young and single, so my opponents accused me of flirting around in lodgings. I remember confronting one of the men and challenged him to marry me. He stopped his malicious campaigns,” said Chelagat.
She added that in the 1970s, MPs earned Sh5,000 and only those who were willing to dedicate their time to serve the people sought seats.
When she was elected, Chelagat embarked on a drive to resettle her many landless constituents, which eventually landed her in jail.
After serving for only two years, the State arrested and jailed her for inciting squatters in Ziwa, Uasin Gishu to invade a private land.
She was only 26 when she was jailed for two and a half years.
“There was an Asian who owned land at the Ziwa sisal plantation. The mistake I did was to urge the people of the area to raise money to buy the land,” she explained.
The Asian refused to hand over the land to peasants after getting the money. Her efforts to have him compelled to surrender the land did not bear fruit.
She raised the issue in Parliament, sent delegation to President Kenyatta, but nothing worked.
“It was at this point that I asked the people to take over the land and settle there. The Asian sued me and I was jailed. But I am happy because the people were settled later,” she said.
Her appeal against the sentence was dismissed and she served the term fully. When she was released in September 1978, the political bug was still biting her.
She offered herself for re-election and contested against Nicanor Sirma, who had captured the seat in a by-election occasioned by her imprisonment.
She ousted Sirma and returned to Parliament.
short of maize
But the Kanu Government was still not comfortable with the straight-shooting woman.
“Despite having been jailed for fighting for my people, this did not cow me,” she said.
Chelagat again ran into trouble after blasting the Government over famine that hit Kenya in 1980.
“There was famine, the country had run short of maize, which forced the Government to import yellow produce,” she recalled.
Her problems started when in Parliament she asked: “What Government is this that the ministers cannot explain to the country what it is doing over the famine?” After she came out of Parliament buildings, some of her friends in the presidential security informed her that a plot had been hatched to arrest and haul her in court over falsification of mileage claims.
Chelagat knew those behind the plot were determined to have her jailed and after consultation, she fled the country.
“I consulted widely and friends advised me that I flee instead of being jailed as my life would be in danger this time round,” she said.
On October 15, 1981, Chelagat fled to Tanzania leaving behind her mother and sister in her Nairobi’s Buru Buru Estate house.
“I did not tell my mother of my intentions to flee. I travelled by bus and crossed over to Tanzania at Namanga border,” she said.
Chelagat remained in Tanzania for three years and returned to Kenya in April 1984 to attend to her mother who was sick.
“My mother died five days after I arrived. Since then I have been at home and they (Government) did not bother pursuing me,” said Chelagat.
She said she did not regret what happened to her. “I was simply serving my people. It had to come with consequences,” she said of her years in harassment, jail and exile.
Last year when a group of liberation fighters visited her at a Nairobi hospital led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Mutai said she had forgiven the Kenyatta and Moi regimes that frustrated her.
“I have no grudge with either the late Kenyatta or Moi. They did what they did to me because they wanted to maintain their grip on power. I am not bitter,” she said.