Millie Odhiambo will shy away from a topic when hell freezes over. The controversial MP tells JACQUELINE MAHUGU about herself and explains why she considers herself an attack dog.
We have not been seeing much of Millie Odhiambo Mabona lately, but when I ask her where she has been, I am immediately dissuaded of any notions that the MP for Suba North Constituency may be losing her mojo.
“I am best as an attack dog. Right now, there is nothing to attack. We are on ‚handshake mode‘, so I am enjoying my rest. I am serving the people of Suba North right now and supporting my party leader, but as an attack dog, I am on standby,” she says, and we break into laughter. “If the moment comes for attack, I will attack.”
Parliament is in recess, and she should ideally be having more time to herself, but despite carefully carving out time for our interview, a few people still manage to pop in and out as we talk. She also has to turn off her phone because it keeps ringing.
Controversial or not, she is clearly still very popular.
Her life now, ever full of people in it, is reminiscent of her life as a child. Their house was never empty, thanks to her father’s political popularity. She was born and raised in Homa Bay town, the fourth of eight children (five girls and three boys). Her father, Harrison Odhiambo, was a member of The Regional Assembly for Southern Nyanza. He was vying as a Member of Parliament for Mbita Constituency when he died in a boat accident in 1973 in the Mbita Causeway, two days after Millie‘s 7th birthday.
“The little recollection I have of politics from my father is that our house was always full. It made me feel like politics was very invasive. People would sleep everywhere in our house, including in our own bedroom, on the floors, in the sitting room, on the verandah,” she says.
Just like her father, she is a teetotaler, she says she has never tasted alcohol or touched any mind-altering substance. The boisterous and opinionated MP says she was also a very shy and obedient girl, who was raised in a strongly religious family and was secretary of the Christian Union in Homabay Primary school.
The turning point came when Millie and another student were punished for something they had not done. She says she then made it her mission to always stand up for herself and for others who she thought were being unfairly treated, making her very popular with students by the time she joined St Francis Ran‘gala Girls in Siaya County. It translated into her getting any leadership position that came up, but being too vocal for the school authorities tended to get her demoted often.
An amusing incident at Limuru Girls, where she was admitted for A-Levels, after scoring a First Division, illustrates just how vocal she was.
“The first time I challenged the school was when we were called to the assembly and the principal was talking about a trip to Israel, which was funded by parents. I raised my hand and said, ‚I don’t mean to be rude, but would it not be okay for those of us who know we cannot afford it to walk away from this meeting? The principal was so upset and asked how I could say that. I told her: „I was just speaking my mind, because I would have loved to go to Israel but I know my mother cannot afford it, so what is happening for me is that I am actually sitting here just feeling sorry for myself.“ She thought I was rude.”
One of her biggest inspirations in leadership was former parliamentarian Phoebe Asiyo, with whom she had had a brief encounter when she was in Class 7. “She made such an impression on me. By the time I was in Form One, I wanted to be the MP for Mbita,” she says.
Her interest in politics had, however, waned significantly by the time she finished high school, and she studied Law at the University of Nairobi, and then went on to join the civil society, working on women and children’s rights, just like her mother who did the same as a social worker. She also formed CRADLE, an organisation that fights for the rights of children, back in 1997.
She got into politics reluctantly when her brother and a friend asked her to support the late Homa Bay Senator Otieno Kajwang’ after he had lost in the primaries, between 2006 and 2007.
“I told them I was not a politician. I was a civil society person. And you know, in civil society we did not like politicians. So I told them I did not want to handle politicians’ issues,” she says.
She had only intended to provide support financially and speak at a political meeting in support of Kajwang’ after being coached by her brother on what to say. The people’s warm response shocked her. After that, she was asked to accompany Raila and speak to a crowd that was mostly hostile to Kajwang’, thus getting a baptism by fire into politics, as she spoke to a crowd that booed and cheered in equal measure. Her interest in supporting the ODM party increased and she took leave to campaign for Kajwang’.
The then young lawyer, thereafter came up with an idea to run parallel campaigns to support Raila, and the Western Kenya Presidential Campaign Team, supported by Raila and other political heavyweights, was born. They ran successful campaigns in Western, Nyanza, Rift Valley and parts of Nairobi, encountering violence in some places. It was a tumultuous start, but she was officially in the political ring and it marked the start of a long career.
Her journey has sometimes been wrought with much publicised challenges. The biggest one was when she was attacked by her own party members. “I was not psychologically prepared for people to launch attacks on me from within the party,” she says. “There was a vicious coordinated attack on me on social media and they accused me of being a mole, then they moved to the ground.”
It came to a head when she was attacked in Parliament. They were fighting as a party against the Security Laws Amendment Bill, when she says some members undressed her. “When they were undressing me, what I did for them in reverse psychology was to pull up my skirt. Because I would pull it down, then they pull it back up several times. So I pulled it up for them and asked them what it was that I had that they had not seen. What did I have that their wives did not have? When they saw that, they said that I was crazy and left me alone,” she says.
What annoyed her about that period was not even the part where they tried to undress her, it was a member of her own party denying that it happened. “These men were undressing me in Parliament but another male ODM MP was going around telling people that nobody undressed me. Yet they tore my underwear in Parliament, and I have it to date, as a souvenir.”
This was the beginning of another rough year for Millie. She almost resigned as the Member of Parliament for Mbita, but Raila encouraged her to stay on.
“I told him I could not have my own party people attacking me and without him defending me yet I was a loyal lieutenant,” she says. “I wasted that whole year because I was not wise.” But she learned. And now she suffers no fools. “Now if someone offends me, they are lucky if I give them two days of my time. I move on to the next available space.”
Besides, none of that was as painful as discovering how ruthless people could be, attacking her mother because she (Millie) doesn‘t have a child. For the longest time, she could not even share the story without crying, because of how emotionally overwhelming it was.
“There was a time people were saying extremely nasty things about me. Even though not having a child did not affect me, what people were saying about it really affected my mother. People used very derogatory terms. One day, I told some friends in Parliament to talk to those people and tell them that they did not have to go that personal, for my mother’s sake. The next day my mother collapsed and died.”
After that, people attacked her using her mother’s death. “That really affected me for a long time because I was dealing with politics as if it was a love affair and thinking with my heart. So I learned to deal with politics with my head. The love is now only for Mr Magugu Mabona, my husband. Now, I only follow what makes sense and what appeals to what I believe in.”
At some point, she announced that she wanted to have a baby at 53. By her own admission, children love her, and she loves children, which is also evidenced by the fact that she is currently living with her niece’s children. They call her “granty”, because to them she is a grandmother who is also an aunty.
Originally, it was not a choice not to have her own baby. She had fibroids that were discovered late and caused problems, then got married to a man who lived in Zimbabwe, at 38. “So at first I had every factor working against me when it came to having children naturally. But with all that in mind, I would have put a lot of effort to get one if I wanted but I have not. I took a long time to go for surgery for the fibroids and I have not gone for assisted reproduction,” she says.
She admits that the one time she felt strongly about having a child was when she lost her mother.
“A mother and child are the two people you can love unconditionally and I missed feeling that kind of love. That was the only time I went to a doctor and said I was thinking of having assisted reproduction, but then I never went back. I am praying about it and I will decide, but I am not defined by conventional things. Having a child does not define me. I am complete and beautiful without a child. If after one year I still haven’t decided whether I want a child, then I will forget about it,” she says.
One thing that truly irks her is when people attempt to use sex as a weapon against women. “You cannot use it as a basis to demean us. If your mother did not love sex how are you here then? Or did you arrive through osmosis?” she asks, laughing.
She narrates an experience when someone once tried to blackmail her by saying he had damning photographs of her, which he would publish if she did not send him money. “I told him, ‘Unless you have a photo showing that I have a new invention of sex, publish them. I told him that as a married woman for sure I must be having sex so be my guest, post them and I would even provide additional details surrounding the event if people wanted them.”
She will not reveal what to expect of her in future, thus keeping friends and foes guessing. “One of the things I have learned in the politics is that you must have one person that knows your strategy. You must learn to share that strategy with that one person. That one person is yourself. I can assure you the only person who knows what I want to be, is me. And I will only say it at the right time. Right now it is too early.”