Nyiva Mwendwa: I have no apology for loving myself

Former and first female minister Nyiva Mwendwa during the interview with the Standard at her home in Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The vivid coral lipstick she wears is part of her signature look.

Winnie Nyiva Mwendwa never leaves her house without a smudge of redness on her lips and the arc of her eyebrows drawn to perfection.

At 76, a lot of things about her have changed. She has retired after 43 years of being in active politics and spends time with her grandchildren in her Nairobi and Kitui homes. 

Age has slowed the agility on her feet but she still wears heels. Her sense of style that she cultivated when she was studying Home Economics at Manchester University remains. “One thing I will never get tired of is taking care of myself,” she says, adjusting her neatly pressed suit tailored in Bangkok. A tinge of her expensive perfume lingers in the room as she runs her fingers through her weave. 

Tired of being oppressed

Her obsession with looks and love for beauty products landed her in trouble when she led a delegation of 450 women to the Beijing World Conference of Women in 1995.

She was the minister of Culture and Social Services and an explosion of voices from women tired of being oppressed was echoing across the globe. The Beijing meeting was where they would strategise and take over what they had been denied for long -- women power. They left in fanfare, dangling a promise of liberation from a culture that demeaned women. The wind of change was blowing, and Nyiva was anchoring it. But back at home, things crumbled when it was reported that she had flown her hairdresser to Beijing.

“Everyone was talking about how I went with a hairdresser. I had a group of women drawn from different sectors. From elites to illiterates. It is no surprise that a hairdresser was in my team,” she says, contradicting the much quoted phrase at the time where she said she needed to take care of her appearance as a minister; because image is everything.

Then came reports that lesbianism was discussed at the gathering with allegations that some members of the delegation had been lured. Kenyans were livid. Preachers shivered on pulpits yelling to God to descend and the former Cabinet minister to resign.

“A lot of lies were said about our visit to Beijing. Sadly, there are people who believed them,” she says.

Beth Mugo who was advocating the economic rights of women and also went to Beijing laughs when she recalls the criticism they faced when they returned home.

“It was said we were being coached to control men and become tough headed. Nyiva was put in a tight spot,” she says.

Nyiva believes the Beijing conference sparked a conversation many women wanted to have, but were too scared because of the narrative they had been fed. They were told they did not matter, and they believed it. The conference instilled in them the desire to question things. 

“Most employed women were not even being paid house allowance because they were expected to be housed by their husbands. Nobody was asking about women who did not have husbands,” says Nyiva.

Upon returning from Beijing, she claims former President Moi asked: “What do women want?” 

Her answer was simple: “Women want to be heard!”

She says she was tired of abuses about her womanhood. Anytime she vied for a political seat, she was reminded that she was not capable to lead. “Do you also want to wear trousers like men? Do you want to pee while standing?” she was asked whenever she took to the dais to address campaign rallies.

Nyiva vowed never to wear trousers. She wanted to prove that a woman can engage in politics in stilettos and skirts. 

Dr Naomi Shaban who watched the former Cabinet minister’s political life blossom says she never imagined the murk she would have to walk through when her time came. 

“For us women, they go low. They threatened me with rape, insulted me for being a single parent, and kept saying they will throw my child in the toilet,” says Shaban.

Nyiva and her late husband Kitili Maluki Mwendwa, the first African Chief Justice, were involved in politics and are said to have made more money by relating with former Uganda President Milton Obote.

Nyiva admits that she still interacts with former Ugandan First Lady Miria Obote. “They were my son’s godparents and our friendship dates from before Obote became president,” she says.

The friendship dates back to 1950s when Obote and Kitili were students at Makerere University. They hosted Obote’s family during war in Uganda. “Obote and my family were friends, but there was no money involved. We never made any investments together,” she says.

When Kitili died in a road accident in 1985, Nyivasays the shock almost killed her. “I was in Switzerland with Christine Kenyatta, and Mama Ngina called to deliver the news. It was the worst time of my life,” she says.   

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