Sunday, October 2, 2011

Envisioning Kenya's governance in the hands of women giants

Generations of Courage: Women lead against ethnicity in Kenya and with brilliance!


Shailja Patel voices for women departed. Her poetry is a call for justice and reason  to prevail in Kenya. She and others founded Kenyans for Peace Through Justice at the height of poll violence in 2007

We are bereaved in Kenya. Below are thoughts desired to reflect here before the sad news of the deaths Wambui-Otieno Mbugua and Wangari wa Maathai came in  quick succession. Both these are powerful women.

Their demise must leave us in Kenya more united. We shun those who try to divide women into elitist vs the rural. Women who live in the cities against the ones in the villages. Women scholars versus women who are not learned. Nobody does this to men. It is done to women on purpose.

Some male journalists keep at this. They say that women who speak up are feminists and so? But they proceed to question their moral fibre and say things about them and their families. This is not new. Wambui-Otieno Mbugua and Wangari Maathai would reject this kind of simplification. Only a person who has not tuned their ear to the ground in rural areas does not know that women there also recoil from injustice. Fiercely defending justice, they ask questions. These are the rural women that some journalists in Kenya so love to deride by imagining that they work with other women against their will. No! Have they even read Wangari Maathai's quotes?

It was easy to persecute me without people feeling ashamed. It was easy to vilify me and project me as a woman who was not following the tradition of a 'good African woman' and as a highly educated elitist who was trying to show innocent African women ways of doing things that were not acceptable to African men.
Wangari Maathai
We need to rage for these women and others. We cannot let their beautiful 'light go quietly' as Dylan Thomas put it for men in the days when the word men is said to have included women but actually systematically left them out in that verbal silence.  We must keep our focus on our beautiful nation Kenya and the promise of change to do these women proud. We must, like John Donne a metaphysical poet remind: Death be not proud .

 Wambui and Mbugua wed at the AGs chambers in 2003. Their marriage was accepted in the Anglican church (solemnized) early this year too. Wambui was 65 then and Mbugua 25 and this was new to Kenya.

The season has been relentless. In this same period we have lost author and paeditrician Dr. Margaret Ogola and earlier Dekha Ibrahim. We grieve that two of these women, medical doctor M. Ogola and Wangari Maathai (Ph. D) and environmentalist, have died of common cancers. We abhor the rate at which women the whole world must be subjected to diseases sown upon us by those who do not care about polluting us even with medicines. We rage! We remind the Kenyan government that cannot lose people to road accidents in droves and continue as if nothing were happening. Dekha Ibrahim died in a crash. Wambui struggled with a heart condition for years.

It is hard for our reason to find meaning in these deaths. We try to because if not life seems to be a vicious betrayal. We rage again and again for our women. To think of the contradiction that Wambui -Otieno Mbugua was all heart and of course intelligence too. Sh  re-married only a few years back passionately displaying her love without hindrance inspite of great misunderstanding from her society. It is hard to believe that our environmentalist would not be spared of cancer. But I believe these women died of love for our nation and for love's sake we must speak clearly. I have to say that many activists in the world do succumb to cancers. Well, they mean it when they say they are unhappy. They mean it when they say that things are wrong. We are all in this together.

I hope the poem in which Shailja Patel asks the daring question of why all these women have gone so early when Kenya needs them so and why in such quick succession as old men continue to ridicule many  hits us here. The poem is dedicated to Dekha Ibrahim, Wangari Maathai and Wambui-Otieno.  All  of these women and those mentioned above were youthful in a amazing way. The way of service in leadership. We feel that in their departing we have lost a currency we are normally almost bankrupt for: intelligent, resourceful and humble leadership.

So I go back to the thoughts which I kept on wanting to share before the fateful events.

I sometimes ponder about  Kenya and what she would have become if top governance had been in the hands of some of our women. Women who have always stepped out to fight oppression. Let me look at a few of them for the difference they made. Often they shunned tribal divisions. I think of Mumbi Ng'aru the former Mayor of   Thika town and here courageous association with ODM which in her area is seen to be of another ethnic group. She does it gracefully. She fights on the Odingas camp. Many point out that she is in the camp of the enemy, Mumbi continues/d  undeterred.

The thought that Kenya would have been different if her senior politicians had been women or if the women of our times had a better hand in government never leaves my mind. But history shows that for many reasons  they did not make it there. Some will say what is the use of thinking about this since history is already done. In that case I would say there is room for noting that history was not always written correctly in our hearts. Books leave the spirit out of names and dates. Many women are sidelined and that is a fact. The media got used to building or making male leaders. A leader can try to do their best but the media plays a big role in amplifying voices.

Not least of these reasons is that they were often blocked by some men. I know this from my research. This opposition means that they got the wrong results. It took too much money to sue when one had just finished a campaign. Such was the law. In the first place most women hardly had the kind of resources used in politics and in a poor nation such as Kenya they were crippling.  It also means that the persons in power in their areas did not support them. Some Kenyans will say that Wangari Maathai was too busy abroad after she won the Nobel Peace Prize to be elected by the people of Tetu. But I know Kenya. All it would have taken was a favourable word from Kibaki or even his wife. A gesture. Kibaki named her assistant minister for environment for all her experience and knowledge. Wangari served without signing up for the job.

Of course this may not have been democratic but then again it is the people who would have cast the vote. There are many men in government simply because the powerful wanted  it. I know only of one woman whose results came partly because the wife of the president visited one of her last campaigns. Wangari and others had no such chances.  In fact, they tried the opposite which was to put in a good word for people like myself up against millionaires.  Wangari broadcast my name on radio for election in 2002.

For Wangari it  was the opposite. I have to say that it is actually Wambui-Otieno who shared this thought with me. I was concerned that our Nobel laureate would not go back to Parliament in 2007 after her first election in 2002. Wambu-Otieno told me about delegations of old men trooped to State House to defame Wangari, for they knew that she had presidential ambitions in the past. Perhaps that is why she understood Raila Odinga's tribulations so well.

 Looking back at how women worked for institutional change with the coming of the new dispensation in 2010 with a new constitution after years of struggling for their gains in representation at decision-making levels one is appalled to note that women have been the first to suffer the drive to curtail what is safeguarded in the new constitution. True that the change of the law is reasoned for much more and women but an excuse but who about that? It was Atsango Chesoni called us to order on the new constitution. Women end up being made to look like they are taking all the space from people with disabilty when it is the opposite.. everyone seems to know what the women need better than they do.. that is a shame. 

Above: Wangari in a meeting in her rural contituency

Jael Mbogo is another pillar of awoman still at work in Kenya. I was thinking about her recently. That was before the sad news of the demise of Wambui-Otieno and following that closely of Wangari Maathai was announced. Jael is a humble giant. She once told me of her story. She vied for a parliamentary seat back in the sixties in Kenya, and against Kibaki who then was not the president then but the MP for Bahati in Nairobi. Jael did a sterling job. I believe she won but was rigged out. In later years, Kibaki would only run in the rural constituency of Othaya. I quote Wikipedia where the first line on the history of Wambui-Otieno is by the grossly mistaken ( I could not access to edit but will try later for her first husband was not buried in 2003 as it says).... but this is correct on Jael Mbogo whom Wikipedia hands should place in her own right..

..."In 1974, Kibaki, facing serious competition for his Doonholm Constituency seat from a Mrs. Jael Mbogo, whom he had only narrowly and controversially beaten for the seat in the 1969 elections,[8] moved his political base from Nairobi to his rural home, Othaya, where he was subsequently elected as Member of Parliament."
 But when I was listening to Jael Mbogo I could feel her decisive mind.. cutting like a sword. She was telling me never to stop talking and standing for what  I believe.  I could hear her passion in between the words on her tongue. She is so brave she contested elections back in the sixties when she was pregnant. I told her that I thought she in her times could have made a great president. Not just a Member of Parliament. I encouraged her to write a book. She said she would. She is running a project for women. I found it on the internet since am not in Kenya or in touch with her.  Jael studied in Kenya, in the USA and in France as you can see here:

A decisive mind and passion are vital for leadership. Kibaki is indicisive still. No passion. Everything I saw lacking in President Kibaki, Jael had enough of and to spare. I am not just interested in saying this because she is a woman. Jael actually never run for the presidency. Instead she lived to work and actually be punished quite harshly by a former woman diplomat who had wanted to be a Member of Parliament herself. It was a pity to see this. See, am not saying that all women are perfect as some people tend to read. There are those who will always be too arrogant and mean. Both men and women.

And that brings me to humility. I have not seen much of that in powerful men that I know quite well in Kenya. I have seen it in many strong women. They had world recognised intelligence and virtue which here means power. And yet they were not elitist. Wangari was not. Wambui-Otieno, two women death has stolen from us were not.

We are grateful that Wangari lived and did so much for us in Kenya as well as for the world. She was refined and down to earth. She saw things with a certain oneness so that being a professor did not prevent her from being a very wonderful activist who achieved a lot. Yet some in Kenya lately and even in her days did deride activism.

Wambui- Otieno married across ethnic groups. Not only that, at the time, between these two groups such action.. and even today was looked down upon. She was brave in many ways. Google her name if you want to know her better. I wanted to reflect on her and Wangari because they have been great women.

In 1999 Kenyan judges courts went morally wrong by denying Wambui-Otieno the right to bury her husband. It was a shock for some of us. All we could do was to weep. Wambui -Otieno Mbugua told me she did not weep. She knew that life is a harder battle than most of us imagine, especially for women. These two women were full of energy for all of us. I cannot think of them silent but they are. On earth they used their lips and actions speak up. They loved their lives and lived to the full. We suffer their loss. But such people do not die? They live in their works and the inspiration they leave with us.

Wangari whose name means of the leopard.. Wa (de, of )  Ngari (leopar)...told me how horrified she was at how men cheated for power. She was horrified and the press reported it when President Kibaki failed to honour the MOU, the Memorandum of Understanding that he had signed so that Raila Odinga could support him for the presidency in 2002. She said this in Tetu her home area where most of the people would defend Kibaki blindly because blocks of ethnic groups in Kenya have been reduced to political wagons.. supporting only their men.. their people in a region and showing open hatred for people of different ethnic groups. This regardless of the fact that the vote is secret. This problem is fuelled a lot by male polticians I dare say.

In the MoU, Kibaki had promised to share power with Raila Odinga something he did not even want to do in 2007 when Kenya burned and 1 333 people were killed. Many women were raped. Children died. Even the crops refused to grow. There was a famine that followed. Farmers could not till the land, there were ober 50000 Internally Displaced People almost overnight. All this was in 2007. But in 2003 Kibaki breached the MoU.

I met many people who seemed to rationalise his deed. Some of them are learned. But not Prof Wangari Maathai who because of her ethnic background would be safer backing Kibaki. I know this very personally for I commented on the news item that I had read to Wangari at the Bomas Of Kenya where we had constitutional meetings. I had taken the opportunity to sit next to the great icon dressed in green.She was simple. She simply told me in he mother tongue.. a proverb which means that Raila Odinga was cheated. It states that (even if not literally )upon being called for a ceremony of manhood people turn up but once the the hard part is over they are told that all that had to happen is over and there are no celebrations..
(Thiga ni arua gutiri mararanja!).

Party Leader Dr. Julia Ojiambo has kept up with politics for years

Dr. Julia Ojiambo is another vibrant woman. She has adapted herself to Kenyan politics ceaselessly but politics has not adapted itself to her and other women. It is a hard field where powerful will come to a political party like the one she leads The Labour Party of Kenya and use it and then run over her. I talked about this with her when she teamed up with a faction of ODM. I felt she was reading the situation wrong and much as I had wanted to work with a woman leader like her I could not. Raila Odinga is an astitute an experienced politician and it was clear as daylight that The Kalonzo faction which Dr. Ojiambo worked for could not unseat him. Some people just do not have what it takes to win the peoples' imagination. They try everything, even religion but it fails miserably. Dr. Ojiambo was in the wrong club but at least she showed she could work across ethnic divides. No matter. If she shows political interest, this is one woman who deserves an appointment without further delay. She is smart and learned and giving one example that many people would shun her for. You will hear them tell her she is old. Let her say it for herself. Men have incredible staying power in our politics. She is one of the few who will not give up. We must respect her take. She has been for a while quite active on facebook in 2011. That is remarkable.

Well, these women have done their best. One hopes that their legacy will still mean a better Kenya. I do not mean all powerful women should be in political power. Not at all.

I think of three things. First, it is so vital that we also have alternative voices of power who are not politically aligned. We need them badly and men, when ethncity is so strong a factor in our politics. In learning from the humility of these women, I think it is a high time some well -known people susained their presence, voice and visiblity in society even without political intent.

Ann Njogu focused on higher goals for now  ...

Secondly that women who try and tried in politics are such treasures and should never lose sight of that. Losing an election as many did.. I did, Ann Njogu did, as did Muthoni Kihara recently in Kamkunji by election in Kenya, meant more positive than negative things. For the women, this should not mean that one is silenced.. Ann is a recipient of the Woman of Courage honour  from Hilary Clinton. She never stops. She is writing and talking and working even off the cameras. Recently she has studied her M LLB, and is on the way to greater heights. No to confusing your voice and votes my sister! Muthoni, you know the work you have done  in the City Council in the past.  You know how you tried too to campaign for other women including me when I was in competitive politics.

NO fears! They must speak to all with the same strength, letting them know their excesses and making the check and balance. Being fully well informed of our constitution and laws. It seems strange but the nation is lacking in such people. We felt it very painfully when Kenya was burning in 2007. Since the strong women had taken a political position suddenly the nation was reeling with no local voice to be heard across the divides. It was painful. I learnt then that poets are mightier than politicians. We met and encouraged one another through poetry. Let us all find our positions and together weave Kenya for a brighter future!


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