So, the big moment has finally come for women in Kenya, who, with the nomination of Martha Karua as Raila Odinga’s running-mate, have a chance to make themselves part of something that has never before seemed possible.
That chance is the culmination of more than a century’s efforts by amazing women of this country, beginning with the first-ever Kenyan woman recorded as having stood up for social change.
That woman’s name was Mekatilili wa Menza, and she became famous after she swore in 1913 never to succumb to what she saw as colonial erosion of Giriama culture. Mekatilili danced – literally – the kifudu dance, all the way from village to village across the area, drawing crowds, addressing public meetings and eventually oathing other women into non-co-operation with the authorities.
Mekatilili was arrested and deported to Kisii, from where she escaped and, the story goes, walked the over 800 kilometres back home. She was again arrested and deported to Kismayo, in Somalia, only to escape again and reappear back in her homeland, where she died in 1924 and was buried in Bungale, Malindi.
Over the years, other brave women followed in her footsteps, including, in the 1950s, Muthoni wa Kirima, a Mau Mau freedom fighter and the only woman to achieve the rank of field marshal. Muthoni, now aged 91, was decorated for her distinguished service by two presidents, Daniel Moi and Uhuru Kenyatta. Earlier this year, she made headlines when she finally shaved off her Mau Mau dreadlocks.
Then there is Grace Onyango, now aged 97, who holds a bouquet of accomplishments as the first female mayor, the first female MP (elected in 1969), the first female Deputy Speaker, the first woman to sit as Speaker, and the first female secretary-general of the Luo Union.
Grace led the way into Parliament for other women, including Chelagat Mutai, who in 1973 became the youngest MP, aged 24. Chelagat was a lifelong activist against corruption and for better governance, and a lifelong champion of inclusivity for women in politics and society.
Nyiva Mwendwa, now aged 80, became the first female Cabinet minister (culture and social services) in 1995. She famously ran into a bump later that year when she was criticised for taking her hairdresser with her to the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China. (Well, a girl’s gotta keep up standards, I guess.)
Phoebe Asiyo, now aged 89, was one of just a few opposition women MPs (who included Ms Karua) elected in the ground-breaking multi-party elections of 1992. Phoebe was the first Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and she was the first woman in Kenya to be named an elder in her own community, for her work promoting women’s rights, gender equality and education for girls.
Wangari Maathai was elected an MP in 2003 but she achieved an outstanding first for Kenyan and African women the following year, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first environmentalist to win the award, and the Nobel committee said that she had “served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation”.
We have had many more amazing women achieving great feats and great firsts over the years – such as Agatha Mawondo Nimrod Mboje, who in 1953 became the first Kenyan woman to obtain a degree, a BA from Makerere; Grace Ogot, who as well as being a politician, was the first Kenyan woman to have a novel published (The Promised Land, 1966); Pamela Jelimo, in 2008, was the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic gold; Lupita Nyong’o, in 2013, the first Kenyan and first African woman to win an Oscar; and Martha Koome, appointed last year as Kenya’s first female Chief Justice.
Charity Ngilu and Wangari Maathai shared joint honours as the first Kenyan women to vie for the presidency, which both did in 1997.
There are so many firsts, and so many other stunning achievements by women too numerous to mention, the sum of their efforts representing a solid bank of accomplishment won through sacrifice and determination, and against the odds.
Martha Karua is in a sense the daughter and sister of them all, and it is she who, carrying the hopes and triumphs of a century of Kenyan women, now has the chance to achieve what would be, so far, the greatest first in Kenyan women’s political history.
It is interesting to note that, on August 9, 2020, nearly two years ago, the technology company Google honoured our very first heroine, Mekatilili wa Menza, by using her image as the “Google doodle” at the top of the Google search page for the day.
August 9, indeed. From our first heroine to our latest, it is perhaps a momentous date in the history of Kenyan women and their achievements.
Ms Elderkin is a journalist, writer and editor