It is a sunny Thursday morning in September, and Zipporah Kittony, a retired politician and women’s rights activist, ushers us into her cosy home in Nairobi.
She serves us a cup of dark rose coffee grown at her farm in Kitale with her favourite vanilla cakes baked by her resident chef.
“I am so happy that the team interviewing me today is all ladies — from writer to photographer and videographer,” she says.
“This is what I fought for throughout my career, championing girls’ and women’s rights. When I look around now, I am excited to see the fruits of my labour and the breakthroughs that we’ve made as women. It’s so exciting to see that some of the laws I was lobbying for several years have been put into place,” she enthuses.
This sets the stage for our conversation on Ms Kittony’s take on life at 80, lessons she wishes to pass on to younger generations, female leadership, work-life balance and the importance of image as a woman.
You are now 80, what are some of the memorable moments of your childhood that you feel shaped you?
I’m from a very humble background, I was born and bred in Baringo District (now county) in the early 1940s (1943) and grew up in a family with 12 siblings. We were brought up uniquely from other families. My parents had a strong Christian background, and they did not allow us to play with the neighbourhood children because most of the neighbours were not Christians. We were mainly secluded and played amongst ourselves. On Sunday mornings, we always went to church.
At a young age I had to memorise very many Bible verses. Later on in life, I became a Sunday school teacher.
Looking back now, I appreciate what my parents did for us. They lay for us a good foundation of Christianity and level-mindedness. This has shaped me and I have never wavered in my Christianity.
I celebrated my 80th birthday earlier this year and my children surprised me with a trip to Cape Town, South Africa. We are very close as a family and we speak every day. Most of our family and friends came to Cape Town and we stayed at Stellenbosch. It was a great celebration with great meals and wine tastings.
Before your recent retirement from active politics, you held various senior roles in Kanu and Maendeleo Ya Wanawake. Who influenced you to get into politics?
My late mother (Elizabeth Chesire) has been a great influence in my life. She was witty, articulate, organised and a very strong and authoritative. President (Daniel) Moi, my uncle, also influenced my political career. When I was about three, he would often come home, play with us and help us plant trees. I became a member of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake in 1964 and also a member of the Agricultural Society of Kenya. This was the first of many highs in my political journey.
How have you been able to balance career, politics and family?
Level mindedness. You need to know who you are, what you want to do and at what time you will do it. For me, I have always known that my family is my number one priority.
Number two, you have to have a place to fall to. Even if you travel everywhere in the world, you must leave your home intact so that wherever you go you know that you have left a secure home. The world is a rough terrain, so you must always be comfortable knowing that you have a home to always come back to.
And I will tell you, even now though my children have their own families and homes, we are still a very well-knit family. Every morning and evening they call me.
I am happy that politics never deterred me from being who I am; Zipporah Kittony to my family, for the nation and myself.
Another very important factor is to understand and discover yourself. If you figure this out, then you have mastered the art of self-awareness. I have no regrets whatsoever for what I have done. If anything, I have good memories about my life and I am always a happy person.
For decades, you seemed to be the only woman in a room full of men. How did you learn to make your voice heard amongst your male counterparts?
I was lucky to have worked closely with former President Moi who respected women and had a listening, sympathetic ear for them. I could take up to 5,000 women to State House and they would sing for him and make him laugh his head off. Mzee (the late former President) loved and understood these women and I learned a lot of things from him.
My various interactions with President Moi made it easier for me to navigate the boardroom with male colleagues. Most importantly, I learnt not to be irrational or emotional and not to make haste statements or decisions. I learnt to listen and when it was my time to speak I was calm, confident and articulate. I put my point across and that’s how I gained the respect of my colleagues. And this helped me in making breakthroughs, from matters of female genital mutilation (FGM) and The Equality and Gender Bill in Kenya.
Another key aspect that has shaped my voice is the women who went ahead of me and paved the path. I took over from level-headed women who were pioneers in their fields—women like Phoebe Asiyo, Eddah Gachukia, Ruth Habwe, Grace Ogot and Grace Onyango. I saw these amazing female leaders bring change and light to a continent where women were discriminated against. Now we are equal. I appreciate them for the lessons they taught me and that is how I continued to carry the mantle.
You released your autobiography Sheer Grit last year. What are some key highlights from the book?
I have put a lot of work into publishing this book. It's about how I grew up and the memoirs of my life.
I have not held anything back. It was not an easy life. I remember the first shoe that I wore was in Standard Five after KAPE, the equivalent of what is today the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCPE). It was at Kapsabet Girls in 1955. I inherited the shoe from my late sister Rhoda. Getting to Kapsabet Girls was difficult. At that time, it was the only girls’ school in the Rift Valley and it was very competitive to get admitted. It was the entire province competing for a slot in the school.
Travelling to Kapsabet from Baringo was a nightmare. It took us three days to travel by lorry with my suitcase tightly squeezed next to me. To get to Tambach in Elgeyo Marakwet, we had to get a pass to cross into Uasin Gishu then we would wait for up to three days as the mzungu District Commissioner would be out on assignments and he was the only one who could issue a pass. We would patiently wait in the hot sun and scamper together on cold nights sleeping in the lorry for him to return. This eventually was my ticket out of Baringo District.
That is why I tell young people that they must learn to be patient and trust the process.
What’s a typical day for you now that you are retired?
I opted for voluntary retirement from political life without being coerced. I had served my country and Kenyans for 56 years. Most African politicians do not want to retire. They would prefer to die while still in office. For me, I firmly believe that it is good to leave when people still love and appreciate you. And by my exiting, I have even found it exciting because I am constantly engaged and very marketable.
Everyone wants Zipporah Kittony to mentor young girls, support women’s initiatives, give talks, and remember I’m also a very good farmer.
I also left politics to take time out to discover myself and spend more time with my family. I have just returned from Ghana where I was invited to inspire and speak to women about business and farming.
I am a successful farmer in Kitale where I grow tea, coffee, avocado, macadamia nuts and I keep dairy. Our family is also in the hospitality business. We have a chain of restaurants in Kitale and recently opened one in Nairobi’s Lavington Mall. I have three restaurants on the farm. I love seeing the sheep and goats running around. My hands are full in my retirement season and I am happy. I used to be a golf fanatic but I stopped during Covid-19.
I took up swimming. We have two swimming pools on the farm and we also have horses. I have now handed over the leadership mantle to my granddaughter, Channel Kittony, the firstborn of my son Kiprono Kittony. I have three children: Kibet a retired military officer; Kiprono, a businessman; and my daughter Caroline is a lawyer. Channel is the current County Executive Committee (CEC) member for Gender, Sports and Youth in Trans Nzoia County.
With the experiences that you have had in life, do you have any regrets?
There is no smooth road. Life has its ups and downs. I must say there have been hard times and good times. You have to know how to face battles when they come and you must learn to ride them out. Even when you fly, the pilot warns you that there will be turbulence during your flight but they have it under control. There are always challenges in life, but you must learn to ride the tides in good and challenging times.
The younger generation of women seems to have different views on marriage and work-life balance, what advice can you share with them?
I feel very saddened by what I am seeing at the moment. I want to advise women to be women and know that they have a huge responsibility vested in them. Women must remember that they are mothers, homemakers and leaders in their spaces and thus this automatically commands a lot of respect. As a woman, you must always remain level-headed and observe the good mannerism that goes with the word woman.
Women must learn to respect the higher authority and set an example. I see the way many women behave these days with an attitude of “I don't care” “How far will that take you ladies?” “Where are we headed?” That is my special appeal to my dear Kenyan women.
Do you think personal branding and image are important for a woman leader?
Ladies learn to be composed, pause before you decide on your next point of action. If you are irrational, you will make mistakes and I fear making mistakes.
Always remember your brand is on show 24 hours and you must always be honest with yourself about the brand you are putting out there. Image is very important. You have to be elegant in how you communicate and even in your body language.
Womanhood is attributed to beauty and beauty must be nurtured, maintained and protected. Ladies should put effort into their appearance every day.
What key items must a woman have in her wardrobe?
Can I tell you something — you can wear mitumba or very expensive items so long as you understand your body shape and what flatters your body. If you can style the various items in your wardrobe and you are pleased with the image you see in the mirror, then you have mastered the art of dressing up. I love good quality dresses. I have a local tailor and I also shop internationally when I travel. I always go for the best.
I get shocked when I see women who are inappropriately dressed for official functions and even special occasions!
How many pairs of shoes do you have?
I have enough...
How do you manage to maintain such smooth, relaxed skin?
I use Shea butter. On my recent trip to Ghana I came with some, and I mixed it with a few local ingredients.