Margaret Kenyatta’s brand of soft power

First Lady Margaret Kenyatta (right) talks with Mama Sarah Obama at her Nyang'oma Kogelo village home where they held long discussions last week. Photo/JACOB OWITI

What you need to know:

  • First Lady and the deputy president’s wife have both quickly identified the roles they want to play nationally, away from politics, and are executing this to the delight of Kenyans.
  • Over the past seven months, Margaret has spent a large amount of her time on pet projects that are carefully calibrated to address soft but burning social causes dear to many Kenyans’ hearts.

In the mid-morning of last Saturday, a military helicopter landed at Kogelo Primary School in Siaya County. Shortly, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta alighted from the aircraft and was received by Mama Sarah Obama, the grandmother of US President Barack Obama and a team of local politicians.

Mrs Kenyatta was in Kogelo to flag off the inaugural Sowo-Kogelo Marathon, in aid of 2000 children affected by HIV and Aids in the region.

A jovial Margaret walked hand-in-hand with Mama Sarah as she went into her hostess’ home, admired photos and talked to the elderly lady.

True to her character since becoming Kenya’s first lady in March, Mrs Kenyatta has steered clear of politics choosing instead to talk about the children she was in Kogelo to assist and her role as “the children’s ambassador.”

“I would like to see all barriers that hinder children’s education removed -- whatever their status, gender, physical or mental condition. I strongly believe that every child should be given a fair chance to succeed in life as you never know what they might become in the future,” she said.


The well-educated and articulate daughter of a former Kenya Railways chief executive, Njuguna Gakuo, has put children top on the list of the many worthy causes she is supporting in her position as the First Lady.

In the recent past, Mrs Kenyatta has chosen to communicate that message through active participation in children-related programmes such as the ongoing polio vaccination campaign.

The night before flying to Kogelo, the First Lady attended a Palmhouse Foundation dinner in support of needy children.

Mrs Kenyatta’s first campaign was in May where she flagged off Ahadi Kenya’s shoe distribution project aimed at fighting jiggers among children.

Along with her daughter, Ngina, Margaret joined the anti-jigger campaign, and has since participated in the foundation’s activities across the country.

She officially became Kenya’s First Lady on April 9, following the swearing in of her husband of 24 years Uhuru Kenyatta as president.

Wearing a silver-patterned skirt suit, the mother of three - Jomo, Ngina and Jaba - was thrust into the limelight, forcing her to shed off the publicity-shy persona she had held on to throughout the months of bruising political campaigns.

Over the past seven months, Margaret has spent a large amount of her time on pet projects that are carefully calibrated to address soft but burning social causes dear to many Kenyans’ hearts.


Children’s welfare, the environment and anti-jigger campaigns have made the list. She has also participated in the launch of the third phase of the National Sanitary Towels School Programme in Marigat, Baringo, and fistula campaign in June, among others.

The election of her husband to the presidency gave her a ticket to joining the Organisation of African First Ladies (OAFL) against HIV/Aids, where she made her maiden speech in Ethiopia in May.

Though she has tried to remain apolitical as she travels across the country, it has been hard not to be drawn in. Her recent visit to Siaya, for instance, was seen to have political undertones.

Local leaders saw it as being part of a wider political strategy to help bridge the gap between the presidency and the region that largely voted for rival Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord).

“We know we have gotten a very suitable hardworking President. We would like to see him come here preferably before the end of this year so as to prove to doubting Thomases and affirm our commitment to work with him,” said Homa Bay governor Cyprian Awiti.

Mrs Kenyatta, ever poised with a string of pearls round her neck, has earned her place in the hearts of many Kenyans coming through as an astute holder of soft power.

She was initially thrust into political controversy when it was announced in the run-up to her husband’s swearing-in that she would hold the Bible for him as he took the oath of office.

The then President-elect Uhuru released a statement clarifying that she would actually hold the Bible with him and not for him.

“By holding the Bible, not for me but with me, as I take my Oath of Office, she will be committing herself to ensure she reminds me of my promise to the Kenyan people and also assure Kenyans that family obligations will not interfere with my execution of duties as President,” said the statement.


And with that decision, Margaret made history as the first of Kenya’s First Ladies to share in her husband’s oath of office.

Kenya’s first First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta was mainly a silent supporter of her husband and rarely spoke at public functions.

Neither was she active on the social scene but rather, chose to spend most of her energy raising her young family at State House. When President Moi assumed power, Lena Tungo Moi was not with him.

She had been visible during his term as the vice-president, but faded away from the public arena in the mid-1970s never to be heard of again until her death in 2004.

For 24 years, the office of the First Lady was unoccupied until the coming to power of Mwai Kibaki in 2002 with Mrs Lucy Kibaki by his side.

Mrs Kibaki’s term was eventful coming with a mix of soft and hard power that earned her friends and foes almost in equal measure.

She applied some of her political capital in the fight against HIV/Aids, but was also known to eject people from State House and force some of her husband’s bodyguards out on transfer before disappearing from the public limelight towards the end of Mr Kibaki’s term.

When Mr Kenyatta came to power there were lots of questions as to what type of First Lady Margaret would be.

Like many of the first ladies in the Western world, she has found her causes and stuck to them.

First ladies are known to take up causes dear to them and the nations. Michelle Obama, the wife of US President Barack Obama, has for instance been active in America’s fight against obesity with her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, while Mrs Samantha Cameron, wife of UK Prime Minister, serves as the Ambassador for the British Fashion Council.

This story was first published in the Business Daily