Green house alumnae of Alliance Girls High School on July 30, 2023.

| Photo I Pool

Gifted to lead: The 'girls' who went to Alliance in 1960s

What you need to know:

  • Alliance Girls High School has produced women who proceeded to blaze a trail,  inspiring many girls and boys to pursue their dreams.
  • The list reads like who’s who in Kenya’s public, private and academic sectors.

The programme booklet says it all: Gifted to Lead. And with that a constellation of high calibre women of Kenya, who cut their teeth at Alliance Girls High School (AGHS) are ushered into their alma mater. AGHS has nurtured some of Kenya’s greatest women.

Nation.Africa has sent yours truly, a proud alumna of the school, to cover the 1960s Decade Alumnae Service where Anglican Church of Kenya’s Canon Mary Okelo is the preacher. It is the second-last service in a series that have run at the school’s new chapel proudly referred to as ‘the cathedral’, never mind that AGHS’s Presbyterian tradition has no bishops; theirs is the priesthood of all believers, Chaplain Rev Angela Kamuyu will aver.

Like the 70s and other decade services already celebrated to mark AGHS’s 75th anniversary, nothing, not even the frosty July weather, can hinder enthusiastic alumnae from attending their big day. The list of speakers at the service reads like who’s who in Kenya’s public, private and academic sectors… not that those without speaking slots are of any lesser stature.

Dr Betty Gikonyo of  Karen Hospital arrives at the school chapel with preacher of the day Dr Mary Okelo on July 30. Both are old girls of AGHS.

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The master of ceremonies, the unassuming Dr Betty Gikonyo, is Kenya’s first female paediatric cardiologist, autobiographer of The Girl Who Dared to Dream, and co-founder of Nairobi’s Karen Hospital. She is also in charge of the budget, and was chief fundraiser in the steering committee of girls from different decades.

The budget included fixing the acoustics in the new chapel, which had marred the 70s service earlier. “The sound was very important,” she stresses, as were the screens and decorations. She rallied old girls to give according to their ability “and they gave generously”. The budget allocated for a legacy gift for the school, which the principal would identify, was Sh1.7 million. At the end of the fete, they were less than Sh100,000 to their target.

AGHS, Dr Gikonyo says, gave them “a visa to the world of success, a world of leadership, and a world of satisfaction.” Like most of the girls, they came in as villagers “but in six years, we were young ladies”—a compelling enough reason, she says, to give back to the school that had made her who she is.

Alumnae of Alliance Girls High School on July 30, 2023.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

The ceremony, as captured on YouTube, lasts eight hours, 17 minutes and 11 seconds. I choose to focus on what these great women tell me about themselves, how they joined AGHS, and their memories of their alma mater.

Dr Okelo, Kenya’s first woman bank manager, first woman advisor to the African Development Bank president, and co-founder of Makini Schools, among other firsts, explains her choice of Bible readings (Daniel 1:1-15) for the sermon she is about to preach.

“I’m drawing parallels with Alliance; they also select top girls, who have passed with flying colours. La crème de la crème,” she says. “If you look around Kenya, Alliance girls have gone into leadership—like former First Lady Mama Lucy Kibaki. We’ve had governors like Charity Ngilu, we’ve had ministers, like Nyiva Mwendwa (Kenya’s first woman Cabinet minister, whose appointment coincided with the 1995 UN women’s conference in Beijing).”

Former AGHS Principal Dr Rebecca Karanja (L), former Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu (C) and the  current school chaplain Rev Angela Kamuyu at the school on July 30, 2023.

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Dr Okelo joined AGHS’s first A-Level class in 1962 from Butere Girls High School alongside Justice Effie Owuor who would become Kenya’s first woman judge, and who also speaks at the July 30, event.

Other icons from Butere Girls in AGHS’s first A-Level class include Elizabeth Masiga who is Kenya’s first woman chief inspector of schools, and Prof Florida Karani, Kenya’s first woman university chancellor (Maseno). She is also Kenya’s first woman deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi (UoN).

Effie’s speech at the event leaves the girls in stitches. She regales her audience, even joking about wearing a diaper! What amazed her in the countdown to July 30, was the energy on the 60s WhatsApp wall. She remarks that if the data were to be extracted, it would produce a huge book.

The retired judge recalls her teachers dissuading her from doing law—they feared she might not be equal to the task. But she stuck to her guns, egged on by her father, who told her, “My child, you will do what you want to do.” And with that, she returned to school.

Yellow house alumnae during the 75th anniversary of Alliance Girls High School on July 30, 2023.

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At school, the future judge underwent intensive counselling with a view to changing her mind. After two days, “I emerged from the sick bay more resolute than ever on what I wanted to do,” she says.

Her father, who had three daughters at AGHS and three boys at ‘Across’ the nickname for Alliance High School.

Effie later studied law at University College of Dar es Salaam, the then citadel of law of the University of East Africa.

However, not all the girls had their way like Effie. Distinguished paediatrician, Dr Florence Manguyu (1961–65) is a case in point. She says it was often difficult for all-rounders like her to pursue subjects of their choice.

So, after realising she couldn’t do physics—her favourite subject at AGHS—she abandoned the school at Form Five to join Jamhuri High School (then known as Duke of Gloucester) as the only girl, courtesy of her father’s closeness with Education ministry top brass. She excelled and joined Makerere University to study medicine.

Dr Sally Kosgei, too, agrees to a pre-celebration interview. She wades into the furore sparked by Prof Henry Indangasi’s denigrating remarks against Prof Micere Mugo’s credentials in the wake of her death. She differs with the don’s view on how Micere, an alumna and former teacher at AGHS, acquired Zimbabwean citizenship. It was because Kenya had refused to renew her passport, Dr Kosgei says.

Amb Dr Sally Kosgei speaks at the Alliance Girls High School 75th birthday held on July 30, 2013.

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The soft-spoken diplomat debunks the myth that she is ‘a dynasty’, a snide coinage of Kenya Kwanza during the 2022 election campaigns. William Ruto campaigned on the ‘hustlers’ platform. His chief opponent was Raila Odinga, whose key supporter was former president Uhuru Kenyatta.

Mr Ruto disparaged the two as ‘dynasties’ (read children of privilege). If journalists cared to ask her, Dr Kosgei says, they would have known that she came from a poor background. Her memories of AGHS are of classmates who never made her feel inferior on account of her family background.

The widespread view of her as ‘an elitist child’ baffles her. Instead, she credits AGHS’s equalising ethos that saw her join the school in 1965 and stay on to 1970 when she sat her A-Level exams.

Dr Kosgei says that although she has been ‘pigeon-holed as a Kalenjin’, her home is in Serem, a town in Vihiga County, which borders Nandi County. The only woman Head of Public Service since independence, recalls that she came from such a humble background that she used to sign her own report forms. She appreciates AGHS because nobody ever asked her, ‘What does your father do? ’—“which was very good because I didn’t have one. My father died when I was under a year,” she reveals. “My mother raised me.”

Her mother’s resilience saw her get her and her brother to the two Alliances. She says they were the only non-Luo or non-Luhya children on the Kisumu train.

Dr Kosgei, who has held high-profile positions in government, Parliament and in the diplomatic service, says her classmates at AGHS include daughters of independence era ministers Jeremiah Nyagah and William Odongo Omamo. Nyagah’s daughter, Dr Mary Khimulu, presents a pulpit Bible to the school at the 75th anniversary service.

Dr Khimulu served the Bible Society of Kenya, an affiliate of United Bible Societies (UBS), for 20 years. She currently sits on the five-member UBS board of trustees and served as Kenya’s ambassador to France, where she also represented the county at its Unesco office in Paris upon its opening.

Dr Kosgei recalls: “They would see my mother barefoot. The headmistress would tell parents not to be hard on their children for not being number one because ‘the girls you see here are the cleverest in Kenya’. Alliance was the place where nobody made you feel that you were lesser than anyone else.”

Dr Wanjiku Mwotia (1964–67), the overall coordinator of the day, narrates how they pulled off the 60s decade event, hailed as a huge success.

“The Old Girls Association (OGA) asked us to organise ourselves into decades [to celebrate] the 75th anniversary of the school. The 60s decade [girls] were very few in the OGA… maybe two or three of us. So, we started mobilising, and more and more girls came on board.”

Alliance Girls alumnae at the school during its 75th anniversary on July 30, 2023.

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They were very supportive, she adds, giving the example of the choir conductor of the day, LuZili King (née Ruth Mulindi, 1963–68), whose sister, Margaret, was also in the 60s decade choir.

Luzili, whom Dr Mwotia describes as AGHS’s “very beloved music teacher” actually taught the pianist of the day, Prof Emily Akuno, the recently appointed first woman vice-chancellor (VC) of the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology.

She took over from Prof Stephen Agong’ as if to affirm the 60s decade celebration motto, ‘Gifted to Lead’. The extremely reticent VC is poles apart from her exuberant teacher, Luzili, who enthrals the audience with a display of the tiny green skirt she wore as a student. She introduces Emily as her “very gifted student”.

(The green skirt is so beloved of alumnae that Dr Rebecca Karanja, a speaker on July 30, felt obliged to defend the maroon uniform during her tenure as principal. If they were in her shoes, they wouldn’t have done otherwise, she says. Maroon was then President Daniel Moi’s idea. AGHS later reverted to green).

Elizabeth Bageine (right), popularly known as Mother-in-Law, with a former classmate at the Alliance Girls High School 75th birthday held on July 30, 2023.

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Luzili, Dr Mwotia tells me, studied music at AGHS under Margaret Gifford and came back to teach in the 1970s. She now teaches music in a school in Britain where she settled on getting married to a British citizen. So passionate about music and her alma mater is diminutive Luzili that she arrives on Friday, July 28—“at her own expense”—and has only the dress rehearsal with the singers on Saturday before conducting the highly successful choir a day later.

Dr Mwotia says it took a month to pull off the spectacular event, whose organisers, led by OGA Chairperson, Dr Janet Kabeberi-Macharia, she says, had “learnt a lot from the mistakes of the earlier decades”. Like Dr Gikonyo, she, too, mentions the acoustics problem in the new chapel.

Dr Mwotia estimates that at least 300 alumnae are at the celebration with virtually all her classmates present. “Of course, at our age, many will have passed away,” she notes. In that regard, the alumnae have a candle-lighting ceremony in memory of their departed schoolmates.

Music committee chairperson Catherine Kola, a lawyer, has an impressive CV. It includes litigation and senior posts in the Development Finance Company of Kenya, Capital Markets Authority, Energy Regulatory Commission, the Ligale Commission, Kenya Commercial Bank, and the Nairobi Hospice.

The widow of 10 years, who serves on the board of the Nairobi Hospice, started her post-retirement stint as a volunteer at the facility’s kitchen, cooking for visiting patients, until it was discovered that she was a lawyer and given an office. Her husband left behind many unexpired cancer drugs, and in the process of donating them to the hospice, she felt the urge to volunteer her services there.

With disarming simplicity and humour to match, she jokes about her role as ‘just a meddler’ in the 60s decade choir. She has sung in the All Saints Cathedral choir for the last 50 years! “I made them sing; I made them open their mouths to sing those notes well. I said, ‘I want to see your tonsils…’. We voted for the songs,” she adds.

Their presentations include the biblical classic, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’ and AGHS’s all-time favourite ‘O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing’. The ‘cathedral’ administration and AGHS Chief Principal Jedidah Mwangi, donated a pianist and rehearsal space with Ghetto Classics prior to D-Day.

Jennifer Pamela Oluoch and other alumnae.

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I didn’t get to interview Ghetto Classics beyond asking them their name and where they came from. Their website says they are “the flagship programme of the Art of Music Foundation… a community programme that involves over 500 children in Korogocho – one of Kenya’s biggest slums …” The orchestra is a defining feature of the 60s decade celebration as it belts out tunes in unison with the choir.

At the time of filing this article, only one group, the 1948–59 cohort, has yet to hold its service tentatively this month when the weather is expected to be a little kinder for the pioneers of African Girls High School—the original name of Alliance Girls. Most of them are approaching their 90s.

The group includes Margaret Wambui Kenyatta, daughter of founder president Jomo Kenyatta, who was Nairobi’s first woman mayor, Joan Waithaka née Gitau, AGHS’s first African principal, and Serah Migidza Lukalo née Kachenge, women’s rights activist and a pioneer student of the Royal Technical College, precursor to the UoN.

The three have since passed on. However, Prof Julia Auma Ojiambo née Okelo, who belongs to the 1948–59 cohort is alive and well. It remains to be seen how many from her group will show up at the grand finale of prayer services to mark AGHS’s 75th birthday.