Ruth Kuya: Woman who shattered patriarchy’s grip in Turkana County politics

Ruth Kuya is an elected MCA in the Turkana County Assembly.  

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • For over 30 years, Ruth Kuya invested in transforming her community in Turkana County
  • Despite the intense patriarchal leanings in the region, she employed strategic campaigning that united diverse groups, enabling her historic victory as the only woman elected as an MCA in 2022.

The mention of Ruth Kuya Itaro’s name in Turkana draws a lot of awe and admiration. She is flourishing in a region that many people give women no chance to survive, leave alone to win a political contest.

Of the women who contested for the Senate, Member of Parliament and Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions in the 2022 General Election, she is the only one who was elected as MCA, representing Lodwar Township.

Popularly known as “Mama Moja”, meaning the only one woman with strength and ability to overcome the intense patriarchal tendencies in her county to win a political seat; Kuya is beacon of hope to many women aspiring for political leadership.

What makes her sparkle in her political life in such an environment? Kuya believes her over 30 years of investing in transforming the lives of people in her community has endeared her to many people, and paid huge dividends in the 2022 elections.

She runs rehabilitation centres in Lodwar that cater for women and children, with a mission to improve their lives. By 2023, the centres were hosting more than 300 street children and orphans. Many of these children are in various learning institutions within and outside Turkana County, according to Kuya.

It is this contribution to the community that saw her nominated as MCA in 2013.

Kuya says that while she served as an MCA, she understood the importance of being elected as a representative of the community and the difference a person can make in the lives of his or her people.

This inner realisation increased her determination to come back to the County Assembly as an elected member during 2017 poll.

Ekwe Ethuro

“My next move was to come back as an elected MCA because a nominated MCA does not control resources and he or she is powerless to make any tangible impact.”

Kuya knew she had what it takes to win in competitive politics. Her political journey started in 1998 when she served as a missionary and preacher. This entailed supporting two of her fellow missionaries in their quest to become Members of Parliament (MP) representing Turkana Central. One of them was Ekwe Ethuro, who served for two terms as MP from 1998 to 2007. She provided food and shelter for his campaign team, without seeking anything in return.

Again, she supported Ethuro’s successor, John Lodepe Nakara who also won and became MP for two terms from 2008 to 2017. This support earned her nomination to the County Assembly in 2013.

While serving as a nominated MCA, Kuya engaged in initiatives that transformed the lives of her community, as well as making herself and her leadership capabilities visible to many people

To further build her political base and knowledge, she worked closely with Nakara, who became her mentor in matters politics. He egged her on to vie as Member of County Assembly in the 2017 General Elections. Unfortunately, she lost during the party nominations.

“I lost unfairly. My community favoured a male aspirant. Unfortunately, I did not have the financial resources to file a legal complaint.”

She did not give up but trained her eyes on the 2022 election. In the intervening period, she expanded her political networks and intensified her work in the community, engaging in activities that were close to the hearts of her constituents. But what she did not know is that a tough political battle lay ahead.

12 contestants

The 2017 elections were tough, but the 2022 were the toughest. In 2022, she competed against 12 other contestants for the MCA representing Lodwar Township - 10 men and 3 women in total.

Kuya had to think of strategies to help her win. First she came up with a slogan- Apey Akimat, which in Turkana language means don’t look elsewhere on the ballot, but select this woman.

“My slogan resonated with the different groups within the ward, which included the youth, boda boda riders and women groups,” she recalls.

Mapping and understanding the people she wanted to represent was another key strategy that she used to win this election. Considering that Lodwar Township is a cosmopolitan region, she recruited leaders from the various tribes to be part of her campaign team. These individuals would then pass her messages in their communities in their local languages.

Kuya says this strategy worked so well because all the tribes felt represented in her campaign.

Being a preacher and missionary, the church too, came in handy, creating platforms for her to sell her agenda and solicit for votes.

With this support, she shifted her attention to work with the media. Kuya says unlike in 2017 elections when she had to beg media to cover her, things were different in 2022. The media, both secular and faith-based stations, reached out to her and gave her massive airtime to market her agenda.

“The media helped me to market myself and save on resources as I was able to reach many people with my message in remote areas that I would not been able to do so if were to physically go there.

Young people

She thinks the media support is as a result of media becoming gender aware and attaching importance on the need to support women political leaders. For social media, she hired youth to manage her platforms. The young people would send messages on WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms persuading the youths to vote for her. Other social media groups were created by her supporters and used to spread her development agenda to as many people as possible.

It is the resources from these well-wishers, her family, and herself that helped her with her campaign.

Kuya says despite the tough times, her highest moment in politics was when she won the nominations, beating four male aspirants in the contest.

“In a society which does not believe in women’s leadership, making it to the ballot is a major achievement,” notes Kuya.

But her biggest challenge in her over 20 years life in politics is propaganda and lies about her character. “Most politicians malign their opponents and use lies to entice people to vote for them.”

Even with such bellicose opponents, Kuya says she has learnt to remain focused to her agenda and build relationships rather than destroy them. Voters loved her approach.

“In politics, abuses are like breakfast – one has to be very strong to survive the next day.”

“The most important thing,” she says, “is to give your supporters hope even when the future looks bleak so that they do not lose hope in you. I did not have finances, but I gave my supporters hope that we were expecting support from somewhere.”

Kuya also knows too well that after overcoming all this and winning the MCA seat, the journey has just begun. Expectations about her leadership and what she is going to deliver are high. For her, the strategy continues to touch the lives of women and children and the larger community through live transforming projects.

She proposes that UN Women and other non-governmental organisations should support and hold the hands of women leaders including the nominated women MCAs, so that they emerge even stronger in 2027 election. To her, this support needs to come in the form of strengthening the Women’s Caucus in the County Assembly.

“We don’t want donors to give us money but to support projects within the communities through our women’s caucus – this community does not believe in hearing but seeing the difference people make in their lives.”

This story is published in partnership with African Woman and Child (AWC)