Kenya: Why Elders Won't Crown Female Community Spokespersons

Council of elders have in the past year anointed at least six public figures as spokespersons of their respective communities.

Some, blessed to pursue their political ambitions to ascend to Presidency. None of the six is, however, a woman.

Deputy President William Ruto, Baringo Senator Gideon Moi and Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, all have been crowned elders and subsequently spokespersons of their Kalenjin and Muslim communities. Further, the elders have vowed to back them as they seek to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Similarly, former Machakos Senator Johnson Muthama was anointed a community elder and his political inclination to Mr Ruto rubberstamped. The Kamba elders pledged support for his choice of Presidential candidate.

While National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi and Cabinet Secretary for Interior and National Coordination Fred Matiang'i, have been granted powers to be spokespersons of the Meru and Kisii communities, respectively.

But why can't women be given the mantle to be the communities' spokespersons or receive the elders' blessings for the highest seat on the land?

Gusii Council of Elders chairperson Mr James Matundura says it is unimaginable to have a female spokesperson.

"That could be inventing the wheel," he says.

"It is even biblical that men are the communities' spokespersons and that applies to all communities. Pushing for change of such cultural norm is simply impossible," he argues.

Heavy burden

The elders, however are open to supporting women who seek any elective seat.

"We are making efforts in sensitising our communities on the importance of electing women. We no longer want women to be nominated. We want them to be elected by the people. We could not be bearing the heavy burden of nominations had we had communities directly electing women," he poses.

Women, however, played a crucial role in the emancipation of the Abagusii from the grip of colonialists.

In the 19th and 20th Century, the women - Moraa Ng'iti and Bonareri Ogwora - took leadership in the fight against British rule. In fact, the colonial administration sought the intervention of Moraa, who was a powerful voice in the resistance, to stop the guerrilla warfare.

Moraa is an exceptional example of the unsung heroines. In the history books, she is described as prophetess who forewarned the Abagusii of the ruthless British colonialism. She was also a traditional healer who treated the wounded warriors.

She instigated the 1908 bloody retaliatory attack against the British officers who had ambushed the Abagusii's ebisarate (cattle camps) driving away more than 8,000 livestock.

Geoffrey Alexander Stafford (GAS) Northcote, a local administrator had led the battalion in the attack. Seeing the colonialists taking away her people's livestock angered her. She invoked the warriors to act.

One of them was her nephew Otenyo Nyamaterere, whom she encouraged to marshal the rest of warriors in the region for her blessing to lay a counter-attack. Mr Nyamaterere ended up injuring Northcote with a spear, an attack that sparked a horrendous guerrilla warfare between the British soldiers and Abagusii warriors.

To end the war and seize Nyamaterere who had since gone into hiding, the British administration coerced Moraa to re-invoke her influence to that effect. The war ended, Nyamaterere was captured, executed in public and beheaded.

Moraa was later arrested. She was tortured to yield in to a collaboration with the colonialists but she refused. Her refusal earned her solitary confinement. She was later released and continued to treat the wounded warriors with her herbs before her death in 1929 due to old age.

Njuri Ncheke

In the Mount Kenya region, the elders are concerned that women are failing to show up for leadership.

"For instance, no woman is yet to declare her ambitions for the Presidency. They are even afraid to go for parliamentary or county assembly seats. And I don't know why they are afraid," says chairman of the Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders, Mr Linus Kathera.

"We are open to supporting any woman who reaches out to us for help to vie for any political seat," he adds.

During Kenya's struggle for independence in the years between 1920 and 1963, women in Mount Kenya region took charge in the fight against the alien rulers.

Rebecca Njeri Kari, for instance, led the women's wing of Mau Mau movement and Wambui Waiyaki established a squad of women spies who were pivotal in providing intelligence information on British operations in Kenya. They were both arrested and detained for resisting British rule.

For the Luo, the elders are becoming conscious of the evolving spaces for women in the governance spectrum.

"Women have not been given priority to lead," says chairperson for Luo Council of Elders Mr Willis Otondi.

"But see what happened in Tanzania; a woman was sworn in as the President. From now on, we are going to encourage our women to seek leadership that they so desire."

He affirms: "Next year, you are going to see an increase in number of women vying for various positions. We have discouraged our women from relying on nominations but rather seek to be elected."

It is Grace Onyango from the Luo community who broke the barriers for women in Kenya to rise into public leadership in the post-colonial era.

She is the heroine of many firsts earned in the early years of independence. In 1964, she became the first East African woman to serve as a councillor.

A year later, she became a mayor. Then in 1969, she struck a double string to premier into the National Assembly as Member of Parliament and official of the Luo Union of East Africa.

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