Untold her-stories: Documenting Kenyan Women’s Experiences of Elections and Political Leadership

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Browsing through Kenyan bookshops it is often difficult to find autobiographies from female politicians.The shelves tend to be dominated by autobiographies and biographies of male politicians, with books such as Against all odds by Kalonzo Muysoka, A path not taken by former Vice President Joseph Murumbi, Not yet Uhuru by Jaramogi Odinga, and Vice President Moody Awori’s Riding on a Tiger. These books often cover the breadth of Kenya’s history from the struggle for independence through to present day.

In contrast, there are very few autobiographies that cover the span of Kenyan’s history from a woman’s perspective.As such there are very few women in politics who document their political leadership journey. Most notably there is Mrs Grace Ogot’s with her autobiography Days of my Life, where she discusses her journey from various professions into politics. Prof Wangari Maathai has also written about her life as an environmentalist and her bid for various political positions including the presidency in 1997. These autobiographies provide insight into the lives of those who write them, in the case, of Mrs Grace Ogot and Professor Maathai they narrate their respective journeys through politics and the various challenges faced.

In her book Grace Ogot describes herself as a pioneer. She starts her career as a nurse, who is posted to Uganda where she is selected for further studies in the United Kingdom. Thereafter, Grace Ogot became one of the first African nurses and one of the first African women to travel abroad for further studies. Before she could travel abroad, Grace Ogot faced a significant challenge from her family, who had been quite understanding of her nursing studies in Uganda, but were not understanding of her travel to England.  Grace Ogot stated that the family exclaimed “… you want to go to the Whiteman’s country from where people never come back. And where no African woman had ever gone to.”  (Ogot, 2012, p. 61). However, despite their initial resistance, her family gave in and she was allowed to travel to the UK. There she not only completed her nursing studies, but Grace Ogot also met and married Bethwell Ogot.

Grace Ogot went on to become an accomplished and renowned author writing books such as The Promised Land and numerous short stories. Her unexpected entry into politics came about when she was nominated to Parliament by President Daniel arap Moi in 1983. Just as unexpectedly as her nomination, Grace Ogot in 1985 got an opportunity to run for elected office when Horace Owiti the Gem Member of Parliament was tragically killed. With the support of the women of Gem, Grace Ogot was elected as the Gem Member of Parliament in 1985 and thus her political career started. Mrs Ogot was involved in many development initiatives in her constituency, such as instituting bursaries and women’s development projects. In 1992, however the political climate changed with the start of multi-party politics, this altered Grace Ogot’s political trajectory and she was not re-elected to parliament. In her biography Grace Ogot’s reflected on how she left her constituency. She stated “Finally in just over eight years, the kind of disillusioned constituency I inherited had been turned into a constituency of confident hard working and dedicated people” (Ogot, 2012, p. 288).

Grace Ogot is one of the few women that have written about her experience of navigating the Kenyan political landscape. As such, it is not only autobiographies that suffer from a lack of African women’s experiences, the same can be said for academic literature. African women’s experiences of politics, and political leadership are often missing from academic discourse. It is important to document women’s experiences of elective politics as it provides an accurate picture not only of the Kenyan political landscape but also of the Kenyan historical context. Such writing contributes to an under served area in literature and academic texts.

Article by Dr. Lanoi Maloiy, Researcher and Lecturer at the African Women Studies Centre, University of Nairobi.  This blog post is part of a longer book chapter on exploring women’s experiences of elective politics.

References

Ogot, G. A. (2012). Days of my life. An autobiography by Grace Ogot.Anyange Press limited. Kisumu, Kenya.

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