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Of ‘Ms President’ and the demand for emancipation



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“You cannot walk properly on one foot, however strong it is,” said my long-time Kenyatta University colleague and friend, David Mulwa, recently. He was chatting with a young visiting scholar and mutual friend of ours, Dr Sylvester Danson Kahyana, from Makerere.

The two men of letters were discussing the much-touted “STEM” (science-technology-engineering-maths) approach to education, often fanatically pushed to the near or total exclusion of the Humanities (the arts and social sciences).

Mulwa, the undisputed doyen of East African performing arts, was dramatising for his younger colleague the potential tragedy of trying to drive a development programme that disadvantages those disciplines that make us human – the humanities.

Such a misguided programme is bound to hobble and stumble about on its one “STEM” foot, when it could be marching smoothly and confidently forward on its two available feet of arts and sciences. As I keep suggesting to my fellow educational practitioners, a truly good education is one that balances the sciences and the humanities. Incidentally, Bethwell Ogot taught Ngugi wa Thiong’o Mathematics at Alliance Boys and History at Makerere.

It is, however, developments in the women’s world that reminded me of Mulwa’s one-footed dilemma. The first was Joan Thatiah’s incisively informative and richly illustrated post-season review of the TV reality show, “Ms President”, in the last Saturday Nation Magazine. The second, and heftier, event was the demand by Kenya’s women that they should hold 50 per cent of all State and public office jobs in the country. The key words here are “demand” and “all”.

Regarding the “Ms President” show, you will probably have guessed that I watched very little of it, owing to my notoriously poor screen watching habits. Maybe I should try and search for it online, if available. If not, do not disillusion me, please. Let me learn the hard way. Anyway, Thatiah’s retrospective review, like all good reviews, made me want to view.

From what I gathered from my reading, I felt that all the finalist candidates were strikingly good leadership material, and I am seriously considering sending friend requests. My preferences were Ms Betty Adera and Ms Umul-Kheir Harun, with all due homage to “Ms President” Nereah Amondi Oketch. But then, my favourite character in Assumpta Matei’s Chozi la Heri (A Tear of Blessing) is Umulkheri (mother of blessing). These things affect our judgement, however much we might protest our objectivity.

As it happens, the only person known to me before the show and the review was Oxonian Ms Kingwa Kamencu, best remembered for her presidential aspirations in 2013. But, apart from her being a writer, her second name also struck me with a reminiscence, although I have never asked her about it. That is how shy I am. One of my most eminent classmates at Dar es Salaam University (UDSM) was Mr Zakayo Kamencu, who served Kenya with distinction in many ambassadorial capacities and later as PS in several ministries.

I would always feel particularly proud when I ran into Balozi (Ambassador) Kamencu in my early days in Nairobi in the 1980s. But the powers that were at the time do not appear to have been particularly grateful for Kamencu’s services. Indeed, he was abruptly and prematurely retired in the early 1990s. I have not asked Kingwa if she is kin with “Balozi”, but I think his story should be told.

Back to the women’s demand for a fifty-fifty share of all public offices, it was particularly significant because it followed hard on the heels of the departure of the late Dr Joyce Laboso, one of the first three women ever to be elected Governors in Kenya, in 2017. Indeed, the demand, made to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) task force at the KICC in Nairobi on Thursday, September 8, was spearheaded by the two surviving female Governors, Ms Charity Ngilu of Kitui County and Ms Anne Waiguru of Kirinyaga County. I understand that it was the women’s Embrace grouping that formulated and submitted the document.

I need not tell you that I support the sharing proposal. I may, however, say why I introduced my sisters’ stories with an observation from a man, to another man, about not walking on one foot. Well, the easiest connection is that, since humanity comprises men and women, it needs a balanced structure and stance in order to advance firmly and steadily on its two human resource feet.

Our society is, however, depressingly lopsided, in favour of males. The females are, consequently, disadvantaged in their struggle for a fair and balanced participation in and contribution to the society’s growth and development, as one can gather from the incisive insights offered by women in stories such as those cited above. If our society is tottering and teetering, hobbling and shuffling in its development efforts, could it be that it is trying to walk on one foot, the male one, instead of the two available to it?

The obvious fact, however, is that women are not lacking in ability, competence or willingness to participate and contribute at every level of society. They are simply denied recognition, respect and opportunity. One could cite a myriad illustrations of this at every echelon of our private and public operations.

The sad reality is that every time we deny a woman a deserved chance, or chauvinistically sabotage her effort, we drag our country a step back from its development. Fortunately, most people of right mind and right thinking, including my fellow men, are increasingly realising that holding women back is not only undesirable but also untenable.

Thus, the emancipation, enabling and empowerment of women becomes a necessary requirement for our development, indeed a demand, as the sisters of the Embrace grouping have made it. I wish they would adopt the three “Es”, emancipate, enable, empower (EEE), as one of their slogans, if they have not already done so.

I will not demand recognition for the coinage, since it is a part of all of us.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]

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