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February 17, 2019

ANYANG' NYONG'O: Phoebe Asiyo, The trailblazer

1 st African Chairperson of Maendeleo ya Wanawake Phoebe Asiyo speaks at Nairobi Baptist Church during the memorial service of the Late Winnie Mandela on 13 April 2018./Collins Langat
1 st African Chairperson of Maendeleo ya Wanawake Phoebe Asiyo speaks at Nairobi Baptist Church during the memorial service of the Late Winnie Mandela on 13 April 2018./Collins Langat

On Thursday, President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta invited hundreds of Kenyans and a couple of diplomats to State House to witness the launching of Phoebe Asiyo's autobiography appropriately entitled It Is Possible: An African Woman Speaks.

All these years, I have heard Nyagoro speak. She was never loud, rarely assertive, unlikely to be flustered by plenty of nonsense that pollutes many a political discourse but always firm, sharp in delivery and alarmingly disarming. So the subtitle of her book is true to her character: The lady has always spoken, made plenty of good sense and floored many persons (read "men") who have contested against her in electoral politics in her long career. But on that later.

The gathering in State House, occasioned by Nyagoro's timely move to launch her autobiography, was an idea whose time had truly come: A living testimony that coming together, Kenyans can climb impossible mountains. Yote yawezekana. Politics based on ephemeral and ill-thought out ideas can cause unnecessary conflicts among people, especially when they provide the fodder used to feed the ambitions of self-centered politicians, who are usually political careerist men and women without any political or social causes that they sincerely champion in life. I felt at home in State House, mingled freely with colleagues I have hardly seen for some time, seeing the happy twinkle in some people's eyes asking the question: "Can it be possible, this handshake thing?" Yes, says Phoebe, "It is possible".

CS Margaret Kobia and her colleagues in the State Department of Gender and Women Affairs rose to the occasion by initiating the programme of honoring Women Trailblazers in their own right on this very memorable occasion, and the President duly honored the Trailblazers. This move was of great symbolic importance to Nyagoro, thereby situating her history where it truly belongs as an inspiration to many women. The President must be equally commended for establishing this tradition that, as he promised, will now be an annual event. From where I sit, I have heard very familiar voices sending messages to State House to the effect that women would like to be honoured "as they make history" and not "when they are almost at the touchline after a long race." I hope you get me Your Excellency.

The story of Phoebe Asiyo's life is riveting, her achievements are at times unbelievable but everything springs from a story, which is at no time extenuated. She was born in a family headed by an evangelist of the Seventh Day Adventist Church: Jaduong' Joel Omer. As a leader in the church, Joel was a firm but loving parent, says Phoebe. "He worked hard for the mission and would travel far and wide on his bicycle, preaching the gospel," adds Phoebe.

I can now see why Phoebe and my mother Dorca have been such good friends: My father, a pastor in the Anglican Church, fitted that profile perfectly. "My mother, Mriam Amolo (Nyar Omolo)," adds Nyagoro, "was a traditional midwife who doubled up as a pediatrician". Interesting parallels here: My mother Dorca Owino (Nyar Amolo) brought us up treating many ailments that we had with traditional herbs, and extending her fledgling medical profession to the neighborhood and to her "sisters in Christ." Her medical prowess fitted perfectly with her Christian faith. After all, Jesus also healed the sick, at times through magic!

Let us wind the clock forward, discovering on our way that a young woman who had been so well brought up and given Christian education married an equally well groomed young man called "BRAG", a very appropriate name for a young Luo with his swag! But the complete name, to say the truth, was Bezellel Richard Asiyo Genga, hence BRAG. As fate would have it, the marriage between the two was never solemnized in church, as Nyagoro would have wanted it. But the result of that union proved love can be as strong a bond, if not stronger, than the piousness of religious ceremony when not sincerely meant.

Nyagoro's history demonstrates the life of a woman who was never in a hurry to overreach herself as a wife, mother, freedom fighter, professional in her prisons duties, social worker, women's leader or politician. She was never socially imprisoned by ethnic identity, yet she identified very strongly with her cultural background and has always spoken with authority on Luo customs and traditions, following in the footsteps of her father, the second "Ker" of the Luo after Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. But Nyagoro as a traditional custom in any society could, never tolerate such backward practices as female genital mutilation strange in Luo society, in her capacity as a health worker and defender of women's rights. When it came to debates on such topics in Parliament, Phoebe was always ready to demonstrate her relentless commitment to the liberation of women.

1979 was somehow a turning point in Kenyan politics. The first election after Mzee Jomo Kenyatta's demise in August 1978 was held that year. This was to mark Daniel Moi's first year as President as well, so one obviously expected the new President to back to the hilt his own supporters running for Parliament. Nyagoro, without getting any node from Moi, jumped into the fray, facing the Kanu chairman and chairman of the disciplinary committee, David Okiki Amayo. What a daring woman! But there were two bigger guns in the politics of Luo Nyanza, who backed her candidature and proved harder nuts to crack for Amayo. These were elder Paul Mboya, the new Luo Ker after Joel Omer, and Jaramogi, already proven as the doyen of opposition politics in Kenya against the Kenyatta/Moi authoritarian regime. The journey to enter Parliament against all odds proved successful. It was possible, through resoluteness and determination, coupled with intelligent strategising, for a woman like Nyagoro to beat male political supremacists at their own game. But in the course of that struggle, a fellow woman, posing as her supporter, tried to kill her through poisoning her food. Politics is not just a question of gender: It is a matter of political belief, identity and commitment. Nyagoro was to go through many trials and tribulations that only a reading of her exciting autobiography will lead you to discover. So read on.

For those of us who got involved in the struggle for the Second Liberation, we cannot forget Nyagoro's contribution to the Constitution making process. She was not only a member of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission chaired by Prof Yash Ghai, but most of us benefited from her work as a parliamentarian, and those of many other women legislators, in gathering material to give content to the new constitution. In the 1992-97 Parliament, Raila Odinga, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, James Orengo, Mukhisa Kituyi and myself used to be referred to by our fellow male MPs — in derogatory tones of course — as "honorary women" for our support for women causes. If to be an honorary woman is to keep company with Phoebe Asiyo "Nyagoro", then I very humbly accept that honour. And I am sure my mother, Dorca Owino Nyamolo, will be very proud of me.

Congratulations Nyagoro for a battle well fought, an exemplary life richly lived and memories we shall cherish from your history.

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