Beth Mugo’s history of empowering women feted

Speakers at her book launch revisited role she played in the 1970s and 80s

In Summary

• The launch of 'Early Bird: A Memoir' illuminated Nairobi at the refurbished KICC

• Speeches shed new light on the multifaceted career of this seasoned politician

Copy of the programme of events
Copy of the programme of events

Every month in the calendar has its moments, and September 2023 is no exception. Just a fortnight ago, Nairobi played host to the prestigious Africa Climate Week (ACW) 2023, running from September 4-8.

This remarkable event coincided with the African Climate Summit (ACS), hosted by the Kenyan government, drawing more than 19 heads of state and thousands of attendees from across the continent and beyond.

The international gathering revolved around the theme of “Driving Green Growth and Climate Finance Solutions for Africa and the World.” While the summit discussions were promising, the real test lies in how the commitments made in the Nairobi Declaration will be translated into action.

The focal point for this significant event was the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), which underwent a swift and dazzling renovation, thanks in part to the diligent efforts of the dependable and highly professional Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).

Even before the new renovations, the KICC was undeniably an icon representing Kenya and the city of Nairobi on a global scale. It stands as a symbol of modernity and progress, majestically positioned in the heart of the bustling mega-city, surrounded by government offices, Parliament and the Supreme Court. This edifice not only serves as a favoured venue for summits like ACS but is also the birthplace of many September-related stories.

This 105m-tall tower and its complex were inaugurated in September 1973 and named in honour of our founding President, hayati Jomo Kenyatta. This September marks precisely half a century since its doors first opened for business.

Twelve years ago, during this very month, the Tourism Act of 2011 transformed KICC into a State Corporation. Its national mandate shifted from being merely a space for grand gatherings to becoming a hub for promoting Kenya as a destination for crucial dialogues of our time.

Once again, this month, the iconic complex celebrated its 40th anniversary by changing its name from the Kenyatta International Conference Centre to Kenyatta International Convention Centre. Perhaps it’s the charm of the ninth month that has favoured this edifice, making it the ninth-tallest building in all of Kenya.

Just 10 days ago, I received an official invitation to attend a significant gathering at the beautifully refurbished edifice. The remnants of the Climate Summit were still visible, with red carpets awaiting their final roll-up and water fountains competing with the sky to shower mist on all, including the lush greenery and vibrant flowers in full bloom, typical of September.

This gathering was a book launch hosted at KICC’s hut-shaped amphitheater by retired senator, feminist leader and cancer warrior, Mama Beth Mugo of Dagoretti. At 84 years old, she unveiled her life story in a voluminous memoir titled Early Bird: A Memoir (2023) published by the Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB), available in both hard and soft copies at leading bookstores.

The launch attracted individuals from all walks of life and various sectors of our society, including religious and political leaders, academics, civil organisations and family members from both her immediate and extended families.

Sitting there, in the company of high society and common wananchi, in the fold of authors and publishers, as a national literary critic, for me, listening to those who have closely witnessed her life journey, was enlightening.

Starting out the eloquent speeches, all rendered in English, Prof Maria Nzomo emphasised Mama Beth’s unwavering commitment to public leadership as the cornerstone of her national service career.

Retired CS Eugene Wamalwa concurred, recalling their time in the Cabinet during the Kibaki era and how Mama Beth served as a voice of conscience and a key adviser during that influential presidency that shifted us from the stasis of the Nyayo era to our pathway to Vision 2030, on which we are plying in our sojourn to progress.

Charity Ngilu passionately described Mama Beth as her role model, citing her pivotal role in the women's empowerment movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Beth’s inspiring words even encouraged Ngilu to consider a career in electoral politics during a fiery speech to women entrepreneurs in Machakos during the Nyayo era.

The relentless rights champion, Martha Karua, corroborated these accounts by tracing the history of gender struggles and the feminist movement in Kenya. She highlighted the prominent role Mama Beth played over the years.

The book launch shed new light on the multifaceted career of this seasoned politician, with Jeff Koinange as the master of ceremonies and the retired Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Chief Guest, represented by Oley Dibba-Wadda, executive director at the EJS Presidential Centre for Women and Development.

Undoubtedly, this book promises to provide more detailed accounts of these stories within its hundreds of pages. It will serve as an essential resource for the public, policy groups and educational communities, shedding light on how a life in Africa can be dedicated to the greater good at the intersection of gender, political leadership and public interest.

The crowning moment of this well-organised and well-attended event, for me, was the heartfelt speech delivered by Mama Beth’s cousin, Kristina Kenyatta Pratt, who shares the middle name “Wambui”.

Kristina shared cherished family memories, portraying Mama Beth as an early bird in the ascent of the Kenyatta clan to prominence. Even before Independence, Mama Beth, a teacher by profession, set the pace and served as a role model for young Kristina and many others.

Mugo’s father Ngengi, a sibling of Jomo Kenyatta's, provided refuge for Kristina and many others in his homestead during the colonial era, when Jomo Kenyatta faced persecution. This book launch, held at this historic site, underscores how our personal stories mirror the narrative of our nation and its journey to nationhood.

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