The Kenyan presidential race is slowly shifting focus, with spouses of various aspirants taking up quiet roles to boost the campaigns.
One of them is definitely going to be the next First Lady — if opinion polls are giving us a true picture of who the top contenders for the House on the Hill are.
As the contenders use their networks in the largely male-dominated political field, their spouses have been looped in for a charm offensive that could make or break their bids.
This has mostly not been in public; most only appear at official functions, often the launch of their husbands’ bids. Others have been mobilising women at informal set-ups and, in the case of one, leading an entire campaign platform.
In the West, presidential candidates strive to have their spouses at the centre of their campaigns and even those without substantive spouses (such as Francois Hollande of France and Australia’s Julia Gillard) were under so much pressure that they had to bring along their “partners”, who were always present in key campaign meetings and were respected as the candidate’s family figureheads.
But it is in US where presidents’ wives have been in the public eye — much to the chagrin of Martha Washington (wife of the former President George Washington), who had expressed reservations about her husband becoming the leader of the First Republic in 1776.
Mother of the Nation
Nor did Abigail Adams, wife of the second President, John Adams, have time for “the people”, whose curiosity about the family was always on an all-time high.
It was not until the time of Dolley Madison, the fulcrum on which her laid-back and uncharismatic husband James revolved, that a new role for the First Lady, or the ‘Mother of the Nation’, was born.
The landmark speech at the recent Democratic National Convention by Michelle Obama for her husband’s re-election has been described as the best ever by a politician’s spouse, helping to turn around a fledgling campaign.
The perfect blend of the lyrical and the political — those fashioned tropes out of her intimate experience with Barack Obama — drove home strong political points that perhaps going for the opponents’ jugular on the rough and tumble of the campaign trail would not have delivered.
Catherine Allgor, a history professor at the University of California, says the candidate’s wife should however be careful about addressing actual policy, especially when it is beyond her expertise.
She said in a recent CNN report that most of their speeches often have to do with a lot of old-fashioned “value” words such as “decent”, “steadfast”, “trust” and “values”.
“One of the benefits of the “humanising” tack is that it can gloss over pesky class differences, so a prominent theme in the stories that aspiring presidential wives tell are about the “early days, when the young couple was roughing it,” writes Allgor, author of The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison.
Germany-based scholar Peter Simatei says alluding to family milestones and private moments often do the trick. Says Prof Simatei: “When they (aspirants) come out with their wives and children, they send out the message that they are stable and would not let the country go to the dogs because they, too, have a stake in it.”
He says presidential candidates are at their most appealing when slightly inept: “When we hear some of their little failings from their spouses, it is the best way of telling us they, too, are human.”
Other observers of Kenya’s socio-political scene aver that the society has always profiled the Kenyan politician as a largely competitive, shrewd and aggressive alpha male.
“This is the kind of man that carries on as one that does not need the support of his wife at all,” says Dr Solomon Waliaula. Hence, roping in his wife “serves to project his human side; it is like a statement to the public that, ‘Hey, I may be up there above you, but I also have my moments of ordinary existence’.”
Closely related to this image, the Moi University lecturer says, is the profile of the Kenyan politician as somewhat mysterious, an image drawn from the African traditional concept of a leader.
This sort of leader is uncomfortable with his wife’s public support, for then it will debunk his enigmatic image. The involvement of spouses could help tone down the verbal attack and slander, which the country has become accustomed to during campaigns.
Until our politics is framed in real parties based on ideas and not regionalism and ethnicity, and until our society reconfigures its definition of a political leader, the spouses will remain in the shadow of political campaigns.
While opining that the new phenomenon is inspired by the Obama presidency, leading sociologist and gender expert Nyokabi Kamau says it is a continuation of age-old practice where men have used women to their advantage, saying in the US “one can never make it to the presidency if he is not a family man”.
Men use women to present the other appealing side of their lives, says Prof Kamau, adding that it works quite well for them:
“Take Environment Minister Chirau Mwakwere, who has been charming and softening the public with his beautiful wife during challenging times such as the 2010 by-election and the just-withdrawn hate speech charges where in both cases he triumphed.”
The St Paul’s University lecturer says, however, that it works differently for women. “When they (women) are the ones running for office, they want to have their husbands in the background as voters would be apprehensive that the men in their lives would be the ones ruling.”
Analysts close to some of the presidential contenders said older politicians are more comfortable moving around with their wives than their younger counterparts because of “issues with the middle class”.
“Some are only with their wives during crises,” said one, “but because of their lifestyles, some don’t even live with their wives in the first place. To mop them up on Sunday for a church appearance is not easy.”
Cultural analyst Dr Joyce Nyairo says the new phenomenon is part of a confluence of cultural appropriation from the West, particularly America: “I only hope that by stepping out, they have higher ideals and not the mentality that if their husbands won, then they would also benefit.”
Dr Nyairo added that female aspirants Martha Karua and Charity Ngilu may appeal in their own compelling way to the institution of women-headed households — a phenomenon that has exploded over the past few decades for a variety of reasons. She said: “It is easy to see why fellow women in similar circumstances and their children would find these candidates persuasive.”
So, then, what are the wives of presidential aspirants doing in their husband’s campaigns?
Mrs Ida Odinga easily passes as one of the most visible and active of all the would-be first ladies.
Ida, who lost her teaching job at Kenya High School when her husband Raila was in detention, has campaigned for Mr Odinga in many forums. She has led women movements such as the League of Kenya Women Voters, and even when she is not a member of a group, she ensures her close associates call the shots there.
“She knows women are a key block and that is her docket, to ensure majority of their votes go to her husband,” says a close associate of Ida at her NHIF Building private office.
Ida plays host to women leaders and is considered a leading shot in mobilising women votes for the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), both in 2007 and in the run-up to this election.
She has a conspicuous presence in women-oriented activities — such as jigger fighting initiatives in Nyanza and several breast cancer initiatives, activities which earned her the 2010 global award in breast cancer awareness.
Visitors to their Karen home meet an able hostess who often shares “political breakfasts” with key visitors, even engaging journalists in political chats.
To prove her full-time political engagement, Ida recently launched a lobby group, Sibanduki Na Raila, which aims at consolidating and gluing Mr Odinga’s “current supporters”.
A few months later, she was key in the rolling off of the Orange Women Democrats in readiness for the March 2013 General Elections. She is said to have greatly influenced the election of the lobby’s officials, rubbing some ODM female MPs the wrong way.
Mr Barrack Muluka, the Raila Odinga for President lobby’s national communications director, says she has been visible and assertive when it has been necessary and “stayed in the shadows when there has been no need for undue publicity and assertiveness”.
“There are things that only a spouse can do — including in an election campaign. In that regard, Mama Ida will continue to make a pitch for Mr Odinga as the best presidential candidate,” he says.
Margaret Wanjiru Kenyatta
One of the few times the wife of Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta was seen with him in “public with the cameras rolling freely” was during the official launch of The National Alliance (TNA) party at the KICC a few months ago, and earlier during her husband’s sojourn in The Hague where he is facing charges at the International Criminal Court.
The wife of 23 years spends her day running the family business and is always “back home early enough for the children”, as one of Uhuru’s relative says.
Uhuru’s policy is to keep his family “out of his politics” and Margaret, as she is known to family and friends, is rarely part of the campaign trail.
“Margaret fits well with the mien of the rest of the larger Kenyatta family, which is to be private on family matters,” a TNA strategist who was with Uhuru in Kanu disclosed. “Even in their social work, such as supporting children’s homes, the family prefers to keep off the publicity.”
One of Uhuru’s nieces says Margaret’s role in his campaigns is at the family level. She said: “The need for him (Uhuru) to come back to a warm home where children are well taken care of is what is quietly agreed as her best role. She (Margaret) has done a fantastic job, and the larger family is satisfied.”
Margaret and Uhuru are known to watch movies together at home, and they have a penchant for eating out. You will catch them at The Hood, a mid-level restaurant in Hurligham.
Margaret ensures the family of strict Catholics worships at St Mary’s Catholic Church, where she and her husband get the inspiration “that he needs to keep going on,” said a close relative we spoke to yesterday. Her brief is on the utmost health and care of their three children — two boys and one girl. The eldest son, Jomo, is in his early 20s.
Described by close associates as the pillar of her husband’s campaign, the wife of Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi runs a multi-million foundation and an empowerment initiative in Vihiga and Kakamega counties.
“She eschews publicity, but plays a big role behind the scenes. She never wants to meddle in the DPM’s campaign, believing his presidential bid should be owned by the public,” an aide said.
People close to Tessie, however, say that on a few occasions she has not necessarily liked one of the few vocal campaigners. Said the close friend of the family: “It is normal for someone not to like another for a reason, but she respects the role the various supporters play.”
Tessie plays a warm host to key strategists at their Riverside Drive, Nairobi, home.
Our attempts to have Tessie speak to us from New York, where she had accompanied the DPM in an official function, were rebuffed as she reportedly believed a scrutiny of would-be first ladies would be best done after the formal presidential nominations.
Apart from Mr Kenyatta’s wife Margaret, the wife of the United Republican Party (URP) presidential aspirant William Ruto is perhaps one of the most reserved of the would-be first ladies.
Besides accompanying her husband during his appearances at the ICC, she rarely comes out.
Perhaps this is set to change if the career teacher, who runs the family business, follows through her word given at her husband’s campaign fundraiser recently.
“Coming to this function I sat in the traffic jam for an hour and, knowing that my husband is a performer, I have made the decision to come out and support him on the campaign trail because when he becomes President, these things will change,” she said.
A close associate of Mr Ruto’s, however, described the mother of six as the face of her husband in the constituency and the greater Eldoret North: “She is a grassroots mobiliser who has brought together 3,000 women groups who benefit from a Sh200 million revolving fund.”
“She never attends political rallies as she is media-shy, but she is a brilliant behind-the-scenes operative, who influences the VP’s programmes and socio-economic agenda,” said Kaplich Barsito, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka’s spokesperson, on the VP’s wife, Pauline.
The Central Bank of Kenya employee and Nairobi Baptist Church choir member influences her husband’s political agenda through the Kalonzo Musyoka Foundation, which she heads. The charity supports orphans and people living with HIV/Aids and educates bright but needy children, especially girls.
Pauline ministers in churches and has produced an album of gospel music and national reconciliation. Her calm demeanour is seen as central to projecting the VP as a Christian family man.
Pauline told Saturday Nation that she got married to Mr Musyoka when he was a Member of Parliament and strives to help him achieve his vision for the constituency and the country.
Dr Lucy Kiyiapi, Prof James ole Kiyiapi’s wife, says she plays a big role in the Restore and Rebuild Party of Kenya leader’s campaign through research and mobilisation of support through the church networks that she leads.
“I also run a scholarship fund, which has seen many young people across the country get an education,” the Moi University public health lecturer told Saturday Nation. “It is this coterie of beneficiaries who have formed the core of our informal campaign.”
On the campaign trail the mother of four sells her husband as a caring father who looked after their young child while she was a doctoral student in Australia.
Cyrus Jirongo’s wives
Lugari MP Cyrus Jirongo, who early this month launched his presidential bid on the Federal Party of Kenya (FPK) ticket, is proudly polygamous and little is known about the role of his three wives in his campaign. (READ: Spouses could be deciding factor in Kajiado North by-election)
Additional reporting by Kitavi Mutua