Nothing could have prepared residents of a small village in Ugenya, Siaya County, for the eventuality of one of their daughters heading a top public university.
Growing up, there was nothing particularly remarkable about young Rose Awuor, the firstborn of a government driver father and a peasant mother. Like other girls in the village, she was at best a noisy nuisance in the course of her childhood games and at worst a fence-wrecking firewood gatherer as she went about her household chores.
But the little girl, who started her education at the nearby Ndenga Primary School, is now the first-ever female Vice-Chancellor of Egerton University — the esteemed 76-year-old institution of higher learning that was elevated to a full-fledged university in 1987.
Prof Rose Awuor Mwonya will on Wednesday officially take over from Prof James Tuitoek to become the fifth vice-chancellor of the institution that currently has four campuses and 25,000 students.
Prepare for bursts of laughter if you plan to have a no-holds-barred chat with Prof Mwonya like the one Lifestyle had with the don this week.
The professor of Home Economics Education will be the last to resist the temptation to crack a timely joke.
“Na hizo zote utapeleka wapi? (Where will you take all those photographs?),” she asks our photojournalist as he clicks away during the interview.
Or she will narrate to you, bemusedly, how she sometimes has to go to her kitchen and cook something “just to feel that I’m a woman”.
At times she may not even intend to joke but you quickly learn that she has mastered the art of putting a message edgewise — like when you start discussing music:
Prof Mwonya: “I like music generally; listening and also dancing.”
Lifestyle: “Who is your favourite artiste?”
Prof Mwonya: (Without any hesitation) “I don’t know.”
But in between the light moments is serious talk from a woman who considers herself “the best teacher” in whose hands thousands of Kenyans have been nurtured since she became an Egerton employee in September 1987.
In the 28 years she has been at the institution, she has held various positions among them founding director of the Centre for Women Studies and Gender Analysis and also the chairperson of the Department of Agriculture and Home Economics.
She would later rise to become the dean of students in 2007 and a year later she was appointed the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of academic affairs, a position she held until her appointment to head the university in October last year.
When Prof Mwonya looks at a student, she says, she sees an individual bubbling with energy who needs guidance.
She is proud that there was no student unrest during her stint as dean of students, which she attributes to one secret — keeping students busy.
“During my deanship, we never had any strike. That is something I felt happy about,” says Prof Mwonya who — like Prof Olive Mugenda, the Kenyatta University VC — is an alumna of Iowa State University in the US.
“You need to keep students busy, according to their talents. We always rewarded the best students, including those who quit drinking. If you were a drunkard and you quit drinking, and you were identified by other students, we rewarded you for that,” she says.
Prof Mwonya professes she loves working with young people, and believes that students are best left alone to do what they please so long as there is proper counselling.
“I leave them to do things on their own and help them to develop it further,” says the academic.
In her world, the way to have well-mannered students is by showing them the right way and creating mechanisms to guide them. That, she says, is the reason she started a peer counselling programme at the institution.
“I had a project which ran for almost 10 years on peer education and was funded by Pathfinder International: to educate the young people on how to live; and about general life in the university,” she notes, adding that the programme may have been the reason behind her appointment as the dean.
Out of her desire to see students kept busy, she introduced a culture week which, she says, is part of the extra-curricular activities.
“We never used to do a culture week but I started it and it’s doing very well with the students showing what they can do,” she says.
Pop into the university during one of those cultural weeks and you could spot Prof Mwonya dancing with the students, for she says her love for music and dancing cannot let her just stand aside and watch.
“I dance everywhere with students. You find me in the field. Yes, I do. They will tell you,” says Prof Mwonya.
However, despite her seemingly laissez-faire approach towards learners, the administrator is ready to make enemies in her new position, if that is what it takes to ensure the integrity of university courses and examinations.
She feels that there will be no more pride in academic excellence if cheating in examinations is not rooted out.
“And they will dislike me for that; I’m ready for it,” she says.
In the professor’s manual, the place for a student caught cheating in examinations is miles away from the institution and the punishment for a member of staff who abets the vice is being sacked.
“(For students) we discontinue. And for staff, we dismiss or we terminate their services if they have been helping the students (cheat). So, it is not a simple thing at Egerton. I’m not even sorry when they go,” says Prof Mwonya, who was also once a student at the institution.
She adds: “We have restructured our examination system and I believe, if it works the way I want it to, we should be able to minimise — to zero if possible — examination malpractice.”
Another priority on her mind is the library at the main campus which, she says, needs to be expanded.
“The library we have was there during the college days (when Egerton was a constituent college of the University of Nairobi). It cannot accommodate the number of students we have now. I wish we had a way of getting the library built. I feel very bad about it,” says Prof Mwonya, who acknowledges that funding could be a big hindrance to her plan.
She says the library may have been built with a capacity of 600 users in mind, but the student population is now 25,000.
The library, she notes, is one of the symptoms of a problem that has plagued Egerton for long.
“Egerton was not given enough time to grow as a constituent college of the University of Nairobi. For that reason, I feel it did not develop enough infrastructure to support the full-fledged university now, because the structures which were started are not yet completed, which is not very good,” she notes.
Then the issue of universities opening campuses crops up, against the backdrop of a stern message from Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i that the government will take measures to ensure the quality of university education is not compromised.
“Time has come for us to make hard decisions to protect the credibility of our higher education system,” said Dr Matiang’i during a graduation ceremony at Kenyatta University on December 18.
Dr Matiang’i criticised the desire to expand universities at the expense of quality.
“We now must exercise great care with our appetite of acquiring massive buildings at every corner of our towns, usually at high costs, when we are not remunerating our faculty as well as we should,” he said.
Prof Mwonya concurs with Dr Matiang’i.
“I agree with him. Because if you open a campus and you don’t have the facilities, it is definite that the standards will go down. So, you must be able to open a campus and accompany it with the facilities. And that is the reason why Egerton would not like opening campuses anyhow,” she says.
Prof Mwonya explains that it’s not easy for Egerton to open many campuses because of the kind of disciplines the university specialises in.
“We are a science-oriented university and when you open many campuses, you need labs and we cannot afford to do that,” she says, noting that it is only arts-related courses that the Njoro-based institution offers in its campuses in Nairobi, Nakuru and Baringo.
And when she is done worrying about academic issues for the day — which she says goes up to 5pm on ordinary days but can extend to 8pm on a “crazy day” — Prof Mwonya retreats to her Nakuru residence to relax, have her supper, and watch the news before sleeping until 6am the next morning.
She is married to Mr Joshua Mwonya, a retired manager of the South Nyanza Sugar Company, who is now a businessman. They have two biological children and two adopted ones.
She says of her husband who mostly operates from South Nyanza: “He’s a weekend husband and I’m a weekend wife.”
Prof Mwonya spent her formative years at Ndenga Primary School in Siaya County where she studied up to Standard Four before her father took her to Asumbi Girls Boarding School in Homa Bay County. From there she joined Nyabururu Girls in Kisii and later enrolled at the Embu Institute of Agriculture.
Afterwards, she worked under the Agriculture ministry before she applied to the government to secure her an admission to pursue a diploma at Egerton University, then under the University of Nairobi.
She finished her three-year-course in Agriculture and Home Economics in 1975 then was later posted to Kakamega district as a District Home Economics Officer. She worked in that position shortly before going to Bukura Institute of Agriculture in the then Western province as a lecturer to fulfil her dreams.
“I liked teaching. The only thing that I loved was teaching. And I don’t think I’ve ever changed,” she says. “I wanted to be the best teacher; and I think I have.”
Later, she received a scholarship from the United States Agency for International Development to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture at the Iowa State University which she completed in one and a half years. She also pursued an MSc and PhD in Home Economics Education at the same institution until 1984.
Prof Mwonya majored in home economics, a discipline that incorporates child development and adult education among other aspects.
That is how a little girl from Siaya — who says she was never out of the top 10 position in class — flipped through the pages of the books she read and weaved a plot that will reach one of its climaxes on Wednesday.
She believes the village traits are still within her. That is perhaps why she walks around the institution too often.
“Even during the normal office hours I just get up and walk. If you ask the people in the campus, they’ll tell you I do a lot of walking around; maybe because I was a rural girl. In the village, you don’t just sit,” she says.
Some 21 people had applied for the VC’s position and she says she was lucky to have been among the three finalists whose names were forwarded to President Uhuru Kenyatta and the then Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi (now Land Cabinet Secretary).
“I want to say ‘Thank you’ to the President and the Cabinet Secretary Prof Kaimenyi for giving me that chance to serve Egerton as a VC,” she says.
So what is her message as she officially takes over as VC?
“I’m just requesting that we work together and make a difference in the next five years when I will be the vice-chancellor. I’m ready to work with everybody. So, let us serve the nation in the best way possible,” she says.