Betty Kaari Murungi, a champion of women’s rights, credits her international reputation to Facebook, the social networking website popular among the young — and not so young — around the world.
“All my friends on Facebook are young people, but my son has refused to be my friend although he already has 620,” Ms Murungi said. “He told me, ‘Please Mum, don’t send me a friend request because I will not agree.”
Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her source of information. She reads voraciously — three books in 10 days — and her record for books read stands at 6,000. Her latest is Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow.
“How do I learn to be young like you? I want to tell my stories in one sentence. Those are the things that keep me thinking young. I won’t let a number limit my ability,” said the 48-year-old. “When I put music in my iPod I want to listen to what other people are listening to.”
When she spoke to Lifestyle recently she had just retired as executive director of Urgent Action Fund-Africa, an organisation she helped found with five other women in 1997 to champion the rights of women and to provide funds for them in crisis situations like the Rwanda genocide and the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Ms Murungi has strong feelings about human rights, particularly those having to do with human sexuality and sex education and the controversy these topics provoke.
“African societies have always had lesbian and gay people. Scholars have done studies. It is not true that this practice has been imposed from the outside,” she said. “People have a right to choose their sexual orientation and which is the incorrect.” As a human rights defender, she said, one does not choose which right to defend.
“Why would you want to make it your business peeping into people’s bedrooms to dictate to them how they must live their lives?” she asked.
Her life has had its ups and downs, but she particularly relishes her experiences since her formative years as a law student at the University of Nairobi. Interacting with women in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide is one of her indelible memories.
“My work in Rwanda will stay with me forever; the experiences of rape, disease, death, and the women who ended up getting ill as a result of the atrocities,” she recalled.
The advocated of the High Court remembers when some of her university lecturers were arrested for sedition after the thwarted 1982 coup and how she got locked up herself in 1990 for banging on the table at the Kilimani police station where she had gone to get a client out of jail.
But if there is anything that has made her ponder the brutality of life is the period surrounding the controversial December 2007 presidential election.
She was in New York in January 2008 for a conference when her husband, James Orengo, called to tell her that there was a rumour going around that she had killed him in the politically motivated violence that erupted following the announcement of the disputed results. Mr Orengo, a lawyer, is the current minister for Lands.
She said they both laughed about the absurdity of the claim and that Mr Orengo had assured her they would talk about it when she returned.
“That was a very tragic rumour,” she said. “People were calling me, and I came to realise who my friends were. Jim (Orengo) and I continued with our life; we were appearing together at parties.”
But the experience prompted her to open an intellectual inquiry about rumours and how they spread.
“People can either spread a rumour or believe in a rumour,” she said. “It was an eye-opener.”
She said there was “never a dull moment” in her life with Mr Orengo and that one of her projects in “retirement” was to set up a library in his home village of Nyawara in Ugenya as they are both avid readers.
Growing up in Chogoria in Meru South, Ms Murungi dreamt of travelling the world. Her parents had been beneficiaries of the student airlifts to the United States in the early 1960s, so she was raised by her grandparents.
Her grandfather thought she should become a doctor, but she dreamed of becoming a nurse.
“I liked the uniform. I liked the fact that they had those little hats. I admired the way they looked at Chogoria hospital,” said the second-born in a family of nine.
When at home she rarely cooks, but she loves cleaning her house and bedroom. She has 32 books on her “To Read” list, and since she rarely visits a hair salon she will have ample time to read them.
Until last year she wore dreadlocks, which she said was a way of trying to figure out how to be natural. When asked what had happened to them, she replied: “My dreadlocks are under construction.”