Did the just concluded Ms President show strike the right chord on the future of women sitting on the country’s top throne? Joan Thatiah talks to Ms President contestants and a former presidential aspirant and unearths the truth
On a warm morning on September 2011, Kingwa Kamencu, a writer, hosted a press conference where she declared her intention to run for the presidential seat in the 2013 General Election.
At this press conference, Kingwa, then 27, was overwhelmed by emotion because of what she described as a crisis of leadership in the country and broke down in tears.
Disapproval followed soon after. How can we elect her? She is too woman! What if she goes to cry in State House in the middle of a crisis?
Some of the comments online read. "Joker In Chief, Dived Too Deep?" Read some of the headlines on local dailies.
Her tears were proof that a woman is not hardened enough to be president.
Fast forward to a fortnight ago, during training on gender reporting, where the trainer asked journalists for their opinion on Martha Karua and Charity Ngilu, two Kenyan women who have made a run for the presidency. "Those two are like men. They are too manly," one of the male journalists declared.
To be a woman in a country like Kenya means to be under constant scrutiny. The spotlight burns when you run for a political seat.
A woman who runs for a presidential seat is likely to be seen as too much of this or that.
With this in mind, a reality TV show dubbed Ms President was produced and aired on KTN. The programme fronted by Media Focus on Africa concluded on July 31 and saw Nereah Amondi Oketch crowned the "President" after 26 episodes of fierce competition.
"The general idea of the show was to spark the conversation about women leadership and to show people that there are women who are capable and qualified. That a woman can make president," says Harrison Manga, Programme Manager, Media Focus on Africa.
The make-belief show had 71 women drawn from the breadth of Kenya trained on leadership and then compete through a series of tasks.
The Kenyan woman has made huge strides in equality in comparison to countries like Indonesia where women are banned from dancing.
The numbers however say that when it comes to leadership, the Kenyan woman is still a long way off. For instance, in the last election, of the 1,450 wards, only 96 women were elected.
Pop culture has been proven to plant the right seeds in society. It has been said that having a successful African-American president in the early seasons of 24, an American television show, helped Barack Obama get elected as president.
Did having a make-believe female president on Kenyan TV help shape the minds of the Kenyan electorate? Will seeing a woman going through a series of leadership-teaching tasks help a woman break the highest glass ceiling?
"We got people talking," Harrison says, gaging from the online chatter. Whether or not it shifted mindsets, only time can tell.
Are we asking the right questions? Nereah Oketch, 42, the winner of Ms President, thinks that we are all asking the wrong questions.
"We should be asking what is good about leadership, not what is good about female leadership."
Nereah, who gave birth to her fifth child as the show progressed, was the viewers' choice as her vision and demeanour resonated with them.
You can almost hear her weighing each of her thoughts before she speaks. Women should shed the ‘woman' label, she holds, and strive to be seen as human first.
"When campaigning, female leaders keep telling people, ‘I am a woman; elect me. You have been voting for men all this time, now it is time to vote for a woman.'
Anyone seeking leadership should focus on whatever it is that they have to offer," says this nominated MCA from Homa Bay County.
For Nereah, politics is not something she wanted to do, it is something she felt she needed to do.
She holds an MBA in Strategy Management and worked in Finance for 12 years before deciding that "it was not enough to earn a salary and watch the politicians from the sidelines".
"Girls are raised to stick close to home while boys are encouraged to go out and sample the world. It's harder for a woman to leave her comfort zone to try politics. And even if she finally does, she will have a harder time making this decision," Nereah, whose 15-year-plan involves running for the presidency, acknowledges.
Still, when it comes to campaigns, in her view, gender should not matter. "The bigger picture for me is about service to Kenyans. It is what got me through to the finals." Winning strengthened her resolve to run for an elective seat in the next elections, she says.
Betty Adera, 46, another one of the five finalists on Ms President, shares Nereah's view on gender. "What duties is the president performing that a woman can't?" she poses.
Betty, who runs Betty Adera Foundation, focusing on gender-based violence and youth unemployment in Nairobi, reckons that the most important thing a leader needs is just a good head on their shoulders.
Her biggest take-home from being on the show was that being presidential is no child's play as one needs to think before they open their mouth.
"A woman can be president. I can't rule out that I will not run for the presidency in the future. There is still fear that because she has been oppressed for too long, a woman will be bossy if given power. People are afraid that watakaliwa (bossed)," she says.
She hopes that Ms. President will help kill this stereotype. "I am sure there were people who were expecting us to have catfights but we held a very mature competition," she says.
Betty admits that she was reluctant at first to apply because she imagined that she would be required to act.
Finding a bigger platform for her cause — women and children — is what saw her finally apply. She does not regret her decision.
Is the woman ready to be president? Writer Kingwa Kamencu, a former presidential aspirant, thinks the question is a nonsensical one. She gives an analogy of a writer from Embu.
"Say that there has never been a writer from Embu; that people have only read stories from writers from other parts of the country. Asking me whether Kenya is ready for a female president would be like asking me whether Kenya is ready for an Embu writer," she illustrates.
So, what question should we be asking? "Is the Kenyan woman ready to be president?" she says.
Kamencu starred in Madam President, a mock reality show which premiered in 2017. One of the aims of the show, she shares, was to ignite this conversation.
The other was to shed light on the difference between a good politician and a good policymaker. She thinks that women confuse the two when it comes to the ballot.
In her view, the question should be about whether or not the Kenyan woman is ready to play the game of politics knowing that it's a high stake one. She must be willing to fail.
"We need to move on from these discussions on whether or not the country is ready. Life should never be about asking for permission.
"If there is anything I've learnt about life, it's that it's easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission. Women can't wait for society to be ready for them; they just have to go out and occupy. Society will adapt."
She equates the process of wooing voters being the same as that of wooing a woman. A man never asks a woman whether she is ready; he just woos her relentlessly.
He wins and loses sometimes. "If you look around the world, entertainment and leadership are emerging. Populist candidates are the ones winning elections. Candidates who can win people over emotionally," Kamencu says as she gives the example of Ukraine's newly-elected leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
If the question is whether the Kenyan woman is ready to be president, then the ball is in her court. But can she do it alone? Are there challenges along the way which are gender-specific?
At a glance, 23-year-old Umulkher Harun Mohamed, a USIU student from Garissa County who emerged second on Ms President, comes off as shy, almost timid.
When you get her talking, her passion is almost contagious. "Girls from my community are not stupid," she starts.
"They are just shy because of how they are socialised. They are not encouraged to speak out or to go out and fight for elective seats," she explains.
She admits that before coming on the show, she was afraid of backlash from her community.
But she came anyway because she aspires to be president one day, and she was hoping to get a bigger platform for her foundation, The Kesho Alliance, which fights for quality education for girls and campaigns against violent extremism.
When the show began, she was surprised that men from her community were at the forefront, cheering her on. "More women need to show up," she gives her solution to the underrepresentation of women in leadership.
In her view, the show achieved its purpose to get people talking about women in leadership.
"In the past, women from my community were frowned upon when they showed up. Now I am cheered on. In the future, I will vie for the presidency," she says.
Kenya has always been ready for a woman president says Waruguru Kiai, also a finalist on Ms President.
"When I came to the show, I realised quickly that not everyone was going to like me. I was OK with that. Many women aspire for leadership but few will put themselves in a place of vulnerability," says the 32-year-old community trainer on youth and women empowerment in Nyeri County.
According to her, the other reason the woman is still stuck under the glass ceiling is that stereotype that leadership is for the rich, urban woman.
"Do away with this and we just might have a female president."
There is enough space for both male and female leaders, Irene Moyaka, says. "Maybe society just needs to see them at work to believe it," the fifth finalist on the show says.
"I hate the stereotype that women are their own worst enemies. I have had women lift me on this journey, carry my dream like it was their own. On this show, Kenya got to see women compete without the sideshows," the 38-year-old nominated MCA from Nyamira County says.
Politics define our country. It's impossible to call yourself a leader here and not have an active political voice.
That thousands of women applied to get on Ms President is proof that the Kenyan woman wants to show up.