'Distressful circumstances' drove Birdi to politics - Daily Nation

Meet the first Asian-Kenyan woman lawmaker

Tuesday January 27 2015

Ms Birdi in an interview.

Ms Birdi in an interview. PHOTO | HUGHOLIN KIMARO 

Sanjeev K. Birdi, aka Sonia Birdi, is the only Kenyan woman lawmaker of Asian origin in the 290-strong 11th parliament.

She shares a name with powerful Indian matriarch and kingmaker, Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

But unlike Mrs Gandhi, who belongs to the legendary Gandhi/Nehru dynasty, Ms Sonia Birdi lays no claim to aristocracy or political pedigree. Her unpredicted drift to politics shocked even her own family and close friends.


Says she: “My political life started rather abruptly. It was conceived and born in distressful circumstances, in the wake of the Sinai oil fire at Mukuru kwa Njenga that consumed over 100 lives in September 2012. Until then, it had never occurred to me that my life would take a public path some day.

Nominated MP Sonia Birdi with Deputy President William Ruto and National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale.

Nominated MP Sonia Birdi with Deputy President William Ruto and National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale. PHOTO | HUGHOLIN KIMARO

“Prior to that fateful day, I had helped at my father’s business in our Makadara factory. I was doing just that when the fire broke out. It found me at Kenya Pipeline headquarters doing a banking transaction at the Equity Bank branch there for our business.

Ms Birdi gives cash donations to Westgate victims.

Ms Birdi gives cash donations to Westgate victims. PHOTO | HUGHOLIN KIMARO

“I had to walk back to our factory, about a kilometre away, because vehicles were not allowed to leave the Kenya Pipeline headquarters premises for security reasons in the wake of the blast.

“That impetuous walk turned out to be a watershed in my life as it brought me face to face with so many badly injured people escaping from the scene of the tragedy. I was traumatised by their afflictions and suffering. I wanted to help in any way that I could.

“I had never heard of the Tom Mboya Hall, where the victims were assembling for assistance along Jogoo Road. I asked to be shown the place where I sat down with leaders including the district officer, police commanders and councillors. They gave me a list of basic items that the victims needed most.

“With that, I visited many factories in the industrial area for donations and the response was great. I went to some factories where I had never been and none of them turned me away empty-handed. Donations were so generous, I could not believe it.

The victims and leaders I mingled with at Tom Mboya Hall regarded me as a heroine of sorts, brave and determined to help. The fact that I was an Asian girl endeared me to them even the more.

“Then, a bolt from the blues dropped at my feet! A group of the people I worked with at Tom Mboya Hall approached me with the proposal to contest the Makadara parliamentary seat against heavyweights such as Reuben Ndolo of ODM and Benson Kangara of TNA. They suggested that I contest on a URP ticket because the party had no candidate in the constituency at the time.


“I frankly told them that I had no money nor ambition for such a venture, upon which they undertook to take me to party leader William Ruto to convince him that I was the right candidate for the seat.

They were dead serious. I was in Mr Ruto’s office in less than 48 hours and the party leader promised to support me.

“My parents gave me their blessing in my new pursuit and I started doing things from a political angle from that moment. I started by coming up with an idea to show young people out of secondary schools and colleges how to write curricula vitae (CVs) instead of crowding at factory gates.

Hon Birdi with Christian pastors in Kisumu during the Siri Guru Singh Sabha temple's centennial celebrations in Kisumu.

Ms Birdi with Christian pastors in Kisumu during the Siri Guru Singh Sabha temple's centennial celebrations in Kisumu. PHOTO | HUGHOLIN KIMARO

“On his part, Mr Ruto assisted me to organise races to raise funds for the needy within Makadara constituency. I personally ran in those races. Meanwhile, I participated in political rallies organised by URP all over the country.

“When URP and TNA decided to support single candidates in their respective strongholds in a joint strategy against the Cord coalition bringing together ODM, Wiper and Ford-K parties, I was prevailed upon to throw my support behind TNA candidate Benson Kangara with the promise that I would be considered for nomination.

I traversed Makadara constituency, passionately campaigning for Bernard until he won the seat for the Jubilee coalition in the March 4, 2013 polls.


How does she feel about being the first Kenyan woman of Indian origin to be a Member of Parliament?

Ms Birdi: “I am overwhelmed. It is a fascinating achievement for which I thank God and my supporters. It is a challenge to all women of Kenya not to shy away from politics. I say all women because our numbers in Parliament are still small, race notwithstanding."

She urges women to change their mindsets as mere housewives and be brave enough to challenge men for leadership roles.

Question: “Do you think the Indian community in general has taken its rightful place in national politics with only four members of Parliament, three of them elected?

Ms. Birdi: “It is an improvement from what prevailed previously, an indication that the democratic space has opened wider. It shows that the Kenyans of today, unlike those of yesterday, are oblivious to race, tribe or skin when choosing their leaders.

Ms Birdi has of late spoken out on social matters affecting her Sikh Community, coming out strongly when rowdy mobs destroyed a monument build in Kisumu to commemorate 100 years of a temple built in the lakeside city.

Hon Birdi with her parents.

Ms Birdi with her parents. PHOTO | HUGHOLIN KIMARO

She joined Sikh leaders from across the country during the centennial celebrations of the temple in Kisumu recently and told the community that her representation in Parliament gave them the opportunity to address matters affecting them through her.

The firstborn of four children, three of them girls, Nairobi-born Ms Birdi went to Our Lady of Mercy Primary School in Nairobi South B from where she proceeded to Loreto Convent, Msongari, for her secondary school education.

She went to India for a bachelor of commerce degree at D.R. College and had her master's degree in business administration from Sheffield University in the United Kingdom.

She returned to Kenya and joined her father’s business, helping with chores such as tendering and banking.