Six years ago, the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board began the search for some of Kenya’s most outstanding women.
The net was cast far and wide, encompassing over 20 industries. The result was a 400-page coffee-table book that pays homage to over 200 women that are trailblazers in their fields. Here are some of them.
She proved her naysayers wrong when she successfully joined the Navy, a predominantly male unit in the military.
She enjoys steering ships and boats, typically male roles. An adventurer, she has sailed far and wide in her quest to keep Kenyan waters safe. She is currently a Senior Private Sea Woman Class 1 and a VIP protector.
Still shy of her thirties, Anne Obare is already a Senior Private Sea woman Class 1 with specialised training to become a VIP protector under her belt. This basically means that she can be assigned to protect a female Head of State.
Obare had to undergo three years of preparation to qualify for Senior Private Class 1.
Moreover, she is among the best in her category, having shown tremendous growth in her profession. While she may not be a pioneer female in the Kenya Navy, Obare is among the few young women to have made considerable strides within a relatively short time.
Obare was born on 14 October 1990. She completed her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) in 2004 and her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) in 2008.
She joined the Kenya Navy in 2009, training as a Sea Woman in 2010-2012 and as a VIP protector in 2013.
Previously, women were incorporated into the arms of the military under the Women’s Service Corps (WSC), serving separately from their male counterparts.
Through a Presidential Legal Notice, the WSC was disbanded on 1 December 1999 and female officers were subsequently to be absorbed directly into the three mainstream services (Kenya Army, Kenya Air Force and Kenya Navy) according to service seniority and in the ratio of 7:2:1 respectively, with the Kenya Army receiving the bulk of the servicewomen.
The physical presence of a woman on board a warship was thus inconceivable until recently.
As a Sea Woman, Obare steers a ship or a boat patrolling the coast for any lurking danger. She also conducts maintenance of the ship or boat and is trained in weapons operation and ordinance technology, which deals with explosives.
She joined the military as a starry-eyed 18-year-old who had fallen in love with the navy uniform as a young girl.
Her father worked for the Kenya Police and had friends from the military. Each time they would visit the Department of Defence to see her father’s friends, the young girl would be blown away.
The firstborn in a family of six admits that she was supposed to study Pharmacy at the Medical Training College (MTC), although her admission letter came a week after she had been admitted to the Navy.
Her other motivation for joining the military was her mother, who was sick at the time. “I needed to do something for the family. Being the firstborn is quite challenging; you need to support where you can.”
Support she did. She threw herself into the training full throttle. The physical trainings were intense, but she managed to complete each phase. Following the navy protocol also proved cumbersome, but she says with time she got used to it and no longer finds it daunting.
Obare’s tenure in the military has not been without its challenges. For starters, she badly wanted to be in the sea department, but there was a notion among her male peers that the sea department was their domain and that as a woman she would not be able to hack it. “I wanted to show them that what they thought they could do, I could do it better.”
Her colleagues’ doubts about her ability only fuelled her determination to prove them wrong. And she did.
Amid the ups and downs of her career, Obare’s source of courage is her family, especially her mother.
“I grew up not thinking about the future, but what I can do tomorrow,” she says.
Being in the military taught her to plan for the future and pursue her career to the highest possible level.
Wangechi Mutu is a hugely accomplished contemporary artist and sculptor whose work is internationally recognised. Her brand of art is usually classified under Afrofuturism, basically a blend of science fiction to portray imaginative realities for people of African descent.
Born in Nairobi in 1972, she currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, where she moved in the 1990s.
It comes as no surprise that her work has been exhibited worldwide in both group and solo exhibitions since 1996.
Her awards include the Richard Leakey Merit Award, Masters of Fine Art Fellowship by the Sculpture Department of Yale University, Jamaica Centre for the Arts Fellowship in Queens, Artist in Residence from the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Deutsche Bank as their first Artist of the Year.
Mutu’s art has been featured in numerous catalogues in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, and she has also been an artist lecturer since 2002 for various audiences where her work has been published.
She has various public collections in the US, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, including the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, at The Hague in the Netherlands and the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal in Montreal, Canada.
Ikal Angelei made history by staging a spirited opposition against the construction of the Gibe III Dam to protect the livelihoods of people living in northern Kenya.
Researching the potential impact of the Gibe III Dam, Ikal Angelei was shocked to discover that, although the project appeared to be bringing progress, it would potentially cut off the water supply to half a million farmers, herders and fishermen.
This prompted the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize winner to begin her campaign to block the building of the dam on the Omo River to protect Lake Turkana, a World Heritage site and the world’s largest permanent desert lake. Turkana is the source of livelihood for the people living in its environs.
Armed with a Master’s in Public Policy and Political Science from the US, she founded the grassroots organisation Friends of Lake Turkana (FOLT). Thanks to the campaign mounted by the organisation, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank all withdrew their funding for the dam.
In 2008, Angelei went to work for the Turkana Basin Institute, chaired by Dr Richard Leakey. Her role entailed community outreach, with a focus on supporting the existing government facilities for education, water and access to healthcare. While she was working at the Institute, Dr Leakey mentioned the proposed Gibe III Dam project to Angelei.
She did some research and was shocked by what she learnt. She looked into the impact the dam would have on local communities, its sustainability and how it would affect the local economy.
She began to discern the connection between the environment and conflict. “People look at reports of conflict and say the fights are tribal.” Being on the ground, she could see the definite links, and they were not related to ethnicity. “Resources and threatened livelihoods were behind the seemingly intertribal battles,” she says. With the construction of the dam, this strain would be pushed to impossible levels.
Angelei then began her quest to stop the construction, at least until the local communities in Ethiopia and Kenya were informed about the project’s impact on their lives.
“My biggest fear was the levels of conflict that the dam would bring.” She was also concerned because historically such big projects brought benefits to bigger cities, but very little tended to trickle down to the local communities.
Her research confirmed that Kenya’s biggest problem is not the production of energy, but its distribution. Angelei courageously lobbied at the highest levels locally and internationally, to make decision makers have those conversations.
Regarding the recent discovery of oil in Turkana, her voice is even louder advocating for the rights of the local citizens in that region. Her belief echoes conviction and wisdom: “If you are not on the table, you are on the menu,” she says.
She strongly believes that grassroots societies must be represented at both community and government policymaking levels. Angelei’s goal is to put systems in place so that in the next two decades, generations will benefit from the oil and will not suffer from a degraded environment.
What is it like as a woman to face such great odds and pit oneself against entire regimes? Angelei smiles knowingly. “Being a woman is actually my ticket,” she grins. “You will always be underrated.”