Grace, Kenya’s first Iron Lady of politics

Tuesday July 30 2013

ILLUSTRATION | J NYAGAH

ILLUSTRATION | J NYAGAH NATION MEDIA GROUP

By EMMAN OMARI [email protected]

Grace Akech Onyango was the first African Iron Lady of Kenyan politics.

Born in Sakwa, Bondo and married in Gem to a teacher-journalist Onyango Baridi she became the first woman to be elected mayor of Kisumu Town in 1967 and MP in 1969.

She then capped it all by being elected first woman Secretary-General of Luo Union (East Africa).

Before “Nyabungu” (she of the bush or forested area) as she was popularly known became mayor of Kisumu, the high profile office was the exclusive preserve of men.

She thus played a big role in breaking the glass ceiling and opening the way for women in leadership in Kenya.

And as the independence mayor, she set about Africanising Kisumu’s street names. This was at a most difficult time when political relations between founding President Jomo Kenyatta and his first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had soured.

At one point, Mrs Onyango, who was in Kanu, was accused of being an Odinga sympathiser for naming streets after supporters of Odinga’s Kenya Peoples Union party. She rebutted accusations by pointing out that names like Achieng Oneko were those of freedom fighters who ‘‘even Jesus would have recognised if He was on earth’’.

Tom Mboya, then one of the most powerful Kanu leaders, called a rally at Kenyatta Grounds in the town. He challenged her to state whether she was still in Kanu or had joined KPU in which case she should face a by-election.

To this, she answered that there was no difference between Kanu politicians and those of KPU as all were human beings created by God.

From there, she was to become the first elected Kisumu Town MP on December 6, 1969 in a male only Parliament of 158 MPs.
Kisumu broke into a carnival — bulls were slaughtered and beer flowed at Hippo Point Gardens as her supporters celebrated.

She had defied one of Africa’s partriachal doctrine of “women are to be seen and not heard.”

Upon her election, a journalist asked her if she would not be “lost” in the “male only” Parliament.

Worked fearlessly

“I have always worked fearlessly along with men. And how do you expect me to feel afraid working with them this time?”

In Parliament, she earned another first – the first woman to sit in the Speaker’s chair as Temporary Deputy Speaker.

But it was her calm debating skills that became the hallmark of her career in Parliament.

For instance, when government detained famous Coast witchdoctor “Kajiwe” on November 6, 1970, she derided Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange who told the House there were sufficient grounds to confine him.

“We are told he was oathing people in Coast to unite, just as someone told us people were oathing in Central; you have arrested one and not the other,” she quipped.

This was in reference to oathing which took place in Central to protect the government after Mboya’s assassination on July 5, 1969.

Upon the murder of former Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki, she was picked by MPs to serve on the Committee which investigated the death.

At the completion of the inquiry, then committee chairman Elijah Mwangale was summoned to State House, Nairobi before he came to table the report in Parliament.

She drew the Speaker’s attention to the fact that the report had been doctored at State House.

She was backed by another Committee member, Mr Martin Shikuku (Butere) who waved a copy they had hidden in Room Number 7 in Parliament. Indeed, the names of Mbiyu Koinange and Wanyoike Thungu, Mzee Kenyatta’s police aide, had been deleted from the Report initialled by Mr Mwangale in State House. The Report had recommended that their conduct prior to JM’s murder be investigated further.

“I feel proud to have held the record of the first Kenyan woman in jobs which were male dominated that time,” she told the Nation on Tuesday by telephone from her Sakwa birth place.