Leah Marangu – Decorated educationists is one of many firsts

Professor Leah Marangu was the first woman in East Africa to become a full professor, the first Kenyan woman to hold the position of vice chancellor of a university, the first woman to head a parastatal in Kenya and the first African to receive the Achievement Citation Award from Olivet Nazarene University.

Professor Leah Marangu’s life journey is without a doubt complex and fascinating. She overcame many obstacles and setbacks on her road to becoming an accomplished academic, and found time to mentor many women during her distinguished career. Despite a rocky start, Marangu excelled at school. By the time she finished high school, she had already charted out her future, including her dream career. Although she is now a celebrated educationist, Marangu confesses that she always wanted to be a nurse, not a teacher. “I really loved to help people to have better quality of life and seeing people get well almost immediately made me very happy,” she says. Thus armed with a scholarship, a newly married Marangu relocated to the US with her husband to pursue a course in nursing.

However, the university she had selected declined her application, saying it did not accept married people into its programmes. That is how she ended up at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, where her husband was enrolled, studying home economics. With relentless determination, she pursued three other degrees in the US, while at the
same time caring for a young family. Through perseverance and a firm faith in God, Marangu has accomplished in her lifetime what others can only dream of. After completing her studies, she returned to Kenya and joined Kenyatta University as a lecturer in home economics, rising to become the head of department and finally full professor in 1988. During this time, she continued to lecture as a visiting scholar in two universities in the US, and as a visiting professor in over 12 other prestigious US universities. She also occupied the Camilla Eyring Kimball Chair of home and family life at the Brigham Young University.

Marangu was appointed vice chancellor of the Africa Nazarene University (ANU) in 1996, the first time a Kenyan woman had held this position. She headed the prestigious institution, which hosts students from all over the world, until October 2017. Marangu defied age, culture and gender discrimination to steer the university from your ordinary backyard tertiary college in the then remote Ongata Rongai to a world- renowned institution of higher learning. As you walk along the pavements of the university, which are bordered by neatly-manicured lawns and blooming flowers, you cannot help but marvel at the positive energy it exudes. For Marangu, outward appearances ought to give a glimpse into the winning strides being made even behind closed doors.

Some of her most notable achievements as vice chancellor of the university include expanding degree programmes from the initial four to a total of 14. She also acquired an additional 124 acres of land for the institution and increased enrolment of students. “I am inspiring the younger generation to do more and to perform better than I have,” she says. She adds that as she works with students, she challenges them to have a vision which goes beyond just attaining good grades but also focuses on the development of the whole person. Marangu says her calling is deeper for female students because she has personally experienced their challenges. “Girls need to know that they can make it even though things are not as easy for them compared to boys,” she says.

She is the chair of the Character and Creativity Initiative (CCI), a concept that aspires to transform the current education curriculum. Marangu says the problem with the current education system is that it concentrates only on grades. She draws attention to children who commit suicide due to poor grades in their school examinations as a
negative consequence of this. “This competition of getting the best grades without even asking whether what you have been taught (in school) can help you to thrive in life is wrong,” she says, adding that the practical aspect of teaching has been ignored. What there is instead is “pumping in of information into people’s heads without asking if they have digested it and can use it practically.”

She is also irked by corruption and lack of accountability. “Society is hungry for support; many times we look for financial support but what we actually need is support to make us self-sufficient so that we can generate our own resources,” she notes. The solution, she says, is a complete overhaul of the education curriculum in Kenya to shift focus from just acquiring grades to instilling moral ethics. Marangu hopes the CCI concept will help change the level of consciousness starting from a tender age into adulthood, so that people can be more mindful of each other’s needs. “For me, this initiative is a way of giving back to society what it invested in me,” says Marangu.

Her journey to success was slower than it should have been, partly because she lacked the right mentors to guide her. “Many times I lacked information because I did not have the opportunity to look up to somebody. I depended on God for inspiration; He is my mentor. He has walked with me and I have depended on Him,” she shares with conviction.
She has thus committed herself to providing mentorship to whoever she can. Some of her outstanding protégés include Professor Olive Mugenda, formerly vice chancellor of Kenyatta University, and Professor Margaret Kobia who is currently the Cabinet Secretary for Gender and Youth Affairs. Marangu also ran an in-house mentorship
programme for her faculty members.

Marangu’s quest for knowledge was not without challenges. While working at Kenyatta University, she recalls meeting her former headmistress — the same one who helped her stay in primary school — who questioned why she was still furthering her education. “She looked at me and said that the education they had given us was to make us become good housewives, not career women.” She says the stigma against career women shocked her most, especially because it was meted out by fellow women. But she managed to rise above it. Marangu was the first woman in Kenya to hold the position of chairperson of Board of Directors at the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation. She has written and published 21 international papers, six local research papers and three books, two of which are being used in the secondary school curriculum in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.

Besides this, Marangu has a total of 24 honours and awards, including the 1986 Silver Star of Kenya and the 2003 Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear. Other distinguished awards include the Outstanding Alumni Lay Award, which is the highest honour awarded by Olivet Nazarene University. She also won the Maggie Sloan Crawford Award in 1988 which honours outstanding women, and the Women Leadership Achievement Award which she received from the World Women Leadership Congress & Awards in 2014.

Words of Wisdom

“Challenges are second nature.”

“How to overcome challenges is more important than the challenge itself.”

“If one door closes, another door opens. Whatever door it is, embrace it wholeheartedly.”

“If we are ever in trouble, we should take things in stride.”

For Marangu, family is the bedrock of success in life. She says people have put too much focus on their careers, in turn ignoring the needs of their spouses and children. “Our children need our personal touch as parents,” she says. “We need to create time to nurture relationships within the family.” When she is not cooking, Marangu spends some ‘me time’ making jewellery, most of which she wears. She reveals her most trusted life principles: spending time to listen and talk to God, seeking the guidance of God in everything, reconciling with others and making sacrifices. “I have looked back over my years and seen how my sacrifices have become blessings to other people and blessings to me even more,” she says. So, does Marangu have any regrets? “Well, I may have many regrets,” she says thoughtfully. “But without them I wouldn’t have the satisfaction I have.” She adds that challenges have made her stronger. On how she became a woman of so many firsts she says, “We can all be firsts by getting out there and trying to do something instead of copying what other people are doing.”

Marangu adds, “You survive everyday by not taking everything too seriously, by doing your best and by knowing that you may not have finished everything you planned for the day but that you did your best,” she says.

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