Julia Ojiambo – For Harvard alumna, stricking first is a given

To say Julia Ojiambo is a woman of firsts would be putting it mildly. Not only was she the first African woman to join the University of Nairobi, she was also the first African woman to be enrolled at the prestigious Harvard University and the first woman to be appointed assistant minister in Kenya. In 2003, she was awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) in recognition of her contribution towards empowering women and children.

The petite frame of Kenya’s first woman assistant minister belies her gargantuan stature in academics and politics. The sixth child of pioneering western Kenya Anglican clergyman Rev Saulo Okelo Majale and evangelist Tesera Were, Professor Julia Auma Ojiambo’s middle name might as well have been ‘Number One’.

Ojiambo was in the first class of eight girls at the African Girls’ High School (today’s Alliance Girls’ High School). She was also the first Kenyan woman to study at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States, and the first female lecturer and first woman PhD holder at the University of Nairobi (UoN).

Ojiambo was also Kenya’s first woman assistant minister at just 38 years of age.

She credits her siblings for who she is. She regards her eldest sister, Ruth Auma Vuyiya, the first woman superintendent of Kenya Prisons, as her role model, and her brother, David Majale, as “exemplary”. She describes her other sisters, Esther, Priscilla and Rose, as “accomplished teachers”.

With only Perpetua and Edward born after her, she says she really had no playmates after the eighth-born, Agnes, died aged three years.

Ojiambo wanted to be like Ruth, the perfectionist, David, the hands-on man, and her “outgoing and powerful” mother, Tesera, who “brought practically everybody home – from battered women to the disabled”. Home was a beehive of activity; it was where the church choir practised, pre-school children played and young people did sports.

“We grew cotton to raise money for our school fees,” says Ojiambo who, at five, was already tilling the land to help her father.

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In her spare time, she wrote in the soil with her finger or scribbled with charcoal on the walls. Her keenness to learn and above-average intelligence saw her skip two lower primary classes to catch up with Rose, the fifth child. She excelled in her primary school examinations to clinch a place as a pioneer at Alliance Girls’ alongside seven other girls selected nationally.

She recalls her time at Alliance fondly. “We were like precious gold; we were like the torch on a hill. We were brilliant and everyone knew about us. We were the crème de la crème of the nation.”

Her time at Alliance coincided with the politically-volatile state of emergency. In Form Two, they had to be spirited away to Machakos Hills under the cover of darkness to escape raids from Mau Mau freedom fighters. They only returned to prepare for their Kenya Junior Secondary Education exams.

After Form Four, she was sent to work at Vihiga Women Teachers Training College, although she was untrained. She was later posted to Friends School Kamusinga in today’s Bungoma County. In 1956, she became the first African woman to join UoN, then known as the Royal Technical College, to study Domestic Science.

She married Hillary Ojiambo in 1961, and joined him in Kampala, Uganda, where he was a medical registrar at Mulago Hospital. She worked as the Makerere University guesthouse manager and as a research assistant at the hospital’s infant nutrition unit.

Kwashiorkor (protein deficiency) and marasmus (under-nourishment) were widespread in East Africa at the time, causing many deaths among children aged under five years. Ojiambo joined two paediatricians to develop a high-protein biscuit that was used to treat the two disorders.

In 1962, her husband was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship for post-graduate studies in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Coincidentally, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the United Nations Children’s Fund awarded her a fellowship to study Community Nutrition at the University of London in the same year.

Until then, the United Kingdom allowed only women accompanying their husbands to take short courses. Even then, her studies were only possible because Minister for Health David Otiende prevailed on the Ministry of Education. “He signed my papers of release, arguing that Kenya was building its manpower.”

In England, Ojiambo worked hard and passed her exams after taking parallel courses at the University of London’s Queen Elizabeth College. She enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and studied with pre-clinical medical students as well as post-graduate nurses.

As she wound up her studies, the Ministry of Education and the Royal Technical College (UoN) came knocking. They offered her an assistant lecturer’s job in Home Science in the Faculty of Education. During this time, she became the first African woman warden of the Women’s Halls of Residence at a time when most students were either Europeans or Asians.

Ojiambo taught Home Management and Nutrition, key subjects at a time when goitre was prevalent. However, promoting iodised salt was tough amid rumours that the micro-nutrient caused infertility. She also researched on anaemia among pre-school children in Karai, Kiambu, which led to a school-feeding programme.

She later applied and gained admission to the Harvard School of Public Health in 1968, becoming the first African woman at the prestigious institution. She had won a World Health Organization (WHO) fellowship to facilitate her studies at Harvard. It covered all her needs, including laboratory fees, housing and clothing, over and above a Kenya Government education loan, which her mentor, Dr Gikonyo Kiano, guaranteed. As fate would have it, her husband secured another Commonwealth fellowship for post-doctoral research studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

She had three children at the time – Josephine, Tess and Jack, who was only three weeks old when they left for the US. “People thought I was crazy, but I was determined and focused,” she says. She was allowed to take a house-help, Beatrice, whom she describes as “our mother who made sure everything was in order,” she recalls.

Ojiambo was at Harvard for 18 months before joining her husband at McGill, where she embarked on her pre-doctoral research. She credits her husband with her educational attainment. “Hillary was my peer, mate, tutor and support.”

They returned home in 1971, after Hillary completed his studies. Providentially, McGill had signed a pact with UoN to start a Faculty of Medicine. Ojiambo registered for a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Human Nutrition and became the first student to be awarded a PhD from the faculty.

Between 1972 and 1974, she helped to introduce a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition at Kenyatta University College (then a constituent college of UoN). However, she remained deeply-rooted in community work.

While at UoN, she got involved in civil society issues. She became a member of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, the National Council of Women of Kenya, the Kenya Association of University Women, and the Kenya Girl Guides Association, among others.

Back in her hometown, the scholar’s visibility grew. “At one time, almost every girl-child was named Julia,” she says. It was no wonder that in 1974, the community asked her to vie for the Busia Central parliamentary seat. She managed to trounce the incumbent, Arthur Ochwada, in a rough campaign that saw her husband slashed on the head with machetes and left for dead.

Ojiambo was the first Luhya woman to join Parliament. She was later appointed the first woman assistant minister in the male-dominated Jomo Kenyatta administration. “It was never easy. One challenge I constantly tackled was rejection of the women’s agenda,” she reveals.

Still, she purposed to work on uplifting the economic status of families and fellow women, achieving food security, tackling insecurity and promoting children’s education. She appreciates the few men that listened to, encouraged and respected women who fought for these causes.

As a nominated MP, she broke the record by introducing the highest number of bills on the floor of the House. And in 2003, she was awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS).

The three-term MP attributes her tenacity to her “very strong children and a solid Christian upbringing”. She says her faith in God has given her inner peace “without which I’d probably have backed down,” she says. And, of course, her husband: “I had Hillary as a pillar and a very understanding man.”

A widow since 1997, Ojiambo loves spending time with her children and grandchildren. She also enjoys reading to refresh her mind. “I take everything now as leisure. I eat well, sleep well and love spending time with young people.”

She also enjoys mentoring young upcoming politicians and defines politics as providing leadership without being violent or grabbing public resources.

As chairperson of the Kenya Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute, she has been actively developing the nutrition discipline in Kenya. She is also a long-serving trustee of the National Fund for the Disabled of Kenya.

Throughout her long and impressive journey, Ojiambo, now in her 80s, has won many awards. She was awarded the Dean’s Research Grant Award at UoN for her efforts in research and the nutrition status of pregnant and lactating mothers (1966-1968). In 1976, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) crowned her the Ceres Gold Medal Winner for her distinguished service in rural programmes and the advancement of women. And the Kenya Coalition for Action in Nutrition (KCAN) recognised her as their nutritionist of the year in February 2007.  In September 2016, she re-launched the Labour Party of Kenya as a political platform together with politician Ababu Namwamba and journalist David Makali, and served as the chairperson. She is also the founding professor of the proposed Scientific & Technological Applied Research & Training for women.

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