Margaret Wambui Kenyatta – women’s activist who became Nairobi’s first female mayor

Margaret Wambui Kenyatta was the only daughter and one of two children of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta and his first wife, Grace Wahu. She became Kenya’s first female mayor in 1970, delving into politics at a time when it was an almost exclusively male field. She also served as Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations for 10 years.

As the daughter of Kenya’s first president, many would say she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. This, however, did not stop her from working hard and defying many odds. Born in 1928 as Jomo’s second child, she attended Ruthimitu Primary School, the Church of Scotland Mission School and later on Alliance Girls’ High School. She was raised in the Dagoretti area of Nairobi, together with her brother, Peter Muigai. After completing high school, Kenyatta started teaching at Githunguri College, where her father was the principal. When the state of emergency was declared in 1952 and Jomo was arrested alongside five other men for their involvement in the Mau Mau resistance movement, the colonial government ordered the college closed. Kenyatta was then arrested and detained for a week.

Jomo was found guilty and jailed for seven years, which prompted his daughter to delve into politics and join him in the fight to liberate Kenya from colonial rule. She did various odd jobs and also joined the People’s Congress Party, which championed African rights and the release of the political prisoners. She also joined social welfare associations such as Maendeleo ya Wanawake, which is among Kenya’s largest women’s organisation. When Jomo was released in 1959, he became the leader of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, formed to work for Kenya’s liberation. Kenyatta joined him and served as the assistant secretary of the party’s Kiambu branch before later becoming secretary.

In June 1963, Kenya attained independence and Jomo became the prime minister and subsequently the president of Kenya. Kenyatta joined her father’s efforts to build a unified country while working particularly to pull women into political activism. The task of getting women to join in nation building proved difficult, especially the breaking of old patterns of male chauvinism. There was not a single woman elected to post-independence government positions
and their achievements went largely unrecognised. Kenyatta was elected councillor for Dagoretti in 1963, the same year Grace Onyango was elected chairperson of the Kisumu Education Committee. Onyango later became the first African woman mayor and Member of Parliament in Kenya. Kenyatta was re-elected councillor for four successive terms and continued trying to bring women together in her quest for equality and political activism.

When she became president of the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1964, she began travelling widely, addressing women’s role in nation-building through seminars and workshops. In recognition of her efforts, she was awarded the Order of the Queen of Sheba by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

In May 1966, she passed up an opportunity to run for Parliament and in 1969, she was elected deputy mayor of Nairobi. She became mayor in 1970, making her the first African woman mayor of the capital city and the second in the whole country. During her tenure, several development programmes were initiated, among them the building of
low-cost housing units. Her priorities, however, remained women, children and education. Kenyatta died on 5 April 2017 at the age of 89.

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