Mary Mwangangi – Destined to serve at all costs

Mary Mukami Mwangangi will be remembered as Kenya’s first female traffic chief. Her life of faith, courage and commitment is testimony that the difficulties and complexities of life can be conquered. Described as a pillar of strength by her children, a selfless and devoted wife, parent, daughter, sister and friend, Mwangangi’s story of triumph amid life-threatening circumstances gave her the courage to walk with her head held high.

Although Mary Mwangangi died on 8 February 2012, those who were touched by her life remember her immense courage, deep faith and commitment to family.

The first child in a family of 14 children, Mwangangi was the third generation to wear a police uniform. The first was her grandfather who had been employed as a Tribal Police Officer when Kenya was a British colony.

At the time of her birth on 21 June 1949, Mwangangi’s father was a Corporal in the Kenya Police Force in Mombasa. Many years later, her deep-rooted love for the Police Force predestined her to carry the legacy of her grandfather and father.

Mwangangi’s childhood was eventful, exciting and full of happy moments. Life was, however, not short of challenges; at the age of eight months, in a well told family story, she contracted malaria and was rushed to hospital unconscious. The Clinical Officer pronounced her dead.

Her family was crushed. Burial arrangements were quickly made, a small coffin bought and a grave dug, only for the doctor who had come to certify the death to announce that she was merely in a coma. The baby stirred back to life two hours later. Evidently, her indomitable spirit was revealed at a tender age.

Mwangangi’s family lived in Mbaraki Police Lines in Mombasa, where she attended nursery school. Her school performance was good. Armed with a strong second division in the Cambridge School Certificate examinations, she joined Kenya High School for Forms 5 and 6.

“Throughout her school life, her burning desire to become a policewoman stayed alive,” narrated her husband Alex Mwangangi. “She constantly told her classmates that her mind was set on the profession and even though they did not believe her, she had resolved to join the police force.”

Her career aspirations aside, Mwangangi valued education and in 1988 she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Studies from the University of the District of Columbia in Washington DC, while holding a full-time job. She also attained a Post-Graduate Higher Diploma in Human Resource Management from the Railways Training Institute in Nairobi.

On 8 December 1973, Mwangangi lived every little girl’s dream. Adorned in a lovely white wedding gown, complete with veil, gloves and bouquet, she walked down the Holy Family Minor Basilica aisle and said “I do” to her lifetime companion, who proved to be a devoted, caring husband.

As fate would have it, 39 years later, family, friends and colleagues gathered at the same church for her requiem mass.

Mwangangi’s career started off as a bank clerk at the Standard Bank. But her strong drive to pursue a career in the police force urged her to respond to an advertisement inviting applications for Police Cadet Inspector jobs.

She became the first woman Traffic Commandant in 2002, having risen through the ranks in 34 years

Two women were shortlisted, and Mwangangi was one of them. On 6 August 1971, she joined the Kiganjo Police College in Nyeri. Upon graduation, her first posting was as Deputy Divisional Officer to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), now known as the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI).

At the CID, her knack for the job gave her a good grounding in police work. Barely two years at the station, Mwangangi was transferred to the Kenya Police College in 1974 to train new recruits. A year later, she was posted to the Industrial Area Police Station as a Police Inspector. This made it possible for her to be reunited with her husband, offering much needed relief as she was now available to handle family and work responsibilities more effectively.

One particularly proud moment in Mwangangi’s life was when she got her first letter of commendation. Soon after getting married, she arrested several staff members of DT Dobie after a brand new lorry was stolen from the premises. Her honesty saved Mwangangi from what would have been her downfall. A man showed up in her office the morning after the arrest and offered her a Ksh60,000 bribe. This was more than three years’ salary in those days. It took strong will and high ethical standards to turn down the offer, and she went ahead to prosecute the case, her husband recalls.

In 1979, after being promoted to Superintendent of Police, Mwangangi moved to become the Deputy to the Officer in Charge of Traffic in Nairobi. Her career progression was on the fast track, thanks to her diligence and honesty. One year later, she was appointed Officer in Charge of Traffic. This was a rather depressing job for her, since it involved receiving reports of traffic accidents in Nairobi every morning and documenting traffic deaths and injuries.

The Traffic Section had its peculiar challenges. Mwangangi had to carry out routine inspections on the roads under harsh working and weather conditions. She often got frustrated by runaway traffic offenders – especially Public Service Vehicles – who frequently sped off to avoid arrest and continued to put the lives of other road users at risk.

One day, an interesting incident occurred when she stopped a motorist for making an illegal U-turn near Khoja Mosque, in central Nairobi. On marching furiously to the car, Mwangangi stopped in mid stride when she realised the driver who had committed the offence was her own father. She respectfully told him not to do it again, and took a few minutes to explain to him that not only was he putting his own life at risk, but that of other road users. “He promised never to break traffic rules and she saluted and released him,” says her husband with a smile.

In 1982, Mwangangi moved to Police Headquarters at Vigilance House and was deployed in administration, responsible for recruitment and promotions. In the course of her duty, she was once confronted with a rather bizarre case.

A pregnant woman was denied a promotion interview because she could not fit into the standard police uniform. Mwangangi took it upon herself to offer redress. She ensured that the woman had a fair hearing, telling the interviewing board that pregnancy should not be considered a cause to disqualify a candidate as it was neither a disease nor a permanent condition.

In 1984, Mwangangi’s husband was posted to the Kenyan Embassy in Washington DC as the Defence Attaché and she was seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as First Secretary so that the family could accompany him. By the time Mwangangi was leaving for the US, she had once again used her wit and initiated the policy that currently enables married Foreign Service women to receive a Foreign Service Allowance in their own right.

After five years abroad, they returned to Kenya and Mwangangi returned to her old office at the Police Headquarters. Her valuable service almost earned her a promotion to the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police. “But in 1993, for the second time, she returned to Traffic Branch as an Assistant Commissioner in Charge of Administration where she stayed for one year,” her husband explains.

The challenges notwithstanding, Mwangangi’s values thrust her forward, leading to her re-deployment to the Traffic Department.

The following year she was posted as second-in-command to the Railways and Port Police in Mombasa. In the course of her duty, disaster struck when the Mtongwe Ferry capsized on 29 April 1994, killing 272 people. The logistical nightmare of one of the nation’s worst tragedies rested on Mwangangi’s shoulders. Later, her concern was raised about the lack of counselling for the port police, who continued to suffer from nightmares long after the disaster.

Mwangangi was transferred to Eastern Province in 1995 as the first female Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police and Deputy Provincial Police Officer.

Three years later, she returned to Nairobi to the Police Research Department. “She did not feel challenged in the position and her boredom drove her to develop her writing skills,” says her husband.

She produced her first children’s book, followed by more than 10 other publications including: Arrested by a Police Dog, A Good Question, Mzee Mmoja Goes to Town, A Trip to the Village and Zebra Crossing.

Mwangangi is also credited with having developed a training manual on anti-corruption for Kenya Police, a handbook on Community Policing for Kenya Police, training manual on Child Abuse for Kenya Police and police training manual on Gender and Human Rights. In addition, she worked on a general readership publication titled Your Rights and Obligations at the Hands of the Police.

While in this post Mwangangi was appointed chairperson of the committee set up to look into the state of crime in the country in 1997 and 1998. True to her character of speaking the plain, straightforward and courageous truth, the report noted: “To say that the image of the Police Force has hit rock bottom and the morale of the Force is at an all-time low would be an understatement. The Kenyan public no longer trusts the police… There are those who are bad because they are corrupt; another group is bad because it is brutal; yet another group is made up of thieves; there are those who are trigger happy; there are those who simply do not perform their duties… Others simply have lost hope. The list is endless…” (1999. Report of the Committee on the State of Crime in Kenya: p.95).

In addition to these observations and powerful conclusions, Mwangangi’s committee made far-reaching recommendations. The report created much ill-feeling towards her within the police force, and she began receiving veiled threats from male colleagues.

The challenges notwithstanding, Mwangangi’s values thrust her forward, leading to her re-deployment to the Traffic Department.

She became the first woman Traffic Commandant in 2002, having risen through the ranks in 34 years. While she was in this post, the Head of State of the day, President Mwai Kibaki, was involved in a road accident at the Machakos-Mombasa junction. She managed the situation professionally, amid the political temperature in the country ahead of the 2002 General Election.

In an ironic twist of fate, Mwangangi herself was involved in a horrific head-on collision with a lorry on the same road in 2003, after which she was transferred to Police Headquarters as Director of Planning, Training and Research Department.

In 2004, Mwangangi retired from her beloved police force and was appointed Commissioner to the Public Service Commission in 2006. Her second term with the Commission was due to end in May 2012. The indefatigable cop was still looking to the future and had been shortlisted for appointment as a member of the Board of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, attending the interview a mere two weeks before her death.

As a wife and mother to two children – Rosetta Ngusye and Isdore Mwangangi – being a senior policewoman sometimes conflicted with her work-life balance. A case in point was the hosting of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) Conference in Nairobi during her stint as Officer in Charge of Traffic. At that time, Mwangangi’s husband was in the US. As she prepared to leave for the conference one morning in November 1981, the domestic helper announced she was leaving, an unforeseeable adversity many working mothers are all too familiar with.

As a Superintendent of Police with an ongoing State summit, asking her superiors for a week off “because she has no house-help” would be tantamount to career suicide. She needed to think. And fast.

Her good relations with colleagues saved the day. On learning of her predicament, her official driver, Sergeant Oganga, offered to watch over the young children for the duration of the conference, turning the back seat of her car into a nursery.

In the course of her duty, Mwangangi was tasked with escorting President Moi’s convoy home late one night. After getting home, she received a rather surprising call from the President who said: “I want to thank you for staying this late and escorting me home safely. I have also observed that you are hardworking. Well done, keep it up, and God bless you.”

It was a proud moment for Mwangangi. The following morning, President Moi directed that she be promoted to Senior Superintendent of Police.

All her personal triumphs aside, she fought many battles but managed to keep her head held high.

One morning in April 1990, Mwangangi woke up with severe chest pains. After a review at the hospital, the doctor broke the worst news. She had breast cancer. It was devastating news, considering her husband had just taken early retirement and the children were still young. She made a decision to contain the matter within the family and to maintain her privacy.

She took annual leave to visit an oncologist for treatment. She was given a clean bill of health, but had to be put on a course of chemotherapy to stop the cancer from spreading.

During the treatment, Mwangangi ensured she took the medication on a Friday so she could recover over the weekend and show up to work as normal every Monday morning. She only informed two of her supervisors who kept her condition confidential.

When she was offered the post of first woman Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police (SACP) in Embu in 1995, the cancer re-surfaced.

Through her various promotions, Mwangangi managed her health well until her appointment as the 9th Commandant of the Traffic Department in 2002 when the cancer surfaced for the third time, spreading to the sternum. Her response to treatment was encouraging and the chemotherapy worked.

After her road accident in 2003, Mwangangi did not consider the incident as a misfortune, but an opportunity to campaign for the physically challenged by becoming a Board Member of the Spinal Injury Hospital and an Advisory Board Member of the Kenya Paraplegic Organisation.

For five years she led a cancer-free and happy life. Then in 2007, fresh tumours were excised from her left shoulder-blade. The cancer had returned, starting Mwangangi on the final battle for life.

On the appointed day in January 2012, spirits high, she gallantly presented herself at an interview for the Board of the Independent Police Oversight Authority. Several days later, she was hospitalised, with her husband spending the next few nights with her at the hospital. On 8 February 2012 at 2am, while her son was reading Chapter 5 of her unpublished autobiography to her, Mwangangi slipped away in her sleep.

Mary Mwangangi had an extraordinary personal and professional life; the fulfilment of a long, happy marriage blessed with a loving and caring husband and two devoted and highly achieving children.

Rosetta describes her late mother as “A very determined person and a woman who placed tremendous pressure – by example – on them to achieve. Among other things, I most admired my mum’s detailed and deliberate planning skills.”

“My mum was a discreet and decisive person. She was a woman of considerable foresight and a great mentor to my sister and I, her colleagues and subordinates,” Mwangangi fondly says of his late mother.

Her family agrees that Mwangangi’s life in the public service, as an author and motivational speaker, as well as her battle with cancer, taught courage and hope, and serves as a reminder of the preciousness of life.

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