Esther Kamweru – Pioneer female managing editor of a daily

Esther Kamweru is Kenya’s first female managing editor of a newspaper. She describes herself as a longtime journalist who started off as a cub reporter and a trainee sub editor and steadily worked her way to the top. After a very involving career in the industry, she is happy and fulfilled with the accomplishments she has made and is glad that she chose a career in journalism.

Esther Kamweru is a longtime Kenyan Journalist, who worked her way up the ladder to become Kenya’s first female managing editor of a newspaper. Although she landed into journalism by chance, she fit into the industry and cut her niche, a journey which also lead to her being part of a team that pioneered newspaper inserts and magazines.

Growing up, Kamweru’s father worked for the East African Railways. The family had to move constantly because of his job. “I grew up in many towns such as Gilgil and Naivasha, but majorly in Nyeri,” she says, which is where her family settled after the death of her father.

Kamweru attended Madaraka Primary School in Thika and then proceeded to Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls High School in Nyeri.

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Upon completion of her secondary education, she was admitted to Makerere University to study for a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, Geography and Divinity. On reporting to Makerere, the generally introverted Kamweru approached the dean to change her courses during the one-week window period allocated to allow change of study. “I was one of those very shy girls. Because of that, I was thinking about pursuing a career where I would not have to interact with people too much.”

She wanted to pursue librarianship, but the dean advised against it as the Library course was at the time offered only as a diploma.  “This would have been a downgrade from the degree course I had been offered.” Consequently, she ended up doing Literature.

Her studies at Makerere were, however, cut short after one of the Kenyans attending the university got lost. Because of the incident, the Government recalled all Kenyan students studying at Makere, a move that saw to Kamweru finish her university education at the University of Nairobi.

On completion of her studies, she pursued a career in journalism after seeing an advert in the dailies for a vacancy at The Standard for a sub editor. “Because of my background in literature, I ended up in journalism. It is funny because as an introvert, I ended up in a career that requires an extroverted personality.” Kamweru applied for the position, and in 1978 began her 17-year journey with The Standard.

Although she began her journey in journalism as a subeditor, it was deemed wise that she first gain experience as a cub reporter. “It was felt that for one to became a good subeditor, one had to go to the field first.”  She rose through the ranks from cub reporter to becoming the first female managing editor not only of a mainstream newspaper, but also in the media industry at large.

During her time at The Standard, she achieved many milestones including coming up with Now Magazine, an insert in the Sunday Standard that was the first of its kind in the country, both in size and orientation. The magazine’s target audience was women and youth.  She also helped develop The Sunday Standard – as there was previously no Sunday edition of the newspaper, and the special reports incorporated within it.

To Kamweru, her first years of employment were hectic. First, she was an introvert whose career demanded social interaction. Secondly, the work hours were different from all other professions. She found the hours difficult on her family particularly during holidays. However, with time, the career fitted into her personality well as the odd hours allowed her to escape a lot of socialising.

Her journey was not without its challenges. When she joined The Standard, there were only two other media houses: Nation Media Group and the state controlled Voice of Kenya. Most of the senior staff was of European descent and discrimination against Africans was rife. Moreover, the women were few in these organisations. “It is for this reason that the women in media formed alliances and friendships to help them conquer injustices and lobby for better working conditions,” she says. Kamweru is thankful for the bonds she created with the small number of women in the industry then. The friendships have lasted to date.

Despite being an introvert in a socially demanding career, she says that her training and background gave her the exposure that helped her relate to the issues she encountered as a journalist. “Studying in Makerere exposed me to different cultures and I am thankful for the experience as it opened my mind.” Working in media and encountering information from all over the world also changed her disposition. This helped her reform the notion that ‘men were adversaries to be conquered,’ a belief that was ingrained in her during her time at the convent led Ngandu Girls.

At one time during her career at The Standard, she was almost removed from the role of a sub editor to that of a features editor, as it was seen as soft and more befitting for a woman. However, the editor in chief thought otherwise and instead promoted her to the role of deputy chief sub editor. In another instance, when being interviewed for evaluation and internal promotion, the interviewer asked, “are you not going to be married and will that not affect your work?” On this, she wondered, “if a man was in the same situation, is he also not going to get married and will it not affect his work?”

She is thankful to her then editor in chief, Henry Gathigira, whom she says stood by her and instilled in her courage and self esteem to work in the industry. “He was the first person who really showed me I could do it when he asked me to read an editorial he had written before it went to press.” Kamweru says that she could not understand how such a senior editor could bestow such a request on a simple girl from Ngandu Girls. “He explained to me that whatever level of editor you are, you need someone to look at your work.” Gathigira further empowered her by letting her do editorials on issues relating to women such as: gender discrimination, rape and abortion. “His belief in me really boosted my confidence.”

After her stint with The Standard ended in 1996, Kamweru was contracted by Kenya wildlife Services (KWS) to act as its senior communications officer. The job entailed handling KWS’s internal and external communications, public relations, events man agement and publishing. However, in 1998, she became a victim of the order by the World Bank to the Government to downsize in order to be eligible for loans and grants.

Between 1998 and 2004, she worked for both Heinrich Boll and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) foundations, splitting her days between the two jobs. At Heinrich Boll, she was in the gender department, which was befitting as she had by the time earned a masters degree in Gender and Development from the University of Nairobi. She served in the media department of the FES, an organisation that seeks to strength media associations such as Kenya Union of Journalists and Kenya Correspondents Association.

Kamweru also served as a senior lecturer of journalism at Tangaza College, a constituent of Catholic University of Eastern Africa. She was privileged to serve as an academic advisor for the department of Social Communications until 2009.

In 2004, Kamweru became the founding executive director of the Media Council of Kenya, a position she held untill her contract ended in January 2011. In this role, she was mandated to provide leadership for the achievement of the Council’s goals and objectives, spearheading coordination and partnership building.

Her tenure as the executive director of the Media Council of Kenya saw her achieve many milestones that she is proud of, such as the introduction and enactment of the ethical code of conduct for parliamentary journalists. Media Council also came up with the Media Complaints Commission, a platform where media consumers can air their grievances or complaints. In the period before the 2007 elections, the council also carried out extensive nation-wide training of journalists on how to effectively and impartially report on elections.

Looking at the media industry then and now, she is happy that now there is a code of ethics that governs journalism. She is also awed by how technological advancements have enhanced media today.

Having worked in the industry for a long time, she is interested in seeing what the future holds for traditional media. “Seeing that some newspapers, such as the Christian Science Monitor, have gone online completely, there is not a clear picture to what the future holds.” She is also keen to see where the ongoing media convergence will lead, with radio, television and print media coming together to disseminate information through online platforms, rather than each on their own fronts.

Ultimately, she would love to, “see a media that serves its basic functions; to educate, inform and to entertain rather than to influence. The audience should form its own opinion.”

Kamweru’s main motivation has been her children. In her earlier days at work, she struggled to be the provider as she was a single parent. She was encouraged to forge on when she realised that fellow women professionals looked up to her for motivation. During the latter part of her career, her children, now adults, still motivate her to work hard. “They still see me as their role model, so l strive to live up to their expectations.”

She counts Dr. Eddah Gachukia, educationist and human rights activist, as one of the women that she looks up to. “Her ability to relate and communicate well with people from all age brackets is inspiring.”

Kamweru’s mother has been the ever-present backbone that held her together. She stood by Kamweru when she was pregnant and needed to continue with her studies at Makerere. “She supported my journey into single parenthood and took care of the baby.”

In her down time, Kamweru loves to sing.She is a member of the choir at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi. She also loves experiencing nature, a thing that engineered her move from Nairobi to the leafier Nyeri.

In July 2008, Kamweru was appointed by then President Mwai Kibaki as the founding chairperson of the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board, a parastal that documents the country’s milestones in all sectors through its publications.

The appointment, she says, offered her the opportunity to experience the country one on one.  “I was able to see the country in a deeper way. All the information you experience when compiling the Kenya Yearbook is eye-opening.  It is information you would most probably encounter one off as a journalist or as a media consumer, but getting it raw and collectively from all sectors is enlightening. One gets to know the country better.” She served in the role until her second term came to an end in 2014.

For her achievements, Kamweru was bestowed with the presidential Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) award in 2014 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015’s Media Council of Kenya’s Journalism Awards.


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