Saturday, September 27, 2008



The Standard
Nairobi, Kenya
September 27, 2008

By Saturday Standard Team

Beneath the Orange Democratic Movement’s victory in Bomet and Sotik by-elections lies a cultural revolution among the Kalenjin.

The assault on culture and tradition makes up for the harsher judgement last week’s election was just a replay of the emerging politics of dynasty and skewed sense of continuity. It manifests itself also in the fact that the community has the youngest age-profile when it comes to MPs.

The victory of Mrs Beatrice Kones in Bomet and Dr Joyce Laboso Abonyo in neighbouring Sotik, with more than 10,000 vote margin in both places, hands the Kalenjin half of the seats held by elected women MPs. The by-elections ensured the replacement of a female MP who died with another of her gender (and bloodline) and another to replace her husband.

Thus, from the 15 elected women MPs the Tenth Parliament began with, now there is one more. What also stands out is the fact that except for one, all the other six are on their first term.

Something else stands out – of the seven Kalenjin MPs (including the two waiting to be sworn-in) – four have PhDs. These are Higher Education Minister Dr Sally Kosgey, Sports Minister Prof Hellen Jepkemoi Sambili, Eldoret East MP Prof Margaret Kamar and Dr Joyce Laboso.

The community often perceived to not only as warrior-like but one torpedoed by the machismo, not only replaced the late Kipkalya Kones with his first wife, but and Lorna Laboso with her sister Joyce, and also made a first. Today, of its seven sub-tribes, five have an elected woman MP. Only the Pokot and the Sabaot have no women MP.

There are two each from the top two most populous groups – the Kipsigis and the Nandi. Dr Kosgey, who is Aldai MP and Eldoret South MP Peris Chepchumba Simam, a former high school teacher, are Nandi.

From the Kipsigis are Mrs Kones, the first Kalenjin woman to be elected to Parliament replace her husband, and Dr Joyce Laboso, who took over from her late sister, Lorna. Both lost husband and sister in a plane crash, paving the way for the Thursday by-elections.

Marakwet East MP Mrs Linah Chebii Kilimo who became the first Kalenjin woman to be appointed to the Cabinet in 2003 after the National Rainbow Coalition whitewashed Kanu in 2002, is from the Marakwet sub-group.

Married outside the constituency

Prof Kamar, the soil scientist who once headed Moi University’s Chepkoilel Campus, belongs to the Elgeiyo, while Prof Sambili, who is the Mogotio MP hails from the Tugen sub-tribe. Unlike all the others who ran and won on ODM ticket, Prof Sambili who was Egerton University’s head of postgraduate programmes took up the United Democratic Movement ticket after she lost the race for ODM’s endorsement at the nomination.

Interestingly, Dr Kosgey taught Prof Sambili history in Nakuru High School. Now they are Cabinet colleagues.

Three of Rift Valley women MPs have a distinct background. Though Dr Kosgey, a former University of Nairobi lecturer, High Commissioner and Head of Public Service initially, was reportedly betrothed to a man from the Coast, she had a smooth sail on her first try in Nandiland.

She was elected on the platform of her rich past and it mattered not what locals would say of girls married outside the constituency. Marital status was not even a factor.

Dr Laboso first had to overcome the hurdle placed on her way to Parliament by tradition. She is married to a man originally from Nyakach, Kadiang’a. It was not an easy feat as her opponents, including a sitting MP from a neighbouring constituency, mounted a hate campaign against her.

Some even printed posters with her portrait and the name ‘Abonyo’ to support their claim she was inappropriate. First, because she had been married off, and two, she was being ‘imposed’ on them by the Prime Minister and ODM leader Raila Odinga, who represents a Nairobi constituency but was born in Nyanza.

Prof Sambili won in a largely ODM zone even though she had to battle claims she was a wolf in sheep’s skin, since her husband, Dr Edward Sambili, was then as he is now a Permanent Secretary in the Kibaki administration.

During her days on the campaign blitz, her husband kept off, as she literally fought her way. She also had to battle hate campaign claim she was a Kanu mole, because of her husband’s strong ties to the former regime.

Debunk myths

The same community that voted out Mr Nicholas Biwott, to whom she is listed as the third wife by the multilingual free-content online encyclopaedia – Wikipedea, curiously elected Prof Kamar, a former member of the East African Community Parliament.

Curiously, her campaign on ODM ticket suffered a slight jolt when the helicopter she was using was claimed to be the same on the self-styled ‘Total Man’ was using. In the heat of the campaigns that was a ticket to defeat because Biwott was not only running on a Kanu ticket, but was also campaigning for President Kibaki’s re-election. But again to the amazement of the community, one of the people trying to unseat him in Keiyo South was Kamar’s brother.

The women MPs with the humblest of background are Mrs Kones, who was a grassroots education officer, and Mrs Kilimo, who was a bank clerk.

The Marakwet, a conservative Kalenjin sub-tribe, still grappling with cattle rustling and female circumcision, elected Kilimo.

It is this bloodless cultural coup that could soon be subject of research and study not just among feminists but students of sociology, anthropology, law, and political science.

Focus will be on the underlying factors that transformed one community to dispatch seven women when such a populous provinces as Nyanza has zero. Central just two – Justice Minister Martha Karua, who is on her third term, and first-time MP and Minister Esther Mathenge – who incidentally is in charge of Gender.

Nyanza was the first in 1969 to give Kenya her first elected woman MP – Mrs Grace Akech Onyango. The community has elected two other women – writer Mrs Grace Ogot and Dr Pheobe Asiyo.

The Kamba, through Mrs Nyiva Mwendwa, gave us the first woman minister, are still trying with one of its political giants being Water Minister Mrs Charity Ngilu. They also have Mrs Wavinya Ndeti, the Kathiani MP and an Assistant Minister.

Dr Laboso and Mrs Kones’ triumph rekindle memories of 1974 when the Kalenjin got its first woman MP, Philomena Chelagat Mutai, then a 24-year-old student at the University of Nairobi.

She rose to prominence because though not bearded, her fiery tongue and critical but sharp mind saw her join the so-called group of "Seven Bearded Sisters" that kept the Kanu regime on its toes.