Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Drawing from the Wells of Culture: Grace Onyango and the Kenyan Political Scene (1964-1983)

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Drawing from the Wells of Culture: Grace Onyango and the Kenyan Political Scene (1964-1983)

Article excerpt


This paper examines the career of Grace Onyango in a bid to recover the history of independent Kenya's most prominent female politician. To find success as a politician, Onyango had to have an understanding of the interplay between her ethnic culture, the cultures of those with whom she interacted as well as the dynamics of newly independent Kenya's local and national politics.

As a politician, I wanted to prove to the 'just government of men' that women can do as well if given the chance...which I think I did ("Grace Onyango," 1989, p. 11).

This paper illuminates the way in which Kenya's first female Member of Parliament (M.P.), Grace Onyango, merged her own ethnic culture with the demands of the country's political scene, rising to political prominence while meeting the various goals and challenges of her public life. As a post-colonial M.P., Grace Onyango was not dissimilar from prominent women who came before her in colonial Kenya who balanced their cultural milieu with contemporary political and economic dynamics. For example, Muraa Ngiti, a Gusii medicine woman in Western Kenya, led an anti-British movement in Gusiiland during the first decade of the 20th century (Ochieng', 1974, p. 220 - 247). Ngiti possessed medicine that she had previously employed to aid the Gusii in their battles against the neighboring Luo and Kipsigis before the arrival of the British. Once the British made their debut in Gusiiland, Nigiti used her medicine and the power and influence that accompanied it to mobilize the Gusii to fight the new enemy and his equally new weaponry (guns and bullets).

Similarly, in Kenya's coastal region, Mekatilili wa Medza, a Giriama woman who held no political office amongst her people, attempted to revitalize the Giriama's traditional Mukushekushe and Fisi oaths that rally and bind both men and women to a common cause. In this case, that cause was the struggle to preserve their economic independence in the face of British labor conscription and taxation between 1913 and 1914 (Brantley, 1981, pp. 85 - 88). Medza was a talented speaker, and charismatic figure who also tried to revive the kaya (residential and political unit) as well as the exclusively male kambi (council of elders) to fight the British. These uprisings ultimately ended in bloody reprisals, but the point, as historian David Schoenbrun has argued, is that these female leaders were creatively "using acts of selecting and composing arrays of cultural material to meet particular challenges" (Schoenbrun, 2006, p.8). Such cultural material did not disappear in the face of colonial oppression, and continues to exist in forms that have morphed with the times. Both Nigiti and Medza were ingeniously drawing from the wells of their cultural heritage to meet colonial challenges. This paper will demonstrate how one female postcolonial politician, Grace Onyango, drew from her own cultural heritage to meet the challenges of politics in independent Kenya.

Grace Onyango is one of the most prominent women in modern Kenyan political history. Born in 1927 at Gobei, Sakwa Location in the Nyanza Province, she occupied various positions of responsibility in the course of her working life. She started as a teacher but gradually steered her career towards politics. The second of nine children, she attended local primary schools in Sakwa before enrolling in Ng'iya Girls Secondary School. Between 1951 and 1964, Onyango became the principal of a teachers' training college for women, a Girl Guide Assistant Commissioner in Kisumu District, as well as the Chair of the Kisumu Branch of the Child Welfare Society. Grace Onyango was married to Onyango Baridi, a teacher who later joined the Kenya News Agency as a journalist, and they had six children.

Though successful in her chosen career, she was constantly drawn to community service and soon entered electoral politics. Onyango became the first East African woman to serve as a councilor (1964), mayor (1965), official of the Luo Union of East Africa (1969), Member of Parliament for Kisumu Town (1969), and temporary speaker of the House ("Grace Onyango," 1989, p. …

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