As ODM party leader Raila Odinga was campaigning for last year’s presidential elections, his wife, Ida Odinga, was away in South Africa nursing their daughter Rosemary who was seriously ill.
“She was very sick,” Ida told the Nation this week during an interview to mark Mother’s Day, which is being celebrated on Sunday. It was the first extensive interview following a tumultuous political period after last year’s disputed presidential elections and the recent handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the former Prime Minister.
Rosemary’s condition improved, but “her illness has reminded me of my motherly responsibilities all over again,” said Ida.
Such an experience can easily break even the strongest spirit, but Ida says it has only strengthened her. Rosemary’s sickness is not the first time that her faith and strength is being tested. She was effectively a single mother for nearly eight years in the early 1980s and 1990s when Odinga was detained by the Kanu regime for his involvement in the 1982 coup and the call for reintroduction of multipartism.
“Marriage is a serious commitment and it is for life,” said Ida, adding that their marriage has remained strong for 44 years.
Without trust, and commitment to her family, the tribulations they went through could have undone her marriage, as it did that of Nelson Mandela and her wife Winnie when the South African freedom icon and first black president was behind bars for 27 years.
“These days young girls enjoy the idea of a grand wedding,” said Ida. “But as you say your vows, you should internalise their meaning. In sickness or in health; in good times or bad times. Can you stand by those words in the worst of times?”
The interview with Ida was at the East Africa Spectre Limited, the Odinga-family flagship gas cylinder-manufacturing company on Mombasa Road, Nairobi.
We were welcomed into the mid-morning interview by her youngest daughter, Winnie. As we sat in a holding room next to Ida’s office, her husband, suddenly breezed in chewing groundnuts, accompanied by Suna East MP Junet Mohamed.
We had no prior knowledge that the former Prime Minister would be passing by, and perhaps not wanting to spoil his wife’s interview, he left after a short private meeting without saying much to us.
“He (Raila), is a visitor here like you,” Ida told us as she let out a chuckle. This was by way of informing us that she is the managing director of Spectre, one of the many hats she wears.
“I am many things to many people; a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a businesswoman. I have learned to multitask and balance all these responsibilities well, just like many other women do every day,” she said.
It was a warm day outside but dark clouds hung low with rain that has deluged most parts of the country. She wore a purple blouse and a black skirt.
Her office on the second floor of the building is positioned in a way that gives her a perfect view of the gate, which enables her to monitor the comings and the goings out of the premises.
A worker served us tea and groundnuts as she chatted with Nation’s Deputy Photo Editor, William Oeri, whom she remembered from a previous interview he had attended at her home in Karen.
She began the interview by telling us that her outlook to life was largely moulded by her disciplinarian mother who was widowed young as a mother of six.
Ida, the fourth born, was just six years old when their father died. Her mother quit her nursing job to fully dedicate her time to raising her young children, choosing not to remarry. “She said she had enough children,” Ida said.
A staunch Christian, her mother took her children to school and taught them the value of hard work. “She told us to work hard and earn our living in a straight way.”
Time heals all wounds, it is often said, but the “terrible” pain she suffered from the loss of her firstborn son, Fidel, who died suddenly in his Karen home in January 2015 still burns.
“It’s something that time does not heal,” she said of losing Fidel, the second born of four children and who was widely considered as his father’s political successor.
“I remember and think of him every day. It is a terrible thing to lose a child. Mothers who have lost children will tell you the pain never goes away,” she said.
What helps her cope, she said, is that her four-year-old grandson Allay, Fidel’s son with his Eritrean-born wife Lwam Gatachaw Bekele, is turning out to be like his father. “I look at him (Allay) and I see my son.”
Throughout the interview, Ida spoke passionately about the need for society to pay more attention to single mothers, perhaps borne out of her experience taking care of the children alone when her husband was detained by the Kanu regime.
“Single mothers, whether young or old, whether in the rural or urban places, need support. Whenever they cannot take care of their kids, they will send them to the streets where they will acquire hard-to-erase habits,” she said, suggesting the government should set up a fund to support poor single mothers.
This idea was first mooted by her husband during the televised presidential debate in June. During the debate, which was boycotted by President Kenyatta, Raila pledged to initiate programmes that will enable single mothers access capital.
“We are going to pay special attention to this group so that they can be able to access capital to either do business or get employment to be able to look after their children properly,” said Raila.
But even as Ida championed the empowerment of women, she also emphasised that this was not a call for the young women of today to abdicate their traditional roles.
“Young girls of today don’t want to follow in their mothers’ footsteps. Most of them don’t like cooking, for example. Suddenly, they find themselves in marriages yet they can’t prepare food for their husbands or children. What follows? Divorce, obviously,” she said.
She also spoke in support of the famous handshake between her husband and President Kenyatta in March, which ended the political hostilities that had engulfed the country for more than year.
While saying that “the handshake has got a lot of issues,” she hailed the rapprochement between the President and her husband as “a good thing for the country”.
“There has been a lot of tension, and with tension comes a lot of insecurity. It is not good for us a nation to live in that state. I am happy that it has toned down the political temperatures,” she said.
“The handshake has created a platform where people can talk about issues that affect them rather than at each other. Let’s try and support it and cultivate peace and harmony in our country,” she added.
Asked when we might see another handshake between her, Margaret Kenyatta (the President’s wife) and Rachel Ruto (Deputy President William Ruto’s wife), she let out a deep laugh.
“Let me tell you something, there has never been anything between me and Margaret or me and Rachel. We may not see each other every day but we are friends. When we meet we hug. But the politics has only separated us,” she said.
She went on to offer advice to wives of politicians drawing from lessons learned over the years as a wife of a politician known for his political unpredictability.
“Never inherit your husband’s political enemies, inherit their friends. When you are thinking that this is a political enemy, they have already shook hands, leaving you with egg on your face,” she said, alluding to the handshake between her husband and the President.
She said mothers suffered the greatest during the violent confrontations between the police and Nasa supporters who heeded their party’s call to take to the streets to protest the poll outcome.
“I have in my mind this picture of a mother holding a baby in one hand while dragging another one as they fled from the violence. It is what comes to my mind when I think of what we went through,” she said.
A source close to the family spoke of the big yet understated role that Ida plays in her husband’s political career. She is one of the people that he turns to for advice before making a critical decision.
But she is content playing this role in the background. “Let him handle his political issues himself. Do not help him handle them,” she said by way of advice to wives of other politicians.
She would not be drawn into discussing the merits of last year’s two presidential elections and the controversial Supreme Court rulings on petitions filed over the polls.
But she might have inadvertently let out her sentiments on the same when talking about a topic that is close to her heart; how the interplay of family upbringing and schooling combine to produce model citizens—or not.
Mrs Ida Odinga (right) with daughter in-law Yvonne Odinga at the East Africa Spectre Limited office in Nairobi during the interview last week. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
A teacher by profession, Ida used the example of exam cheating among students to elaborate how underhand dealing has corrupted social values and permeated the country’s body politics.
She said: “A lot of people want to reap where they didn’t sow. That’s why we see a lot of underhand dealings today among students. This stealing continues to what we have today. You can extend this to those who steal elections to become leaders. So if you become a leader who is a thief, what impact will you have in the society?”
Ida counts some of the most influential women today as some of her students at Kenya High School. They include Supreme Court judge Njoki Ndung’u, former Mavoko MP Wavinya Ndeti, and lawyer Betty Murungi (Senator James Orengo’s wife).
Spread across the world, she is proud of the role she played in moulding them. “I have travelled widely and there is no country worth mentioning where you can’t find one of my students. Not only did I teach them the subject, I taught them how to be good human beings.”
Despite her accomplishments, Ida said she remains a simple loyal wife and dutiful mother, still holding to the old fashion values as taught to her by her mother and her mother-in-law.
For one, she would never let her husband into her kitchen to prepare meals in an era when men and women are expected to share family responsibilities almost on an equal basis.
“The issue of running my kitchen is mine, not my husband’s. I wouldn’t expect him to go and cook. We tried things when we were young and it failed,” she said.
Her views are not contemptuous of men, she argues, there are certain skills in life that men and women acquire naturally or through years of training and perfection.
To prove her point, she reminisced how she once tried teaching Fidel how to cook when he was about to join university.
“I found him trying to fry and egg while shielding his face with a newspaper. I asked him why he was doing that and he said that it was to prevent him from getting burned. I gave up,” she said.
In this age of internet where gender equality a hot button topic, her views about the place of women in the kitchen could be frowned upon by some.
But then, Yvonne, Raila Junior’s wife, threw her weight behind her mother-in-law. “African men have been taught that the kitchen belongs to women,” she said. “It will take time for us 2018 women to understand this.