Ida Odinga Interview: Joy and pain of dynasty that never ruled
Ida Odinga Interview: Joy and pain of dynasty that never ruled
Matriarch bares joy and pain of dynasty that never ruled.
Interview: Wife of former Prime Minister opens up on her relationship with other power couples and the missed opportunities in politics.
As the Prime Minister’s wife, your days were full of official functions. How do you spend your time these days?
Of course, my days are less busy than they were at that time. But I still find myself with my hands full with a lot of things that I need to do.
Most of the work has to do with family and my own work. Many of the activities depend on where I am. For example, I am spending a lot of time at home in Bondo now where I am looking after our farm. In the farm you can never run short of what to do. And then, I am still running the East Africa Spectre Company where I am the MD and I have got homes to take care of here in Karen and at Bondo.
And what about political relationships – to what level have they changed?
I still have the relationships that I had with those people. You see, for the last five years when I was the Prime Minister’s wife, I was involved in many activities. For example, I was involved in the education of the girl child. I still am.
I am also passionate about children and I do visits to children’s homes. I still talk to women like I used to do at grassroots level. I talk to them about their health because women’s health is something that has always concerned me. My relationships haven’t changed that much.
Going back to your days in the coalition government, how would you describe your relationship with Mama Lucy Kibaki, wife of your husband’s co-principal?
Mama Lucy is a very strong and a very nice woman. But I didn’t have a lot of interaction with her. It just happened that we didn’t interact a lot. But she is somebody I admire for her strength because being where she is, is not easy. I like her and I have no problem with her.
What about other spouses like Margaret Kenyatta, Rachel Ruto and even Mama Ngina Kenyatta?
Mama Ngina was First Lady when I was still in school. She was in the age-group of my mother-in-law. I have seen so many photographs of her taken with my mother-in-law, Mary Odinga, Raila’s mother.
I think that she is also a strong woman because she has managed to keep her family together, something that I find very admirable. She’s a good person. Officially we’ve met many times and our meetings have always been cordial and friendly.
As for the current First Lady Margaret, we met here at this home, soon after Raila had been discharged from hospital during the Constitution referendum campaigns.
They visited us and we had a nice time together and even if we meet now, we’re friends. There’s no problem.
I tend to know Rachel Ruto a little bit more than all the others because when we were still in ODM we interacted a lot and we did a lot of campaigns together but even after that, we’ve met for a cup of tea a couple of times. Rachel Ruto is very strong in her Christian faith and that’s something I admire. It is also something that brings us together and we tend to agree at that particular point.
Explain the paradox of you wives being so close to one another and your husbands mobilising and tearing into each other publicly with all the dire ramifications on their respective supporters.
You know, publicly our husbands go divergent ways. But bring them together one on one, they’re okay. They talk. But one thing I’ve learnt in my life is never to inherit the political enemies of my husband because if you do, you never know when they come round and become friends again. So, I don’t mind inheriting political friends but enemies, no. I talk to them, I don’t see them as enemies and I don’t antagonise them.
What about when they bring your husband’s prospects for higher office to heel?
Personally, I don’t regard those people as enemies – not at all. Politicians are funny people. Outside there, they hammer away at each other but when they come together, they are friends. So what they do out there is not what they do behind closed doors when they are together. In that case, I don’t want to join them in their wars.
What are your sentiments towards President Kibaki – and please talk about the failed MoU of 2002?
When he went back on that MoU, I found that very funny. It left me with a very bad feeling about politicians. But then, I had seen these things happening even before. If you look at the history of Kenya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was very close to Jomo Kenyatta but then they fell out.
They were very close friends, even at family level. Politics is like that. Further down, we saw what happened when Moi became president and he embraced Jaramogi. After a short while, they too fell out. So when Raila and Kibaki fell apart after the 2002 election, to me there was nothing new.
Right now, we can see there is a very close relationship between Uhuru and Ruto.
Tomorrow if they fall apart, I will not be surprised because that is the nature of politics. It worries me a lot because of the extreme antagonisms that is caused among their supporters who do not understand what is happening. It is worst when ethnicity assumes centre stage. I urge the current leaders to think seriously about this and refrain from polarising the current further.
President Daniel Moi detained your husband three times. He made him flee to exile. How do you relate with him?
Moi is an elder. And he cuts that figure of an elder. When I meet with him, I respect him for being an elder, despite everything. I have forgiven him and I have moved on. I hold nothing against him. I can even go and visit Moi and I have done it once or twice. I have no problem with him. But you know something else – I was born in Baringo, Kabarnet to be specific.
That is the home town of Moi. And I hold this dearly because that’s where I saw the sun. And he’s aware of that. And, jokingly, I tell him ‘I am nyar Baringo’ or ‘nyar Tugen’ (daughter of Baringo or Tugen). So, if basically, if ethnicity were to be based on where you were born, I’ll be a Tugen. Even President Kibaki. I have no hard feelings towards him.
What is the single worst moment of your life?
The single worst moment of my life was when I received information that Raila had been charged with treason. I had never heard of something like that. It was a very sad moment of my life.
And the happiest?
There have been many happy times. You know people tend to think that political times are the best times and that might not be so. The happiest time of my life was when we took a holiday to the Caribbean, the whole family. This was about four years ago. We go for holidays as a family but this was unique because all my life I had longed to go to Jamaica and find out what it is like.
We went to Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and we ended up in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and then South Africa and then came back. It was a wonderful time, the most beautiful in my life.
You almost became First Lady twice. Describe how it felt at not becoming.
Definitely it was very disappointing. The first time, in 2007/2008, was the worst. That is when the violence broke out. I was utterly devastated by what I saw. I had not imagined that running for office could come to that. I pray that it will never happen again. Even now, after what happened after the last elections, it is not the end of life. You pick up the pieces and move on. You don’t just sit and mourn.
You’ve been married 40 years. Your marriage has been marked with multiple detentions without trial, exile, high voltage party and national politics, intensive international diplomacy etc. How have you managed to hold it together this long?
Marriage is partnership. You are partners in this company because it is really like a company only that you are life-time partners. So, this means that if one is out, the other one is in.
If one happens to be out most of the time, then it follows that the other will be in most of the time. But it is not something that you can run away from. You stay there. But more than that, marriage requires a lot of understanding and negotiations, and agreeing on issues and how you proceed but above all it is always important to make your feelings known. You must be open. Raila and I are very, very good friends. We have got good chemistry; but you must work at it. You just can’t sit back and hope it works, you must work at it. I have to tell you – keeping up with politicians is not easy because for one, they are away from home most of the time.
Are there times when you have asked yourself, ‘is this what I really signed for?’
I have thought of that many times. That takes me back to the days when we were young girls when we had our dreams and we used to talk about those dreams. When we were at university we used to say, ‘we are not going to marry these people who are studying political science, BA, law and so forth because who wants to settle down with a man who is running all over the place and making a lot of noise and being a politician and so forth?
We were looking for engineers, doctors and other “serious” professions. And on that aspect I always joke around and say ‘I did very well. I got an engineer.’ Little did I know that I had got a political engineer! But that came slowly and here we are.
What personal price have you had to pay for being Raila’s wife?
I was sacked from my job and denied the furtherance of a profession that I loved passionately – teaching. But another personal price that I have paid, a very dear price, is that I have ceased to be myself. I ceased to be Ida. Everything I say, people interpret that to be Raila’s words.
Everything I do – Raila! Everywhere I go – Raila’s wife. Nobody sees Ida as Ida, a complete human being, with brains of her own and one who can accomplish things that are Ida’s. For being Raila’s wife, I have lost my identity. Maybe in life there are certain things I would have liked to do but which I have not done because I am Raila’s wife.
I’d long for a time when Raila would speak and somebody says, ‘hey, that’s Ida’s husband.’ But they never say that! They always see Raila’s wife but never Ida’s husband.
Your husband may have failed to win the presidency three times but he is a highly successful individual as a businessman and a politician. Men like him attract women. Has it been full time work for you fighting them off?
You know, women like strong people. They like politicians and they like sportsmen. So in Raila’s case, of course they are there. Still, life must continue. I remember once reading the story of Nancy Reagan; I’ve read her book, too. A lady was admiring Ronald Reagan and told about it, Nancy remarked: ‘Really? Is that so? She must have real good taste!’ Likewise, I see those women who admire Raila as being women with taste. (Laughs heartily). Actually, I think most of those women are admiring me. They are not admiring Raila, it’s me.
They look at me and say, ‘I’d like to be like Ida.’ They think that Raila made me. What they don’t know is that it’s the other way round; I am the one who made Raila! (Continues laughing heartily). That means they can choose somebody else and make them what they want him to be. Life is like that.
Hardcore ODM women like Charity Ngilu and Rachel Shebesh are now hardcore Jubilee women. If a casual reading of Kenyan politics is anything to go by, tomorrow they may yet become hardcore ODM women again. Some people find this very common trait of Kenyan politics dizzying and disagreeable. What’s your take on this?
You see politics in Kenya is based on many things. Some of it is issue-based. The kind of politicians you see here are those who can take a stand and remain where they are, whether they are up or down, whether it is raining or shining. These don’t waver. Then there are others who use politics as a means of livelihood just like you take a career in journalism; today you are with the Nation, tomorrow if The Standard offers you more money, you go there and if the Nation tops that up you go back to the Nation. And if somebody else gives you more, you move there. All this is because it is a job that you are doing to get an income.
Politics is also like that. Then there are those who are called followers. Those will follow you wherever you go. They don’t follow the issues but the person. So when we are talking about this, remember the bottom line is what can I get out of this? If you are here and you find that you cannot get something for yourself, you move to where you think you can get it.
This is what has happened to those women you are referring to. Tomorrow if ODM comes up, they will come back and that is a certainty. There is no argument about that.
Going forward, what are your plans?
I am active. I am strong. I am still capable of doing a lot of things for our people. All the things I was doing before and when I was the Prime Minister’s wife I am still carrying on with them – especially girl child education and women’s health and nutrition, maybe not at a national level or regional level. I am very much in contact with women leaders both those in Parliament and those not in it.
Raila has not said whether or not he will run in 2017. Suppose he seeks your opinion before making a decision, what will you tell him?
Let’s wait and see how things go. I think it will be premature to talk about that at the moment.
Who are the most remarkable public women leaders you admire?
Hilary Clinton, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Winnie Mandela…actually I have had whole day sitting with Winnie Mandela just picking her mind and trying to find out who she really is.
She is a remarkable woman. I’ve also had time with my good friend Graca Machel and, of course, I cannot forget the late Prof Wangari Maathai. She was fantastic.
And above all these is my mother, Rosa Oyoo, the strongest woman in the world for me. She opened a Post Office bank account in 1937 and she is still running it today! Her husband, my father, died when I was six years old and she raised all six of us single-handedly. She was never inherited.
What books would I see in your study and what are you reading now?
I am currently reading A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. It’s the very sad story of an Indian boy who got lost when he was very young and ended up in Australia.
As a young adult he uses Google to trace his native village. The story is very touching but it ends well. I have lately also read Living History by Hilary Clinton, My Life’s Journey by Janet Museveni, You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka, Fighting for Justice by Jay Naidoo to whom I am known personally and Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair.