What other African presidents’ wives could learn from Kenya’s First Lady


Before long, it will be two years since Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as president of Kenya.

As happened with the first anniversary of his presidency, acres of newsprint and hours of airtime will be spent dissecting his rule. There will be only a few lines, if any, devoted to one of the most interesting sub-plots of his administration – the labours of First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.

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Mrs Kenyatta has made a bloody good job of being First Lady (FL), in ways few other African presidential wives have . . . and achieved while succeeding in avoiding the negative media spotlight.

Future First Ladies would do well to watch and learn from her. The first source of her success is counter-intuitive. She established her FL credentials by being an “anti-First Lady”. What does that mean?

The first thing she did was not to set out her stall as a First Lady. That means never going out publicly to lay claim to being First Lady.

And to understand the difference, one only has to compare her to the beloved former First Lady Lucy Kibaki, who gave a whole new meaning to activism and succeeded in being more combative than The Man Mwai Kibaki himself.

Secondly, and rather untypically, FL Kenyatta has managed to do something that even Second Ladies – Ida Odinga and now Rachel Ruto – haven’t succeeded in. She has not taken to the platform to defend Uhuru; definitely not in a loud way.

In patriarchal societies that put a premium on wifely loyalty, that might seem counter-productive. But in not doing so, she has been able to allow Uhuru to portray himself as stronger . . . a man who doesn’t need to be propped up by his wife. And for herself, she avoided the common trap of becoming a First Wife, instead of First Lady (there’s a big difference).

However, her boldest stroke was resisting the temptation to dye her hair pitch black. It is a discipline and self-confidence many Big Women and Men in Kenyan politics and government have failed in miserably.

No, it is a wider problem. The higher echelons of African politics and public life are overpopulated with 65-year-old men who have darker hair than 18-year olds, and sleep with shower caps on their heads.

Sure, she came in for a bit of stick in the early months with her conservation efforts. It was seen as being too elitist, too detached, where swatting flies from the faces of sick children in a country where many live in poverty, would have been a more appropriate image of a caring FL.

Yes, and no. No, because many of the type of people who are into conservation are part of the civil society that treated the Kenyatta-Ruto duo with suspicion and, even, hostility. So the biggest political favour she did her husband, was when she wasn’t doing politics.

Her elephant cuddling and giraffe-nose stroking won her a global audience, got her a special programme on CNN, and the affection of sections of the left-leaning Twitterati.


I spoke to a couple of people outside Kenya who couldn’t reconcile FL Kenyatta as a wife of Kenyatta, who to them was little more than a machete-wielding Kikuyu warlord who had been indicted by the ICC.

Surely, the lesson here must be obvious – if you want to soften your presidential husband’s global image, save elephants.

With the cappuccino coffee-sipping class in the bag, FL Kenyatta dipped into the lower end of the social market by throwing herself into preventing mothers and their children from dying during birth with her Beyond Zero Campaign.

The marathon she did in Nairobi for the campaign, and perhaps most famously, her seven-hour endurance race in the London Marathon – and the warm reception she received – did her standing endless good. I am nursing a suspicion that the FL’s track-suited efforts probably contributed to softening Uhuru’s attitude toward the West that we have seen in recent weeks.

But choosing a cause is not easy for FL’s. Most of them don’t know the trick. The first is to choose something in which The Boys have no big interest, and from which they are not stealing. If you do, they will heckle you out of town.

The second, is to find a cause over which there is cross-party consensus. No one, irrespective of their party, really wants to see mothers and babies die.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of the Nairobi-headquartered Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com).


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