Last Christmas my wife gifted me with a voluminous coffee table book – a five-pound (yes, I weighed it), 354-page tome profiling over 70 Kenyan women that the author defines as ‘high achievers’. I leafed through the book eagerly, anticipating the surprise and inspiration the author claims the stories will evoke.
True, most of the women profiled are known entrepreneurs, corporate executives, politicians or leaders in various professions. No surprise there. Most of them too, particularly the under-40s, were born with silver spoons in their mouths. No surprise nor inspiration there either; childhood privilege has paved way to power in their adult lives, albeit with some extra effort on their part. I shelved the tome away with a plan to one day pick through it with a fine tooth comb in search for that elusive inspirational story.
The day arrived yesterday and with it, a renewed determination to find at least one story that would ‘surprise’ and ‘inspire’ me. Hidden in the profiles of predictably affluent women are a handful of stories of ordinary women who by their visions, life philosophies and/or actions have achieved the extraordinary.
The older women whose stories are inspirational lived through the hardships of the British colonial era and an array of struggles post independence, gender-based and other. Muthoni Likimani remembers “I have suffered because I am a woman”, recalling being passed over for promotion at the public broadcaster Voice of Kenya (now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) immediately after receiving the highest commendations for her performance. A woman I admire tremendously former member of parliament Phoebe Asiyo has relentlessly pursued the gender equality and anti-female-discrimination agenda in spite of the heavily patriarchal political and cultural context.
The relatively younger women whose stories are inspirational have either turned around otherwise adverse situations to spur social change, or have been proactive in countering inequality. Asunta Wagura’s life is one seamless, deeply motivating whole; no strictly public nor purely private nor anything in-between persona. Her work to challenge stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS since her public declaration of her seropositive status at a time when such openness was taboo is well-known through her regular newspaper column. Lorna Kiplagat is another of the handful who, with her earnings as an Olympian, has established a philanthropic foundation and a sports academy for underprivileged girls.
These, in my opinion, are stories a person engaged in everyday struggles of the masses can relate to and from which inspiration can be readily drawn. Acknowledging privilege is a first step towards enabling us separate the extraordinary from the ordinary, the inspirational from the mundane, in any meaningful way.