NAIROBI, August 14 – When she lost her parliamentary bid in 1997, she thought it was the end of the road and vowed never to vie again.
But slowly, the political bug got into her and she found herself vying for the same seat in 2002.
By 2007, Esther Murugi Mathenge had learnt the game and she made her third attempt for the Nyeri Town Constituency seat, this time more vigorously and she finally won.
A first timer in Parliament, the soft spoken legislator had double luck when she was appointed Minister for Gender, Children and Social Development under the Grand Coalition Government.
Q: Who is Esther Murugi Mathenge? A: I am a single mother of two, five foot two inches tall, weighing 60 kg. I am also a very simple person, I don’t like late nights but I do enough between the time I’m up and the time I go to sleep.
I love just about what every other woman loves; I like to have an easy time, read my books and watch TV. I think I can watch everything from Inspector Mwala (a local comedy) to soap operas and classics.
I however read a lot with a bias on fiction. I don’t like biographies very much but the rest I read. I also like to meet new people everyday.
That is why I find politics interesting; because you encounter a new person, a new problem every other day.
I hold women issues very dearly and I really advocate for women’s education because if it was not for the education I got, I doubt if I would be here today.
Q: Where were you born? A: I was born in Nyeri. I went to a normal village school in a place called Githiru up to standard seven, then joined Highlands School (now Moi girls) in Eldoret, and later Nairobi University to study Land Economics.
After that I worked for the government for a few years, got bored and went into private practice where I used to run a company in real estate and valuations.
The company is still operational under different directors but I’m here running the Ministry of Gender.
Q: What was your motivation to vie for the parliamentary seat despite losing twice? A: When I first ventured into politics I belonged to an organisation called Sisters for the Best, working towards raising the economic status of women, education standards, health and all the other things that inhibit women from going far.
And as we were going round the country, I realised that women could not achieve those things unless we had women leaders. And I said if we want our voices heard, we have to be the ones representing our women.
In 1997, I was very naïve I thought I would go, greet a few people, kiss children like we see Bush and the rest do and the votes would come.
But in Africa it’s a little bit different. It’s a cultural thing that women are not leaders, so you have to go and convince them.
I realised unless I also got into party politics I could not go very far. So in 2007, I got into Narc Kenya politics.
When you are in the party politics it means you get to know the lowest of the low because we started campaigning from the polling station level, discovered who were the leaders in the villages and got them on our side. By the time we got to the PNU party nominations, at least I had a rough idea of whether I had the people with me or not. Previously I had not done that and I think that’s why I lost in 1997 and 2002.
Q: How do you balance politics and motherhood? A: Fortunately for me, my children are big; my youngest is 22-years old so it is not very difficult because everybody is busy doing their own things and they don’t need mama at home all the time.
The other one is out of the house so he doesn’t have to see me every other day. It is fairly easy to have grown up children but I guess if they were younger it would have been difficult.
Q: What’s your agenda for your constituents? A: One of the biggest problems in my constituency is unemployment and what we have done is build a data bank to know where our youth are and why they are unemployed. After that we can find out what to do with the youth.
We have also started an ICT training centre for the youth. We are training about 20 students per given period and the first batch will be graduating next month. We will keep on doing this until every youth in Nyeri is computer literate.
Secondly, a lot of village polytechniques were deregistered because they were not doing anything so we are ensuring that they are all registered once again and offer courses that are marketable. We don’t want to do the traditional masonry and carpentry.
Q: What plans do you have for the ministry? A: We have not yet achieved much because I took over the office in April and the first thing was to learn. But one of the things we are doing is to build a gender research centre so that we have information on every woman.
Q: Why women? A: Although gender depicts every man and woman, we feel those who need much help right now are the women because we want 30 percent representation in decision-making bodies which is yet to happen. This research centre will collect data so that we know where every woman is, what they are doing, their educational background and interests so that then we can start lobbying for them to get jobs where need be.
This will be a continuous process because every year we have women graduating from all over. We are hoping in a few years time we shall reverse the roles and be looking for the data for men as opposed to that of women
Q: How do you handle difficult situations when you have to make a decision? A: I make the decision and then think of the consequences after. What I have realised is if you have a decision to make, the sooner you make it the better then you face the consequences later.
If you keep on postponing, you will never make that decision. So you make the decision and stand by whatever you made. If it was the wrong decision you apologise, do what needed to be done and then move on.
Q: Parting shot? A: We have cultures that we need to get rid of like female genital mutilation (FGM) but what I would like to emphasise is that as women we can do it.
We form 52 percent of the population in this country and if we are united there is nothing that we cannot do.
My challenge to the women who aspire to be politicians is to start campaigning now, not to wait for 2012 because then it will be too late.