Charity Ngilu: Kenya's Leading Woman

A supporter holds a poster of Charity Ngilu during her 1997 presidential bid. (Photo: AFP)

In Kenya’s new government, Minister of Health Charity Ngilu is regarded as a powerful player and a role model for a younger generation of female politicians.

When Ngilu announced in 1997 that she intended to run for Kenya’s presidency, excitement rippled across the country. As the first woman presidential candidate in sub-Saharan Africa, Ngilu was a trailblazer on a continent known for its corrupt “Big Men.”

Though she didn’t win the top job in 1997, Ngilu left her mark on the political landscape. In 2002, when opponents of President Daniel arap Moi joined forces as the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), she became known as “Mama Rainbow.” Quick to recognize her contributions to the party after he won the presidency, NARC leader Mwai Kibaki made her one of the key members of his first Cabinet.

For Ngilu, the appointment was the result of years of hard work. She was the ninth of 13 children born to poor parents in rural Kenya, and before entering public life worked as a secretary, a bank manager, and an entrepreneur, opening businesses as diverse as a bakery and a plastics factory. She also became a wife and mother of three.

In 1992, she surprised many people when she rose from obscurity to unseat former Cabinet Minister George Ndotto as member of Parliament for the Kitui Central district. In Parliament, she continued to make waves, especially when she struck out at the vice-ridden Moi regime, telling reporters, “You cannot touch or take anybody to court over corruption when you yourself are corrupt.”

As health minister, Ngilu has made it one of her priorities to address women’s reproductive rights. In March 2003, she generated controversy when she told a meeting of the International Planned Parenthood Federation that abortion should be legalized in Kenya. Though she backtracked a little after religious groups called for her resignation, her stance won praise from women’s organizations. “Ngilu should be commended for calling for increased debate on underlying causes of abortions in Kenya,” wrote Jane Kiragu, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya, in a news release.

Ngilu’s refusal to be relegated to second-rung status as a female politician has also won her accolades. “Women must rise above being good managers—of the man, the home, the children and all things spicy and sweet—and boldly step out into visionary leadership,” wrote commentator Lucy Oriang in Nairobi’s Daily Nation. Ngilu, she wrote, is “shaping up nicely as a sharp negotiator in the labyrinth of Kenyan politics, thank you very much.”