As I depart from Kenya I cannot help reflecting on the diversity of the women I have met, and where some of their values intersect and where they are polarized. I came to Kenya from Toronto, Canada to hear the perspectives of Kenyan women from different backgrounds. These perspectives I could have received back home.
The circumstances of Kenyan women cannot be ignored. In Kenya, although they aspire to have 30% women in their government, they are only 7% of women that are MPs. In order for a woman to gain a loan from the bank, she needs to own land, which only 2% – 4% of women can claim. Religion plays a huge role in their culture. To have your voice heard you must have a higher education, especially to be heard in the church. Although more women are increasingly getting higher education (it has almost doubled since 1988), due to the expectations of the Kenyan women’s roles, in 2008 only 40% of women compared to 60% of men have tertiary education.
The need to assist women and children is also evident with the large presence of NGOs (Non Government Agencies). And to be white appears to have responsibilities attached that maintain a divide at least amongst the more impoverished.
The lens, in which I have gained this insight, although it may appear limited, cannot be ignored. In the last three weeks I have interviewed several successful business women, philanthropists, perspective Ignite Excellence Foundation scholarship recipients, met with a couple NGOs, had dinner with a few graduates, had conversations with several educators, attended church where the topic was men’s role in the family, (with thousands of others), and had lunches with a couple of young volunteers from the West.
Where do some of these women’s perspectives intersect? Because the culture looks at the family as beyond the nucleus, it is no surprise that there is a general sense that women’s responsibility is beyond themselves, particularly when it comes to girls’ education and women’s rights. There is a general awareness that women are very important to the future of Kenya and how it is shaped, at least amongst the women. There is a belief that ‘Africa should invest in Africa.’ In almost every interaction, except when I was interviewing for scholarships, there was a feeling that our future is our concern, we will shape it, not the West, although they will refer to the West often. It is expected for a woman to get married and to have children. And ‘roles’ seem to be the focus rather then ambitions. The challenge arises when a women is ‘over’ educated. Her marital prospects diminish substantially, and some women have accepted a fate of independence. One of the most charming qualities of Kenyan women is a sense of calm, as if everything will be okay. I am not sure if it is cultural or connection to their faith, but it is truly contagious, or at least I would like it to be.
Each one of these interactions provided a different perspective of what Kenyan women’s role and responsibilities where in Kenyan society.
Listening to the recently posted interview on Wisdom Exchange TV (www.wisdomexchangetv.com) is the best way to gain insight into Kenyan businesswomen. Joanne Mwangi, CEO, PMS Group, (the unfortunate name, has become a marketing memory), states her belief that African woman have a responsibility to mentor and lead. As the Federation of Women Entrepreneur Association (FEWA) chairperson and 2010 KPMG Mid-Size Business of the Year and Entrepreneur of the Year winner, not to mention the OWIT Entrepreneur of the Year winner, she is a woman who has interesting perspective. Joanne believes that the two biggest things holding women back in Kenya is finances and confidence. “African women have a voice, and it needs to be heard, especially in business. They earned the right to get there, now they need to speak up.” Joanne believes women need to create a financial lending group for each other, because gaining a loan is so difficult. She also stresses that although she believes receiving a tertiary education is important, where you gain your degree is just as important. The confidence required to be a success is something Joanne feels can be more easily adopted if women are educated in the West.
Similar to Joanne, another woman I met with was an educator and businesswoman who truly embraces her culture. Leah Ngini is a woman that exemplifies all things in Kenyan society that went right. Revisit (www.suzannefstevens.com) to get the real story of how a grandmother’s choices can make such an impact on a generation and beyond. Leah’s belief is that, although she is very focused on educating girls at her St. Christopher’s school, she believes you need to invest in the boys as well, as who are the women going to marry? This sentiment seemed to be echoed amongst other school executive directors.
To just focus on the business ambitions of Kenya women is to vastly ignore that many women have no such desire. As I sat in Mass at the largest church in Kenya amongst two thousand people, from the stage, and in this environment it is a stage, two of the preachers seemed to be mocking the business titles Americans often bestow on themselves. As a Chief Edge Optimizer I would have to agree. The title they focused on was “stay at home dad.” They put the question to the congregation: “Do you think men should stay home and take care of the children?” Now although it was explained that this is a responsible role, the ten parishioners who spoke in a microphone in the massive tent, suggested that that was absurd. Women spoke as if the man’s place is at work. Men had the undercurrent in their voices of “those silly Americans.” Some suggested that it was a question of economics. “Sometimes the woman makes more money in the United States.” It was clear the congregation was focusing on society ‘roles’ rather then individuals and ambitions. It is important to mention that stay at home dad is not that palatable in this society often because many man do not take the responsibility for their family economically and socially. That being said, as an entrepreneur who has done fairly well for myself, I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat wanting the microphone. I think my husband was just as uncomfortable, although I think his discomfort stemmed from his fear of me speaking up.
When I was interviewing and reviewing applications for the Ignite Excellence Foundation scholarships (www.igniteexcellencefoundation.org), it would appear that women were trying expand their roles to have an impact on the community. It would appear that many men and women were applying for post-graduate education when they had children and a challenge taking care of the immediate family needs. Education is highly sought in Kenyan society, which is evident by the 87% literacy rate, as well as the need for continued education. I became very intrigued with how Kenyans could continue to pursue higher learning when their fundamental needs were often barely being met. To answer that question you need be aware of three things. One, higher education in many cases will be the only way their voice will be heard in their community. Two, they believe that their faith will help them find funding. Three, their extended family and church are often sources of finance. This had made providing scholarships difficult for me. My values are that you work hard for what you get, don’t expect from anyone, take care of your immediate needs first, and you have a choices, so choose wisely. All of these values seemed to counter intuitive to perspective scholarship recipients. As a result I have not rewarded any new scholarships as the circumstances and values do not line-up with the mandate of my foundation, which is providing under or post-graduate scholarships for prospective women leaders who will create a positive ripple effect for other women and children in Kenya.
Often it is NGO’s that are picking up the slack when it comes to taking care of women and children. Many of these Western women have been in Africa for five, ten, or twenty or more years, committed to not leaving their project in mid-stride, or ensuring if they do pass it on that they’ve mentored a Kenyan to take the reins. Many people welcome the NGO’s, especially those being helped by them. For those who are not directly benefiting from the NGO’s there is undercurrent that is not spoken but the questions is on a Kenyan face, why do you need to come here for this project, why not an African? We will take care of ourselves. But yet, if you do show interest, and are compassionate you may be asked to adopt a baby. Or at eighteen-years-old you can immediately become the Assistant Chairman of the Board, just for being white and showing up.
African women often say, “It is cultural” when they describe their circumstances. Although I believe culture does have something do to with it, I truly believe that it is evolution. Kenya has only been independent since 1963. In those forty- eight years there has been a lot of progress. I look at when most Canadian women got the right to vote, in 1919, excluding Quebec, where it took until 1940, fifty-two years seventy-three years respectively after Confederation. Compare this to Kenyan women’s right to vote in 1963 when Kenya became independent, Kenya’s women have made huge strides in a short period of time. When I look at Canada, ten years ago ‘stay at home dad’ was not that accepted, and I question how accepted it really is today. Kenya’s challenges with a male-dominated workforce, male-dominated politics, women having a difficult time being granted a loan, does any of this sound familiar? So, as a person who celebrates the fact that all cultures are different, is our evolution all that different?
My hope for Kenyan women is that they can marry their drive with their calm energy while gaining respect and having an opportunity to celebrate their success. With the number of women entrepreneurial and business associations available, they will at least be able to celebrate with other women. Unfortunately, success for a woman can often mean lack of success in a romantic partnership. I fear Kenyan women are discovering that fate.
To understand the circumstances of women of Kenya, I think my conversation with Joanne Mwangi sums it up best: they need to have access to finances, become confident and have the burning desire impact others. Without those three criteria, women’s evolutionary role will be slow, and so will the transformation of leadership in Africa.
Visit our other Ignite Excellence Group of initiatives’ websites with corresponding blogs.
Suzanne F Stevens – Profiling women leaders who have pushed their edge to personal or professional potential from backpack to briefcase to boardroom
Ignite Excellence Foundation – Leadership, Advocacy, Education – following donations to scholarships for women in developing countries
Wisdom Exchange TV – A forum where women will be inspired from the achievements of African women in business, education, philanthropy and politics.
You Me & We – a husbands and wife’s journey through Africa in 2011/12
Ignite Excellence Inc. – Influence, Differentiate, Engage more people and more business – a training & development company