Guns, germs and ministering angels: The irresistible rise of East African women

Friday August 26 2011

THE SISTERHOOD PROJECT: How war, disease, sexual violence and economic collapse empowered East Africa’s women

[The Sisterhood Project, a collaboration between The EastAfrican and Africa, explores the surprising combination of historical factors that have transformed the role of women in the region over the past two decades See: Editors Note: The making of the Sisterhood Project ]

One day in London, a talent scout for a modelling agency spotted a striking 18-year-old young African woman at a street fair.

He signed her up to join Models One. The year was 1995, and African woman was South Sudan supermodel Alek Wek. That year, she appeared in a famous Tina Turner music video that promoted her theme song for the James Bond movie Golden Eye.

In 1997, she was signed on by Ford, a modelling agency, and appeared on the cover of Elle magazine, a first for an African woman.

Wek never went to the UK as a foreign student. She arrived there together with her family in 1991 as a refugee from the long war in South Sudan. Wek thus found fame at the end of a journey that started as a tragic event. She turned adversity on its head.

To appreciate her fortune, it is worthwhile considering what might have happened to her if her family hadn’t fled the war. In the South Sudan she left, children were more likely to die before the age of five than complete basic education.


But the picture is more complex. Being married off early closed out opportunities for girls and doomed them to a life of exploitation.
Wek’s story though is not unique. It is a tale common among refugees. But, more importantly, it is the experience of many African women who couldn’t escape or chose not to, stayed, and fought back.

To find the unconventional sources of the forces that have changed the place of women in African societies, Nation Media Group’s Africa project,, and its sister regional newspaper The EastAfrican, went beyond affirmative action and for three months looked deeper into the surprising ways women in Africa, particularly the wider East African region – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan (North and South Sudan), Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo – “did an Alek Wek.”

In this commentary, we explore the currents that have shaped the fortunes of the East African Sisterhood. There are thousands of women we would have listed, which would have taken us forever. The ones we mention here mostly illustrate a trend, or represent a type, but they are by no means the only ones doing wonderful things out there.

At the end of 2010, Kenyan publisher Susan Wakhungu-Githuku produced a tour de force of a book.

Titled Life Journeys, Seeking Destiny: Conversations With High-Achieving Kenya Women, it was the most glossy and ambitious project to tell the story of a group of women anywhere in Africa. And it succeeded.

For sometime, Wakhungu-Githuku, who was a star tennis player who won a gold medal in doubles at the All African Games in Algeria in 1978, had been dreaming of leaving her job as a high ranking executive at Coca Cola Africa to go into self-publishing.

Her attempt with Life Journeys was a very different book on women in several respects. First, in putting it together, Wakhungu-Githuku reached out to all corners of the world, and pulled together 15 energetic young Kenyan women for the project.

It was a confident and unashamed, feel-good celebration of womanhood that read like it was too proud to waste time fighting political battles against men. This gives it a very fresh feel.

Reading Life Journeys, at first glance it would seem the story of HIV/Aids activist Asunta Wangura, radio presenter Caroline Mutoko, entrepreneurs Jyoti Mukherjee and Jennifer Nafula Barasa, human-rights activist L. Muthoni Wanyeki, conservationist Paula Kahumbu, professional athlete Lorna Kiplagat, and educationist Mary Okello, to name a few, is that they either bucked a trend, achieved something way beyond what other women had achieved in their areas of endeavour, or overcame great odds in a near-superhuman effort.

But there is more. If you look at the wider East Africa – indeed Africa as a whole – their life stories are a product of something bigger. In most cases, as in that of supermodel Wek, the start of their public lives can be traced to state failure, corruption, dictatorship and social crises brought on by Aids or war.

In addition, they can also be traced to policies that were never made with the intention of benefiting women; like the wave of free market reforms in Africa that started in the late 1980s and intensified into the 1990s and early 2000s, or the liberalisation of the airwaves that gave us independent radio and television stations.

While affirmative action, “modernisation,” and the rise of enlightened parenting have played a role in helping open up opportunities for women in East Africa, to give credit to only these forces actually diminishes the scale of what East African women have achieved over the past 20 years. In addition, it would be overestimating the extent to which our societies are meritocracies.

For example, Rwanda has 45 women in its parliament — a cool 56.25 per cent of the House. And, yes, it is the highest percentage of women in any parliament in the world.

However, is that explained by the fact that Rwanda has a gender-friendly government or that President Paul Kagame is a closet feminist? Only marginally.

War, art and crafts

If you look at the countries with the highest representation of women in parliament in Africa — Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa and Mozambique — they have one thing in common: The governments under which women’s representation in politics increased came to power through an armed struggle.

Just as World War II did in Europe and North America, rebel groups found that they needed women as much out of necessity as out of ideological belief. It would seem that the role of women in combat or support positions in the armed struggle, and in the refugee camps created by conflicts, forced men to acknowledge that women were strong.

This gave women the right and confidence to claim a fair share of public space and power because of their direct role in creating it.

But the horrific experience of Rwanda’s women in the 1994 genocide, in which one million people were killed, also meant that they were direct witnesses to a story that they would now tell in their own voice — and to take a craft they practised in the past as bored housewives to the market. The stories of these women, perhaps best typified by author, motivational speaker and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza and handicraft entrepreneur Janet Nkubana of Gahaya Links, suggest that their participation in parliament and politics was earned with their blood too, not just through affirmative action. Equally, it enabled them to begin redefining what “women’s work” meant.

In a general sense, we could argue that the anti-colonial story was mostly a male experience, and so it produced a lot of literature by men like Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek, and Kenya’s Ngungi wa Thiong’o. The past 25 or so years enjoined women, and caused a change in our cultural, social, economic, and political public space.

Disease, economic reform and schools

Likewise, in from the early 1980s until a year or so go, HIV/Aids threatened to wipe out complete societies in Africa. The first vicious “wave” of the disease caught Africa unprepared, wiped out the adults, and in countries like Uganda, for the first time we had children-led families as a result.

There was little that traditional male-dominated societies, where all organising power was dominated by “elders,” could do alone to support Aids patients. Men proved totally unequal to the care and compassion at the micro level that was needed to look after the millions of people who were struck down by the disease.

Most of our societies were in crisis, and then they did something in surrender — they gave up quite a bit of power to women, who had little sanctioned authority to do so in the past, to keep our societies together.

People like writer and HIV/Aids activist Asunta Wagura, and HIV researcher Dr Agot Kawango have to be credited for picking up the baton to fight this dreadful disease, when the traditional power structures dropped it because they could not cope.

Over the same period, state controlled and cash crop-dependent economies all over an Africa that was mostly being ruled by one-party or military tyrannies collapsed. In a last desperate attempt to save their power and themselves, African governments embraced free market reforms.

With liberalised economies, more Africans could also be successful businesspeople because they had the smarts and provided a service that others needed, even if they were not friends of the president, the minister of finance, trade minister, or the town clerk.

The economic liberalisation, which the political elite opted for to save their necks, removed the old-boy barrier that kept very many women out of the market. Now the women could fight on a slightly more even playing field with the men.

The results are everywhere to see. Women entrepreneurs like Tabitha Karanja of Naivasha-based Keroche Industries, fearlessly took on the big boys in the brewing sector; aviation guru Susan Mashibe, founder and director of Tanjet (the first company of its kind in Tanzania, it provides logistical support for corporate, diplomatic, and private jets) went into a line of business when there was still no women pilots; and Ethiopia’s Tsega Gebreyes, CEO of Satya Capital Ltd, started a private investment firm that invests in Africa’s financial services, energy and natural resources. Barely a few years, the most that would have been possible for her was to be a secretary at an Addis Ababa investment firm.

Indeed, the same shifts happened in development banking, one of the most clubbish areas. Vivienne Yeda Apopo was appointed director general of the East African Development Bank in 2009, becoming the first female chief of the bank in 42 years.

Elsewhere, the near-collapse of economies was felt hardest in the education system. The rickety state schools and their poorly paid teachers could no longer give the elite’s children the education their parents felt they needed to be competitive in the modern world. And so we had the licensing of private schools, which opened doors for people like Mary Okello to start the Makini Schools and educational entrepreneur Dr Eddah Gachukia, founder of Riara Schools in Kenya, to enter into a business once preserved for the church and state. The power elite, it should not be forgotten, opened up education for quite selfish reasons — for their children, not for Ms Okello or Ms Gachukia to prosper as private school operators. They had to fight their way to the table.

Green is the new sexy

When a country is in the grip of “bad” politics, corruption, lousy economic management, neglected schools, etc, you can be sure that it is also abusing its environment.

The past 30 years in Africa have thus been a nightmare for the environment. Perhaps nothing else has hit women more than the environmental mess in East Africa. It is they who had to walk 10 kilometres, instead of 100 metres, to collect firewood and water.

Men mostly knew how to cut down the forest for timber, not how to plant trees. Because the environmental crisis became a women’s crisis, it’s little surprise that a Kenyan woman and environmentalist, the renowned Dr Wangari Mathaai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Or indeed that some of the most influential and innovative thinking on conversation in the region is from Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, a site that blended social media and conservation, and pioneered the model of fundraising for wildlife through blogs. Said one observer: “African women come to the environment with their hearts and heads. African men come to it mostly with their heads only.” That makes a difference.

Refugees, exiles and angels of mercy

When the politics failed, men took up arms to do what boys do best — fight.

Insurgencies erupted around the continent, with even little boys being conscripted to fight, hence the “child soldiers” phenomenon. Large populations of women, children and the elderly ended up in refugee or internally displaced people’s camp — where they became targets of rebel armies and government troops rampaging in counterinsurgency campaigns. The women had to provide as best as they could — which meant venturing out of they camps in search of fuel and water. Which meant rape.

Apart from the humanitarian agencies, it seemed there was going to be a community vacuum when caring for the vulnerable, supporting the women and girls who had been raped.

The women themselves stepped up to fill the vacuum. But that is not the most interesting detail of this story. What changed was the new arsenal they brought to wars: They faced down the armed men with things like stubborn resolve, a demand for common decency, and a mother’s love — things that many soldiers and rebels had not been trained to confront.

As a result, women brought a new nuance to the discourse about war and the strategies for surviving it. They made the point that killing someone was not the only immoral thing about war. Other atrocities like rape were equally abhorrent. This tradition is now represented at it best by, among others, women like Dr Halima Bashir, co-writer of Tears of the Desert, who speaks out against rape as a weapon in Darfur, and anti-FGM campaigner Farhiyo Farah Ibrahim, who also advocates condom use amid intense hostility from her Somali community.

Another example where the “compassion void” threw up an inspirational female leader is in Burundi. In that long-suffering country, which is only just beginning to heal from war, Marguerite Barankitse, known as “the Angel of Burundi” for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease, started with a modest effort providing food and shelter to 25 children on October 25, 1993, one of the worst days of the Burundi Civil War.

According to Barankitse’s account of her experience in a Unicef report, she says her mission in Burundi began the day a Tutsi mob tied her up and made her watch the slaughter of 72 Hutus, many of them children.
She was then working as a secretary at the bishop’s house in Ruyigi and had already adopted seven children — four Hutus and three Tutsis. Although the situation was dangerous, she refused to separate them.

When the killing began, she managed to ransom 25 children whose parents had been murdered. She also saved her own seven adopted orphans and hid them all on the grounds of the bishop’s house. It was the beginning of her work caring for the children who had been orphaned by the genocide. Barankitse has since opened three centres for children traumatised or mutilated during the fighting.

Burundi has a tragic history of ethnic Hutu-Tutsi orgies of murder and revenge, so from this account you would think Barankitse is Hutu. No, she is Tutsi.

In peacetime, as the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Liberia’s and Africa’s first female president teaches us, these women transfer the authority they gain during crisis to “normal” society, preserving the gains they won the hard way in bleak times.

Voice, music and radio stars

And then, after 50 years, the issue of “voice” became contested. For nearly 50 years Africa had heard the anti-colonial voices of male poets and writers; it was fed on visions of our societies created by male filmmakers; and interpretations of its soul by male artists.

To them, colonialism was the main enemy — and finding fault elsewhere was a distraction. To them, the future was either democracy, prosperity, or the unity of Africa (pan-Africanism). That was all well and good, but it meant that post-Independence governments had not been made to account for their failures.

However, it had been over 30 years of Independence for some of the African countries like Ghana, and it became difficult to explain that people were going hungry because of colonialism.
The brutalities perpetrated by men in African homes and societies could no longer be dismissed as unimportant or explained away by the dehumanising effects that colonial subjugation had on African men.

African societies wanted to hear a new voice; a different explanation. Besides, there were many things that now mattered to societies that men had not witnessed — like what happened in the refugee camps when the men were not there, like the pain and trauma that came with forced female circumcision.

And then there were all the songs that our mothers, not our fathers, sang to us as children and we wanted them to become part of our present.

More than the men, it was the women who could provide these goods; and so we witnessed the phenomenal rise of female writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author and activist for rights of women in Islamic society; and artists like Joy Mboya, director of the GoDown Arts Centre, a non-profit facility providing subsidised space and residency opportunities for Kenyan artists.

And when we arrived into the 1990s, even things like state radio could no longer work. We had heard in them the declarations of coup makers announcing the overthrow of governments; the chilling stories of firing squads; and we could no longer tune into the state TV news because we could no longer bear one hour filled with dreadful stories about the president and his ministers.

The wave of “new breed” leaders like Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni needed a medium that was also “new” to signal that theirs was a new era, a break with the terrible past. They also realised that if the ears of their citizens were to be plucked away from the BBC news and for their own to be heard, they needed to speak on something other than state TV and radio.

So they gave themselves a huge wave of legitimacy by liberalising the airwaves. For the first time in virtually all African countries, there were independent TV and radio stations that said things that were not decreed by the government, or that didn’t only play music that was deemed acceptable by the government because it “enhanced national unity.” Many East Africans had grown up in homes where, in fact, our fathers spoke least — a serious father terrified his children, he didn’t play with them.

The fables that we were told, the call to dinner, the hand that nursed us when we were sick — the sources were nearly all female. And we looked for that in the free FM stations. And so rose people like Caroline Mutoko of Kiss FM in Kenya. Many women like her in other parts of Africa, have also used the radio to demand better governance and more accountability in the country’s leadership.

And independent radio and TV in turn opened the doors to a phenomenon that had been rare before — the solo East African female musician.

One acre of land and a wife

Greater changes were to follow. As East African populations grew, and we parcelled out the land we inherited from our fathers (who in turn had inherited some of it from our grandfathers), our challenges multiplied.

The land could no longer support expanding families. Even when we worked it very hard, it was exhausted and couldn’t produce much.

This resulted in a new problem — restless sons. The economy had been built to support a patriarchal social system that no longer worked for the boys.

The fight over fragments of land strained valuable family ties. Even in the villages, attitudes towards daughters changed further. At least, many hoped, the daughters would get married, go away and not fight for land. And if they were lucky, they would marry a rich lad who would send an occasional cheque. But to get a “valuable” husband, they had to speak English and do some maths; the courtship market had become competitive.

Slowly, our societies dropped their traditional bias toward giving girls opportunity. They now took them to school, not because everyone had become feminists overnight, but because an education improved the value of the bride price young women would bring.

And so the seeds for the education of girls were sowed. The daughters, of course, had greater ambitions than their parents had for them. They wanted more than marriage. They wanted independence and a life of their own. The result is that they have shaped the workplace in ways that we are yet to fully appreciate.

One offshoot of this was a “new feminism.” There was a very stereotypical view of what a feminist was in Africa. She was seen as likely to be a bitter ex-wife or to have been abandoned at the altar in her youth, who had now turned into a middle-aged, withered man-hating spinster.

But the changes we have described and the budding of the African middle class had produced the first generation of women who had been born into and grown into egalitarian households, and single-parent families, and had a different view of the relationship between the sexes.

The women from this generation provided us a very different type of feminist and women’s rights activist. They were highly intellectual, pretty, were in successful relationships and careers, supported gay rights, and were also regular mothers. One of the poster women for this new feminist is Dr Sylvia Tamale, a lecturer at the Makerere University Faculty of Law in Uganda, and author of When Hens Begin to Crow.

Digital girls and athletic queens

When the new information and communications technology revolution broke, it served this new crop of young East African women well.

They saw quickly that cyberspace had removed the traditional vetting process to storytelling, and also that it opened up different ways for marginalised voices to have a say in the running of their countries’ affairs.

In East Africa, people like activist and blogger Ory Okolloh and Juliana Rotich, were among those who came together to build the crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi is a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software for information collection and visualisation, initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008.

But in terms of putting serious money in women’s wallets, nothing did it like globalisation. Specifically, the globalisation of sport.

Women’s sports were always a sideshow. But when globalisation marched up the mountain, all of a sudden there was a global television audience — made of very many women in the industrialised part of the world where early feminism and economic transformation had given them greater opportunities than their sisters in Africa. They were vocal taxpayers, and reporters on TV who demanded women be treated as equals. With an eye to appeasing the millions of global female TV viewers, advertisers demanded even-handedness.

And so the doors opened for female Ethiopian and Kenyan long and middle distance runners who, like their male counterparts, could exploit the high altitudes in their countries to train for devastating pace at lower altitudes.

The statistics are stunning. Between 2005 and 2010, all the leading marathons in the world — Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London and New York — were won by either an Ethiopian or a Kenyan woman.

Even if their societies were the most enlightened, these women would not have won the purse they did in these races at home.

It has given them the means to be among the most influential philanthropists and social leaders in their countries. Rich African athletes and footballers had always been there. The new international female athletic stars, however, shared their wealth more and touched a larger number of hearts.

Take world marathon champion Tegla Loroupe and her Peace Foundation, which uses sport to bring conflict-ridden communities together. Her work in Kenya has placed her high in the country’s rank of angels of mercy. Loroupe was named a UN Ambassador of Sport in 2006.

Equally inspiring is the case of Ethiopia’s formidable Tirunesh Dibaba, a.k.a. the “Baby-faced Destroyer.” She donated her world record bonus of some $6,000 to an organisation working with children suffering from HIV. She is also involved with charity runs in support of the millions of people in the country who need food aid. If the world had been closed, and if she didn’t put her running talent to good use, Dibaba might have been condemned to herding goats in the village.

The effects of these historical and global forces did not impact East Africa only. They happened in other parts of Africa too. However, their outcomes have been slightly different because the wider East African region is like no other on the continent because it has an unusually high number of “African firsts.”

There were several white settler dominated nations in Africa — South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia. Yet, of all these, only Kenya managed a significant redistribution of land through market mechanisms in its first 10 years of Independence. Yes, some of the distribution was corrupt, and yes, a few people might have got too much land; however, the land was transferred.

Nearly 20 years after Independence, President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe nearly had to wreck his country’s economy to achieve part of what post-Mau Mau and independent Kenya did without a gunshot in 10 years.

Twenty years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, it has not managed even one-quarter of what Kenya did. Namibia has been at it even longer, nearly 30 years, and it too has achieved only marginally more than South Africa.

Ethiopia in East Africa also happens to be the only country that was never colonised.

Uganda in 1986 saw Africa’s first successful homegrown rebel war to oust a post-Independence African government — and had Africa’s first successful case of post-war reconstruction.

Rwanda became the first country in Africa where refugees were declared stateless, fought their way back home, endured the 20th century’s second genocide post-World War II, recaptured power, and re-imagined a new nation from the wreckage.

South Sudan was the first African country born out of a referendum vote.

Somalia is the most homogenous nation to have failed as a result of clan divisions in Africa, but also the most innovative failed state — as it showed with the mobile phone revolution. It has the most loyal diaspora, and also it has reinvented piracy.

Tanzania offered Africa the first leader who shattered stereotypes about a continent that could only produce venal, brutal, demented leaders, by producing the much-admired Julius Nyerere.

East African women fought their way in a region that is heavily patriarchal and nasty, but which co-exists with the a strong tradition of possibilities, trail blazing, and individuality.

You cannot understand the lives, trials and triumphs of East Africa women, without knowing your East Africa. They just took the best of it and ran away with it.

The women: