Editor’s Note: The making of the Sisterhood Project

Friday August 26 2011

The cardinal rule against the use of the first person is a well-respected tradition in mainstream journalism around the world.

But in this instance, when I look at the effort, challenge, and excitement it has taken to put this project together over nearly six months, I believe this rule should be broken in this instance.

It all began sometime in February when Charles Onyango-Obbo and I sat one evening in his office at the Nation Centre brainstorming story ideas as we watched the hellish traffic on Kimathi Street ease into the night. Over the past one year, Obbo had written three blockbuster profiles for The EastAfrican Magazine on Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. But the most controversial and beguiling piece that made political tongues wag was that on First Lady Janet Museveni of Uganda.

She was making waves earlier this year as she established her own political base in Uganda, one that is independent of her husband’s, ahead of the February elections. Our questions revolved around whether we should we do another profile on Janet detailing how her fortunes had risen since she entered parliament.

However, one big question that we could not answer was whether there was one woman who could measure up to her in raw political power in all of East Africa. When we looked at all the First Ladies, none of their powers extended beyond whispering into their husband’s ear into the political and social sphere. None is a colossus as Janet is. This is where the idea was born of redefining our concept of power and casting the net into the wider East African society. When our team looked across greater East Africa and the Horn, it came up with interesting surprises.

The surprises include a group of 43 women ranging from Eleni Gebre-Madhin who founded a commodity exchange that is transforming Ethiopia’s economy, to Tsega Gebreyes, a venture capitalist who is driving major capital investments across Africa, Alek Wek, a supermodel who transcended the Sudanese conflict and almost single-handedly managed to change the way the world viewed the beauty of the black African woman, and Farhiyo Farah Ibrahim, who advocates condom use amid intense hostility in the Somali community.


Then there is Tegla Loroupe, a Olympic medalist, who is trying to reconcile warring communities in northern Kenya. In the fast changing information technology industry, Jessica Colaco a mobile applications software developer and manager of Nairobi’s innovation hub, the iHub, is trying to establish Africa’s own Silicon Valley. What is clear is that all these women are pushing the boundaries whether at home or abroad. This list comes with a big word of caution. The list is not a scientific ranking and it does not pretend to be so. This list is simply anecdotal evidence of some of the interesting things some successful women have been doing.


Perhaps no one does this story more justice than Obbo, the editor and a lead writer of the essay that accompanies the profiles.

A veteran journalist, he draws from his experience on the frontlines of the conflicts in Uganda and Rwanda to paint a picture of how women have played a pivotal role in rebuilding societies that have been broken by war. It is a rich context of destructive and constructive forces have shaped the lives and careers of these women.

Of course, this project was made possible by the creativity, intelligence and youthful energy of a band of reporters from, NMG’s Africa project and The EastAfrican. Most of them would rank among Kenya’s top 30 under-30 media professionals today.

They are: Samantha Spooner, Christine Mungai, Lee Mwiti, Janet Otieno, Mwenda Micheni, Njeri Kihang’ah, Virginia Borura and Joseph Barasa.

Samantha Spooner, 26, as the research editor, served as the anchor of the reporting team. “It required us to avoid the trap of selecting someone simply because of their gender, but to look for individuals in the region who had seized opportunities and made something from them. Each of these women deserve recognition for what they have done and are role models for the many of us who seek to make a difference professionally or personally,” said Samantha.

“As a researcher with a background in African affairs it is encouraging to see so many women on the continent now setting trends and becoming leaders in their own right,” she said.

According to Lee Mwiti, working on the project was a welcome challenge, “mainly because I am a feminist at heart. For too long our women have been given the short end of the stick.”

The more difficult part, he says, was whittling the list down as much as we could due to constraints of space — we could not carry everybody we started out with, despite their richly deserving the recognition.

“At 27, I am going into my fourth year in journalism. The urge to be at the forefront of key moments in Africa’s history remains my driving force now, as then,” says Mwiti, “As the Ewe-mina of West Africa say, until the lions get their own storyteller, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. The African story has to be told. By Africans.”

According to Christine Mungai, a 24 year-old reporter on The EastAfrican, “Working on this project took many hours of research! Apart from giving me sore eyes, it made me stretch outside my comfort zone and look for unforgettable women in some fairly unlikely places.” She adds, “More than anything, what stands out in lives of these women is that following your passion is most important. This has a particular resonance in my own life — I’ve been working in media for just over two years now, and though I didn’t start developing my writing until fairly recently, journalism is something that I’ve grown into, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything different.”

Njeri Kihang’ah, a 25-year old reporter on the Daily Nation say it was interesting to talk to women who are actually more concerned about the people in their community than they are about the person they see in the mirror.

“I’ve been in mainstream print media for the past three years,” says Kihang’ah, “Before that, I toyed with documentary and film making simply because I’ve always wanted to tell stories.”

An important part of this project is visual journalism. Joseph Barasa, the illustrator and Virginia Borura, the designer, brought the pages alive. Barasa has over the past four years made a name as the creator of the daily editorial line cartoon at the Business Daily and is part of the creative team that produces Shujaaz, a popular comic book that runs in the Saturday Nation.

At 29, he describes himself as a self-taught illustrator and comic book artist.

“I enjoyed working on the portraits,” says Barasa, “It was a big challenge though, because it was the largest number of illustrations I’ve ever had to do at a go.”

According to Janet Akinyi, who is 27 and an editor, she has been “fascinated by African stories, from a tender age and the continent itself is a story that has never been told. Once we write these stories they acquire lives of their own thus correcting that image of ‘doom and gloom’ which had been constructed by the Western media.”

Over to you!