International Women's Day: Celebrating region's bold achievers

Tuesday March 28 2017

East Africa’s bold achievers. ILLUSTRATION|JOE NGARI.

The United Nations’ International Women’s Day celebrated on March 8 has over the years evolved into the Women’s History Month, and used to highlight the contributions of women to society. Under this year’s theme of #BeBoldForChange, we bring you profiles of women in East Africa whose initiatives and creations have changed their communities.

#BeBoldForChange is more than just a slogan for this year’s Women’s International Day. Most women in East Africa have lived this slogan all their lives, their ages and chosen life paths notwithstanding. Their profiles tell it all.

The women’s warrior

Jennifer Shigoli, 29, lawyer/change agent



Jennifer Shigoli recalls her first day of work at a leading law firm as unexciting, and it prompted her to quit a promising career in Law within days to sell home-made liquid soap.


Her parents frowned on the idea. To show their displeasure at her decision, they withdrew their financial support. Desperate, she used her meagre savings to register Malkia Investment Company and started making and packing liquid soap for sale to public schools that could not afford to buy from established manufacturers. She even offered toilet cleaning lessons to sustain sales.

Her client base eventually grew to 200 schools in two years, but she stumbled on a more serious problem. Girls were missing school and the teachers had no explanation for it.

After talking with the girls directly, she says; “They told me that whenever they had their menses and with no proper sanitary towels, they were scared to come to school because boys teased them when they stained their uniforms.”

With the money she had saved from the soap business, Shigoli commissioned professional researchers to understand the seriousness of the problem.

The survey found that 60 per cent of the girls polled skipped school during their menses and 80 per cent had never used modern sanitary pads.

“I sensed a business opportunity, if I could provide a solution that was cheaper and friendly to the environment,” Shigoli recalls.

After six months of working with local tailors, she developed a prototype of a sanitary pad made of a reusable underwear-like shroud to be used with a soft disposable cloth (pad).

The shroud costs Tsh6,000 ($2) and comes with a pack of pads made of biodegradeable cotton cloth from locally sourced cotton and some imported from Kenya.

Almost a year after the idea was conceived, the sanitary products have become a household name in Tanzania, and got government approval. Shigoli has won the African Entrepreneurship Award and was named one of Africa’s most promising entrepreneurs, winning $150,000 which she pumped back into the business. She has 20 full time employees and hopes to have 200 in two years.

Compassionate Movement

Esther Kalenzi, 30s, a development worker and marketer

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Long before initiatives like GoFund, Ugandan youth had #4040, a social fund raising initiative started by Esther Kalenzi.

What started as a project during Lent — the Catholic season of 40 days of fasting and self- sacrifice leading to Easter — about five years ago, has grown into a community initiative building hostels for vulnerable children, supporting a home for abandoned babies and a children’s cancer ward.

In the Lent of 2012, Kalenzi got together with 30 friends to do 40 good deeds over the forty days, thus the name #4040. They met weekly, started a Facebook page to bring more people on board and raised funds to perform good deeds. When Lent ended, they realised that they didnt have to stop giving, so they bought and distributed food to the needy and paid for healthcare for poor children.

Starting out as a part timer for #4040, Kalenzi gave up her job in 2013, moved to her parent’s house and generally started living a frugal life, working full time for #4040, which by now had been registered as a foundation.

In five years, the foundation has worked with over 2,000 children, raising money through celebrity performances and social media to construct dormitories for orphans, invest in libraries and feed homeless children. The foundation received the 2013 NSSF Award for community work.

With the foundation, Kalenzi wants to ignite a movement, where young people under the age of 35 can help the underprivileged in Uganda. She wants society to be compassionate.

She hopes that in the next three years, #4040 can start selling locally produced children’s books, whose proceeds will be used to reach out to more needy people, and the foundation can hire paid workers. The next fundraising for #4040 Foundation will be an anniversary dinner on May 5.

Kalenzi has a Master of Arts degree in Education, Gender and International Development from the University College London.

The Firebrand Academic

Dr Wandia Njoya, 46, lecturer/change agent



A senior lecturer and the head of department of Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University, in Nairobi, she inherited the torch of Kenya’s fiery political revolutionaries of the 1980s.

She keeps the flame burning through her writing on her blog It, like she, sizzles with intellectual intensity on social, political, economic and cultural commentaries. She is committed and engaged to the soul of society.

Her blog won the 2016 Bloggers Association of Kenya award for best education blog. When not posting full length commentaries on her blog, she microblogs on Twitter. Wandia’s writing constantly prods at the side of society, continually reminding us that even if basic political freedoms were attained, to paraphrase the iconic politician Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, things are “not yet Uhuru.”

She is not just content to teach her students the work of writers and artists, she brings these creators to the classroom to engage with the students. “I do what I do for human dignity.

For Africans. I would like to see my students be proud of being African and treating themselves and others like human beings. Everything I do as a teacher and an administrator revolves around love, dignity and freedom. I’m proud to be African and pan-Africanist, to tell my students about our ancestors and what they left behind for us to learn from. I believe our story is the African story. Of faith, redemption, revolution and most of all, of love.”

With eyes on the prize, nothing is impossible

Sekela Nyange, 30s, jewellery designer



Sekela, owner of the brand KusKus Jewellery stumbled into the world of business.

She quit her corporate job in 2015 and with only Tsh20,000 she decided to venture into making beads accessories.

In Tanzania, just as in Kenya, the Maasai people are renowned for their excellent bead work, but all those she approached in Dar es Salaam’s craft market were reluctant to teach her.

She began by making simple beaded bracelets and earrings.

“I got the hang of it and started posting the products on Instagram," she said.

A few people started making inquiries and she then decided to learn the intricate skills to make even better pieces.

In April of 2016, through Instagram, she found Linda Kitete, a jewellery designer and teacher who ran classes every Saturday.

She improved her skills and her designs became popular and soon orders were coming in. KusKus has grown entirely from social media marketing and word of mouth. She has sold over 700 pieces to date, ranging from Tsh5,000 to Tsh80,000, and is training one female staff to assist her in production.

Sekela urges young women entrepreneurs not to be discouraged by the rat race, but to trusting their creativity and drive to succeed and improve their skills everyday.

Empress of the Webisphere

Nanjira Sambuli, 29, manager, The World Wide Web Foundation



With the term “millennial” used disparagely, whip-smart sharp Nanjira Sambuli explodes all the millennial stereotypes of being lazy, insolent and entitled.

Brimming with ideas, socially engaged and with an undeniable zest to contribute to the world around her, Nanjira’s advocacy on the Internet of things attests to the fact that the future is safe.

This Actuarial Science graduate from the University of Nairobi recently turned 29 years old.

“I was drawn to the world of ICT policy because it was an unfolding space and no one could claim they had answers. We all learn and formulate paths to digital inclusion and equality as we forge along. I do what I do because, despite all the gains amassed and the potential of ICTs, especially for the ‘global South’, the unfortunate reality is that ICT advancements are replicating the traditional patterns of inequality and exclusion: Women, marginalised communities and persons with disabilities are still left behind, and in large part because of policy failure. We cannot afford to have a world in which ICTs benefits only accrue to the elite, and that’s why I work on advocating for the rights of women, especially, on the web,” she said.

She writes incisive and thought-provoking articles on social, political and economic affairs. She was named among the 100 most influential Africans in 2016, by the New African Magazine.

Her favourite quote is from Audre Lorde: “And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid, so it is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.”

Documenting stories that others forgot

Jackie Lebo, media creator and archivist



Jackie Lebo came onto the national scene as part of the Kwani? collective of writers in the early part of the past decade.

She is passionate about documenting the story of Kenyan runners, especially the stories of Kenya’s Olympians.

Content House, the media organisation she co-founded, has been an inspiration to many in the media world for the possibilities inherent in media. Set up to provide sports content to media outlets, Content House has been the go-to place for sports news in the country and continent. The company has since waded into film and documentary production, exploring deeper the sports world.

To date, Content House has produced two full length films, Gun to Tape and The Last Fight. Gun to Tape documents the journey of Kenyan athletes to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Departing from the norm of sports news, it not only focuses on the grueling training they have to endure but also the difficult personal battles they go through. It was nominated for Best Documentary at the Africa Movie Viewer’s Choice Awards in 2013. It was also an official selection at the Zanzibar International Festival and Scotland African Film Festival.

The Last Fight tells of the tribulations that Kenyan boxers face, having been neglected by the government and their communities. It premiered to rave reviews and was received enthusiastically by sports critics and fans on its release in 2015. It won the Best Documentary at Kenya’s Kalasha Awards and was an official selection for Luxor film festival in Egypt, and film festivals in Nigeria, and Zanzibar. With a background in art history and archaeology from the University of Maryland, US, Jackie has been inspired by a variety of people starting with her mother.

Advocating for child education

Nancy Sumari, 31, social entrepreneur/philanthropist and mentor



Sumari is no stranger to the region. She came into the public limelight in 2005 when she won the Miss Tanzania title and later Miss World Africa.

She is a social entrepreneur, philanthropist, author and model all wrapped up in one.

This year, on March 9, she won the Tigo Digital Change Makers competition. She received a $20,000 prize money for the best social entrepreneurship proposal in a mentorship programme.

The annual Tigo award focuses on mentorship for projects that target children’s education using digital lifestyles and financial inclusion for women.

She is a founder and executive director of The Jenga Hub, through which she promotes digital learning for children.

Through her Neghesti Sumari Foundation she transforms learning outcomes among youth and children through the use of technology and literature to create value in their lives.

“We run learning sessions twice a week, teaching an average of 25 students at a time, reaching 200 students per week from two public schools, with 60 per cent of learners being girls,” she said.

Sumari is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community. She holds a business degree from the University of Dar es Salaam.

Keeping history for future generations

Assumpta Mugiraneza, 40s, curator

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Assumpta Mugiraneza. ILLUSTRATION|JOE NGARI.

She is the director of Iriba Centre for Multimedia Heritage, a Kigali-based archive for Rwanda’s history, serving both local and international scholars.

She was behind the developing and founding of the centre in 2011 after returning to Rwanda from France where she studied Political Science and Psychology at Université de Paris 8.

Living in France exposed her to how much the Western world treasured its history and ancestry compared with African societies, and she wanted to do the same for her country.

The centre also conducts trainings on culture and historical activities, partners with education institutions, Ministry of Sports and Culture, Ministry of Youth and ICT, embassies, museums and other interested institutions.

“These services are offered free to scholars, researchers and ordinary people,” she explains.

Since 2012, in collaboration with organisations such as Goethe Institut, French Institute, Institute for Research and Dialogue for Peace, the centre has organised the World Day of the Audio-Visual Archives.

Mugiraneza was pained by the fact that Rwanda, just like any African society, archived its history through the word of mouth in stories and songs, but this was risky since a lot of information was lost as generations died out. For Rwanda, it was even worse during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. One of the successful projects is titled My Neighbour, My Killer, a film on the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, and was screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It is still being shown around the world.

Fighting for women’s dignity

Sicily Kariuki, 50s, Cabinet Secretary



As the minister for Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs in Kenya, Sicily is, so to speak, right in the middle of the women agenda. She comes across as amiable, soft spoken and good natured but brooks no nonsense when it comes to dealing with misogyny.

She earned the region’s respect when she had Congolese musician Koffi Olomide thrown out of Kenya, after a video clip went viral showing the musician kicking one of his female dancers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi last year. Later in the year she also made sure that a TV programme on a national station that showed a female politician being generally demeaned by a fellow guest during a live show was cancelled.

Kariuki has been a public servant for almost two decades having served as managing director/chief executive officer of the Tea Board of Kenya for eight years. One of her achievements was leading the tea industry to being the country’s top foreign exchange earner, bringing in Ksh130 billion ($1.5 billion) in 2012.

She is also well remembered as “Madam Green Fingers” for her illustrious stint in the world of agriculture which she served as chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. Her previous engagements also saw her at the Kenya Investment Authority.

She holds a Masters degree in Business Administration with specialisation in strategic management from ESAMI/Maastricht School of Management and Post Graduate qualifications in Food Laws and Regulations from the Michigan State University. When it comes to women matters, she is a natural. She has served on several international boards.

Looking out for the rights of minorities

Dr Wardah Rajab-Gyagenda, change agent


Dr Wardah Rajab-Gyagenda. ILLUSTRATION|JOE NGARI.

Having been born into a community where educating girls was not a priority, Dr Wardah Rajab-Gyagenda is an outlier.

She beat all odds to proceed past primary school and got admitted to a boarding secondary school, odd for Muslim girls back then, and even more, it infuriated her family that it was a Catholic school.

She was she was also the first female student to excel in A level exams at Bilal Islamic Secondary School in Arua, and she secured a government sponsorship at Makerere University where she studied Social Administration and French. She proceeded to the US for a masters degree in applied economics where she also worked as an intern at the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). CDC made her a job offer after graduation but she turned it down because she wanted to pursue a full time doctorate programme.

Her PhD research was on International Relations and Development, majoring in economic development, focusing on HIV among African immigrants and refugees and access to appropriate health care in the US.

African immigrants, refugees and African Americans were back then lumped in one group by healthcare services despite cultural and religious differences. “I was able to disaggregate the three groups during my research and this was later adopted by the county health boards and a policy was formulated from my research,” she said.

An organisation she co-founded, Alliance for Health in African Diaspora to work with minority Africans, organised the first United State conference on African Immigrants health. The university took it over and has since organised four other conferences. Currently, she heads the department for research, publication and innovation at the Islamic University in Uganda.

The mentorship champion

Caren Wakoli, 36, mentor and educator

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When Caren Wakoli was setting up the Emerging Leaders Foundation six years ago, she had nothing to her name.

The organisation had no funds to run with, no working office, no stationery, not even a website. But with the fire in her soul to mentor a new generation of leaders with integrity, she worked with what she had — two volunteers and a desk at the corner of her house, to birth the organisation.

It is now a fully fledged non-profit organisation, with key figures on its board including senior judges, high profile academics and bigwig influencers from the private sector. The Emerging Leaders Foundation carries out six month mentorship programmes and has to date reached more than 3,500 students and student leaders.

Caren has had a history of firsts. She got into student leadership as a first year student at the University of Nairobi. She never lost a student leader election in her four year stint in college, and made history by becoming the first female vice-chair in charge of Academic Affairs.

A holder of a Masters degree in International Studies from the University of Nairobi, she has sat on numerous boards over the years and is currently a director of the national Uwezo Fund. She is a member of the East Africa Women’s Mentoring Network.

Leading by example

Liz Kilili, 33, mechanic and mentor



Bubbly and good natured, Liz Kilili is a woman on a mission. Passionate about the arts and innovation, she set up Creatives Garage, a hub for amateurs and expert creatives in robotics, mechanics and technology.

“When I was trying to penetrate the creative industry I realised that we did not have networking opportunities and we worked in silos. Our biggest downfall was the fact that we didn’t just not have distribution channels, but also lacked value chains. So I decided to do something about it to help the generation after me.”

Creatives Garage has hosted and been part of major events on the innovation scene, including Disruption by Design (DXD) and the Sondeka Festival, a forum for showcasing creative and innovative works. The festival brings celebrates “village inventors.” Over the years, seven African countries have showcased their work at the Sondeka Festival.

Most recently, this power-woman launched “Femmolution,” an anthology of women’s writing. Featuring the contributions of 28 writers, 12 musicians and 34 visual artists, the book is divided into 5 sections covering varied themes: anxiety, violence, resilience, self-love and life choices.

The title was coined from a combination of the French word for woman ‘femme’ and evolution, the book is a call for women to evolve to their greatest selves.
She believes there is still a lot for her to do. “I have books to write, shoes to make, jewellery to sell, and finally get my meat business up and running.” Her favourite quote? “Just start.”

Building a brand for Africa

Wandia Gichuru, 50, businewoman with the Midas Touch



Everything about Wandia Gichuru puts the cool in school. From her boundless energy, stylish clothes, and not to forget her entrepreneurial smarts.

She founded and currently runs Vivo Activewear, a women’s fashion brand with outlets in eight key malls in the country. Formerly a development specialist, she moved from working at the United Nations and World Bank, and is now one of Kenya’s best known entrepreneurs, raking in millions of shillings in annual sales. Recently she was among few entrepreneurs chosen to feature in the KCB Lion’s Den entrepreneurial TV show.

A graduate of economics, she also holds an an MBA from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, and says; “I’ve always been passionate about helping people reach their highest potential and 'step into their power,' which in the case of Vivo, manifests by helping women look and feel their best. But I also try and bring the same purpose to other interactions including coaching and business mentoring, two other things I love to do.”

For her business acumen and the allure of her designs, Vivo won the Kenyan Fashion Brand of the Year 2016 for consistently pulling off highly successful social media campaigns, roping in celebrities and key influencers in Kenya to publicise her brand.

“On a professional level, I want to take Vivo across Africa and build it into the leading Made-in-Africa ladies fashion brand. I also want to know that I have impacted more broadly and more meaningfully towards the progress of women on our continent. On a personal level, I want to see my daughters grow into mature, independent, kind and compassionate young women. There are so many experiences I am yet to have and skills I want to develop. This year alone I have a list of 50 things I want to do, and I’ve only managed to do six of them so far. So there is a lot to look forward to!,” she says.

Her favourite quote? “We’re all just walking each other home” by Ram Daas.

Multi-tasking champion

Joanita Kawalya, 50, musician, social activist and community mobiliser



She is one of Uganda’s most enduring entertainers. Joanita has blazed the trail for Ugandan female musicians for three decades. But it is her off stage work in charity and academia that makes her a truly special woman.

A founding member of Uganda’s Afrigo Band, her music persona tends to overshadow her other achievements on multiple boards especially for charity and academic research.

She using her music clout and popularity to champion for Uganda’s population control, HIV/Aids prevention and care, palliative care, women emancipation, children’s rights, drug abuse and trafficking and mentorship for young musicians.

As a formidable grass root campaigner Kawalya has served as a community advisory board member with several organisations including: the Makerere University - John Hopkins Research Collaboration; the Makerere University Walter Reed Project; the National Aids Research Committee under the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology; and The Aids Support Organisation.

She is also goodwill ambassador of the Palliative Care Association of Uganda, a national NGO that was formed to support and promote the development of palliative care and palliative care professionals and volunteers in Uganda.

“In Africa your family and people are the social security. Therefore, it is our role to care for our people in need of palliative care as the first security and not run away from them,” she told The EastAfrican.

Kawalya is one of National Population Council Secretariat’s population and development champions where she serves with First Lady Janet Museveni, Buganda Queen Nnabagereka  Sylvia Nagginda, Apostle Dr. Joseph Serwadda, and Sheikh Muhammad Ali Waiswa.

She is also head trainer at the annual Royal Enclosure National Camp, a life skills training and mentoring royal camp for boys and girls aged 6-18. On her social activism and community mobiliser role, Kawalya says: “People listen and respond better to issues through music.”

Grooming future citizens

Agnes Unkundamaliya, 61, publisher/entrepreneur

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Agnes Unkundamaliya. ILLUSTRATION|JOE NGARI.

She is a pillar of Rwanda’s publishing industry, founder and director of Edition Bakame, Rwanda’s first book-publishing house, set up in 1995.

Edition Bakame is a household name, especially for its specialisation in the publication of children’s books. Bakame, is Ikinyarwanda for hare, known in African folklore for its wisdom.

Ukundamaliya lived in Burundi and Switzerland. In the latter country, she learnt the importance of reading to infants to inculcate in them the general culture of reading. When she came back to Rwanda in 1995 after the genocide, almost everyone was involved in re-building the torn nation and she decided a publishing company focusing on children will be her contribution.

With a team of three workers, a computer and fax machine, she went to work setting up the publishing company. The company has since then kept its focus on children’s books.

Through sensitisation programmes in schools and families, the country gradually embraced Edition Bakame’s books. With its main office in Kigali, Edition Bakame’s books prices range from as low as Rfw1,000 at various bookshops across the country.

Publishing in Ikinyarwanda, Edition Bakame has produced over 1.2 million copies of 162 different books and booklets for infants and primary school.

The company has received numerous international awards. and currently employs a staff of 15 and publishes between 40,000 and 100,000 copies annually.

A modern day griot

Anna Manyanza, author

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Manyanza was the winner of the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature in 2016 for her novel Penzi la Damu.

It addresses pertinent women issues, weaving gender based violence, polygamy, education for adolescent girls in lower income households and their economic plight.

It also highlights the Stockholm syndrome, where women treat other women harshly. “Women undermining other women may have to do with the fact that by nature, they are extremely competitive,” she argues.

Manyanza is one of very few Kiswahili women authors today. Not one to rest on her laurels, she is currently working on her second novel, a war time story.
Penzi la Damu was launched this year and is available in bookshops all over East Africa. She is a BA graduate in Media Science with a minor in Literature and an post-graduate degree in Political Science. She says the deaths of her grandparents gave her the writing bug.

“I realised I could no longer ask them to retell those wonderful stories they freely passed on to us,” she said. “When the griot is no longer there, it’s as though a whole library has burned down. This is what motivated me to become a writer.”

Celebrating feminity

Sheebah Karungi, 28, the unlikely feminist



It is not often that a Ugandan pop artiste is the subject of academic research and a public debate at Makerere University. But Sheebah is no ordinary singer.

In just four years, she has risen to dominate Uganda’s music scene.

Her meteoric rise has been credited to hard work, good craft and strong and expressive performance both on stage and in the studio.

This is the reason she was the focus of discussion at Makerere’s School of Women and Gender Studies as part of this year’s Women’s Day celebrations. 

Sheeba is known for her highly sexualised fashion sense and performance which Dr Evelyn Lutwama-Rukundo, a member of the School’s faculty, described as a way of asserting her individuality as the epitome of freedom: wildly independent, extremely liberated, and exceedingly confident.

In a country obsessed with controlling how women present and express themselves in public, Sheebah’s defiance is seen as a breath of fresh air to the feminist movement in Uganda.

“Performance allows Sheebah to resist social and cultural control of her body, and to exhibit this resistance to her audience. Through dress and body she negotiates conservative structures and ideologies around female fashion and artistic performance in Uganda, thereby asserting her individuality and sexuality,” writes Lutwama-Rukundo, who researches gender, entertainment and communication, from a journal article published last September.

An avowed feminist, Sheebah has not always been as confident and assertive. Born and raised by a single parent in the slums in Kawempe, north of Kampala, she grew up sickly and deprived.

The general poverty of the family saw Sheebah drop out of school in Senior Two and left home at the age of 15 in search of a better life. She started out as a strip dancer at a club with some obscure dance company and a year later she joined the all female group Obsessions, riding high on the hit single Jjangu.

Sheebah struggled to fit in and quit in 2011 for a solo career. Three years later she came back with her debut single, the very suggestive Ice Cream. “I will not stop until the world knows my name,” she said.

Singing for social awareness and change

Muthoni ‘Drummer Queen,’ ruler of change movement

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Muthoni the ‘Drummer Queen.’ ILLUSTRATION|JOE NGARI.

If it is true that human beings are the creators of their times, Muthoni Ndonga, aka Muthoni the Drummer Queen, is a key engineer and influencer of these times.

A graduate of International Relations and Philosophy from the United States International University, Nairobi, she is an exceptional musician. and entrepreneur. Muthoni is the founder and creative director of Blankets and Wine, a regional event that brings thousands of music lovers together every month to celebrate and appreciate live music performance.

Muthoni’s recent single Kenyan Message broke the Internet a few days ago as listeners resonated with the message of disillusionment and disenchantment with the social, public and economic affairs of the country. Muthoni’s music is a rallying cry for consciousness, a scream of rage, letting the political class know that their days of corruption, impunity and mediocrity are numbered.

Muthoni says the philosophy behind what she does is: “To joyfully elevate people to want to be their best version and live their best life now. To remind people that they are powerful beyond measure and are able to create their own version of life using just the circumstances that they have. I am proud that I exercise my truth daily and I accept my power to change any and every part of it in service of my purpose.”

Muthoni derives inspiration from the writing of spiritual leader and author Marianne Williamson, as well as media personality and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey.

Her favourite quote is; “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God,” from A Course in Miracles.

Treading where others have not dared

Elainne Uhurire, actress/director



With theatre and film taking root in Rwanda’s creative industry, women too have steadily taken their rightful place, influencing their development. Among the young talented women is Elaine Umuhire, an accomplished theatre actress and creative dancer.

After facing resistance from family members in her quest to pursue an arts course, she studied accounts at the National University of Rwanda, where she also dedicated her free time to theatre performance.

After graduation in 2004, through workshops and trainings, she met Hope Azeda, an artistic director and founder of Mashirika Performance and Media Company and Carole Karemera, an actress and artistic director behind the Ishyo Arts Centre, whom she had always admired. Under the two women, Umuhire was mentored into what she is today.

In her career through the years, Umuhire has been casted in various plays, which include La ravizor, African hope, Umutego Speciale, in 2012, which took her on a tour in the US.

Yacu by Ishyo Arts with Et Coutumes, a French company has taken her on tour to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Belgium, France and Germany.

During her time in theatre, Umuhire was cast in several films such as Behind the World by Clemantine Dusabijambo and The things of the Aimless wondered, by Kivu Ruhorahoza which both premiered at the Sundance Film festival last year. She also co-starred with polish acclaimed actress Jowita budnik in Birds Are Singing in Kigali, a film by Polish directors Krzysztof Krause and Joanna Kos Krauze, which will premiere later this year.

Umuhire believes that art that does not touch a soul does not have reason to exist. “We do the best profession in the world, so the fight for it is worth it,” she adds.

Building empires is her calling

Maida Waziri, business mogul



She is the current president of Voice of Women Entrepreneurs Tanzania, chair of Muungano Women a savings and credit co-operative organisation and managing director of her two companies — Ibra Contractors Ltd and Ibra Enterprises.

Waziri got into business in 1990 selling second hand clothes. She is one of Tanzania’s most feted businesswomen having been awarded best female contractor of the year five years in a row (2011-2015) by then president Jakaya Kikwete.

Waziri credits her success to her mother’s struggle with poverty.

“My mother suffered a lot because of poverty, so I told myself from when I was young that I must succeed, get rich and pull other women up. That has pushed me to where I am today,” she says.

Waziri is involved with Women Advancing Africa, an initiative of the Graca Machel Trust, that inaugurated this year.

The Trust recently sponsored her for a 10 months international entrepreneurs course.

She enrolled in a seamstress course at the YMCA college in 1992, and in eight years she had trained and employed 15 other seamstresses and had 30 sewing machines. Meanwhile she had also diversified into the food and transport industry running a daladala (public service vehicle) and three taxis. She also ventured into dairy farming and fish farming.
She was the first woman to operate a motor boat that brought in fish from Mafia island in Zanzibar for sale in Dar es Salaam. Her advice to women entrepreneurs is: “They say in entrepreneurship there are three things; skills, opportunities and reward. The first two have serious challenges but I encourage women to be brave. As an entrepreneur you have to have three eyes.”

Finding joy in making talent pay the rent

Joy Mboya, 52, patron saint of the arts



Joy Mboya is a force of nature.

One of the founders of the Godown Arts Centre, she runs programmes promoting the arts, community spirit and enhancing the lives of artist. Recently the Godown Arts Centre has held creative entrepreneurship courses, bringing artists from Kenya and Uganda together for an intensive three-months course in business skills.

There being a dearth of training on the business side of the arts, her initiatives have never been more necessary or relevant.

A former musician, she is a graduate of architect from Princeton University, US. Perceiving the situation whereby infrastructure was lacking to enable artists to thrive, she put her music aside, rolled up her sleeves and got to work, convincing development partners and the government that it was important to ensure that the arts had the capacity to become a stable and viable industry.

Joy has been a trustee and member of numerous boards including the Kenya Copyright Board, the Gaara Dance Foundation, the Kalasha Film Awards, and Action for Music.

In 2004, she received the National Women’s Council of Kenya 2004 Merit Award for her contribution to the development of the performing arts. In 2009, this arts administrator was honoured with the Head of State Commendation medal for her contribution to the development of the creative economy in Kenya.

In 2013, she was awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior, for contribution to the development of the cultural sector, and the Ford Foundation Champion of Democracy Award.

Through appointment by the Minister of Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services, Joy has served on the Governing Council of the Kenya Cultural Centre. She currently sits on the Creative Economy Working Group which has been laying the foundation for building the much needed infrastructure in Kenya’s art and culture industry.

Writing, singing and all things creative

Muthoni Garland, 56, creativity champion



The founder of East Africa’s famous literary festival — Storymoja Festival and publishing house in 2007 — Garland is celebrated for both taking East African writing to the world as well as bringing global writers to Kenya.

Not only has Storymoja nutured a new breed of East African luminaries including Caine Prize winner Okwiri Oduor, it has continually provided a platform where East Africans can learn how to blog, make films, practice yoga, and become puppeteers in a push for all round creativity.
Working in partnership with the United Kingdom’s Hay Festival, Garland has put Kenya on the global literary festival map.

As a champion for creativity and imagination, Storymoja was the platform through which comedian Eric Omondi first made his breakthrough, when still a student, he won first prize in a story telling contest.

Other collaborations Muthoni has set up have been with local artistes including Sauti Sol, Eric Wainaina, and Jackie Karuti on reading ambassadorships across the country where they have set up libraries in schools bereft of these and passed on the passion and love for reading.
Muthoni has also made her own mark as a writer, having been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Tracking the Scent of My Mother.

In her non-fiction as well, her writing sings, and we look forward to when she gets back to churning out her own non-fiction books as well.
The big names in the literary world who have been to Kenya courtesy of Storymoja are Ben Okri, Vikram Seth, Yousuf Komunyakaa, Teju Cole, Katie Addie, Kwame Dawes, Penny Valentine, Jan Blake, Lauri Kubutisuile, Petinah Gappah, Stanley Kenani, Toni Kan, Imtiaz Dharka, Chika Unigwe and Hanif Kureishi. Acclaimed Ugandan authors Doreen Baingana, Monica Arac, Beverly Nambozo and Dilman Dila have also been guests of Storymoja. A former marketer, Muthoni trained in Business Administration at the Ohio University, US.

Keeping traditional music alive

Cecile Kayeribwa, in her 70s, traditionalist



As Rwandan music grows with influence from all over the world, Cecile Kayirebwa, famous as the grandmother and keeper of Rwanda’s traditional music, she has been singing for over three decades and has continuously cemented her reputation as a consistent devotee of the traditional genre.
Last year she released her seventh studio album titled Urukumbuzi, the first in 10 years. Her other albums are:  Interuro (1981), Intambwe(1983), Intego (1986), Ubumanzi (1990), Amahoro (1996), Imyaka 20 Ishize (2000) and Ibihozo (2005).
Having performed at several concerts throughout her career, both home and abroad, Kayirebwa was nominated for a KORA award in 2016 for Best Female Traditional Artist.

In 2014, she started the Inganzo Ya Kayirebwa annual event, popular with both Rwandans and vistors alike for its traditional ethos. Her music attracts Rwandans in the diaspora because she too lived in exile for 40 years and she says it was traditional music that kept her connected to her motherland and healed her homesickness.

Kayeribwa is an influential musician and young musicians are learning from her.

Building society’s foundation

Dr Mshai Mwangola, 50, educator/performer



When you encounter someone whose favourite quote is Frantz Fanon’s “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it,” you can be sure that they are intensely involved in the world around them.

Dr Mshai has been pivotal as a thought leader in the sphere of culture in Kenya. She was involved in the setting up of legislation favourable for the arts and lobbying and advocating for a widened space for Kenyan art stakeholders.

“I’m passionate about culture in the broad sense of the word. I really believe what Article 11 of the constitution says: Culture is the foundation of the nation in the deepest sense possible. It’s not just the foundation of a nation, it’s the foundation of society, of who we are as human beings. So I am passionate about using performance to explore the world, to gain understanding; and I’m invested in the intellectual work that the arts make possible,” she said.

A holder of a doctorate in Performance Studies from Northwestern University in the US, she has taught at various universities locally and abroad, and is currently setting up a consultancy to enable the arts to work in a wider range of spaces.