Ida Odinga on Her Life, Marriage and Children – Wife to Kenya Prime Minister Raila Odinga (Drum February 2011)
Being married to the Kenyan Prime Minister must make for a fascinating life. Her Excellency Ida Odinga allows drum into her inner sanctum to discuss just that
Had we been just ten minutes earlier, we would have met His Excellency the prime minister. As it is, our convoy shoulders the side of the road, veering off to let his three-car motorcade pass with its lights flashing.
Our presence already announced, we find the gates open in anticipation, gliding into the very secure residence of Right Honourable Mr. and Mrs. Raila Odinga, Ida’s home. It is lush, vibrantly alive with green, blooming plants and generously doused with flowers.
We find that we muster sufficient awe and deference as we walk in. That, of course, might have something to do with the armed guards who are inconspicuously conspicuous. Ida steps out with a warm, maternal smile, quickly wrapping us into her cocoon with the ease of a seasoned host.
A guided tour of her home follows, leading us from the two formal living rooms, through the state dining room to the family dining room and back to the conservatory right before we embark on a discourse on the separation of the new South Sudan and male and female inequalities.
We are told where to sit, and, even more specifically, precisely where not to sit. “That over there is Mzee’s chair,” she says. It directly faces Ida’s chair. Her husband’s back is, in typical powerful man style, against the wall, and from her vantage point, she surveys her turf through clear, airy windows and can tell who walks in before he does. Ida literally has her husband’s back. One barely grazes his chair, which, not surprisingly, is also the most accessible and inviting bit of furniture, before being warned off. It is here where we are introduced to marital harmony 101 – a man’s home is his castle.
The Odingas have been married 38 years. “In every home, traditionally, there was always a seat for the man. Nobody else but him uses it. Children grow up knowing that is dad’s chair.” Conversation segues into how she spends her time indoors. “Follow me and I will show you,” she directs.
The Prime Minister’s residence is in an expanse of land tended to by the watchful vigilance of Ida. In it, is a spa containing a sauna, Jacuzzi, steam room and a gym under a skylight, all the better to see daybreak and the stars. “I love sitting here and watching news,” says our hostess.
Away from the main house, further down the garden, is a Thingira, a large stone building built in the fashion of a traditional hut that can host as many as 100 with a gate and footpath leading directly into it. Tucked away is a fully equipped salon. “I have three stylists. In case one is not available, I immediately call someone else. One must always have a plan B,” she says.
There is a personal trainer who works with both the Odingas, a nutritionist who comes up with a healthy diet for the pair especially considering that only recently was the PM admitted for exhaustion that later turned to be a clot in the head, and a general staff of 10 that includes three cooks, a couple of gardeners and others necessary to run a household of this magnitude.
Her garden has mini-waterfalls and outdoor furniture sprinkled across it that is perfect for dinner parties. Back in the house, we catch a glimpse of the parking lot. There are seven cars under a canopy by the time we leave, with room for more. Ida’s is a gorgeous, sleek, dark Mercedes E300, provided by the state, and a Jaguar parked right beside it. There is another home in Bondo, and two cottages in Mombasa and Kisumu. The mother of four spends a great deal of her time here.
This Valentines Day she says “my husband must buy me flowers. He always knows this, and take me out for dinner.” A challenge in itself. It turns out each time Ida and her husband go to a public place for anything from a holiday to a meal, it takes minutes before everyone catches wind of it. Soon enough individuals and delegations come to pay respects, make requests, air grievances and then they will need to leave, even though a politician and by extension his family, belong to the people.
“If I want to spend any private time at all with my husband it is either in our house or we have to go out of the country.
It is the only way we can have quiet time.” When he was recuperating last year, there was a host of well meaning visitors. “They needed that time with him,” she says. “I had an in house doctor and nurse.
I had to learn to balance it out, let him rest. That was a difficult time.” Sometimes, duty calls. “We had planned to go for an Indian Ocean cruise. We went as far as the Seychelles and further south then he was called to go to Cote d’Ivoire. After he’d recovered though, we went to the Mediterranean.” She also accompanies him on some state visits, making her a veteran at packing and unpacking.
Even on her own, she has considerable catchet. She is chauffeured and has security detail, one of which is a young woman who blends in so well, stepping out occasionally always in anticipation of Ida’s needs. They have a well-orchestrated dance. While Ida’s aides barely leave her side, her personal bodyguard is so unobtrusive we only realize she is there once she is pointed out. It is rare in fact, even in her own home and with us in it, to have a minute with just Ida for the interview. It is weaved in through the hair, make up and photo shoot.
“When I go out, it is always when I am expected. If it is a salon, it is where they have known me for years.” So demanding is it being who she is that she has learnt to vet people who seek her assistance. “It is not easy. I want to help everyone but sometimes I have to go with my instinct.”
If she was to become first lady, what would she do differently? “There is no model for being First Lady. No one kept record of what Mama Ngina Kenyatta did. I can’t compare myself with anybody. What I will be doing is a continuation of what I am doing now. My whole life I have always worked with women. I will merely highlight them on a greater platform.”
Her thing is done on so many levels, my head spins. She has been an active part of her husband’s struggles, though in a subtler role. She founded, and chaired, The League of Kenya Women Voters, is an ambassador for freedom from fistula, mentors girls to stay in, and complete school, supports initiatives against breast cancer, children with cancer, puts an end to jiggers, is on the board of the Kenya Paraplegic Association and is the managing director of East Africa Spectre, a liquefied gas cylinder manufacturing firm.
However, she concludes that “being a mother is the best thing in the world.” Her offices are two: the state provided the NHIF one, and the family business. “I invited someone over for an appointment one time, sending a driver to bring him to my office because that was easier than giving directions and when he walked in the first thing he said was, “you mean you work!?”
Many people think I do nothing all day but I am a serious person with my job. When the government said it would offer spouses Sh400,000 each month, I thought, I need that money. I can do so much with it. When you are married to a big man that is when you work the hardest.” She graciously turned it down. Her list of titles, awards, achievements and accomplishments are so vast they are best captured in a handbook that acts as a guide to all things Ida.
Ida’s work ethic has never been in doubt. She was something of a single mother between 1982 and 1988 while her husband was detained, working as a teacher to feed her family. “My mother is my role model. At the age my husband went away, she was raising double the number of children I have.” Her passion comes into force when asked about her family. A large portrait of her, the PM and their children and Safi, her granddaughter, with her, engaging
smile is on the wall facing the main entrance.
We let it out that there has always been a great deal of speculation over who her children are dating. Fidel’s partner is the woman in question, here one minute, gone the next, and there are other rumours too. “What do people say?” she asks. “It is always the mother who is the last to know. Please tell me.”
Well, there are rumours of an engagement, Junior’s, the younger son; a break up of Rosemary, the elder daughter’s marriage; and as for the youngest, Winnie, studying in the US, not much is known of her. “You can’t force your kids to be with someone. I can only let them choose who they want to choose, not choose for them because it is someone I like or want them to be with. The best you can do is help them love who they choose. If they break a relationship, it is a personal choice that cannot be attributed to the parents. You can only give them the facts and let them make their choice. Let them know that they can come home.”
She offers more insight into this subject as well. “My children are under a lot of pressure. Just because one is married does not mean other people respect that. People want to be with them simply for who they think they are. If they were not known, there would be less pressure.”
On that note, she adds that “young MPs are always chased by young women who do not want to cultivate their own space. Many young women always want to hijack relationships these days. Girls should be strong; get their own empire. Be yourself. You must fall in love with yourself before somebody else does.”
What, then, would she say is the secret to a long, happy and successful marriage? “Relationships are difficult to handle and the way you handle someone is the same way that they will be able to handle you. You can’t make someone a priority in your life when you are an alternative. Make him realize that you are nobody’s alternative. Family, friends, workers, everyone in your life and theirs must know that you are a priority. You meet people out there that you can be friends with and interact with, but they should know that that is the extent of it.”
She adds that she also loves herself. “I am always giving to people so I dedicate one day in a week just for me and people who are a priority. And I love myself that is why I buy myself pearls,” she indicates those circling her neck, “I make it a point to go to bed early every night no matter the function.”
She has been known to slip away from soirees even if happening in her home until 2am.” Her day always starts at promptly 4am as per her internal clock regardless of the night before with devotional prayers and flipping through the newspapers.
At 6am, she works out. This consists of walks around her compound or on the treadmill and stretches, all monitored by their personal trainer. She, in fact, appears a tad slighter. It is now only her and Raila, so their state dining room is used when the whole family comes around or there are visitors.
She is very close to her children, and completely and effusively dotes on Safi, her four year old granddaughter. “I wish I had more grandchildren! My daughter says I spoil her, but I don’t say yes to her every need.” When Safi visits, which she does every Friday night for the weekend, an act that prompts Ida to recall that the Jacuzzi lid needs to be returned, they go to the orphanage, shopping or museum.
“It makes me miss being a mother to a young child though I feel a bit slow. She is very fast and I am not as young as I used to be.”
One last thing. Her fierce nature as mother erupted when Fidel was in the news for allegedly selling imported maize. “I can’t stop people from saying these things but I know my children and what they are capable of doing and sometimes I have to protect them. Politicians attack family because they are a soft spot. Go to the PM. You don’t have to go through the kids. You face him.”
On her 60th birthday last year, the pair sailed to the Mediterranean, just the two of them, for two weeks. “We went on a cruise last year as a family including my granddaughter and with Fidel’s Shiro, at the time.”
She would love to go to the beaches but has found that it near-impossible for lack of privacy.
For fun, she says “I love dancing. Just invite me for something and watch me turn into a dance hall artiste!”
As she heads of to the US for a National Prayer Breakfast, followed by a trip to Korea, it may just be easier to better understand Ida Odinga, an interesting life well-lived, and perhaps a glimpse into what it is to be married to a political Kenyan dynasty. Watch out for her memoirs. “Someone told me to write a book. I am in the process of doing that right now.” And what a read it promises to be.
The lady and her likes
What is your favourite food?
Osuga, ugali and fish – just boil osuga, drain it and add fermented milk. That is how my mother used to cook it
What is your favourite holiday destination
Any place where there are beaches
What kind of music do you like
I love Angelique Kidjo and would love even more to see her in concert
Where do you shop
I usually buy my clothes in US stores. They cater to plus size women like me. I like Macy’s
Do you have a favourite television programme
News. My kids are always teasing me about it. When it comes on they say ‘mummy come watch your favourite show!’
Some of the most impressive people I’ve met
One of the most impressive people I’ve met is Nelson Mandela, I call him Papa. He is usch a lovable old man! As well as Bill and Hilary Clinton. They are a very warm copule. She once quoted a speech I gave in South Africa and it made me think what I was doing must have made an impact
Words: Carol Odero
Photographs: Emmanuel Jambo
Shoot Assistant: Willis John
Hair: Shiro Wanyoike
Make Up: Muthoni Njomba