When a woman declares she wants to run for president, the games begin. Hon Martha Karua intends to play it full.
When it comes right down to it, Honourable Martha Karua, the MP for Gichugu constituency likes to keep it simple.
Her philosophy, it seems, is what you see is what you get. She will not wear foundation for instance, and brings her
own small box with the barest essentials of make up and instructs our makeup artist on how to use those. “I want
people to know that how I look in this magazine is how I look every day. I do not want to change my look because if
you make me up, then that is not how I will be tomorrow.”
Her practicality is as expected as her sense of humour is surprising, more so when she digs into a Nigerian accent. And when she smiles just so, you can see a small dimple on her right cheek. “Incorporate the dimple,” she jokingly tells our photographer. Quite interesting considering that this is the same woman who has been referred to as Africa’s Iron Lady.
DRUM: First things first, who does your nails and have you ever considered any other colour other than red?
MK: It is done by a woman called Njeri in town. I do it at the same time as I do my hair which is usually once a week. I have tried pink, but red is a colour that blends with everything and anything that I wear. I am a conservative person so red it is.
DRUM: You have talked about vying for president in 2012. What is it that you will bring to the table?
MK: To begin with there would be discipline. For a country it would always be tricky. Do not have exemptions to a certain category of people. Let the law apply to everyone equally. There are no consequences, it is quite clear in Kenya the law applies differently, depending on who you are. That is what has bred impunity, which incidentally is the opposite of rule of law. If you fix the problem of governance because rule of law affects that, you kind of solve half or more of the problems.
It is time that in this country we lean towards politics of issues and not of personalities so that you are not assessing a candidates worth. Money does not lead. It is individuals and parties who lead. Look at the abilities of the team leader because by seeking the highest office, all that one is doing, is saying I would like to be team leader. Do I have that capability? Look at what I have done in the past. I think I have done that not just in water, but in justice.
DRUM: You have been called the Iron Lady of Arica, the only man in Kibaki’s parliament and half the voters are women. Do you feel that you resonate with them?
You ask if I resonate with women? Actually if truth were to be told women are the toughest species on earth even those who are not vocal or do not express themselves publicly. You cannot doubt their inner strength. Bringing up and nurturing children from zero to being on their own, it is only leaders who can do that. I can assure you women are tough. It is just that it has never been recognised. The success of the home is wholly attributed to them. Asking whether I resonate with women because I am strong means that I do, because I am just a woman.
DRUM: How has your experience of motherhood been?
MK: Wonderful. Motherhood changes your life. It is one of the greatest joys of life. Watching children grow is a miracle every day. Especially for those in the early years of motherhood, watching children develop is such an amazing thing: learning to laugh, trying to walk and talk, then the teenage stage where self-expression and individuality is developing.
As parents sometimes we are unable to handle that because you have been used to a child that does exactly what you want. Also, the individual child is now used to their own mind and it is hard to let go. Parenthood is everything. I have two children, a 23-year-old son and a 25-year-old daughter.
DRUM: How supportive have your children been with regard to your political career?
MK: My children have grown up with my politics. This is my 19th year. They were toddlers when I went in and have not known their mother doing anything else. They may not always like it especially when they were younger, because it would take me away from them, keeping me busy. But it is not only a politician mother who is busy. Every day life of an every day working woman, even a stay at home mother, means that a mother’s life is always busy. You have to multi-task, whoever you are. Even if you have people helping you, there are things only you can do. And the work of a mother is to multi-task. Professionally, you will be that society person leading a group, and you will still be a mother. It is 24/7.
DRUM: Your children have been kept away from the limelight as well. Is that deliberate?
MK: In as much as I can, I do. It is their choice by the way. They do not want to be out there except when it is totally unavoidable. Also, for quite sometime, they were doing their schooling and had to concentrate on that.
DRUM: You can come across as a tough, almost arrogant, creating the impression that it is your way or the highway. How do you soften that?
MK: What do they mean ‘arrogant’ because everybody has their own self esteem. I think that there are people who think so, and they are not many, (because then I would not get elected, and don’t you wonder how I get elected?). Both men and women elect me. That first answers your question, that I resonate with women. There are those who are not able to handle the me that I am, because if you are a person who challenges the status quo, a woman out there competing, refusing to be intimidated, there are people who cannot handle that, so instead of just letting me be, they will give me all the names, arrogant; iron lady; what if I was a man?
There are men who are like me or tougher. What do you call them? Strong men – tough, a leader. You can use all the adjectives you like. They will not change me. I am at peace with who I am and won’t try to be anyone else. Let’s let each other be. Give me my space and I will give you yours. We can’t all be the same. We are brought up, both men and women, to actually think that there is a certain way a woman should present and a man should present. And since I am not what those perceptions project, obviously there are those who will not handle that. I am there to challenge the status quo otherwise we will remain stagnant.
DRUM: Has that been a political challenge?
MK: When I first said that I was going to vie, I was told that in Central province, they do not elect women and that in particular in Gichugu, new comers. I told them I was not there for a trial run but for the real thing. The whole of 1992, I went through my campaign allowing people to know me. I had an advantage in that I was a council member of LSK, and was one of those lawyers who was a household name. But until people see and hear you talk, you are just a distant figure to them. I had to go to all the constituencies, meeting groups, going to churches, gatherings, and at the end of the day people were convinced that I could do the job I said I wanted to do. I did this all year round.
And it is the same thing I am doing for this presidential bid, representing myself around the country. You can go on and trash it if you like, but I will continue, undeterred, to do what I do. I will say today that I have covered some ground. I will not listen to the catcalls. With eyes on the prize, I will keep on moving.
I always compare myself to the woman who goes to the market, does not have a care and may not even have fare to get her to the market. So she wakes up when it is dark, maybe 5am, and starts trekking to the market. The one with, a vehicle or can afford fare, will wake up at 7am. In all probability, the 5am riser will get to the market earlier than the one who drove there. That is my journey, and I woke up early if you recall, and I am still there moving with my ciondo.
DRUM: You have had a notorious political reputation where you did the unexpected such as walking out on former President Moi and backing President Kibaki in 2008
MK: You see you also have adjectives. How is that notorious? I am here to challenge the status quo, dynasties, those who think leadership in this country is for a certain club. They do not remember that they themselves were nothing before someone in their family was. They think they are the first generation to emerge. I am here to challenge all that and unless in society people do that, be it in businesses, education, politics, we would be a stagnant society.
DRUM: Do people ever approach you directly with constructive criticism?
MK: Yes they do, and I also get a thumbs up. Lots of those. But I also appreciate that those who are of a different view are entitled to it, but like I said, give me my space, I give you yours. When someone is convinced that the way they do it is the only way, I have to ask, do you want to mould me to be you? There is a level of intolerance in some of those tones. Criticise me, give me your views but give me my space. Don’t play God with me, let me be. Some of that is actually an attempt to make their own version of me and it cannot be.
DRUM: You are a role model for other people. How do you encourage them to be strong enough to stand up for themselves and others?
MK: People are not all the same and strength is not just about being vocal. There are people who are strong yet they are not vocal. Role models are not just the ones known in public. The people around us, parents, grandmother, aunties, those are the first. The others, when you go out into the world, reinforce what you already got from home.
I personally always remember my maternal grandmother as a very, very strong, independent woman who even in her time, challenged the status quo. She never went to school and was just herself, liked to have her space and a very pleasant woman. She, my mum and my dad, because there are traits you identify in your parents which are in you, were mine.
They do that in more than one way. You see the way your mother handles a situation or your father, you overhear them talk and it stays in you. There are things that never leave your mind and I remember as if it were yesterday because they left an impression. If I look at my father through his profession as a teacher, and my mum, I would say I got my values from them.
DRUM: Do you feel you have to shelter your children?
MK: No. I have actually been quite relaxed and let my children do what they want to do because even if you fight you can never win by trying to push your kids into what you think they should do. They are quite independent. I don’t think I would like to tell somebody what to do. None of them choose law and I was not disappointed because you must give people their space.
DRUM: Your schedule seems so busy. What do you do for fun?
MK: I love dancing, socialising, sitting around with friends and family in conversation. Once in a while I swim. When my kids were much younger I enjoyed the pool because I would be with them. I recently took up golf as well and I love to walk. I used to walk every morning, a kilometre and a half. Now I do less because for early morning appointments I need to beat traffic. I also dance for fitness. I do zumba in the morning.
DRUM: How do you establish boundaries when so many people and things demand your time?
MK: You really have to create it. Every person needs a bit of unwinding, and it is important that we all create ‘me time.’ When I have to make an appointment with me, I really try not to break it. For an hour, whether it is once a week, I have to, or I will not be good for the others. That being said, I love working and doing what I do and I always say work will never kill me, it is only the lack of work that would kill me. I know it is that way for many people and they may not know but have you noticed how when people retire, they die? Work keeps you sharp and alert. Even when I go to an unfamiliar environment like I did with the ministry of water, you sit down, learn the environment then get to work.
DRUM: You are quite active on Twitter and have a heavy presence on the Internet. It is an uncensored place. How do you regulate yourself?
MK: I do not control anything. I just say what I say. What I can’t control is how the people respond to it and those who become insulting or whatever, one has control over their space so there is no offensive material. When you see people being offensive, you know there is something troubling them. People at peace with themselves will not do that. Those are people to be pitied. You empathise with them and you hope that they learn to handle their lives because when did you finish handling your life to begin handling mine?
DRUM: Why join Twitter?
MK: I joined Twitter just to communicate. As a leader, you want to interact with people and in these days of bias by mainstream media, then the social media becomes a good avenue. What I want to say I do it on my space, which nobody limits. When I say something, you can’t pick and mould it in your own style. We are all humans after all, even the media. Stories come out depending on how you perceive me and come across to you and this space, it is the real me, not the one that gets created. My version and edition of me.
DRUM: Would you say you are approachable as a person?
MK: I should think so. Ask my constituents. And ask those who know me. Approachable does not mean you stand on the street to talk to everybody. It means there are channels through which other people can reach you. One of them is Facebook, the other is Twittter. In Gichugu, I have an office they can come to once a week. I have an open number that they text me on mainly because I cannot control the calls. It gives me time to reply at my own pace.
DRUM: Where do you shop?
MK: When the kids were younger we used to go window shopping and I think I gave them a bad habit. It makes you an impulsive shopper because you can see something so nice you do not want to leave it behind. I have specific shops I go to and also buy during my travels over the past 10 years. Since last year though, I have made a conscious decision to do local designers only. I want to sample nearly all local designers. My wardrobe is going to become predominantly Kenyan. I am always happy when someone says they like what I am wearing and I can give them the name of a local designer. That gives me joy.
DRUM: Do you find people asking about your marital status, saying that yes, you are a mother, but where is your husband?
MK: I would tell them in this particular interview that it is not about my family, but it is what I stand for, what I am capable of as a person. We must discourage this. We have known some leaders and not known their families. I don’t think we have interrogated that. We have interrogated their style of leadership. I do not know why irrelevant questions must be asked just because I am a woman. The same questions came during my first campaign and I tell them I am the one looking for a job. Ask if I have the ability to do it. If there is a joint job that you have to apply for as a couple then that is the place where you could ask. I said I would let my gender be my opponent’s agenda. It should not be a problem. If anything, I am an asset because the woman’s role of nurturing goes very well with building and caring for a nation.
In Her Own Words
What kind of movies do you watch?
Ask me about Nigerian movies. Just before I sleep I put on a Nigerian movie, and the movie is just like here, quarrelling over nothing. It is so African. Apart from the accent, it could be us. They resonate with us. Besides that there are films like Sister Act or Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t like bloody things.
Do you buy your own groceries?
I do my shopping in Nakumatt, buy my meat from various butcheries, and have lived in my neighbourhood for 10 years so it is not a new thing for me to go to the supermarket or for me to drive myself around. On the street I talk to
newspaper vendors and flower sellers. Once in a while when I am in Westlands they will all come to me with a rose.
Words: Carol Odero
Photographs: Emmanuel Jambo
Assistant: Willis Oguda
Hair and Make up: Shiro Wanyoike