The executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission talks about her motivations and what has driven her to fight for the rights of others. By Judy Munyinyi Mumo.
When Muthoni Wanyeki was growing up in Kenya she was part of a privileged set. As a mixed race child, Lynne (and other half caste children) was considered better-looking, wealthier and even more intelligent than full-blooded Kenyan children. “Mistakenly, people assumed we were from rich families and the boys pursued us because they thought we were ‘hotter’ than the other girls because of our light skin,” she says.
Then she went to Canada for her university education and got the shock of her life. “In Canada, I was considered black. Not mixed-race, not half-white, just black.” Not only was she considered black, she was also looked down upon because of her “colour”. From being part of the popular set, Muthoni was often treated as an unwanted intruder in Canada. As she observes in an article she wrote four years after her arrival (The Ubyssey, 14 January 1992): “I noticed something very peculiar. In this city, mine only through my mother’s birthright, it was the blacks I saw in the street who nodded to me, who mouthed words of casual greeting.
“This puzzled me. I hadn’t been aware that there was such a large black community in Halifax, I certainly knew nothing at the time of its history, and I felt no connection to the community. My culture and traditions were so separate from these blacks who smiled greetings at me on the Halifax streets. Their gestures, which sought to claim me as one of their own, were intensely disturbing. I literally wanted to scream, to make them stop looking at me with such easy recognition in their eyes.
“But then I opened my own eyes. I saw people, white people, treat me with utter indifference; at least until they found I was a ‘real’ African, at which point I became an ‘exotic’. I heard white people assume I was an immigrant, saw their eyes
widen as I told them the actual story of citizenship. This happened over and over again, until I began to identify in anger with the ‘unreal’ Africans; the immigrants with whom I was being confused because of the colour of my skin … I began to nod back to the black people in my streets.”
That period in Muthoni’s life, her search for an identity and her hurt and anger at being discriminated against because of something she could not help – the colour of her skin – helped to clarify her cause as a human rights crusader. Now, many years later she defends the rights of those who are not able to defend themselves.
To be sure, she wasn’t always so calm and certain about her purpose in life. “I did go through a ‘black power’ phase,” she remembers, letting out a small chuckle, “oh, my poor mother …” Her mother is white Canadian, her late father was Kikuyu and it cannot have been easy for a white mother to have an angry black daughter. Eventually though, Muthoni did settle down and find her place in life.
ALWAYS THE YOUNGEST
Muthoni was born in 1972, which means that she is not yet 40 but has already been an executive director at Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) for four years. And before that, she was executive director at Femnet. How has she been able to do so much at such a young age?
She shrugs. “I went to school early. I was always the youngest in class, at university and all through my career. I stopped hearing that refrain in my mid 30s; I guess I’m not considered young anymore.”
Muthoni was a bright child, equally adept at academics and athletics. At Hospital Hill Primary School which she attended at the same time as this writer’s sister, she dominated the swimming galas and prize-giving days. But Muthoni is modest about her accomplishments, believing that a combination of international exposure (through visits to Canada) and the discipline of sports gave her the advantage over most of her peers. “When you take up sport you learn discipline, you learn to push your body past pain, and that pays off in every other area of your life,” she explains.
Muthoni has continued to participate in sport to this day. She has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and is a keen triathloner.
Muthoni enjoys her swimming, cycling and running routine, and is especially chuffed that she can run 10 kilometres. “I didn’t think I could run, so I’m very proud of that achievement,” she says.
Even as she speaks of her accomplishments Muthoni is composed. She is not very animated and rarely smiles, but she is kind and accommodating; gracious. All my questions are answered in a direct, matter-of-fact way, without too much detail. And she doesn’t digress, not even once. I ask if she’s always as serious as she looks on TV or in the papers.
“Would my friends describe me as serious?” she seems to be thinking aloud. “My work deals with serious things so when I’m talking about work I have to be serious.”
So how would her friends describe her?
“I don’t know … but here is one thing I know about myself,” she says, “I can be unforgiving.”
She expounds. “If someone does me wrong and they refuse to acknowledge it, and let’s be honest, many people can’t accept when they have done wrong, then I just cut them off and move on.”
Best character trait then?
“I’ve got backbone. When I do something I can stand by it; I can take the consequences.”
Backbone intact, Muthoni is extremely cooperative during her hours-long cover shoot, following the TRUE LOVE editorial team’s direction and allowing the hair stylist and make-up artist to be as creative as they wish. Just a few weeks ago in The Cutting Edge segment of the Daily Nation, a reader commented that while he found Muthoni Wanyeki compelling and intelligent, he lamented that he had never seen a photo of her smiling. But in between a few serious poses, Muthoni offers the endearing smile that most Kenyans are not privy to.
Again her discipline and willpower shine through when the team digs into pizza for lunch, and she refrains. “I’m on a 10-day detox programme,” she explains. Earlier in the year Muthoni says she was feeling physically out of sorts and decided to recharge her batteries with a well-planned detox. “I’m on day six and it’s hard!” she says, half smiling and giving the pizza a wistful look, but she knows the end result will have been worth the effort.
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
In a field like hers, it is important to have backbone. Although Muthoni firmly believes in the “rights of all people to safety, security and equality regardless of their station in life”, not everyone agrees with this view. Muthoni often bears the brunt of their refusal.
For instance, the KHRC champions the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex community (LGBTI) in Kenya and Muthoni and her colleagues are often on the receiving end of the vitriol reserved for these people.
Subsequently, rumours about her sexuality abound and so, even though it is nobody’s business who she sleeps with, I have to ask Ms Wanyeki whether she is gay.
I had done some digging around before interviewing her and had found out, from three people close to her – and who incidentally don’t know one another – that Muthoni’s word is good. She is known to be very honest and ethical. I’d wondered about asking about her sexuality and was ready for an “it’s-none-of-your-business” response but one of her friends didn’t think that was Muthoni’s style. “I’ll be extremely surprised if that’s the response you get. The Muthoni I know is very straightforward. And she doesn’t like people beating around the bush so get to your point quite quickly,” was the advice I got.
Muthoni’s response is as direct as all her previous answers. “I don’t identify as lesbian. But I believe that sexuality is more complex and fluid than we usually admit. And I obviously support the rights of all people to exercise their sexuality in the ways that make sense for them.”
The gay question then leads us to our newly installed Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga who, incidentally, began the KHRC that Muthoni now heads. She can’t understand why people are making such a big deal of the little stud the CJ wears in his ear or why they assume that it is a symbol of his sexuality. “It is such a non-issue. Kenya is in very safe hands with Willy,” is her conviction.
In the office where we began our interview, the new CJ’s handwriting was on the wall. Well, the whiteboard actually. “These are Willy’s quotes,” Muthoni had said, pointing to an angular red scrawl. I moved closer to read his wisdom and was surprised to find that the quotes are attributed to other people.
She breaks it down for me. “He wrote those when he was working here.”
She has never used the whiteboard. She found it like that when she took over and has left it that way for four years. Next to the whiteboard is an almost-empty corkboard. “This one had photos of Maina Kiai’s kids on it until just recently,” she points out.
Muthoni is clearly secure enough in herself not to insist on stamping her presence in this office she now occupies. And though it wasn’t always this way, though there was a time when she struggled with her identity as a child of two worlds – feted in one and shunned in the other – Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki is finally at home in her skin.
THE MUTHONI YOU DIDN’T KNOW
She joined university in Canada when she was just 16 - “My brother had done his A levels before joining university in Canada and found that his first year just repeated everything he had already learnt. So I decided to skip my A levels here and join university straight. The Kenyan education system was obviously very thorough.”
Her degree is political science - “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I first joined university but I took a few courses and found that I really enjoyed political science so I decided to stay with it.”
Her greatest extravagance is silver and semi-precious stones – “One of her regrets is not getting on the property ladder when she had the opportunity. “I’ve wasted a lot of money. My friends kept telling me to buy a flat as an investment but I wouldn’t listen. I regret that a little.”
Zimele Asset Management founder, Antony Dzuya (Deceased) taught her money management - “Anthony was big on saving money. He taught me how to put it aside and how to make it grow.”
She enjoys creative writing and would like to write a book someday - A development story: When she came back to Kenya one of her first jobs was development work in rural Ukambani. She knew she had made a connection when, at the end of her term, the ladies gave her a parting gift – a book on how to stop smoking. “That was such a sweet gesture. I was touched,” she says, “though I never did stop smoking …”
What book is in your bedside right now? Any that have left an imprint? - A number of books by Kwame Dawes, a Ghanaian/Jamaican friend of mine who teaches in the States (I’m the godmother of his first daughter). A collection of African short stories. The latest issue of Kwani and my serial killer/thriller rubbish (which is great when I need to absolutely tune out).
What music do you listen to? - Reggae, African, jazz, Latin American and some classica|
Do you cook and if so, what’s your favourite dish to whip up? - I do cook! I enjoy doing so for other people but find it boring if it’s just for me: vegetarian usually, Indian, Italian, Lebanese…
Which year did you lose your father and did it have any impact on you? - 1990 and yes, it had a huge impact on me. He is responsible for many of the things I most care about (Kenya, Africa more broadly, an almost rigid sense of the importance of truth and living truth regardless of the consequences).
What are some of the lessons you have learnt along the way that serve as your mantra?
Not to accept less than I deserve. When in crisis, focus on the things that I can control (even if that’s only eating properly, sleeping enough, exercising), plan for what can be planned for and force myself to let go of the rest. Know that all things do pass (eventually)! Keep family and good friends of all generations close because those are often the only people who don’t take me seriously and thus can make me laugh at myself.
What would you like on your tombstone? - I’d like to be remembered for having made a difference, to individual people, to my community and beyond. Right now though, the two to-do things on my list are to write creatively and theoretically.
What’s your relationship with your mother like now, and what does your family feel about your choice of career? Are they proud? My relationship with my mother is complicated but I respect and value her and feel her love, presence and support all the time. My family is extremely proud of me…a bit worried at times and amused that I’m taken seriously in the world (they don’t take me seriously at all…they think I’m bright but have no common sense)!
When you’re not defending our rights, how do you let down and relax? I spend a lot of time exercising and with the different communities of people involved in the various sports I do. But I spend most of my free time with my family and close friends. We eat out a lot, talk, do concerts and shows that we’re interested in…the usual. I spend an increasing amount of time at home too, reading usually.
PHOTOGRAPHER: EMMANUEL JAMBO
SHOOT ASSISTANT: WILLIS JOHN OGLJDA, JOY KIBAKI AND NADIA MACHARIA
STYLIST: WAMBUI GICHUKI
MAKE-UP: STEYt KOBI FOR SUZIEBEAUTY
HAIR: SHIRO WANYOIKE