Yvonne Khamati-Kilonzo, Kenya’s youngest diplomat yet, admits that the responsibilities and challenges of her work in a chauvinistic and patriarchal environment have been worthwhile and interesting. By Nelly Kuria
She is the youngest ambassador that Kenya has ever had. At only 28 years, Yvonne Khamati-Kilonzo is now Kenya’s head of Chancery and deputy permanent representative to the Kenya Mission to the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON). UNON comprises all UN offices in Nairobi plus UNEP and UN-HABITAT.
When President Kibaki appointed her as ambassador in May 2007 she was all of 25 years old! This automatically qualified her as the youngest envoy ever in Kenya and the whole of Africa in this era. (The youngest-ever ambassador from Africa was Salim Salim of Zanzibar, who was appointed ambassador to UN at 22 in the 1970s.)
In Kenya, and indeed throughout Africa, the head of state appoints ambassadors or high commissioners. Khamati-Kilonzo’s appointment came after her nomination and election to the East African Legislative Assembly in Arusha. Following a deadlock with Kenyan nominees that brought the EAC to a standstill, her party, Ford Kenya, entered into talks with the head of state.
Her appointment to Foreign Affairs was a result of those talks. “It wasn’t what I had planned, but I believe that God has a plan for my life, and that this was part of it. I fought hard. I called Honourables Musikari Kombo and Moses Wetangula many times to tell them that I preferred to go to the parliament in Arusha. Every time they listened calmly and told me diplomacy was the best career choice for me,” she says.
Before her current posting, Khamati-Kilonzo served as the international coordinator of the World Youth Organisation on Climate Change. She was a research fellow at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa before returning home to run the Musikari Kombo Foundation. She has also served as secretary of AFC Leopards, and is currently a member of its committee.
When Khamati-Kilonzo turned 18 she already had the world at her beck and call. At this tender age she joined several heads of states and governments in The Hague, Netherlands, to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the youth. This milestone in her life heralded the start of a new journey into the international environmental arena, which inevitably paved her path to international diplomatic circles.
In 2002, aged only 21 years, she made history by becoming the youngest person to be elected in the executive committee of the political party, Ford Kenya.
Khamati-Kilonzo went to school in the UK. Her mother, Dr Beatrice Khamati Njenga, is the head of education at the African Union. She says,”My mother is my mentor, advisor, and friend. She has always supported me, and when I ran for parliament in Makadara, she joined me full-time on the campaign trail!” Her father, a retired scholar, runs a private business.
For Khamati-Kilonzo, the most memorable part of growing up was when she was in Buile Hill High in Salford, England, and her teacher said that she had to move two classes up because she seemed to know everything. She then had to take the British government 11+ IQ exam, which she did reluctantly.
She didn’t want to pass because it would take her away from her friends and neighbourhood; being moved up two classes had already identified her as a nerd and a geek. Much to the pleasure of her family, she passed and, to her horror, she had to start attending a grammar school and wearing a distinctive blazer.
“In hindsight, that is when my teachers started giving me opportunities to learn many things. I read a book a day. Any book on any topic from chemistry to theology,” she reminisces.
Khamati-Kilonzo spent the greatest part of her teenage life and schooling in Manchester, England, before returning to Kenya and joining St Christopher’s School, briefly, then Peponi School. She first completed a diploma in sociology and criminology at University of Nairobi. Then she joined United States International University for a course in international relations before joining the American World University (AWU) to study counselling psychology. She intends to finish a joint BA/MA programme at AWU by next year.
Her family, which she describes as being close-knit and God-fearing, travelled alot. “They helped me learn the importance and significance of family. My best times were those spent in Eregi with my grandparents. We loved each other, and they spoiled me. I loved the food, sweet bananas and sugarcane, and ugali and chicken for breakfast.
Today her siblings live in Saudi Arabia, Europe and Africa. Her mother was quite strict and church was a key part of their life. There was also a lot of music, and Khamati-Kilonzo can play the piano and violin. She also received voice-training lessons and has performed at the Royal Manchester Opera House.
“For a long time I believed I would become a musician, and though I am sure now that my mother had no intention of letting me do this, she supported me in learning the instruments, and performing both at church and in school.”
In 2009 she married Vincent Kilonzo, after a courtship that lasted seven years. The youthful diplomat pays school fees and buys scholastic materials for several children in different primary and Setondary schools.
“I pay fees for a total of 11 children in Ngumbulu Secondary School in Katangi, Yatta, and at Yumbuni and Our Lady of Queen of Peace primary schools.”
She also supports the activities of Kilele Foundation in Eastern Province, which distributes dry food to help keep children of school-going age at school. Khamati-Kilonzo is also a mentor with the CRADLE (The Children Foundation) and gives talks on leadership, career development and human rights to girls at secondary schools.
She says, “Only those who have been helped can speak for themselves on how it has changed their lives, but I know that it has blessed me, for it is far better to give than to receive. The Bible, in Philippians 2:4, says ‘Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others’.”
Khamati-Kilonzo admits that the responsibilities and challenges of her work have been both worthwhile and interesting. Being an ambassador was tough in the beginning. “Here I was, not expecting it, very young, female, with many responsibilities. There were mixed reactions – surprise, support, and animosity.
I learnt early enough that people despise that which they can’t understand. I have learnt not to blame those people, I just feel sad for them because it takes much more energy to be negative, to dislike, to fight. It has made me take a keen interest in taking up young women to encourage and to push them to perform the best they can.
Terming her career as one big highlight, she says, “Shortly after my appointment as ambassador I went for my first briefing meeting. The secretary there ignored me completely for almost 10 minutes. I asked one more time if I could meet the person I had an appointment with. She didn’t know that I was actually the person who had an appointment.
I tried to hold back my laughter as I calmly told her, “I was the one he was waiting for”. The secretary says Khamati-Kilonzo looked too young. “I remember the appointment vividly because it is great for young people to hold high offices. I felt proud to be recognised at only 26.”
“When I leave diplomatic circles, I will take with me tonnes of knowledge and experience, a huge network, and many friends.”
She also says that women are gifted with the ability to multitask. “An average rural African woman ploughs the farm, feeds the family, performs her wifely duties, and wakes up very early to go searching for firewood!
Her life is not very different from that of an average modern African woman. The majority of households are women-led, but there has never once been a strike by women to complain about their responsibilities.”
Khamati-Kilonzo has been lucky to have mentors, women who have stood by her, advised her and given her a shoulder to cry on. She says her mother has always prayed with her, advised her, quarreled her back to sanity, and been her number-one cheerleader. Ida Odinga (Kenya’s prime minister’s wife) has also been very kind and caring. “Ida talks to counsels me and tells me things that every young woman should know.”
- Family: She is married to Vincent Kilonzo.
- Childhood: Spent early childhood in Buruburu, with many of her siblings.
- Interests: She is an environmental specialist, and has studied psychology, sociology, criminology and internationalrelations.
- Is good at public speaking.
- Career highlights: speaking about the environment and climate change issues to sev¬eral world leaders and heads of states when she was 17. She became an ambassador at the age of 25.
Yvonne Khamati-Kilonzo has been involved novel projects, including the ongoing slum-upgrading programme, which was initiated by the Kenyan government and UN-HABITAT. Two of the informal settlements that will be upgraded are Kibera in Nairobi and Manyatta in Kisumu.
Khamati-Kilonzo, a keen environmentalist, says that it is satisfying to see tangible results of multilateral partnerships, diplomacy, and negotiations. She also says that working in a station like the Kenya Mission to the United Nations Office in Nairobi can be quite challenging, because there are many political and technical issues to consider, including the handling of the environment, and of human settlements in fragile ecosystems.
Considering a diplomatic career?
A diplomat is a representative of his or her government, who mediates between different nations. Yvonne Khamati-Kilonzo says her tasks include
- Reviewing political and economic developments in Kenya
- Developing foreign policy
- Reporting on the activities of her office
- Negotiating treaties and agreements with other nations
- Protecting the interests of her country, and of its citizens abroad.
The job demands a respectful, non-judgemental attitude, and a desire to nurture international relations. You will have many opportunities to travel and meet interesting people you may not meet otherwise. You will need to know how to negotiate bureaucratic protocol patiently and effectively.