She was brazen, beholden to no one, firm in her resolve and an outlier. Firebrand politician and activist Philomena Chelagat Mutai was ‘trouble’ from the start. Good trouble. Standing up for herself got her expelled from Highland Girls High School, what is now known as Moi Girls Eldoret, for instigating a student strike … and she would go on to be defiant for the rest of her life.
Chelagat surprised many when she sat for her A level exams and performed very well. She joined the University of Nairobi where she became a student leader. She got her political start in 1974 at the age of 24 when she became Eldoret North MP beating 12 other contestants to become the first female Nandi, and the youngest member of the august house.
In parliament, Mutai was anything but demure. She spoke against corruption, political assassinations and society’s vices such as land grabbing. In 1975, the newcomer took on the establishment by voting against a nefarious constitution amendment that would permit the President to pardon election offenders.
Chelagat remarked that, ‘We must ask ourselves if government policies allow corruption to take centre stage. For one to get a job in government, he or she must pass through the back door, you don’t just send your application. I cannot fear saying the bitter truth because I don’t need anybody’s favour.’
Mutai’s tendency to say exactly what she believed and the brusque manner she said it in, often put her at odds with her colleagues. ‘She was very outspoken and that really irked many people in Parliament. She was a victim of unwarranted sexist attacks against her character,’ recalls veteran and fellow politician and activist Koigi wa Wamwere.
He would know. He was one of the eight political rebels in parliament pejoratively named ‘The Seven Bearded Sisters’ by then Attorney General Charles Njonjo. They were neither seven, bearded nor sisters. Koigi wa Wamwere, Martin Shikuku, Chibule Tsuma, Lawrence Sifuna, Abuya Abuya, George Anyona, James Orengo and Chelagat Mutai. The virulent misogyny that coined the phrase ‘bearded sisters’ was a deliberate exclusion of Chelagat, a woman, on this (in)famous list.
Our ‘Bearded Sister’ was arrested on 25 January 1976, and charged with ‘Public disturbance and incitement’ when squatters in her constituency ‘invaded’ a sisal farm in Ziwa. What had happened was the squatters had bought the land but the previous owner had refused to hand over the title deed. Chelagat was vexed by this injustice and urged the constituents to occupy what was rightfully theirs. She was imprisoned and released in September 1978, a month after Jomo Kenyatta’s death.
Chelagat took on two presidents back to back, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi. The latter was a fellow tribesperson but led a regime that wasn’t any better, and arguably worse, than the antecedent.
In order to fully appreciate Chelagat’s courage and combative spirit, it is important to remember the cultural context of Kenya’s history during her time in politics. It was then not only very hostile towards the idea of women in politics, but the political climate itself was not one that tolerated any kind of dissent. Yet, she took on the government and demanded an explanation for the infamous Nyayo house chambers, the disastrous famine of 1980 and the glaring corruption that plagued Moi’s government.
Needless to say, the state retaliated by constantly hounding her and embellishing charges against her.
‘She chose Nation over Tribe during the Moi era. This put the nail into the coffin of her political career and eventually in 1983, sent her into exile in neighbouring Tanzania,’ says Koigi. She had been informed that Moi had hatched a plot to prosecute her over some alleged false mileage claims that she had made while in Parliament.
Chelagat quietly returned to the country in the late 80s and took up various jobs away from the political sector. A sensible act of self-preservation given the extremely repressive conditions in Kenya at the time!
Though there is no public record of Chelagat referring to herself as a feminist, she made it clear that as a woman, she found fulfillment outside of traditional ‘gender roles’. In an exclusive interview with the Standard newspaper in 2009, Chelagat revealed that she had no intention of getting married. ‘It was never my intention to get married. After all, I would not have broken any record by getting married,’ she said.
Chelagat largely faded away from the public sphere and lived a quiet but difficult life. ‘She fought so hard for others but she herself was forgotten, and struggled with poverty,’ according to Koigi. Chelagat died on 7 July 2013, SABA SABA DAY. What a poetic way to go! Even in death, she made a bold statement like the ‘rebel with a cause’ that she was.
Veteran reporter and editor, Kipkoech Tanui, stated in her obituary: ‘They will tell you Chelagat Mutai died of a heart attack, but they will not tell you the frustrations that created this in the first place.’
Remembering Chelagat behooves us not only to acknowledge how significant have been the advances women have made in politics over the past three decades; but also to take stock of how far we still have to go. Considering that there are now more women in parliament yet sexism in politics persists. If Chelagat was still here with us today, she would’ve likely supported the implementation of the two-thirds gender bill, she certainly would be campaigning for a more just and equal society.
At the time of writing this, it was during the commemoration of the Women’s History Month – its 2021 theme of #Choosetochallenge encouraged women to choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. Chelagat encapsulated that throughout her life. She chose to challenge patriarchy.
She chose to challenge tribalism. She chose to challenge corruption and inequality. She chose to challenge gender norms and society’s expectations of womankind.
I choose to challenge my own self limitations and emulate the tenacity of Chelagat.
Long live Philomena Chelagat Mutai! Viva!