Section B:
The Political Career of a Female Politician
Modest and soft-spoken, Agatha Muthoni Mbogo, 24, is hardly the image of a revolutionary. Yet, six months ago, she did a most revolutionary thing: She ran for mayor of Embu, Kenya, and won.
Ms. Mbogo's victory was even more surprising because she was voted in by her colleagues on the District Council, all men. For the thousands of women in this farming area two hours northeast of Nairobi, Ms. Mbogo suddenly became a symbol of the increasingly powerful political force women have become in Kenya and across Africa.
Ms. Mbogo launched her dream of a career in politics in 1992 by running for the Embu Council, facing the obstacles that often trouble African women running for political office. She had little money. She had no political experience. She faced ridiculous questions about her personal life. "My opponent kept insisting that I was going to get married to somebody in another town and move away," Ms. Mbogo said.
Ms. Mbogo also faced misunderstanding among the town's women, many of whom initially were unwilling to vote for her. She became an ambassador for women's political rights, giving speeches before women's groups and going from door to door, handbag in hand, spending hours at a time giving a combination of speech and government lesson.
"I was delighted when she won the election, because men elected her," said Lydiah Kimani, an Embu farmer and political activist. "It was the answer to my prayers because it seemed to be a victory over this idea that 'women can't lead'."
Education of African women has become a top priority for political activists. One organization has held dozens of workshops in rural Kenya to help women understand the nation's constitution and the procedures and theory behind a democratic political system. One veteran female political activist said that many women had not been taught the basics of political participation. They are taught to vote for the one who "gives you a half-kilo sack of flour, 200 grams of salt, or a loaf of bread" during the campaign, said the activist.
Women politicians and activists say they are fighting deeply held cultural traditions. Those traditions teach that African women cook, clean, take care of children, sow and harvest crops and support their husbands. They typically do not inherit land, divorce their husbands, control their finances or hold political office.
Yet, political activity among Kenyan women is not a new phenomenon. During the struggle for independence in the 1950s, Kenyan women often secretly provided troops with weapons and spied on the positions of colonial forces. But after independence, leaders jealous to protect their power shut them out of politics, a situation repeated across the continent.
Today, men still have the upper hand. Women in Kenya make up 60 percent of the people who vote, but only 3 percent of the National Assembly. No Kenyan woman has ever held a cabinet post.
Against that background, Agatha Mbogo began her political career. After winning her council seat, she declined a spot on the education and social services committee after a colleague called it "a woman's committee". She instead joined the town planning committee, a much more visible assignment.
Then last year, she decided to challenge Embu's mayor, a veteran politician. Ms. Mbogo said she had become frustrated because the donor groups that provide substantial aid to Kenya's rural areas "did not want to come here".
"We weren't seeing things done for the community," she said. "It was a scandal — the donors' money seemed to be going to individuals."
After a fierce campaign, the council elected her, 7 to 6. She said women in Embu celebrated. Men were puzzled; some were hostile. They asked, "How could all of those men vote for a woman?" she recalled.
Ms. Mbogo has not met with the kinds of abuse that other female politicians have been subjected to, however. Some have said their supporters are sometimes attacked with clubs after rallies. Last June, Kenyan police attempted to break up a women's political meeting northwest of Nairobi, insisting it was illegal and might start a riot. When the 100 women, including a member of the National Assembly, refused to go, officers tore down their banners and beat them with clubs and fists, witnesses reported.
In contrast, Ms. Mbogo generally receives warm greetings from the men of Embu, and many say they are now glad the council chose her.
Donor groups are now funding projects in Embu in earnest. A new market is going up downtown. A 200-bed section for new-mothers is being added to the hospital. A dormitory-style home has been built for the dozens of homeless street children who once wandered the city. Ms. Mbogo is especially proud of the market and the hospital because "they have an impact on women".
At the current market, where hundreds of people, shaded by umbrellas, lay out fruits and vegetables, one person who sells lemons said she liked the new mayor.
"I feel like if I have a problem, I can go to her office," she said. "The other mayor shouted. He acted like an emperor. He did not want to hear my problems."
Nearby, a man said he found Ms. Mbogo a refreshing change. "I'm tired of men," he said, watching over his pile of onions. "They give us so many promises, but they don't deliver the goods. As long as she keeps giving us what we want, she is all right."