Organizing was at the heart of Wangui’s activism. She is associated with Bunge La Mwananchi (People’s Parliament), the Unga Revolution, Kenya Network of Grassroots Organizations among other initiatives. Her commitment to the struggles of poor people in Kenya is a rich legacy for all those who believe in a just society.
In 2003, on the ground floor of the prestigious Bruce House, on Muindi Mbingu Street in Nairobi’s CBD, a beautiful young lady sat properly in the director’s chair of the offices that were simply marked in the building’s directory as Mary Wangui Mbatia. The establishment provided information and placement services for students looking to study in the US and Europe. Being on the ground floor, the reception area also provided photocopying and printing services.
During lunch hour on one of the early days of the Kibaki regime, a group of young activists walked into the establishment looking to make copies of a document. Since the receptionist was out for lunch, Wangui - a US-trained lawyer - walked out to the reception area to make the copies herself and could not help notice the title of the document which was the “Anti-terrorism Bill” that was at the time being debated in the Kenyan parliament. Taking a deep interest in the document, she asked what the group was doing with it and after a quick perusal and brief discussion, she was invited by the group’s leader, James “Jimmy” Kabutu of Bunge la Mwananchi, to a discussion that had been organized by the Kenya Human Rights Commission in a city hotel.
During the discussion, Wangui turned out to be the most informed about the contents and consequences of the bill and ended up schooling the entire forum on the draconian nature of that bill, which, to her, was more or less an appendage of the “Patriot Act” of the US and which subordinated our justice system to theirs.
After that session, the group from Bunge la Mwananchi (People’s Parliament) - a social movement that provided the citizens a platform to debate and act on social, economic and political issues affecting their lives - invited her to Jeevanjee Gardens, the movement’s meeting point, to teach the rest of the members about the bill and other issues. She quickly got hooked to the sessions of the movement and became the “de facto” leader of the campaign against the “Anti-Terrorism Bill” as well as the Bunge la Mwananchi movement and the grassroots movement in the country.
By 2004, she had become a strong voice in the country and in the constitutional review debate where she became a determinant of public opinion and leading proponent of the “Bomas Draft”. When in 2005 the government through Attorney General Amos Wako perverted this draft and produced what came to be known as the “Wako Draft”, Wangui led the troops of Bunge la Mwananchi to the heavily populated Kencom Bus Terminus for what became the most publicly vocal opposition to the corrupted version of the proposed constitution. This is where the 2005 “No” movement truly began.
Her voice had become truly national. The energy that she threw into campaigns on different social issues was phenomenal. But the traction gained by her campaigns did not just come from “reason of force” but more by her “force of reason”. By 2005, the cost of living had sky-rocketed and accessing basic commodities was becoming a nightmare for the common mwananchi [citizen]. The cost of a 2-kilogram packet of Unga (maize-meal, a staple food in Kenya) cost almost a dollar (Ksh.75) which was more than the entire daily earning of over 60% of Kenyans (Kenyans living below the poverty line). Wangui argued that during the previous regime of former President Daniel arap Moi the cost of Unga increased from Ksh. 3 in 1978 to Ksh.27 in 2002, when he left power; an increase of Ksh.24 in 24 years. Based on this simple arithmetic, she showed that Unga should not cost more than Ksh.30 in 2005, especially since we were supposed to be in a new and “liberated” political dispensation led by a reputed economist.
The cry of “Unga 30 bob!” was born and has since become the hallmark of the biggest demonstrations held in Kenya on issues to do with food and the cost of living. This was the earliest conception of the “Unga Revolution”, a movement in its own right that is still growing today and has become the embodiment of the push for the realization of the socio-economic rights encapsulated in Article 43 of the current Constitution of Kenya.
Wangui’s cry for social justice saw her organize a parallel World Social Forum in 2007 in what might probably be her greatest achievement in opening up the space for participation by the common mwananchi on issues affecting them. This was necessitated by the co-optation of the WSF space by “corporates” and big-name NGOs which had made the event exclusive and had even put up a charge of Ksh.500 to attend the event which was being held at Kasarani Stadium, an area on the outskirts of the city that was inaccessible by many Nairobians who lived in the slums in other ends of the city.
The alternative forum, which was held at the Jeevanjee Gardens, drew more attention from the international media than the multi-million-dollar event at Kasarani and most of the true revolutionaries who attended this event said that it represented the true spirit of the WSF as it was envisaged before the coming of the corporates and the NGOs with their elitist agendas.
This standoff created an icy wall between Wangui and the conventional civil society organizations which took years to thaw and it is only her personal relationships with individuals within the CSO/NGO world that allowed her to collaborate with them on national issues that demanded unity beyond personal differences.
Her highest point during the WSF came when she represented Kenya during the presentations of the African Social Movements (ASM) and singularly managed to outshine even the South Africans who came with their powerful anti-apartheid Zulu chants and dances. Mary Tfosa Wangui Mbatia was the single biggest phenomeon during this event. The WSF’s daily newspaper for the next day carried her image on the whole of the front page with the headline reading “The Poor Now Have a Voice”.
She made hundreds of international links and got dozens of invitations to give solidarity in struggles across the world. The biggest invitation she got was for 45 members of Bunge la Mwananchi to travel to Germany to attend the events running parallel to the G-8 summit that was taking place in May of that year. Unfortunately, logistical issues and internal politics within BLM ruined this arrangement and she ended up travelling alone.
Wangui Mbatia never shied from taking on behemoths of all sizes. When in 2007 parliamentarians attempted to grant themselves a gratuity, she joined hands with the rest of civil society in protesting against this travesty which was going to add unnecessary burden to the already over-burdened mwananchi. This led to her arrest, one of the countless times that she ended up in court while protesting on a myriad of issues and had to keep on reappearing for needless mentions and hearings. Although she never practised law, the skills she learned as a lawyer in the US were always called upon during these trying moments when many a time the lawyers who represented them pro bono were unable to make it for these cases.
In 2009, together with Mwalimu Mati of Mars Group, they started Kenya OTNOP (pronounced Otpor- which is Serbian for “Resist”) movement which challenged the excesses and corruption within government and called upon Kenyans to join hands in resisting the tyranny of the state. It is this movement that introduced the “clenched fist” as a symbol of resistance in Kenya, an image that is now being used by almost all resistance movements and initiatives in the country. Their black T-shirts with the white wordings became the uniform for protests in Kenya that year. This was Wangui the revolutionary.
Community organizing was at the center of Wangui Mbatia’s heart. In 2006, along with her colleagues, they established the Kenya Network of Grassroots Organizations (KENGO), a network that brought together and built on the capacities of CBOs and other grassroots movements while connecting them to international partners. Its network spanned the country and this allowed her to travel and meet people engaged in different struggles. Its membership constituted several hundred organizations and continued growing until the time she became ill and could no longer actively participate in its development.
Towards the 2013 general election, Wangui Mbatia’s views became more political and after the election, she became a mainstay of the K24 TV breakfast menu where she did the review and analysis of the daily newspapers during her segment. Her grasp of issues and articulation of her views were quite unmatched.
Wangui Mbatia rarely took issues personally and would seem to shift sides on topical issues as she constantly strived to be on the side of the truth and the oppressed. At times she took the side that had the least support just to show that the other point of view was just as valid. But whatever side she was on, you would want to be on that side since she had a habit of intellectually vanquishing those who opposed her thought. She was an intellectual of an unmatched calibre.
Wangui Mbatia slowed down in her late 30s to raise a family. She met Polycarp Masaki, a quietly intelligent avid reader who complimented her at a deep level and brought out her sensitive and emotional side. Wangui gave birth to a beautiful daughter named Celine whom at a very early age exhibits the parents’ intelligence and the mother’s exceptional abilities.
In late 2013, Wangui started experiencing abdominal pains and subsequent tests showed that she had cancer. After initial treatment and extensive surgery in India along with a determined fight by Wangui, the cancer disappeared. Unfortunately and unexpectedly it reappeared at a very advanced stage in late 2016.
At 8:48 am on the morning of 10 February, 2017, Wangui Mbatia Nyauma lost her struggle against cancer and passed on to a place beyond the pain that she had endured in her 4-year fight. She leaves behind a loving husband, a beautiful daughter and a continuing struggle against injustice that should be inherited and continued by all those who believe they are fighting for a just and equal society.
Mary Tfosa Wangui Nyauma was truly phenomenal.
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