As a young girl, Irene Kendi had to fight for a market space to sell her wares in Meru. And her fighting spirit was more evident during her campus days when she teamed up with the now Embakasi MP Babu Owino. She talks about her childhood, being rejected by her father, early marriage as well as her winning spirit
During her campus years at University of Nairobi, Irene Kendi earned the moniker Mama Yao for fighting for the rights of her comrades. The 31-year-old has been known for her activism and her passion for women.
But all this didn’t begin in her campus years—this third born in a family of four girls, was raised by a single mother after her father deserted her late mother for giving birth to girls. This consequently resulted in her having a passion to prove to the world that she could make it as a woman.
“I wanted to bring my mother out of poverty. I also needed to show the world that a woman is not a lesser being,” she says.
She grew up in Maua town, Meru. Kendi, at a young age, had to balance between going to school and assisting her mother at the market. This is where she developed her interpersonal leadership as well as business skills. “I would attend school up to midday, then go to assist my mother at the market. The marketplace has all kinds of people and you have to fight for your space (Mahali
kuuzia). Also, we had to fight for customers,” she recalls.
Despite the hardship, Kendi passed her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams in 2001. Unfortunately, raising school fees was a challenge. “We held a funds drive to raise Sh35,000, but only got Sh8,000. Luckily, I had saved some money.
With this, I did my shopping while my mother negotiated for my enrolment with the Sh8,000. With that, I joined Kangeta Girls Secondary School, Meru in 2002,” she narrates.
With the help of bursary and sales from the market, Kendi remained in school. Sadly, when she was in Form Four, she fell ill and had to stay at home for eight months. Still, she got B- grade in her KCSE Exams in 2005. Due to financial constraints, she couldn’t proceed to college.
But decided to do what she knew best; selling wares at the market. She later moved in with her boyfriend, something that as she recalls, was a desperate move to find someone who could take her to school. “I wanted my boyfriend to talk to his mother to take me to school,” she says.
That never happened. With marriage, there comes pressure to have a child. The couple got a baby boy in 2008. While doing her business, she caught the attention of one of her customers who wondered why she was selling at the market with all her eloquence in English and her beauty.
The customer got her a position in the then Electoral Commission of Kenya as a voters registration clerk and later to sort the voters’ register.
With the money she received, she bought cereals from the National Cereals and Produce Board and sold them for a profit. Within a short time, she had what she thought was enough to get her to university. However, her husband and friends discouraged her. But she could hear none of it.
With the help of a former classmate, she applied for an undergraduate degree in education in the University of Nairobi. Her joy was cut short when her husband and his parents refused to stay with her son.
Armed with her son and her bag, Kendi came to Nairobi in 2011. She looked for a daycare, for her son as she went to class. When the money she had saved was almost over, she got a camera and turned to photography to get money to sustain her son and pay her rent.
At the university, her leadership passion was revived. As a two-week-old ‘fresher’, she led a demo after it came to her attention that some of the students’ IDs for those in the parallel programme were not available. “I told the ones who had no IDs to remain. We proceeded to the dean’s office to ask for an explanation. And we were given IDs within 24 hours. That was the beginning of my activism in campus,” she says.
She was a social person and many students got to know her. The same year, she led another demo. “We had gone for a while without water and electricity. This affected my photography business. I had to lead another demo and the facilities were reinstated,” she says.
During Sonu elections the following year, she was elected as the first female mayor and became a congress. She also vied for the gender affairs post.
When the Sonu constitution came up for amendment and review in 2013-2014, she was elected as a commissioner and fought for more positions for women. “I insisted that, among others, the positions of Sonu president and deputy president had to go to opposite genders,” Kendi avers.
In 2014, Babu Owino convinced her to join his team. The team won and she became the first woman to be elected for the vice chair position since the university became an independent institution in 1970.
All this while, she was having issues with her husband who had discouraged her from politics and studies. And in 2014, they went separate ways.
In 2016, she got a job at Cotu as programmes coordinator. Here she left a legacy as she formed the Cotu Queens—young women in the trade unions, who fought for women’s rights.
Currently, Kendi is a personal assistant to Prof Margaret Kobia, CS Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs. She is her advisor on youth affairs; link the professor to the youth and also meets stakeholders on her behalf.