Linah Jebii Kilimo recalls that teacher well — the one who introduced the aspirations and hopes that changed the course of her life. She was just a Class 4 pupil at the time, but the impact has endured.
“He would tell us stories of uncircumcised, educated women who lived in a big city called Nairobi. He would tell us of the big cars they drove. They carried their luggage in their big cars. I wanted to be like that. So, I ran away from home when the time came for the rite of passage,” she reminisced in an interview with The Standard newspaper.
Not only did the young Kilimo decide there and then to avoid ‘the cut’,’ she determined to continue with her education, which would have been replaced by an early marriage had she undergone the rite of passage. Instead, she grew up to become a leader of her Marakwet people and a staunch crusader against female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is an internationally recognised human rights violation; one most commonly perpetrated against the most vulnerable population — young girls. An estimated 200 million women worldwide have undergone FGM. It involves intentionally altering or injuring the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, usually as a cultural rite of passage from childhood to womanhood.
The medical repercussions of FGM are grievous and can include severe bleeding, infections, infertility, complications during childbirth and mental trauma. FGM is often carried out by traditional practitioners without anaesthetic or antiseptic interventions, and using crude instruments such as knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades, the UNFPA reports. In Kenya, FGM is illegal, but it wasn’t always so. Kilimo has described FGM as “the worst form of gender-based violence”.
Kilimo rallied Parliament to embrace the anti-FGM Bill, which was drafted by the Kenya Women’s Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), and passed into law as the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2011. She was Chairperson of KEWOPA from 2008 to 2013. The Act established the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Board, to which Kilimo was appointed as the first Chairperson in 2014.
The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011 is tough on FGM, criminalising both the performance of FGM, and assisting in its performance, availing premises for it or even failing to report that it is being planned or performed. Indeed, under Section 25 of the Act: “Any person who uses derogatory or abusive language that is intended to ridicule, embarrass or otherwise harm a woman for having not undergone female genital mutilation, or a man for marrying or otherwise supporting a woman who has not undergone female genital mutilation, commits an offence and shall be liable, upon conviction, to imprisonment for a term not less than six months, or to a fine of not less than fifty thousand shillings, or both.”
Kilimo was at this time Assistant Minister for Cooperative Development, having been appointed to that post in 2008. She has expressed her admiration for President Mwai Kibaki, stating that she viewed him as a father figure and that he mentored her into leadership. And in Kibaki, Kilimo had a boss who was very much on the same page when it came to abolishing FGM. Kibaki himself had spoken publicly against the practice as early as 2001 while he was Leader of the Opposition, when he thanked President Daniel arap Moi for taking a strong stand against FGM. In 2001, through the Children’s Act, Kenya had outlawed FGM for any child under the age of 18 years. That same year, the Ministry of Health circulated a policy directive making FGM illegal in all health facilities.
The Kibaki government took it a step further by signing the Maputo Protocol in 2003 — which stipulates in Article 5 that FGM should be prohibited and condemned — and in 2004 launched a toll free helpline for children in distress. But FGM proponents were not easily deterred, and news reports of hundreds of children forced to undergo FGM continued to run in the media. For example, a 2003 BBC report indicated that “100 Kenyan girls are in hiding from their parents as they seek to escape forced [FGM]”. Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women’s groups continued to work to end FGM, and so when Kilimo introduced the anti-FGM Bill to Parliament, it was a very welcome law indeed.
For Kilimo, the fight against FGM has been very personal; one that has continued from the day she made her decision to reject the practice. She has had to go through various embarrassing situations since the cultural belief in and practice of FGM among her Marakwet people did not fade away overnight. She has recounted how during her election campaigns her political opponents made reference to the fact that she had not undergone ‘the cut’ as a reason why she was not fit for leadership. This may have worked against them, as not only was Kilimo elected, but the law was on her side and their remarks gave her a platform to speak out against the practice.
Kilimo’s fight against FGM is therefore one she has fought from inside government and from the outside. She established the Jebii Kilimo Foundation, which focuses on bringing an end to FGM in the North Rift. She continues to work ceaselessly with NGOs and other activists towards the eradication of FGM.
But Kilimo is much more than an anti-FGM activist in her community. She is a peacemaker and an environmentalist.
Eyaa Kalya, Mother of Peace. That’s the name by which she is fondly known among the Pokot and Marakwet communities in the Rift Valley. And what a compliment it is, coming from communities that did not see eye to eye for a long time.
Perennial cattle rustling between the two pastoral communities has been at the root of the dispute and has spanned decades. Because the dispute was traditionally seen as a men’s affair, the women hadn’t really had a voice in it. Now they had one, a very wise one, in Kilimo.
“I went and spoke in their barazas in a language they could understand. I knelt as I spoke to them so that they could understand that mine was not a command but a plea.
I spoke to them of the aged woman who now had to live with the pain of losing a son in old age when she could no longer conceive. I spoke of the reality of the intermarriage between our communities, to show them that we really are just two sides of the same coin,” she explained in a 2018 interview with The Standard newspaper. “I told them that the pain of Marakwet woman watching her children sleep hungry was just as deep as that of a Pokot woman in the same shoes.”
Kilimo went beyond persuasion with words; she worked on solving some of the underlying problems in a practical manner, reviving markets, ensuring access to both communities and securing government food aid.
Her efforts, alongside those of other regional leaders, were instrumental in laying a foundation for peace between the two communities. As a result, the Marakwet-Pokot peace deal in 2002, popularly known as the Kolowa Declaration was brokered. Although there have been intermittent outbreaks of clashes since then, these talks planted the notion in the minds of the people of that region that lasting peace is an attractive possibility.
Kilimo has used her negotiation skills to bring peace, not just between warring communities, but also to bring solutions to the discord that oftentimes occurs between man and environment. In 2009 she led a taskforce on the restoration of Embobut Forest in Elgeyo Marakwet County. By 2008, nearly three-quarters of the forest, covering an area of 16,000 ha, had been decimated by squatters, loggers and charcoal burners, resulting in massive soil erosion, siltation of rivers and a drastic decline in their water levels.
A consultation meeting in April 2009 had determined that the population settled in the forest must be removed to save it. The issue now was how to identify and satisfactorily resettle the genuine forest residents. Kilimo personally resided within the forest for 120 days during the negotiation process which resulted in temporary relocation of forest residents to the forest glades as they awaited relocation to alternative land.
Kilimo has turned out to be a real asset to her community. The reality of her achievements has surpassed the aspirations she had as a young girl, for how could she have foreseen the impact she would have on a community which did not have a tradition of women as leaders?
For a time, Kilimo focused on her education. She aspired to be a doctor, but did not get the opportunity to study medicine. Instead she studied mathematics, and for more than 10 years, she worked for Kenya Commercial Bank. It must have seemed then that, like for most people who worked in banks back then, she would be a banker for life, rising through the ranks and ending with a comfortable retirement.
A wife and mother of five, Kilimo cuts a dignified and gentle figure; a humble lady with a ready smile. She keeps her family life out of the limelight but has described a satisfying family life, where she can just switch off her phone and enjoy time with her loved ones. It is said that you can tell a lot about a woman by what she carries in her handbag. In Kilimo’s handbag, she carries a Bible; a testament to her faith in Jesus, who she confesses to be her Saviour and greatest inspiration, and who is legendary for his servant leadership.
Kilimo’s faith and personality are reflected in her leadership style as well. She endeared her constituents to vote for her by expressing herself as a servant leader; a woman who was out to serve them, not one who sought to be powerful or masculine. They could relate to a woman serving her husband and children, so if service was her goal as a leader, they had no reason to deny her their votes.
Kilimo ventured into politics in 1997 on a Kenya African National Union (KANU) ticket, but lost at the party primaries. She ended up running that year on a Social Democratic Party of Kenya (SDP) ticket, and losing. In 2002 the tables turned when she ran on a National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ticket, unseating the KANU candidate and outgoing Member of Parliament (MP), John Marrimoi. She was appointed as a Cabinet Minister of State in the Office of the President, where she served for a year, forming a team with Permanent Secretary (PS) W.P. Godo. She was a NARC MP in the NARC government, and a Cabinet Minister for Immigration and Registration of Persons when she made the bold move of opposing the proposed Constitution in 2005. She explained that as a servant leader, she had to represent her constituents wishes and interests, which however, she asserted, did not negate her respect for authority. Nevertheless, she lost her Cabinet position as a result of her stand.
Kilimo retained her seat in 2007, this time on a Kenya National Democratic Alliance (KENDA) ticket, hence serving her constituents for 10 fruitful years, from 2002 to 2012. The all-weather roads built during her tenure as MP for Marakwet East reflect the legacy of Kibaki, her boss and mentor, who is perhaps best remembered for infrastructure development in the country. Kilimo also ensured appropriate funding for local schools to ensure adequate provision of books, teachers, food programmes and clothing. She also had her downs, bearing the brunt of a scandal in her constituency over the misuse of Constituency Development Funds during her second term that resulted in a probe of her CDF team.
Kilimo served as Assistant Minister for Cooperatives Development from 2008 to 2012, with Minister Joseph Nyagah and PS Patrick Khaemba; a fast-growing sector that flourished during this time.
In 2013 Kilimo ran as a candidate for The National Alliance (TNA) party but lost to the United Republican Party (URP) candidate, David Kangogo Bowen. Again in 2017 she failed to recapture the seat when she ran as an independent candidate. In 2020 she was appointed a Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. By fate or coincidence, her name ‘Kilimo’ means agriculture in Kiswahili. It is undeniable that this is a fitting position from which she continues to serve, not only her former constituents, who are traditionally pastoralists, and increasingly farmers, but the nation as a whole.
Kilimo continues to model servant leadership as a peace builder and a human rights champion, defending the rights of girls to health, education, hope and a future. With Kilimo as their role model, they have reason for hope indeed.