Esther Murugi Mathenge is like an African red bullet chilly, small physically but packs the hardest of punches. And those who have gone head-to-head with her in the political arena have realised — but mostly too late — that often, a swing from her results in the end of the bout. In her years within President Mwai Kibaki’s Cabinet, she was the perfect velvet glove that cushioned an iron fist, a quality that made that time worthwhile but, more so, memorable.
Like many politicians in Kibaki’s government, Murugi too has a backstory. Away from the threats to strip naked and spontaneous jigs at political events, the silver haired legislator — a combination of age and genetics — has earned her place not only in the hearts of those she served, but also in the country’s history.
Murugi’s story does not start in 2007 when many Kenyans first heard of her after that year’s general elections. In fact, it goes way back to 1997 when she first lost vied for and lost a Parliamentary seat. She lost again in 2002.
From an early age, Murugi always aspired to be something greater. Something that would see her leave Githiru Village in Nyeri and move away from the already beaten paths that those who came before her trod. She wanted to accomplish a whole load of earthly assignments. And she wanted them this side of heaven.
Her formative years were spent not far from home. Alongside friends and neighbours, Murugi was first introduced to education at the Githiru Primary School before joining Highlands Secondary School — today’s Moi Girls Eldoret — for her secondary education. She then enrolled at the University of Nairobi in 1973 for a Land Economics degree course.
At the time, Land Economics was a preserve of men. Records from the University of Nairobi show that her class of 40 only had 2 female students. It might not have looked it then, but the years she spent in that class and later delving into an industry that was skewed against women was something of a preparation for her years in politics.
Upon her graduation after four years, Murugi was quickly absorbed into the public sector, joining the Ministry of Lands as a Lands Officer in 1977. Here she worked diligently for the public sector for three years, but somehow, Ardhi House, where the ministry was based, wasn’t enough of a challenge for her. Soon, the private sector came calling, and like many of her peers, it was too enticing to ignore. She left public service, only to return years later. Her journey back to public service though, was littered with a trailblazing career in business and the aid world.
After the government job, she joined Nairobi Homes as Property Manager before starting Mugi Property Consultants a year later. After another year, she moved to Milligan &Co Ltd — again as Property Manager. In 1989, Murugi founded Lustman & Co Ltd, a registered estate agent where she has served as director. But even this didn’t prove enough for the ambitious woman. The booming of her real estate business corresponded with a historic moment for the country.
The democratic space was opening up, and President Daniel Arap Moi was beginning to loosen the grip that he previously had on the country. Individuals with contrary political opinions were slowly finding their voices after decades of being muzzled.
Granted, the danger of openly criticising the government was still a reality, but a few brave individuals still shouted at the top of their voices. Murugi may not have been one of them, but the noise that was being made across the country got to her. And when the second multiparty elections came around in 1997, she was ready to throw her hat and heart into the ring. Or so she thought. “In my first attempt, I thought that all I needed to do was to let the voters know my plan,” she said in an interview in 86 and Counting, a publication on women leaders in the 11th Parliament. But in front of her was what seemed an unbeatable opponent. Wanyiri Kihoro too wanted that seat. And at a time of ferocious political views, and the rise of an opposition movement that promised to transform Central Kenya into a bedrock of opposition politics, Kihoro had the battle scars to show. He, like many others during that time had suffered detention, a sad chapter of his life that he wore on his sleeve unashamedly. There was little that Murugi could do to prevent a Kihoro win. That year she tasted the first of what would be many defeats in her political career.
She bided her time for five more years and in 2002, she contested the Nyeri Town Parliamentary seat again. At the time, it all seemed to go according to plan. There was a certain euphoria going on in the country and she seemed to be headed for victory. Kihoro was no longer as strong a contender as he had been in the previous election.
But there was one key difference between the two elections. This time, a party nomination for the hypnotic National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) — a unified coalition of opposition parties — seemed certain to take power from the Kenya African National Union (KANU), Kenya’s independence party.
Before she made the move for NARC, whose Presidential candidate was Kibaki, Peter Gichohi Mureithi beat her to the ticket and won the seat in a landslide victory. At that point, after two unsuccessful attempts to win the seat, the fate of Murugi’s political career seemed sealed. However, something kept her going. Throughout her losses, some of which were humiliating enough, Murugi remained loyal to her cause, treating her defeats as mere bumps along a road to a preordained destination that only she could see. This loyalty would become beneficial in the next election cycle.
Although she lost, Murugi had been a vocal campaigner for NARC’s candidate Kibaki in the 2002 General election. She was no longer an unknown entity in Nyeri Town, a constituency that the incoming President had familial ties to and remained fond of. Even after Kibaki’s successful bid, she remained within earshot of the President. Making official visits to his homes in Othaya and Nyeri whenever an opportunity arose. She found her way easily to the President’s side. She remained visible and relevant to the powers of the day. And in 2007, during the next General Election, Murugi had already cemented herself as the best Member of Parliament (MP) Nyeri Town had never voted for. Plus, she had built up a relationship with the President, becoming a key ally in his re-election bid that year. In 2007, she became third time lucky and made it to Parliament and claimed her own corner of history while at it.
A highly charged campaign period saw the men in the Parliamentary race gang up against her, making her victory all the sweeter. She had, among other things, overcome a well-orchestrated campaign against a woman candidate by male candidates who colluded to edge her out by organising male-only Party of National Unity (PNU) political campaign onslaughts. In an interview with the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), she described the fall out from that election:
“We are yet to mend fences. They begrudge me just because I beat them. Didn’t a woman have the right to win the Nyeri seat,” she explained. That was not all though. Her loyalty and perseverance earned her a spot in the Cabinet. Suddenly, all the years of hard work culminated in her being named as a minister in the Government of National Unity. “I never thought I could have a chance. There were so many competing interests and coming from the President’s backyard only diminished the slightest hope,” she said in an interview with a local daily soon after the naming of the Cabinet.
There were other perks that came with the job too. She was named as a Deputy National Women Leader at PNU. Her years as a Kibaki insider started just four months after her election when she was named Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, a role that fitted her perfectly. Her Assistant Minister was Atanas Keya Manyala. Away from the clichés that might come with a woman heading the Gender and Children’s Affairs docket, her past had prepared her for the role she was to play in this space.
While she ran her business, Murugi also worked for an international non-governmental organisation that focussed on the welfare of women and children. This not only cemented her grassroots connections but played a crucial part in providing first-hand knowledge of the needs of the category of citizens the Gender and Children’s Affairs Ministry was created to serve.
People and service have always been at the centre of her existence — a trait that Kibaki also exhibited. While at the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Murugi was credited with institutionalising the creation of a database of women professionals and of women who wished to vie for political positions. “I wanted to have a one-stop shop where we could have all relevant information about aspiring women candidates. We would then see what challenges they were facing and seek ways to help them as per their specific needs,” she said in a 2011 interview. The mechanics of government made sure she didn’t get too comfortable at her job. Midway through Kibaki’s second term, she was moved to another service-oriented ministry — Special Programmes — where she soon found herself in the middle of an international storm that had her as minister and the entire government in the middle of a storm.
In 2011 Kenya suffered one of the worst droughts in its history. The resulting famine claimed thousands of human lives. Crops failed. Pastures dried up and livestock — the bedrock of the existence of pastoralist communities — were dying in large numbers. Yet, there seemed to be a very muted response from government on the matter. When the international community started to mount pressure on the government to do more, Murugi came out guns blazing, defending the position of the State.
“Currently, we are feeding 4.4 million Kenyans,” she said in an interview with American broadcaster Voice of America (VOA). “Northern Kenya had more famine than any other part because they are pastoralists and their animals have perished, so they have no livelihood. But currently the government is providing food for all vulnerable persons.” At the time, critics said the administration had failed to prepare for a possible drought or famine, despite repeated warnings. Murugi, standing by her government, denied the charge. “We warned the pastoralists as early as October last year. We advised them to sell their animals before they lose their body weight so that they can have some money to restock when the weather is good. I think the government is doing as much as it can,” she said.
Those who served in Parliament with Murugi said she was always a straight shooter who never shied away from controversy. They said she never liked pretending and would always tell it as it was, a trait that she perhaps derived from her strong Catholic beliefs. Underneath her religious beliefs lay a shrewd politician. Her motherly look often fooled people into believing she was soft and easily malleable. In front of crowds though, Murugi often metamorphosed into many characters. She could play choirmaster, cheerleader or loyal defender all at once. Today she would speak into the heavy policy bottlenecks that prevent Kenya from becoming a middle-income country, tomorrow she would throw all sense to the wind and promise the absurd. For example, in 2011, after the naming of a number of Kenyans by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over their alleged involvement in the political chaos that rocked the country following the 2007 polls, Murugi went off on a tangent at a political rally, warning ICC of dire consequences were they to detain President Uhuru Kenyatta at the courts when he appeared for mention. “We are in your full support, and even if it means undressing, we will do it for your sake,” the Nyeri Town MP stated while teasingly holding her dress during a public rally attended by Kenyatta. She never did. What she did though was get re-elected in the 2013 General Election, becoming the first MP to capture the Nyeri Town seat for a second term since the advent of multiparty elections in Kenya.
“Learn what works for you,” she said during the 86 And Counting interview. “I mean, I’m not many things. I’m not much of a ‘shouter’. And guess what? I have come to learn that you don’t have to shout to be heard. I’m not a big talker either, and I’ve also learnt that you don’t have to promise voters heaven and earth to be elected.”
Murugi, the first born in a family of 11 children, she lost the Nyeri Town seat after serving as MP for two terms. Not bad for someone who harboured little ambition of getting into politics.
In hindsight, however, it seems that she was almost pre-ordained to walk the path she chose to walk. Her aunts and grandmother were community leaders at different levels. “I had never thought I would end up in politics. My only concern for people was their welfare,” she said in an interview with KEWOPA.
Today, Murugi spends her time with the other loves of her life: business, farming, swimming and reading.