Had Grace Monica Akech Onyango never joined politics, her contribution to society would already have been immense. Onyango was a teacher; the first woman assistant commissioner of the Girl Guide Association; and chairperson of the Child Welfare Society’s Kisumu branch. But when she sauntered into politics, her impact became immeasurable.
Reckoning with the magnitude of change that Onyango ushered into Kenyan politics requires one to understand that by the time Onyango was getting into active politics, Jomo Kenyatta’s post-independence government and parliament did not have a single woman in its fold.
The one time that a woman had come close to infiltrating the high-up political ranks was in 1964 when Ruth Habwe, the one-time Maendeleo ya Wanawake chair, contested for a seat in the House of Representatives— for which she paid dearly. Habwe’s political aspirations provoked backlash and ridicule, and if that were not enough, a suspension from the Kenya National African Union (KANU), a behemoth of a ruling party at the time.
Much as women had had a hand in Kenya attaining independence – think the whole spectrum from Mekatilili Wa Menza to Priscilla Abwao – a rhetoric playing out was that women belonged, perhaps, in kitchens—where Habwe had been ‘advised’ to skedaddle to by some men MPs— just not in politics.
But not Onyango.
After years in teaching and active community service, Onyango found herself naturally gravitating towards elective politics. At the grassroots level, this came down to councilorship.
Having from time to time observed that “there was no woman in the municipal council, not even a sweeper!” Onyango knew the council was where she needed to start her revolution. Fully cognizant of what it meant to challenge the status quo at the time, Onyango knew she had to attune to battle conditions, and this meant rallying up support from her own.
And so it happened that Onyango allied with like minded local women under the umbrella of the Gill Women Group, marshalling the muscle needed to earn her and one Masella Osir nominations to each run for municipal council seats.
As anticipated, the two faced great opposition.
Sexism kicked in. Men not mincing their words made it known that the council was no place for women. Osir buckled under the pressure. Onyango steered on. A reward for Onyango’s resistance and stoicism was beating her three male opponents and winning the Kaloleni Ward seat, making her the first council woman in Kisumu and in Kenya. History was made.
And because crises forge leaders, in 1965 when Kenya’s first African Mayor, Kisumu’s own, Mathias Ondiek passed on, Onyango saw an opportunity to rise higher up in the ranks.
Onyango put in a request to the Council to serve as deputy mayor for a period of 90 days until elections to find a replacement of Mayor Ondiek took place. Those tasked with matters council, oblivious to her plans, granted her request. As it was, mayors were elected from among the councillors, and therefore Onyango’s ask was not out of reach.
For anyone who understands the work that goes into campaigning for political office, achieving anything – let alone something formidable in 90 days is near impossible. Yet a calculative Onyango made it seem like child’s play.
At the time, Kisumu was facing a huge housing crisis and anyone who would have an answer to this was sure to win the peoples’ hearts.
As one who had done her homework, Onyango knew the right buttons to press, and so for the 90 days she was in office, Onyango laid the groundwork for her next election campaigns (she already had plans) by making the provision of housing the motif to her campaign. She was dead on the money. When elections came about on 1 August 1965, Onyango was elected mayor, becoming the first woman of African descent — Gwladys Lady Delamere, Mayor of Nairobi, was the first female mayor in 1938 — in Kenya to ascend to mayorship.
As mayor, Onyango is remembered for pushing for the replacement of dead or retired male officers in the council with either their widows or sisters or daughters. It is on this premise that Onyango instituted an unconventional seat of Mayoress, which was taken up by Phililia Olang – Mayor Mathias Ondiek’s widow. Olang would accompany Onyango to council functions.
In addition to winning hearts through her empathetic politics, Onyango’s administration delivered on its housing promise and other infrastructural projects including roads. It was also in her tenure that some roads were renamed to bear names of African leaders such as Paul Mbuya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya.
But as Onyango’s mayorship was taking shape, something big was brewing.
Just months into her first term as Mayor (on 14 April 1966), Kenya’s Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga resigned from government and formed a left-leaning political party, the Kenya People’s Union Party (KPU) alongside freedom fighters Bildad Kaggiah and Achieng’ Oneko, in opposition to the ruling party KANU. The exit from KANU and government intensified further a rift that had long existed between Tom Mboya, the then Minister for Economic Planning and Development as well as KANU’s Secretary General and Jaramogi.
Both Mboya – one of the few remaining in the upper echelons of government at the time – and Jaramogi had a cult-like following in Kisumu and within the Luo community at large, and so what had initially been national party politics seeped into local government fissures.
Onyango was caught in the KANU-KPU crosshairs. Jaramogi and Mboya’s wars and woes became hers.
Attacks were lodged on Onyango, some direct from Mboya who was convinced that Onyango was a KPU adherent and others through KANU’s loyal foot soldiers such as Kisumu Branch Organising Secretary at the time John Oloo. Oloo accused Onyango and the Kisumu council of having “become an individual’s tool’’, alluding that the Mayor was “following a policy of Odingaism” as matters employment in council went, further implying that the council was “harbouring a larger number of disgruntled KPU youth wingers” in its workforce.
All through her term though, Onyango managed to remain publicly impartial, never really showing her hand. But come 1968 when the local government campaign period was officially opened, her allegiance was clear for all to see. She applied to run on a KPU ticket.
As fate would have it, she and 21 others were locked out of the race.
According to District Commission E.M Psenjen, Onyango’s disqualification was on the grounds that she had not used ‘’her own electoral number on her forms’’, a flimsy excuse that needed one not strain hard to see the hands pulling the strings.
A back and forth between Mboya and Onyango ensued.
Onyango’s take was that Mboya was “over-excited about her political influence in Kisumu”. To settle their differences, Onyango challenged Mboya to a debate. It didn’t materialise. Mboya derisively dismissed her request, claiming Onyango was not worth sharing a platform with and that she was reaping the fruits of what she had sown. But be that as it may, Onyango had made it known she was a force to reckon with.
By 1969, Onyango had acquired massive political clout, so much so that the executive committee of the Luo Union (East Africa) elected her to serve as secretary-general of the organisation. This happened just before the much awaited Kenyan general elections, where Jaramogi was to face off with Jomo Kenyatta for the presidency.
Established in 1953 with Jaramogi as its Ker (President), Joel Omer (one of the first Luo Adventist pastors) as the vice president and Adala Otuko as secretary general, the Luo Union (East Africa) was an inter-territorial entity aimed at building cohesion among Luos across East Africa and coordinating efforts in the nationalist movement working to free Kenya from imperialist rule. The core leadership of the union was men, and so for Onyango, a woman (in a still patriarchal society) to be at the helm was no small feat.
However, that same year that saw Onyango’s political stature grow witnessed the death of Foreign Affairs Minister CMG Argwings Kodhek (29 January) in a mysterious road accident, followed by the assassination of Mboya (5 July) on Government Road (now Moi Avenue). The deaths of the two prominent Luo leaders and the continued crackdown on KPU leaders had raised political tensions in the community, but the worst was yet to happen.
On 25 October 1969, against this charged political powder keg, a clash of words ensued between Kenyatta and Odinga as the President officially opened the Soviet-built New Nyanza General Hospital (now Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital but popularly known as Russia). Regrettably, this resulted in deaths and injuries of an unconfirmed number of civilians—The Kisumu Massacre, since the presidential guard opened fire, with later justifications being that the marauding crowd was surging towards Kenyatta. Days later KPU was banned, its leaders detained without trial and Kenya thrusted into a de facto one-party state.
By some sheer luck, Grace Onyango was re-admitted into KANU. And when primary elections were held on 6 December 1969, Onyango won the Kisumu Town parliamentary seat by a landslide, garnering 5,505 votes against 2,020 from her closest rival Iganje Caleb Seveni. Onyango became the first woman elected to the August House.
Sadly, Onyango’s win was accompanied by the loss of her husband Onyango Baridi (a teacher-turned-journalist working with the Kenya News Agency), leaving her with the herculean task of fending for six children while finding her footing in parliament.
Having cut her political teeth in council politics, it was only a matter of time before Onyango forged her place in the chamber of 157 men. If anything, Onyango often joked that having herded cows with men as she grew up in Gem, she did not feel intimidated by them.
Onyango soon crafted her niche as a strong defender of mwanainchi and women’s rights.
Within her first few months in parliament, Onyango was already putting to task the Minister for Information and Broadcasting Jeremiah Nyagah to abolish radio and TV licences so as “to enable the poor people to listen to radio broadcasts without fear of being arrested for not being in possession of radio and television licences.” Until 1990, Kenyans had to pay an annual licence fee for their TV and radio sets.
In 1971, Minister for Local Government Dr Julias Kiano was on Onyango’s radar on the government’s plans to avail bicycle licences in chief’s camps or police stations, for purposes of cutting the distance that bicycle owners had to travel to get their licences. At the time, anyone owning a bicycle had to pay a licence fee of between KSh. 5 and 7.50, which could only be procured from the municipal council and district officers’ offices.
Further, although it wasn’t until 1977 that Kenya implemented paid maternity leave for women through the Employment (Foreign Contracts of Service) Rules of 1977, Onyango had raised the matter in parliament as early as 1970.
And when Tsuma Washe Guro alias Kajiwe, a prolific Giriama witch-hunter was arrested and detained under the Public Security Act for collecting money from the public and issuing oaths, Onyango was among the MPs who questioned the legality of his detention. Tongue in cheek, Onyango had retorted that Kajiwe was only trying to unite his people at the Coast as had been the case in Central Province when the Kikuyu were taking oaths to unite themselves. “How is it that this can be done one way only? How is it that this can only be done by some people and not others, and yet we are all Kenyans?” she asked (she was alluding to oaths administered in Central Kenya immediately after Mboya’s death).
It was also in her first term that Onyango backed a motion tabled by MP B.M Karungaru, pushing that no person ought to be arrested and prosecuted on grounds of drunkenness until medical evidence was availed.
In addition to dominating debates in the chambers, by the time Onyango lost her Kisumu parliamentary seat to Dr. Robert Ouko in 1983, she had served in numerous committees including the select committee on unemployment; the sessional committee; the catering committee; the speaker’s committee and the Select Committee on the Disappearance and Murder of the Late Member for Nyandarua North, J.M. Kariuki.
For her pioneering and illustrious career, Onyango was awarded the Order of the Burning Spear 1st Class, Chief of the Burning Spear (CBS) by President Uhuru Kenyatta and was a recipient of the Kenya Eminent Women Trailblazers Award in 2022. Warm-hearted, razor-sharp and dauntless, Onyango stood as a monument to Ruth Habwe’s 1964 words, “It is time men started to change their thinking, for today’s woman can no longer be regarded as yesterday’s. Women will no longer be subservient to men.”
Their memories and legacies endure, forever.