In Summary
  • While studying at KU she was joined by Margaret, her Alliance schoolmate who graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1981, further cementing their friendship.
  • Prof Kobia, her friend and former schoolmate, is mandated with the challenging task of being in charge of more than 700,000 civil servants after her past success in reforming a sickly government institution when she was appointed director-general in 2005.
  • Unlike some women who grow their careers before settling in marriage, the two rose to professional heights while growing their families. Prof Kobia says that even when women are willing to take chances in their careers, failing to get support from their families can be demoralising.

They are arguably two of the most successful women managing top public institutions whose transformation is evident.

What is less known is their shared academic background and passion for motherhood. Prof Olive Mugenda, the first woman Vice-Chancellor of Kenyatta University (KU), and Prof Margaret Kobia, the Public Service Commission (PSC) chairperson, are two best friends who are out to bring change and redeem the image of Kenya’s public sector.

What’s more, each has successfully balanced her professional roles with the responsibility of being a mother and a wife. Their determination is one they hope will be an inspiration as Kenya joins the rest of the world today in marking Mother’s Day.

OLIVE'S STORY

For Prof Mugenda, being raised by a single mother after her parents divorced when she was young, was tough.

“I saw mom struggle. She was a teacher and, with her meagre salary, was able to take us to school. It was not easy because she had to work extra hard,” she says.

With determination and encouragement from her mother, now 81, young Olive joined the prestigious Alliance Girls High School against all odds and later proceeded to KU (then part of the University of Nairobi) for her bachelor’s degree, which she was awarded in 1979.

At KU, Olive was in a class of nine studying Home Economics, where her hard work paid off.

“I worked hard, was disciplined and eventually scored First Class honours,” she says.

Because of her impeccable performance, she secured a scholarship through the African American Institute to study in the US and joined Iowa State University for her master’s degree.

Later she would juggle her family life and studies to acquire her Ph.D at the age of 33.

While studying at KU she was joined by Margaret, her Alliance schoolmate who graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree in 1981, further cementing their friendship.

“During our days, we had to sacrifice a lot of things many young women were involved in and instead focused on studies. That choice propelled me to what I am today,” says Prof Mugenda.

Prof Kobia also got her Ph.D in the US at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003, having earlier received a master’s degree in Education from KU in 1991. Like Prof Mugenda, she also appreciates her mother as her greatest mentor who always encouraged her to get things done and not simply sit back.

Prof Mugenda has four children — two boys and two girls — while Prof Kobia has one boy and two girls. All are grown-ups.

Prof Mugenda's children Christopher Nyoike (left), Albert Gitau, Lynda Wambui and Angela Wambu/ PHOTO/COURTESY

Prof Mugenda's children Christopher Nyoike (left), Albert Gitau, Lynda Wambui and Angela Wambu/ PHOTO/COURTESY

Married to Prof Abel Mugenda, an expert in monitoring and evaluation, the VC describes her husband as a pillar who has seen her rise to great heights. For Prof Kobia, too, the support of her husband, Mr Silas Kobia, a retired director at CIC Insurance who is now a management consultant, has been crucial.

Unlike some women who grow their careers before settling in marriage, the two rose to professional heights while growing their families. Prof Kobia says that even when women are willing to take chances in their careers, failing to get support from their families can be demoralising.

Prof Mugenda concurs: “A lot of women let their family situation interfere with their career advancement. Time will run out – just balance the two and you will never regret. It is just about organising your life. If women can use role models and mentors to know how to go about it, they can succeed. They should also cultivate self-drive.”

They appreciate the foundation provided by their education at Alliance. Little things such as the discipline to wake up at 5 a.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m. have made a big difference in their lives. 

When KU came looking for a new vice-chancellor, Prof Mugenda was the only female applicant and had to face off with four men. She had risen from a departmental chairperson to a dean and later deputy vice-chancellor. Her appearance before an interviewing panel of council and senate members was a defining moment. She got the job in 2006 and has never looked back.

Transforming KU from a Sh1.5 billion budget institution into one whose annual budget is now about Sh9 billion shows her commitment to create a world-class learning institution. The VC appreciates the role of the strong and passionate team working with her at the university.

Prof Mugenda says she initiated projects that have changed the institution, including Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre, a modern library, the human anatomy laboratory and Thika Road Funeral Services.

The ultra-modern KU business and students’ services centre has various facilities including offices, a bank, restaurant and recreation amenities. Among the other major projects is the construction of a 600-bed hospital.

Prof Mugenda, who describes herself as a “firm and fair leader”, says her vision to turn KU into the best institution of its kind is still on course. One of the biggest challenges when she joined was that the university was losing money from unpaid fees.

“We sealed such loopholes and came up with a policy of prudent management, tightening the system against wastage that went to unnecessary expenses and sealing corruption avenues,” she says.

The results of her efforts have been clear.

“We moved from position 1,000 to the current 34 in Africa and from number seven in 2006 to number two in Kenya,” she says in reference to university rankings by the global web-based Webo-metric

INVESTING HOPE

Prof Kobia, her friend and former schoolmate, is mandated with the challenging task of being in charge of more than 700,000 civil servants after her past success in reforming a sickly government institution when she was appointed director-general in 2005.

Mr and Mrs Kobia with their children Ken Muriuki, Carol Munene and Joy Murunga. PHOTO/Jennifer Muiruri

Mr and Mrs Kobia with their children Ken Muriuki, Carol Munene and Joy Murunga. PHOTO/Jennifer Muiruri

Her career started in earnest as a teacher at Nairobi’s Ngara Girls High School just after completing her undergraduate degree in 1981.

She was determined to make a difference in the country at a higher level. That is how she joined the Kenya National Examinations Council in the research and curriculum development department in 1987. “Much of the work involved learning on the job because everything was new, but I had to deliver,” she says.

At that point, some of her colleagues still felt that she didn’t have requisite academic papers to be in the research department.

Page 1 of 2