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.

This inspired her to enrol for a master’s degree in KU. From then on, she rose up the academic ladder. She also previously worked at Strathmore University and KU. But it is her revival of the Kenya School of Government (then known as the Kenya Institute of Administration) between 2005 and 2012 that put her in the limelight. The management expert recalls her tenure at the then KIA, explaining how she invested hope in the institution’s future despite suggestions to close it down.

“It was ironical and a mockery that the school was meant to be a training facility for good public practices in government yet some of the offices had their roofs falling off,” she says.

As a further symbol of the depth of decay, sections of the institution were still using pit latrines, a rare feature in urban setting.

Prof Kobia swung into action, taking simple reconstruction steps and redeeming the image of the institution without spending much money. Fast forward to today, and the Kenya School of Government stands tall among its peers — so much so that it was used as a model by the South African government to set up a similar school.

In her new role at the PSC, Prof Kobia says she is determined to bring change. The most recent move involves creating structures and guidelines to foster a good working relationship between the national and county governments. She has also initiated a strict code of conduct.

“When it comes to issues of corruption, we do not negotiate. Once caught, the employee faces the exit door. We are breaking nepotism, tribalism and laziness barriers that have tarnished the image of the civil service,” she says.

Just like her long-time friend, Prof Kobia has great hope for the institution she is leading.

“At PSC, we believe in team work. My fellow commissioners and other staff are really determined to see the civil service image change; we want to make it the place to be,” she says.

Prof Kobia believes that as a woman who values family life, her leadership in public institutions has benefited from the strong foundation of being a mother and a wife.

“My biggest success in life is bringing up my family, and seeing the children being independent,” she says.

And Prof Mugenda has a message for young aspiring leaders, especially women who have to balance their professional and family obligations. Discipline, she insists, is an attribute that every person dreaming big should cultivate.

WINNING ATTITUDE

“I normally say your attitude will define who you are. Young people should be disciplined and have a positive attitude. Develop a plan and follow it,” she says, adding that lot of sacrifice is needed if one is to achieve one’s dreams.

According to Prof Kobia, women should take charge of their lives and drop the notion that the man is always the bread winner.

“When I was newly married, I had a very rough time with my husband because I did almost everything and was always working hard to make the family comfortable. My husband initially thought I was taking up his roles, but we later agreed it was important to complement each other. That is how it should be,” she says.

Prof Kobia is concerned that many have embraced a distorted notion of what a career woman is all about.

“Organisations are looking for good talent regardless of gender. Women with qualifications, experience and superior performance are today more likely to be appointed as directors in boards. I advise women to seek opportunities for learning and growth in the corporate world,” she says.

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A SHORT HISTORY

Mother’s Day: 100 years later

Historian Ms Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College says the celebration can be traced back to the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organiser Ann Reeves Jarvis—Anna’s mother—held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination.

In 1870, Ms Jarvis initiated a Mother’s Friendship Day for Union and Confederate loyalists across her state.

But it was her daughter Anna who was most responsible for what we call Mother’s Day. Ms Anna Jarvis never had children of her own, but the 1905 death of her mother inspired her to organise the first Mother’s Day observances in 1908.

On May 10 of that year, families gathered at events in Ms Jarvis’s hometown of Grafton, West Virginia—at a church now renamed the International Mother’s Day Shrine—as well as in Philadelphia, where Ms Jarvis lived at the time, and in several other cities.

Writing for the National Geographic, Mr Brian Handwerk says through Jarvis’s efforts, Mother’s Day largely came to be observed in a growing number of American cities and states until US President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday.

“For Jarvis it was a day where you’d go home to spend time with your mother and thank her for all that she did,” Ms Antolini told National Geographic in a previous interview.

“It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known—your mother—as a son or daughter.”

That’s why Jarvis stressed the singular “Mother’s Day,” rather than the plural “Mothers’ Day,” Ms Antolini explained.

But Jarvis’s success soon turned to failure, at least in her own eyes. Anna Jarvis’s idea of an intimate Mother’s Day quickly became a commercial gold mine centering on the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards—a development that deeply disturbed Jarvis.

She set about dedicating herself and her sizable inheritance to returning Mother’s Day to its reverent roots.

Jarvis incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and tried to retain some control of the holiday.

She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.

Ms Jarvis’s fervent attempts to reform Mother’s Day continued until at least the early 1940s, argues Mr Handwerk in the National Geographic. In 1948 she died at 84 in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium.

“This woman, who died penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia, was a woman who could have profited from Mother’s Day if she wanted to,” Antolini said. “But she railed against those who did, and it cost her everything, financially and physically.”

-Compiled from agencies