Caroline Chege Is the Politician the World Needs
A woman runs for election in a bitterly divided country. The election is close, but in the end, she loses. It’s a narrative we all know, but this time it could have a very different end.
Caroline Wambui Chege is a Kenyan woman from Maasai lands. She has a degree in business from the University of Liverpool, in 2008 she did humanitarian work in a war zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo, working as a liaison between aid groups and communities. She also canvassed to get out the Black vote for the Labour Party in the UK.
In her home district in Kaijado County, Chege serves as a women’s rights ambassador through an organization called the Women’s Rights Awareness Programme. She also founded a non-profit, Sozo Kenya Youth Initiative, which advocates to end inequality in low-income neighborhoods through social and economic empowerment. In 2013, Chege’s love of Kajiado County and her passion for justice inspired her to run for a seat at the County Assembly. “I saw and experienced injustices and inequalities in Kenyan society on a daily basis,” Chege says of that race. “I refused to be silent.”
She believes her refusal to be silent cost her the election. But, Chege, the only woman on the ballot, came in a close second. In 2017, Chenge is hoping to close that gap.
Despite efforts to enact quotas, Kenyan women remain vastly underrepresented in political positions—only 19.4% of Parliament seats are held by women, a percentage that is, in fact, a little higher than the percentage of women in the US House of Representatives. Of the forty-seven elected Senate seats in Kenya—each representing a different county—not a single seat is held by a woman. During the last election cycle, 95% of candidates were men.
Women who seek positions of power in Kenya are often the target of vicious attacks. Chege is no exception. Her 2013 campaign left many scars. She was mocked. She received death threats. Yet Chege is still determined to fight for the rights of women in Kajiado County. And she has set her sights higher this election cycle—today she is running to become senator. Her goal is to show women and girls that they are powerful and that their voices are important. This time, it’s personal.
I first met Chege in Nairobi at the end of November 2016. Nairobi is quickly gaining the reputation as the Silicon Savannah—hosting the African headquarters of Google and IBM. But more than the big tech names, Nairobi is filled with women who are working to find solutions to the world’s biggest problems: cell phone apps to help women access healthcare, feminist carwashes employing women at the community level, startups to train women in solar panel installation.
Chege is innovating in her own way, training to become a leader alongside these female entrepreneurs and techies as she builds her political career. While the idea of women as leaders of tech start ups is catching on, the idea isn’t translating to politics. Kenya—at 19%—has one of the lowest percentages of women in Parliament in all of Africa. Chege sees women’s political leadership as the next “it” thing—the true innovation that will finally end harmful practices and beliefs that hold women back.
I sit down with Chege the next day at a local hotel to talk to talk further. She arrives in full Maasai dress—handmade beads on flowing red fabric and the beaded jewelry that is the livelihood of so many Maasai women, the bright colors representing blood, the heavens, prosperity, and peace.
She tells me about the spark that led her to a career in politics:
In 2007, Chege was a university student headed home for the holidays. Her memory of this particular trip home is seared with images of the violence surrounding Kenya’s 2007 elections. Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups—the Kikuyu and the Luo—were pitted against each other. Other ethnic groups, were forced to either choose sides or suffer the consequences. As a result there were violence clashes and Chege witnessed her country going up in smoke. She remembers fire. Lots of it. Burning tires, people with machetes, neighbors going hungry for days and becoming homeless overnight. She can’t think of that trip home without remembering the women and children she saw running for safety in a church.
They were burned to death inside.
The violence Chege witnessed during the 2007 elections would be enough to deter most people from vying for office at all. But this was instead a foundational moment. The unrest woke something inside her that demanded action and a new vision for leadership in Kenya.
For Chege, this new vision begins in her home district: Kajiado County. Just outside Nairobi and bordered to the east by three national parks, Kajiado County is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. Kajiado County is a land of geographical extremes—volcanic hills, grassy plains, and expansive valleys. Nearly half of the county’s population lives below the poverty line and, while Kajiado County is comprised of over forty ethnic tribes, the majority is the group of nomadic pastoralists known as the Maasai.
“It’s a patriarchal place,” Chege says. “Women are seen, but they are not heard.” Girls are often married as children and, though illegal, female genital mutilation is still practiced on children as young as twelve. Chege explains, “As senator, I will have zero tolerance for these illegal practices.”
She is thirty-four years old and a single mother of a three-year-old daughter. But Chege has singlehandedly helped nearly a dozen women start their own businesses—such as selling produce or Maasai beads—and she advocates tirelessly for the women in Kajiado County living with HIV, many of whom are also single mothers with little to no literacy. As their health declines, they are unable to work and provide for their families. “I’m a mother to many children,” Chege laughs. “Some older than me.
While women rely on her resourcefulness and strength, men mock her.
“In my 2013 campaign, they called me ‘Karaitu,’ which means ‘little girl’ in Kikuyu,” Chege says. “I have graduated from university. I have done humanitarian work and have worked on USAID health projects in Kenya. My opponents had minimal education and global experience. But they were men. All they saw was my gender. They would threaten me. They told me they would take my life. I didn’t have any bodyguards; all I had was a bunch of women gathered in a house.”
Chege traces these threats to the cultural assumption that women cannot lead. An assumption that is not unique to Kenya. According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Centre, 37% of Americans surveyed believed that the United States was not ready to elect female leaders, a number that nearly mirrors the percentage of people in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya who feel that women should not participate in elections as candidates.
However, despite the deeply ingrained bias, Chege believes she already has what she needs to win the senate race—female voters. Kenyan women make up more than 60% of the voting public.
Even men pander to the female vote. As I met with a group of women in a rural area, political candidates arrived in fancy cars just outside the building. The candidates—all men—proceeded to give away fistfuls of cash and free food, buying the votes of women and people living in poverty. This practice is deeply engrained and deeply problematic. Chege has no outside financial backing and is paying for the campaign from her own pocket and with support from friends and former colleagues. Cash-strapped, she must compete against bribery if she hopes to win. But she maintains that hope, relying on what she has always done well: reminding women in Kajiado County of their power—and showing them how to use it.
“I’m giving women something that frightens my opponents: knowledge,” adds Chege. Preparing for the March 2017 nomination process, Chege is traversing all twenty-five wards of Kajiado County to register women to vote. She is determined to show Kajiado County the strength of a woman leader. She’s doing it for her daughter. She’s doing it for all the women and girls in Kenya who have never seen a female senator in their lifetime.
Instead of handouts of cash, Chege is helping women create business plans. Instead of free food, she pays annual school fees for girls who live in poverty. For Chege, the days on the campaign trail are long, and the personal costs of such a grassroots approach are high. But she believes the reality of a world without female leaders is much worse.
Chege is seeking the nomination this March to ensure that she will be on the ballot come August 2017. She says, “To whom much is given, much is expected. I believe my win will be a win for every woman in this nation.”