By John Onyando
The civil society fraternity is in mourning following the death of Wangui Mbatia, one of Kenya’s best known female activists from the late 1990s. Wangui, as she was fondly known to friends, died this morning after a three-year struggle with cancer. She leaves behind her husband Polycarp Masaki and a daughter, Celine.
Educated at Alliance Girls High School and the University of Nairobi School of Law, Wangui was a top notch intellectual, an asset that working on the trenches never took away from her all these years. Her activism once earned her a fellowship at Stanford University, California. One of the founders of ‘Bunge La Wananchi’ (the People’s Parliament), Wangui was involved in many of Kenya’s grassroots movements struggling against corruption, ethnicity and impunity.
From the streets to television and boardrooms, she was ever a forceful speaker who never shied to speak her mind. She participated in the constitutional review process from the early 2000s as a grassroots mobiliser. Later, she founded her own NGO, KENGO, of wich she was the executive director until her death.
Wangui was diagnosed with cancer at Kanyata National Hospital in 2014, following which her life took a dramatic turn she was ill-suited for: sick, lonely (with only family and no her effervescent crowds) and needing expensive medical care her working class family could scarcely afford. What she never lost, even in her hospital bed, was her charm, charisma and innovativeness. In 2014, she once wrote to colleagues about the sorry state of care for cancer patients as she observed it.
“Cancer is a whole other story. We have only 18 oncologists for a population of over 40 million and 12 of them are in Nairobi and all of them are expensive consultants. On that end I will settle for creating awareness that cancer does not equal death and hopefully encourage people to open up so we don’t feel so alone when going through it,” she wrote in the email.
Wangui has been eulogised as a fearless fighter for people’s rights. Evans Aseto, her collaborator from 2002 with whom they formed KENGO, described her as “a strong character, a mobiliser, organiser and disorganiser who never minced her words on any subject”. Cyprian Nyamwamu wrote of her: “Wangui was a lady of exceptional abilities – intelligent, warm, honest and very passionate about what she believed in. She fought for a better Kenya courageous, tirelessly, committedly”.
Wahu Kaara, the nationally-renowned second liberation anti-Kanu fighter, told this writer on phone that Wangui’s strength was her ability to traverse the intellectual and grassroots worlds. “She demystified intellectualism, and as a result of that demystification she worked very well with people who would otherwise not have had an opportunity to influence policy from the ground up. She helped make Bunge the great organisation that it is to this day, a forum where Kenyans can meet and express themselves without fear,” said Ms Kaara.
Indeed, the ideas that Bunge championed will live forever, affirmed as they are in the 2010 constitution which provides for citizen particpation among other progressive values Bunge stands for.