Untold Story: Philomena Chelagat Mutai A Lady Who Fought ‘Men Wars’ At Varsity, Against Kenyatta Rule. (Activism Or Patriotism)

Chelagat Mutai

Chelagat Mutai was born in 1949 in Terige village in Ol’Lessos, Nandi County. At Highlands Girls School (today’s Moi Girls High School, Eldoret), in her final year in high school, she was expelled after leading students to strike. She sat her “A” level examinations from outside the school. She surprised many by excelling well to enable her to join the University of Nairobi to study political science.

At the University of Nairobi, Chelagat Mutai served in The University of Nairobi student Union, SONU as a student leader and an editor of student magazine then known as The Platform. She had several run-ins with the university administration before she could complete and graduate.

The story of Chelagat Mutai, is both heroic and tragic. Heroic because she dared to do the right but the unthinkable at the time, and tragic because she was later neglected by the very beneficiaries of the freedom she fought for and died destitute.

Chelagat Mutai
Chelagat Mutai

At 24, Chelagat Mutai was thrust into the turbulent world of post-independence politics in 1973 after her uncle, William Saina Member of Parliament Eldoret North was jailed for incitement. She ran for the position the following year and won with a landslide trouncing the other 12 contestants in the race. She became the country’s youngest elected MP and holds the record to date.

In 1975 Chelagat Mutai was jailed after she led her people to occupy a sisal plantation in her area. She had mobilised the people to buy the farm and even after receiving the money, the Asian ‘owner’ wouldn’t hand it over to the people. She was however released in time for the 1979 general election, and she easily recaptured her Eldoret North seat and went back to rattle the Daniel arap Moi administration in Parliament.

In Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s ‘Coming to Birth’, the name Chelagat props up in a conversation at the M’s family where a ‘general factotum’ called Paulina feels it’s important for women to collect themselves and ‘riot’ over the incarceration of this ‘little Kalenjin girl’, accused of inciting his constituents to forcefully invade some land grabbed at Ziwa. This is 1976, the second decade just after independence, with old Jomo presiding over the government of man in this country.

Chelagat Mutai……
Chelagat Mutai
Chelagat Mutai

It is after the 1979 elections that Njonjo branded Chelagat and others ‘Seven bearded sisters’. Njonjo picked it from the 1975 book ‘The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World they Shaped’ by Anthony Sampson. The book was about how seven of the biggest oil companies in the world conspired to overthrow governments.

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Njonjo used the word ‘bearded’ to draw a comparison with Karl Marx, as he saw these MPs to uphold Marxist ideologies. Others in this group were Onyango Midika (Nyando), James Orengo (Ugenya), Abuya Abuya(Kitutu East), Koigi Wamwere (Nakuru North), Chibule wa Tsuma (Kaloleni) and Mashengu wa Mwachofi (Wundanyi) and Lawrence Sifuna (Bumula)

Moi turned the squeeze on ‘Seven bearded sisters’ and before long, he had scattered them. Wamwere was arrested and detained in the failed 1982 coup. Anyona had been arrested earlier in the year and prior to the coup. Midika was arrested after the coup and jailed for alleged theft. Chelagat Mutai fled Kenya in 1981 after learning of a plot to detain her. Orengo also fled to Tanzania in 1982 but was later extradited and detained in Kamiti Prison.

Chelagat Mutai returned to Kenya in 1984 to check on her ailing mother who died days later. She led a quiet life thereafter and never went back into politics. Not even the pro-reform movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s would spur her interest. Moi had successfully killed her defiant spirit, she no longer had an interest in what she loved doing most.

A road accident in 2006 left her confined to a wheel chair. At some point, she came to Nairobi to live off a friend’s generosity in a one-room house in Sunton, Kasarani.

Chelagat Mutai died of heart attack but what has not been said is that she suffered frustrations that created this problem in the first place. The awesome spirit died in solitude, poor and highly dependent on those who still cared to hang around her. Poverty clawed at her heart and the torture of life in exile to avoid the grim walls of Kamiti prison haunted her spirit. Our legendary neglect for our heroes and heroines broke her spirit. In the end, the awesome phenomenon retreated to a life of seclusion and drinking. She probably later stopped.

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Drinking she did, probably to soothe her broken spirit and drown her frustrations and those who saw her in her final years will tell you she was no more the ebullient and unshakable spirit they knew in the 1970s, when she kept Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and later Moi goverments on toes after joining Parliament at 24.

Clearly, her life lost the handle during her three-year exile in Tanzania alongside Senator James Orengo. Slowly she slid into oblivion, an object of pity and probably even fun in her rural home. Even her university education was not of much help given her troubled spirit. However, she did not talk about it, she just slumped into the life of an ordinary Kenyan woman. If not at her father’s home, she was being housed by her former secretary at little-known Sunton Estate in Nairobi’s Kasarani area.

She was a fighter for the voiceless and the landless. She was fearless lioness. A woman in a man’s in unbwogable spirit. She was a true tigeress of Kenyan politics. She was in the league of late Martin Shikuku, Mashengu wa Mwachofi, Dr Chibule wa Tsuma, Lawrence Sifuna, Abuya Abuya, George Anyona, Koigi Wamwere, Raila Odinga, Masinde Muliro, James Orengo and others. But she died a miserable death.

In the 1990’s the fearless lioness had gone quiet, lost the fire to hunt and receded deep into the woods. A lady whom experienced journalists like Phillip Ochieng, Kwendo Opanga, Gichuru Njehia and Emman Omari described as some form of living deity and a firebrand hard to crush had literally crushed. One even said she was a flame that could not be extinguished, but this turned out to be wrong for later life broke Chelagat and forged her into a shy and forlorn former political superstar.

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She just retreated into the life of squalor and solitude and death took advantage of her poverty, lifestyle and broken spirit. Perhaps if Kenyans embraced her, their warmth would have taken her far and resuscitated her frail Spirit.

Chelagat Mutai
Chelagat Mutai

Sometime in 2011 Chelagat Mutai hit back on the screens after going underground for a long time. This is after the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga accompanied by Senator Orengo and Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o paid her a visit her modest residence in Sunton, Kasarani. At this time she was suffering a broken spine from an accident. Her visitors became a blessing helping her to get medication she had lacked for a long time. She looked old and tattered.

“I think our country has three forms of government: one that meets in secret, plots in secret and implements things in secret, another government where leaders meet to flatter each other and the government where people work”, Chelagat Mutai said in her last public appearance in 2011 during Odinga’s visit.

In the end, like many other progressive Kenyan politicians before her who have been brutalized by Moi’s regime, she died silently on July 7, 2013, poor, childless and unmarried by choice. She’s resting hoping the angels are being kinder to her than life was.

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