Kingwa Kamencu is a media practioner, writer, and human rights defender among other things. She is also the CEO of Blackstar Media Limited. She captured the nation’s attention when she expressed her interest to vie for the presidency in 2013 and even went ahead and announced her candidacy in a memorable press conference at Chester House though she withdrew her candidacy before the actual election. She has stoked controversy in social media regarding some of her posts largely because not much is known about this brilliant young woman leader from Kenya. In this wide-ranging interview with NBM’s Jacob Oketch, in her own words, she tells her story.
I grew up as a very sheltered girl. My dad was a civil servant. I started my schooling in Australia because my dad was appointed Kenyan Ambassador to Australia when I was a small girl. I actually remember that on the day when the appointment was announced, I had been taken to hospital for treatment and the news broke while we were there.
We grew up very priviledged. We had house helps at home. We had everything. My father was a very diligent man. He was very good at money management. He got married at 31. His father, my grandfather, was a colonial policeman. My father, born in the 40s was among the first Africans to go to school. An extremely responsible man, he is the entry point to my story.
My father used to be mocked by his peers because of going to school. He went to Meru School and then Alliance. He has a sharp eye for excellence. By the time I was born, he owned quite a bit. He went to Dar Es Salaam University. It was a very plush living. I went to St.Georges school in Nairobi. I used to be dropped to school by big cars. My father was very practical about education.
I never had a harsh competition. I was a very dreamy girl. In St Georges, I was an average student. My dad became a PS after serving as Kenya’s ambassador to Australia. I grew up with a feeling of royalty. In my Meru community, my father was one of the few Meru people who were in a senior government position. I grew up feeling extremely loved. We are four children and I am the third born and the only girl. My mum is very principled and protective of the family.
I am named after my dad’s mum. She was a very difficult woman. She attempted to burn her co-wife’s house and she was chased away by my grandfather so my dad grew up without her actual mother. Named after my grandmother, I was showered with love by my dad which mum tried to counter at every turn. So, my mum was quite strict with me. I was rebellious to that but she remained protective.
I cannot quite understand the brutality against women because my dad treated me like a queen. My dad was so level headed and so full of common sense. Dad took us to school in Meru when he lost his job. I was in class 5. I got very sick while I was there and almost died. I was an average student. I went to Kaaga Girls for my secondary education. I hated it. To me, it was shady but it was actually a very good school.
My teenage years were years of lostness. I lived to impress my friends. I was looking for identity. I hated school though I was active in activities like drama and debating. I got serious with school in form four. The only reason I got serious was the fear of ending up in the village in the event of failing my exams. It was a quantum leap; from being position a hundred and something, I jumped to position eleven. I just did it by myself. I felt so inferior that we had to go back and live in the village. However, my parents were quite grounded people. They were adamant that we had to know our roots.
My dad was extremely thrifty. He joined our school’s PTA just to monitor my academic progress. He would get teachers to tutor me. I was not a disobedient child. A girl who joined our class in form three became an inspiration to me. She inspired our drama club to reach the provincial level during the drama festivals for the first time ever. Her presence reigned in the entire school. She taught me that you can actually make the life you want. She taught me how to pass exams. I saw it firsthand. It instilled a fire in me. She was so audacious. She was loved by everyone. She would make everyone around her feel loved. She truly believed in herself. Her name was Judy. She changed my life.
I am not a middle ground person. In English, I was always the best. Form four was like a year of everything happening. I won so many awards during prize giving day. I passed well. I had a B plain. Initially, I was admitted to study a course in Drama and Film studies at Moi University but my dad persuaded and encouraged me to change and stay in Nairobi and that is how I ended up at the University of Nairobi (UoN).
When I came to main campus, I enrolled to study Economics, Political Science and Sociology but I ended up doing Literature and History. My dad was quite instrumental in making that choice. Because of that, i flourished. I published my first book when I was in third year. I had a job in Parliament. I started writing for newspapers when I was in second year. I won a Rhodes scholarship immediately after graduating with a First Class Honours. I discovered myself at UoN.
When I was in form four, during a social ethics class, our teacher asked me what I would do to solve the many problems we have in our country and I said that I would become the President and solve the problems. I started questioning a lot of things. In school, I was the unofficial speech giver in any event. I learnt about my purpose because I could recognize that there was a seed in me.
Humanity has always been central to me. Being at History and Literature departments soaked me with humanity. I am a very emotional person. I did not know it until I cried during my presidential campaigns. In Literature, it is how human beings live and the systems that enable humanity. People are at their best where their strengths are. I am a very sensitive person. I am so good at reading people. We creatives have the gift of genius. I remember crying while reading vast literature.
My dad ran for Member of Parliament in 1997 but he didn’t go far. When I got into campus, I used to hear my brothers talk about Karl Max. He became my role model. I got into student leadership by accident. We were first year students in a sociology class and I literally got angry when I saw that all candidates were men. I was a trendsetter, so I went in front and said that I wanted to run. I was in first year and I ran for the post of treasurer. I came out third out of nine. I did well. I did a lot of work with Youth Agenda. I got to learn about Malcolm X and Pan Africanism and I became a fierce feminist.
When I was in second year, out of 17 positions, two were set aside for women. I ran for chair and I was third. It was a harrowing experience. I cried. I was asking myself why women should be treated like this. After that, so many things happened. I joined Uongozi program. Ford Foundation asked me to coordinate students for them. But I got depressed when I did not win. I went home and my mum was so concerned about me. In third year, we ended up having five women in the executive of the student body after forming the women caucus. It made me realize that I have the strength of nurturing people. All the five women won during the election.
After campus, I got a scholarship to Oxford University where I joined the department of African studies. This is where I faced racism first hand but it was also here where I gained numerous opportunities by the mere fact that I was the only black person in my class. I faced the realism of racism. At Oxford, I was made the president of African society. I had wanted to go to a centre of excellence and here I was. In my tenure, I was the first to set up the first Pan African conference in 2011. Today, this conference is addressed by Heads of State and other top world leaders. One of the things that came out of the conference is the question, why are we always complaining about leadership?
I used to get mad about the coalition government’s extravagance; a bloated cabinet with a humongous budget yet majority of ordinary citizens were living in penury. My anger has to be channeled into an action and not people or things. The thing that angers me is the system, not people. You will never see me in demonstrations. Around August of 2011, we were coming back to Kenya for a friend’s wedding and so this anger was still there. I started calling people. I decided to call a press conference to announce that I would be vying for the presidency. From a stable perspective, I think I was being comical. It was not conscious.
I did a presser at Chester House. There was so much enthusiasm for my candidature. People were calling me. Others were sending me money. I was saying all manner of things to wad off the enthusiasm. This is how I came up with the idea of the underwear movement. You see, I created a persona called Madam President separate from the real Kingwa Kamencu. Madam President is a mini Donald Trump. She emerged from a process of finding space for me. A woman in politics is like a dove in a snakes’ pit. Madam President is brainless. If it were not for Madam President, I would be dead. The viciousness of Kenyan politics necessitated Madam President. Kenyans hate goodness. They eat goodness alive. We are always killing our heroes. I would never take Kingwa to Kenyan politics. I have to protect Kingwa.
Part of my journey for the past ten years has been to embrace Madam President. It has also been a journey of discovering why I am in politics. Having been at Oxford, I could get a job anywhere. I set up Blackstar Media Company named after Marcus Garvey’s ocean liner. It is very Pan Africanist.Another one of my obsessions is the Jungian Theory. Carl Jung is my philosophical father. As an entrepreneur, you are adding value to your customers. I am looking at politics as an entrepreneurship.
I have seen that there is absence of the feminist values in our politics. The creative sector is feminine. The feminine sector is about nurturing and empathy. It is like a greenhouse. The masculine is combative and aggressive. Our nation was founded on masculine sensibilities, completely bereft of the feminine. Kenya was started as a place of extraction. That is why education in the early days was designed to produce people who could just extract but not think critically. As a nation, our political structure was not nurtured as a greenhouse but as a microwave.
The absence of feminism in our politics explains all our problems. A politics of care is what we don’t have. The only thing our politics knows is how to cook violence. Explaining patriarchy to a Kenyan man is very difficult. I don’t feel like explaining myself to anyone. So, the strategy has been not to fit in the male system but to create my own. What I learnt from my indulgence in politics is that my main work is not about the votes. It is about the environment in which I can do safe politics. Everyone in our politics is traumatized. I usually channel my anger towards a progressive cause.
The founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson quipped, “Better to light a candle than cast darkness”. The task is to bring the fight to our terrain. We have been fighting in the terrain of violence. We have to recognize the issue of environment. How do we feminize our politics? I have understood the marginalized as a result of my suffering from ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). The reason I am where I am is because of my family. I have been given so much love and so my duty is to give it back. I want to create a world where no matter how less you are, you can still live as a normal person.
As Blackstar Media, we work with creative entrepreneurs and human rights defenders. When it comes to livelihood issues, our politics’ foot is not on the ground. We want a country where no matter what, everyone is catered for. In a desert, the creative output would be very minimal. Toxic masculinity is crumbling. It is cannibalizing itself. This year has been an affirmation. It is like the Rwandan genocide situation. I feel like our politics is going there.
I believe in structures and systems. We are trying to build a structure that will accommodate future leaders – building a capacity for the leaders of the future. We are held captive by a small number. The majority are good and loving people. We live in a country where being good can kill you. The problem with the emerging movement of the hustler nation is that it lacks an intellectual frame to anchor it on. I believe every politician means well for their people. What is missing is a support system. What they need is a framework that can make the actual system.
We are introducing the entrepreneurial model of politics. Our current model is broken. We want to set up a model premised on social entrepreneurship such that politics becomes profitable. It is about investing in an intellectual support system to ground what is being done. Our people are also involved in toxic politics.
I want to thank everyone who has been part of my journey; colleagues at work, professors at the university and my family. My audience is the people I am on this journey with. They are my tribe mates.
My message to Kenyans is that we are on track. We will be fine. The worst has passed even though some bad things may still be coming our way. The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung webinars have been very instrumental in shaping my political theory. They have been hosting forums on political innovation; the annual democracy conference.