The Grace Onyango Foundation for Digital Health in Africa is named for a formidable African woman, from Kisumu county in Kenya. A woman of many firsts, Ma Grace Onyango blazed the trail for women in public service as the first female councilor, mayor, MP and acting speaker of parliament in Kenya. Through her legacy we celebrate woman leadership, especially in public service and in health.
Grace Monica Akech Onyango (born 26 June 1924 and still in good health), popularly known as Nya'Bungu (Daughter of the Bush) is a retired Kenyan teacher and politician. She holds several firsts in post-independence Kenyan politics, as the first female to climb up the ranks of the political system, defying cultural barriers.
Born in Sakwa, in Nyanza Province, as the second of nine children, Grace Onyango went to Ng'iya Girls School. She then joined Vihiga Teachers Training College from where she graduated in 1955. She was posted back to her high school, Ng'iya Girls, as a teacher. Three years later, she was recalled to Vihi-ga Teachers Training College to work as a trainer. She married a teacher and journalist, Onyango Baridi, who died in 1969, leaving her with six children. After the death of Kisumu Mayor Mathias Ondiek in 1965, Grace Onyango joined the race to replace him.
There were originally two other women in the race but they both dropped out "because of the hostile environment and abuses from male competitors." That left Grace as the only female candidate in a field with six opponents, all male. She defeated her opponents and was installed as mayor of the city of Kisumu in 1965, the first woman mayor in Ken-ya’s history. As Mayor, Grace Onyango fought for women's place in leadership and politics. She launched a policy where, if a serving male employee of the council died, his wife or a female relative would be employed to replace him. She advocated for this policy even at the top level, attending official functions with Phililia Olang, her predecessor's wife.
She also Africanised Kisumu Town streets, naming them for key political leaders such as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Paul Mbuya, and Milton Obote. In 1969, and against significant odds, she successfully contested for the parliamentary seat for the Kisumu Town constituency, marking the first time in post-independence politics that a woman had won a parliamentary seat. Asked by a journalist if she would not be 'lost' being the only woman in Parliament, she retorted: "I have always worked fearlessly along with men. And how do you expect me to feel afraid working with them this time?” Having been totally outspent on the campaign trail by her opponents, she contributes her victory to her grassroots support base, her never-say-die approach to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, and her devotion to integrity and service in public office. “If I was abused in a rally, I hit back with fury. I was fearless. Men wanted the seat and they used every opportunity to disparage me through male chauvinism. They said it was culturally wrong to elect a woman as MP but I told them off. Voters agreed with me,” Onyango marveled. At the National Assembly, she will be remembered as the fearless lady with the calm, persuasive debating skills.
She also earned another first when she became the first woman to sit in the speaker’s chair as temporary deputy speaker. She served in parliament until 1983 when she lost her seat and retired from active politics. Although long retired, Onyango is up to date with current politics. She wants to see more women running for elective seats. Although the one-third gender rule is necessary, she says, women should keep fighting for their space by taking up elective positions. “I was the minority in Parliament, standing up against 158 male MPs. But I dominated the debates,” she says, smilingly.
Ma Grace Onyango lives in Kisumu County, Kenya, and as at July 2022, at the age 98, she is blessed with good health, fond memories, 17 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, thousands of former pupils and a growing circle of avid admirers. For many, her biggest legacy remains the large group of scientists, doctors, lawyers and teachers who learned at her feet as young children, and who have since become internationally renowned leaders in their field, pushing Africa and the world towards a fairer, healthier home for all its citizens.
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